EAST VILLAGE, NY—Singer Dave Rubinstein (Dave Insurgent) and guitarist Paul Bakija (Paul Cripple) met at Forest Hills High School in Queens, the same school that the Ramones attended. With two other fellow students, the duo formed a band that would become Reagan Youth in 1980, during the first wave of hardcore punk. Ronald Reagan was about to become America’s president, and the musicians adapted his name for the group’s name, employing a play on words with Hitler Youth. Reagan Youth incorporated political messages in its songs, and as committed political anarchists, the musicians became poster leaders of the anarcho-punk movement. The songs decried the evils of society and parodied Reagan’s policies, the Republican Party, the Religious Right and racism.
Reagan Youth were among the most successful in the original hardcore scene, but by the late 1980s, the extensive touring had taken its toll on the group. Despite the many shows played and the relatively large album sales for a hardcore punk band, they continually found themselves broke. When Reagan left the presidency in 1989, the band split up, and a series of tragic events led Rubinstein to commit suicide three years later. Beginning in 2006, Bakija reformed the band several times. The present configuration—Bakija with Trey Oswald on vocals, Tibbie X on bass and Stig Whisper on drums—has been together less than one year. Reagan Youth recorded only one album in its lifetime, 1984’s Youth Anthems For The New Order, although several compilations and live bootlegs circulated during the band’s years of inactivity.
Reagan Youth are living in a new era. At The Bowery Electric on Jan. 26, Bakija spoke frequently between songs on political themes, but these spontaneous rants on fracking and other issues were more incoherent outbursts than rallying cries. The audience was there for hard and heavy music, which the group provided. Years ago, the band’s core fans sometimes expressed opposition to them moving in a more heavy metal direction, but this continues to be part of their sound. The music was loud, fast and aggressive, occasionally sounding more Black Sabbath than Agnostic Front. Perhaps this inclination was necessary for the new lineup to remain relevant in today’s music scene.
Bakija played many more stinging lead guitar riffs than commonly found in the punk scene, while Oswald screamed, howled and maintained an urgent dynamic by singing most of the set from the mosh pit, often kneeling down and leaning his sweaty bare back onto the floor. Reagan Youth’s trademark anarchic vision struggled for air, however; the band’s eponymous song, “Reagan Youth,” which used a tongue-in-cheek rhetoric to draw parallels between Young Republicans who rallied to the cause of Ronald Reagan and the Hitler Youth during the Third Reich, was enjoyable sonically but the lyrics were less biting now in the Obama years. The small audience indicated that Reagan Youth have the potential to be a flagship for a marginal Occupy Wall Street remnant but may have to continue to reinvent itself to reach a larger audience.