How Philadelphia Became an Epicenter for Rock Music in the U.S.
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In 2018, immediately following the Philadelphia Eagles defeating the New England Patriots and winning the Super Bowl for the first and only time in their 90 year career, center Jason Kelce gave a memorable speech during a celebratory parade, ending with a pub chant: “No one likes us / No one likes us / No one likes us / We don’t care / We’re from Philly / Fucking Philly / No one likes us / We don’t care.” Corporate sports rarely have much to do with a city’s DIY music scene, but in talking to a series of up-and-coming acts from the city of Brotherly love, one thing becomes immediately clear: “The same sentiment that is in our sports fans is in our bands,” Carly Cosgrove guitarist Lucas Naylor tells Alternative Press. “No one likes us,” he elongates the phrase, “And we don’t care.”
An underdog mentality—a little bit deviant, a lot a bit grimy, and certainly fueled by a sense of community—Philly is its own entity, a working class city where everyone has decided to be a little bit loud, obnoxious, and fearless (at least when it comes to parking your car and saying a prayer that no one will steal your catalytic converter.) It is not easy to live in a place where the weather is usually too cold or too humid, the streets are too narrow to park and certainly are never plowed, the public transportation system is lawless and leaves a lot to be desired, and there’s always trash on the street. And yet, the largest city in Pennsylvania has become a hotbed for underground and DIY music. The rent’s cheap, the touring even more so (Philly is nestled an hour and a half drive south of New York City, two hours north of Baltimore, MD, and two-and-a-half from D.C.) Pick any year over the last 10, and it’s likely that some national music publication somewhere has sung the praises of this oft overlooked, under celebrated, honest and unpretentious-as-hell city. No longer! People do like it; Philadephians just certainly still don’t care.
To understand just how Philly became an epicenter for DIY music in the United States, you’ve got to look at its history. By the time punk showed up in Philly in the ‘70s, and in particular, when it morphed into hardcore and all its many subgenres in the ‘80s, the city embraced the subculture with open arms. Philly’s many universities, like Temple, and college radio stations, like Drexel’s WKDU and University of Pennsylvania’s WXPN (which now produces NPR’s World Café Live music program) introduced a pre-internet world to the scene. Bands like the Dead Milkmen put Philly on the map as a place home to great bands, not just a stop between towns on tour. There’s a reason Fear’s 1983 banger “I Don’t Care About You” begins with “I’m from South Street Philadelphia,” referencing the street’s importance in punk history.
In the ‘90s and ‘00s, hardcore bands like Ink & Dagger, Blacklisted, and Paint It Black dominated, leading into the early-to-mid ‘00s, where pop-punk like the Wonder Years, emo like Glocca Morra and Mewithoutyou, and math-y bands like Algernon Cadwallader and Snowing ushered in a new era for the scene, one that picked up steam outside of the city. In the early 2010s, the rest of the music world took notice—Philly became the beacon for college emo like Modern Baseball and Marietta, punky-pop like the Menzingers, Cayetana, indie rock like Swearin’, Waxahatchee, and for a time, Girlpool. Genre innovators Japanese Breakfast got their start here, as did Mannequin Pussy: a band so ingrained in the Philly scene, they became the inspiration for a fake band, called Androgynous, in the HBO Max original series Mare of Easttown. That band played original MP tracks.
Some of the great bands of the most recent generation have called Philly home, and that continues today, with slowcore/shoegaze band They Are Gutting A Body of Water, post-hardcore greats Jesus Piece, pop-punkers Carly Cosgrove, emo rock Sweet Pill, and dream pop foursome Highnoon, to name a few.
Here’s where the disclaimer comes in: there’s no way to highlight every great new band in Philly, and there’s certainly no way to list all of the micro-scenes that exist within it. What we can do is dive into what makes Philly work, and how it has only continued to grow. (Just “don’t move here,” Sweet Pill singer Zayna Youssef jokes. “It's not a good time.”)
There are a couple of reasons Philadelphia has been able to maintain its status as a place musicians can thrive. One less-than-obvious factor is that Philly homes have basements, the natural progression of a “garage band” ideology, where shows can be hosted without fear of enraging neighbors. Living rooms get too loud, other metropolitan areas lack the space, and unlike other expensive cities in the East Coast, there’s no need to pay for a separate place to practice. The basement takes care of that, too—one of the many reasons Philly was able to foster such an incredible sense of community, and then support hyper-niches within it—it’s affordable! And it’s close to other regional scenes: Wilkes-Barre, PA, Scranton, all the towns in Eastern PA and Delaware where metalcore thrives. “Delco,” short for “Delaware Country” is thrown around a lot, especially over the phone with Jesus Piece guitarist David Updike. “We definitely played our fair share of basements and weird little spots.”
The internet has changed the game, too: finding shows and bands has never been more accessible. It’s also completely challenged what a “Philly scene” can look like, especially around 2020 COVID-19 closures. “Lockdown decentralized a lot of regional scenes and rewarded a lot of bands who were doing things online,” Naylor explains. “A lot of folks want to move to Philly—and there’s a bit, they all want to go because Modern Baseball went to Drexel [University] and used their studios,” but Philly bands in 2023 are paving their own paths. “There are all these houses [that throw shows] on Haverford Avenue in Drexel’s campus, and there’s more emphasis on maintaining existing communities. One house has been throwing shows for six years.” At a time where DIY venues are shuttering with increasing frequency, that’s nothing short of a miracle.
Long gone are the days of the South Street punk scene (though the 1,000 capacity Theatre of the Living Arts is located there, where you might see an emo band that’s spent considerable time in Philly, like The World Is A Beautiful Place & I’m No Longer Afraid to Die.) House shows are centered in North and West Philly, where the rents are cheaper, the houses bigger and the proximity to college is close.) “A Jersey collective called 4333 does a lot of booking in Philly now,” Kennedy Freeman of Highnoon tells AP. “Philadelphia is densely populated and tons of people in the Delaware Valley move over here for education or work—me included. A lot of the people I’ve met who come from elsewhere are also working class folks. It’s one of the last big cities in the US you can afford to live in and pursue your art. We all have service jobs by day and play at night.”
That creates a diversity of sound: an incredible eclecticism that makes being a band in Philly exciting. When asked for her favorite bands from the area, for example, Freeman names the screamo-punk band Soul Glo, a pop band called 22° Halo, and a Deftones-informed shoegaze band called Pale Shade. But she also makes it a point to bring attention to the fact that even though low costs make Philly a more accessible place to be a band, there are still the same systemic issues that plague the music scene there that exist everywhere. There are no punk utopias. “Regardless of whatever the preeminent wave of indie music is here, it’s always going to be dominated by white guys with guitars. They’re always going to receive the praise for their hand in reinventing music. I’ve grown bored of it,” she says. “I’m thankful to have come up in a scene that was accepting and receptive to me. But in spite of it all, the music scenes here are as segregated as the city is. I’m lucky to have another Black person in the room if I’m attending a rock show.” In a city that is 43.6% Black, inclusivity needs to be more of a conversation.
When asked if there’s such a thing as “the Philly Sound,” most bands don’t seem to have an answer. “Philly really doesn't have a sound more than an attitude,” says Updike. “We’re a really heavy band from Philly, but there isn’t another heavy band in Philadelphia like that. There’s Simulacra, but they’re more like death metal…. It’s more about how you carry yourself.”
Youssef agrees. “It’s like when you’re so used to the smell of your house that you don’t smell it anymore, but other people come in and smell it,” she laughs. “It’s dirty, grimy…I’m still trying to think of what could possibly ‘sound like Philly music,’ but now I realize it’s the perfect embodiment of the Philadelphia Flyers’ mascot. Gritty!”
Naylor theorizes that Philly’s geography plays an important role in its lack of singular sound: “We are a coastal city pretty damn close to where the North and South split. I’ve compared it to Jazz: the further North you go, it’s very technical. As you go further down the coast, it’s less cerebral and more swinging. Philadelphia is at that crossroads like that.” So next time you hear someone call it New York City’s sixth borough, correct them. Philly is so much more than that.
Hear that sound? It’s your new favorite band, getting their start in a basement.