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Still Screaming

Former Baltimore Hardcore Cornerstone Finally Receives A Proper Release

Jefferson Jackson Steele
STANDING HARD: Gut Instinct returns, relatively gut-free.

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Gut Instinct

By Jess Harvell | Posted 8/23/2006

About a month ago, as the rest of Baltimore was boogieing at Artscape, a packed to near-capacity Ottobar thundered to the sound of old-school hardcore. Thirtysomething punk lifers and kids barely old enough to get into their first show worked themselves into a sweaty, circle-pit lather. Onstage was Gut Instinct, a local band that had been broken up for nearly 15 years. Now all in their mid-to-late 30s, the band members sported a few more age lines than the last time they played together and the tattoos had faded a bit, but the audience roared for the band’s tunes like 1992 was just yesterday.

"What we were playing back then, it just seemed all so relevant today, too," says Gut Instinct singer Sebastian Gorgone on the phone from the gas station he now runs on New York’s Long Island. "It wasn’t a trip back or anything like that. Most of the subject matter--all of it, really--it stood up today, so I have as much conviction screaming that stuff out today as I did back then."

"To me they are the best and most important hardcore band to ever come out of the Baltimore area," says Dominic Romeo, guitarist for local hardcore band the Slumlords. Romeo’s label, A389, has just released Discography 1989-1992, a handsomely packaged Gut Instinct discography collecting the band’s two demos, one seven-inch single, and a handful of other rarities, including some appropriately chaotic vintage live footage. To celebrate, the band--now scattered as far as Arizona, California, New York, and Pennsylvania--re-formed for three reunion shows in late July, including one at CBGB’s.

"Years ago, there was a club called the Eutaw Street Clubhouse, on Eutaw and Mulberry back in the early ’80s," says bassist Mike Caver, the last of the band to leave Baltimore a few months ago. "And I just happened to walk up on the place. I saw the kids looking kind of weird. . . . I was looking for a scene that I didn’t even really know existed. It was underground, it was untamed, it was word of mouth."

By the time Gut Instinct formed in the late ’80s, hardcore was changing. Many of the pioneering bands of the late ’70s and early ’80s had broken up, gone pop, or simply disappeared. Bands like the Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, and Murphy’s Law had pilfered metal, adding half-time breakdowns perfect for moshing, and attracted a rabid local audience in New York at now infamous Sunday matinée shows at CBGB’s.

Of course, when it came to this brand of hardcore, Gut Instinct says that late-’80s Baltimore might as well have been Beirut. "When we got together there really wasn’t much of a scene," Caver says. "There was a scene of kids who were hanging out, who wanted something to happen. We got popular in D.C. and then we started getting an audience in Baltimore."

There were few bands in town pursuing a similar style and even fewer places to play. "Toward the end in Baltimore, the Polka Inn sprang up--that was a good place. It never quite got [hardcore] right, though," Gorgone says. "And the Dry Dock in Baltimore--that was the best place, that opened for like six months. What an odd place, a biker bar where all ages could come in and do it." It’s a far cry from today, where you can catch a punk or hardcore show at a legit venue almost any night of the week. "I look at that Ottobar and go, Oh my god, is this place perfect for punk rock and hardcore," Gorgone says. "And the Sidebar, I was really blown away by that place."

The band became known for its crunchy, metallic sound and uncompromising lyrical stance. "They had all the right elements--an awesome presence, talented musicians, and lyrics with a strong message that they had a reputation for standing behind anytime and anyplace," A389’s Romeo says.

And that message, aside from hardcore staples like standing tall and fighting cops, was anti-racism. "[Nazi skinheads] were starting to dominate the scene," Caver says. "There were bands singing about anti-racism long before us, but at the time it was a real hot topic in the scene, and in society in general. It was in Time magazine, on all the talk shows." With two African-Americans in the band, especially in a racially charged, even at the best of times, city like Baltimore, Gut Instinct almost couldn’t afford not to stand up against racism. The band became part of the Charm City Skins, a defiantly multiracial crew.

On "Right Wing Hype," from its first demo, the band wields a sledgehammer in its fight:

    Jews, stick up for their rights
    Organize a force, ’cause it’s time to fight
    In America, they’ll never see
    Another Nazi Germany
    Blacks, better get out of their way
    You’ll never put them back in slavery
    Whites, tired of this racist crap
    Standing hard and fighting back.

"That song was a personal song for Mike, because he had incidents with racists--we all had to some degree," Caver says of Gut Instinct guitarist Mike Lars. "We wanted to let it be known that, in Baltimore, the scene is mixed, man. A lot of our friends were Jewish, there were a lot of black skins. That’s where the whole CCS thing came from. In fact, CCS was at the [reunion] show. Everyone’s moved on and doing different things, and are grown-up and married and have kids, but they still showed up, because we really believed in that shit."

But eventually the lack of local venues--as well as college and the other usual things that erode a band’s will to go on--took its toll. Gut Instinct, like hundreds of punk and hardcore bands, passed into legend mostly because its records were unavailable. That is until last summer when A389’s Romeo, a longtime fan, decided to do something about it.

"I met Grant at a Slumlords show last summer in Redondo Beach, Calif., of all places," Romeo says of Gut Instinct drummer Grant Sheehan. "It was great. Imagine a sea of hardcore kids in their late teens/early ’20s, and then at the back of the room is this sketchy-looking older guy with a mohawk and glasses."

Accompanying Gut Instinct’s Discography comes a mini-boom in local old school hardcore. At the Ottobar show, the band played with fellow reformed contemporary Just Cause, which recently released Our Time 1989-1992 (Vicious Circle), its own collected CD discography. Next Step Up re-formed for the show as well, and YouTube is suddenly full of vintage Baltimore hardcore clips. Gorgone sees Gut Instinct as part of a tradition that continues to thrive in Baltimore, and hopes Discography 1989-1992 reaches a new generation of Charm City hardcore kids too young to see the band the first time around.

"The way [the scene has] matured and kept going is really something," he says. "What the younger bands are doing is killer. Like Spit on Your Grave, I thought those guys were great. And a lot of that [is due to] Next Step Up. They were really slugging away in Baltimore for a while there."

Caver sees the release as the band’s chance to establish its place in a wider history. "We were here, this is what we did", he says. "We were part of hardcore. It’s about making your niche, carving your spot in the archives."

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