Pretty much any musical act who sticks around for long enough will eventually disappoint their core fans in one way or another. Being human, sometimes the members of a group will wind up acting like jerks on an unforgivable level and render their entire back catalog into nothing more than a painful memory. While that extreme situation happens from time to time, more often than not a band’s greatest sin will wind up being that one terrible record.
Staying within the confines of an aesthetic can become tedious, and it’s understandable for any creative person to want to branch out. While these sonic explorations have been used to great effect by many intrepid souls, there are countless cases of beloved bands landing flat on their fucking face in an attempt to blaze a new trail. This is what happened in 1986, when hardcore pioneers Discharge attempted an about-face with their second studio album, Grave New World.
While the borders between punk and metal today are often fuzzy to the point of nonexistence, it’s important to remember that the early to mid 1980s were fiercely tribal times. A few bands had emerged by 1986 who successfully blended elements from both camps to create the burgeoning crossover wave, but there was still a great deal of trepidation among the rank and file. With their unique brand of speed and passionate fury, Discharge were second to only Motörhead when it came to bridging the gap. Sadly, that was all about to change.
On the heels of several genre-defining singles and their earth-shattering debut album, Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing, Discharge completely revamped their look and sound for their sophomore full-length, Grave New World. Yes, punk bands going metal was becoming more commonplace, but they usually maintained that core aggression while borrowing riffs from Black Sabbath. In the case of the Stoke-on-Trent hardcore heroes, they looked beyond their countrymen with an eye on the Sunset Strip. It didn’t end well.
Played at a fraction of their trademark speed, the songs on Grave New World attempt a flare akin to Mötley Crüe, but their newfound swagger crumbles under their hubris. Love or hate the hair metal scene, the fact is that most of those bands had musical chops. The foundational element to Discharge was raw aggression, not flashy songwriting. That being said, the instrumentation on these tracks isn’t the worst nonsense the glam scene has ever inspired. The vocals, however…
In an attempt to invoke Robert Plant, frontman Kelvin “Cal” Morris abandoned full-throated shouting and took up an off-key falsetto. Even the band members didn’t seem sure about what their singer was trying to accomplish, with (then new) guitarist Stephen “Fish” Brookes later telling Negative Insight: “I thought he was taking the piss. Garry [drums] and Rainy [bass] didn’t say anything, not to Cal anyway (as far as I am aware). I was the new guy, it wasn’t my place to say anything. I just assumed, ‘Hey, it’s Discharge, they know what they’re doing.’ Right?”
Grave New World was released to dismal reviews. Still, it took awhile for word about Discharge’s new direction to hit the punk and metal scenes in the days before the internet. Their trial-by-fire would be a legendary ill-fated North American tour, which Clifford Dinsmore of Bl’ast talked about with Through Being Cool, saying: “We played with them on that tour in San Diego. We were in New York at the Ritz. It was a bill we were supposed to be on. It was Discharge, DRI and Corrosion of Conformity. It was supposed to be us, but that was our first tour and Chris Williamson [infamous NY promoter] was like: ‘Oh we can’t have that unknown California band on that tour, we have to have Youth Of Today.’ So we left after DRI played.
“We were like: ‘Ah, we heard what’s happened to Discharge. We’ve heard the record. We don’t even have to check this out.’ And I guess it got really, really hectic. Everyone flipped out and really hated it. And HR from Bad Brains walked up on stage with a garbage can and dumped it on Cal’s head. And it spread like wildfire about how bad they’d gotten.
“I feel bad saying this because I can appreciate bands want get into different stuff, and they want to go in different directions. But it’s almost like you should just break up – form a different band with a new name. Die hard fans who want to see a certain thing are not going to react that pleasantly when you totally change your whole format.
“So, we were playing with them in San Diego, and we went across the whole country and the word was just spreading across the country. So by the time we got to San Diego … it was us and Dr Know playing with them, in a YMCA with bleachers behind the stage. And we were all sitting in the bleachers after our sets, us and Dr Know, watching Discharge from behind, basically. And of all a sudden the crowd started pelting them with shit – cans, bottles, you name it – anything they could throw they were throwing. And we were sitting behind them, so we all jumped off the bleachers pretty fast!”
For their part, the other members of Discharge blamed Cal for the new musical direction and disastrous live shows. Displeased with the stylistic shift of Grave New World, Rainy left the band shortly after the album’s release. The remaining members planned on kicking Cal out after the North American tour, but he beat him to the punch and quit. Although they briefly picked up another singer, the band called it quits in 1987.
Asked if he felt bad for how crowds reacted to Cal during the 1986 tour, Fish said: “No, not at all. We thought he was a twat. He was destroying the band. No sympathy from any of us. We had all invested a lot of time and money into doing the album (it took about a year of jamming to record it). We saw it all going down the pan.”
Could it really have been all that bad? If this audio recording of the Discharge set from their San Francisco show is any indication, the answer is a resounding affirmative. Thirty seconds into their first song, the chants of “FUCK YOU” from the crowd overtake the music. After a few minutes, the band are forced to stop when one of the members is hit with a beer can. That might have been enough to chase another band away for the night, but Discharge returned fifteen minutes later for two more songs. They were pelted with beer cans and garbage the entire time. According to witnesses, the set finally ended with Cal crying.
Cal put together a new iteration of Discharge in 1990, who released the similarly metal leaning (though slightly less egregious) Massacre Divine and Shootin’ Up The World records early in the decade. The classic lineup regrouped in 2001 and released their first proper hardcore record in nearly two decades, simply titled Discharge.
Though the lineup has remained fluid, Discharge are still playing shows to this day. Nothing from Grave New World is in the set list.
Listen to the disastrous Discharge set from their 1986 San Francisco gig right here