The Cro-Mags were the only band who could appear on a children’s trading card — as sneering bassist Harley Flanagan did in the ’90s — yet still appear completely savage. That duplicity partially explains why the band has endured as New York hardcore icons: Age of Quarrel and to a lesser extent Best Wishes and Alpha Omega earned equal accolades from hardcore kids crossover metalheads skinheads and juiceheads alike. They were a hardcore band that brought in non-hardcore crowds and likely have since their inception in 1981. No small feat.
The band is still synonymous with NYHC a genre that’s seen plenty of mutations. Despite frontman John Joseph’s eventual flirtation with Krishna veganism and straight-edge the band remained curiously trend resistant — their most beloved album AOQ has remained a NYHC staple even when the genre moved into clean-cut youth crew or metallic post-hardcore.
The timelessness of AOQ’s songs is perhaps why one version of the band continues to tour. The version that’ll be performing in Calgary — and the band that’s toured through much of the late ’00s under the Cro-Mag banner — will be Joseph-led and sans Flanagan and Mayhew. (Original drummer Mackie Jayson however is still touring with the band.) Accordingly questions still persist about their legacy: Joseph and Flanagan have long ahem quarrelled resulting in a high-profile stabbing; Mayhew has problems with both men; rotating lineups have performed on studio albums; and NYHC vets from Leeway Sick of It All and Madball have rotated in and out of the lineup.
The beefs the unresolved disputes and the animosity surrounding the Cro-Mags are arguably a large part of what makes them legendary. But who can rightfully claim ownership of the Cro-Mags?
Joseph is popularly the name most associated with the Cro-Mags; he after all penned an autobiography called Evolution of a Cro-Magnon and now offers walking tours explaining the post-apocalyptic pre-gentrified NYC of the 1970s and 1980s. There have been disputes over whether Joseph founded the Cro-Mags; he says the band’s origins begin with him when he was crashing at Bad Brains’ studio while others have argued that Mayhew and Flanagan started the band with another singer Eric Casanova.
Casanova co-wrote some of AOQ’s best songs but so did Joseph. The latter however recorded AOQ — both its demo and the final product. Still Mayhew and Flanagan don’t appear pleased that he’s profiting from the Cro-Mags name without them. Joseph however says he’s the one who brought the band to the next level. “Before I was in the band they were no more than an urban myth with some graffiti on the walls” Joseph wrote on Cromags.com. “Who recorded on the demo? Who recorded on The Age of Quarrel — the best Cro-Mags record and the only one anyone cares about? I did.” Hard to dispute that.
The wild-eyed Flanagan — who’s been compared to a rabid animal many times — was an essential cog in the Cro-Mags wheel. He’s carried on in other bands (Harley’s War anyone?) and according to things he’s said in interviews he named the Cro-Mags. This much we know: Flanagan’s certainly a founding member of the band and he’s credited with writing many of the Cro-Mags’ riffs. (Though he’s publicly disowned 1993’s Near Death Experience.) When Joseph left the band it was Flanagan who manned the vocals. But for Flanagan’s importance to the band — right down to his snarling persona and association with the skinhead scene — he’s often been depicted as problematic. He’s been labelled by his bandmates as talented but difficult.
He took exception to Joseph’s handling of their legacy. “John took [Cro-Mags] and ran with it” he told Vista Fanzine. “He’s a fuckin’ dick. I have kids etc. He started booking tours and went out without me and the rest of the original band. But he still calls it the Cro-Mags. He’s just a bitch.”
Mayhew has always opposed Joseph’s adoption of the Cro-Mags name; he claims the trademarks is owned by him and Flanagan. Mayhew wrote a large portion of the Cro-Mags songs (the proof he’s claimed is in their albums’ liner notes) and accordingly claims ownership over the band. Indeed Mayhew’s registered cro-mags.com not to be confused with Joseph’s cromags.com and both claim to be the “official” Cro-Mags site. Mayhew even took to the site to tell his own version of Cro-Mags history.
Mayhew’s Cro-Mag genesis while acknowledging Joseph and Jayson’s contributions leans heavily on the band’s formation around Mayhew and Flanagan’s concepts. Accordingly in an interview with Noisey he called Joseph’s post-2000 iterations of the band “fake lineups of nobodies.”
“I always thought of him as a prop — someone who fit the suit” he said though he admitted that Flanagan’s ego needed to be managed the two clearly clicked musically. “There certainly would have been a Cro-Mags with or without John no question.”
Is he right? It’s hard to say. All we know is that songs like “Malfunction” are hard as fuck. And maybe that’s all that matters.