By VIctor Nero
From the outside, it may seem like pointless anarchy – bodies slamming into each other, sweat (and occasionally blood) flying in a mass frenzy of violent physicality, one rarely seen since the sword-and-shield wars of centuries ago. In reality, despite a certain and inevitable element of chaos, there is a lot more order to things than one may initially surmise.
The moshpit has a storied but rarely chronicled history, in many ways dating back to the pogo dancing heydays of classic punk, that energy then refined and amplified through the explosion of thrash metal in the 80’s, as expressed by both artist and audience. The once passive activity of concert attendance transformed into a contact sport of sorts, as the notoriously energetic youth of the day created a subculture within subcultures, entering into an unwritten agreement to throw down with strangers and friends alike in a dangerous but incredibly satisfying expression of collective catharsis. It’s a strange and deeply tribal ritual, one that doesn’t get enough credit for the level of skill, speed and toughness it often involves.
Here, the individual is embraced and upheld, but not at the expense of a communities which looks after their own and polices their domains rather effectively, in a fashion all too rare nowadays – I have been in literally hundreds of pits, and seen maybe four or five actual brawls in that time. These usually involve an overly refreshed individual on the edge of the warzone, who lacks the understanding and self-discipline to be anywhere near such an environment (and usually at a festival that doesn’t specialize in heavy music). In most cases, those bullies have been taken out swiftly and brutally before security need intervene, dealt with harshly but fairly.
An outsider looking in may see metal, hardcore and punk subcultures as savage and lawless, full of thugs and bullies who value little but aggression, intoxication and volume. The reality is that despite the destruction of the pit and the confrontational nature of the artistic content, these communities are generally far more civilized than what you would see in their mainstream clubland contemporaries. Say what you will, but their top 40 venues are plagued by gun crime, sexual assault, negative gender tropes, and a drunk or drugged out sloppiness that most of us freaks, grunts and weirdos grew out of in our teen years.
It’s funny how nightlife related crime seems to rise as ‘outsider’ venues disappear – one only need look at a city like Toronto for the evidence, as gentrification forces the real adults and real music out, replaced by people who drink less but fight (and litter) more, despite seeming less outwardly aggressive. You won’t see a drive-by outside a punk concert, because most of them don’t need guns to be tough, coming up in a subculture where self-reliance and resilience are social pillars, and your fellow person is only to be competed on the Dancefloor of War. Even then, it is with concern and respect for their wellbeing.
Sexually harass a girl at a metal show? Good chance you get knocked out, and it might be by the girl one violates. Mouth off at a random and violate their personal space at a hardcore gig? In all likelihood that random has the capability and mentality to adjust your attitude as necessary, if security doesn’t take care of it. Oftentimes security need not intervene, as the hard music crowds handle their booze (and other substances) better despite generally having a larger intake, and their communities are indeed communities.
They are bonded over a shared love of music, fashion and rebellion that creates far deeper roots than those found in the superficial sociopathy of mainstream clubland, where people scream and stumble, treating their friends more hatefully than any moshpit ever could. The consequences of screwing up in the heavier crowds are much more severe; the rules and their abiders more respected, their enforcers far more feared.
Beyond the cultural considerations, there is an underestimated art (and science) to moshing itself. Like martial arts or codes of football, there are many different styles and techniques, and at the highest level it can be approached much like a sport: Terrain, for example, is a factor, as moshing in mud or on grass is a totally different proposition to that of beer-slicked concrete or hardwood. A certain degree of conditioning, more demanding than many recognized sports, is required to do it for extended periods at a high level. You can’t be a weak person with low cardio to do it well and often, nor do you have to be a genetic and athletic freak to excel.
One is, despite assumptions, often much more at risk in a moderate sized club pit with a smaller number of people than at a festival, where more forgiving surfaces and higher crowd density make one less likely to be knocked over, though more likely to be unintentionally trampled if they are. There are the incredible spectacles of the Circle Pit or Wall of Death, but in reality they are usually far less risky than the ‘standard’ style of action.
While I’ve encountered an ignorant few who insist there’s only one correct way to mosh, in reality there are many. You have your heavyweight bruisers, plowing through the fracas with ease, but usually going down and wearing out just as easily. Then there are the featherweights and flyweights, possessed of technique and speed that usually sees them far more dominant and successful than most of their much larger counterparts. As such, in my experience, the veteran female moshers are usually the most sound, most being less reliant on physical mass and more on proper movement and reaction.
I usually preferred a style of bouncing sideways from foot-to-foot like a fighter warming up, never too far off the ground so as to be caught off-guard, but never flat footed, thus better avoiding injury and moving throughout all areas of The Pit. One can also adopt (as I used to) a style of territory control, relying on strength and sheer toughness to hold down a space, acting as an anchor for pits in large crowds that may otherwise spiral out of control by sheer weight of numbers. All of these approaches and many more are valid, and certain styles of music, varieties of terrain and types of venue lend themselves better to different approaches.
Experience and perception counts for more than raw power in moshing, and the ability to process visual and tactile data at incredibly high speeds cultivates a rapidity of thought and calculation not unlike high level FPS gaming. In both disciplines excellent peripheral detection is mandatory, and split-second decision making is the order of the day. These are traits and skillsets that have many applications in everyday life, especially in fast placed work environs, and indeed The Pit has much to teach us about life itself – how to be competitive yet also collaborative, to express aggression but with restraint, and to advance one’s position without disregard for the welfare of others.
Here we demonstrate that violence does not always have to lack compassion, in the simple but beautiful act of picking up your fallen neighbour, helping the downed off the ground being that most sacred and crucial of the Pit Laws. Indeed, if one falls, others will in turn fall over them, so we must help our fellows both in their interest and ours. We follow and enforce these rules without fail or exception, crossing divides political, social and religious by embracing values which our more ‘civilized’ equivalents in cultural normality often seem to forget: Consideration of others, awareness of surroundings, and above all, respect.
Sanctioned violence has long been at the forefront of societies as a form of entertainment, from the Colosseum to the Octagon. Despite the pretentious presumptions of pacifists, there has always been (and always will be) a desire and an audience for brutality, expressed in a competitive, organized fashion, for profit or just for fun. Moshing is a safer format than most, and a more inclusive one. All are welcome and none are obligated, as long as respect is shown.
Like it or not, there will always be those who enjoy the challenge of rough physicality, as well they should. It’s likely not going anywhere, and nor should it, because it’s bloody entertaining and a much better alternative than the participants roaming the streets deprived of such an outlet – all that pent-up energy likely directed in other, less desirable manners. If you battle your friends for fun, you probably won’t end up having to fight them for real, and I indeed have made good longterm pals simply by smashing into them repeatedly with consent.
It will be interesting to see what happens to pit culture in the post-pandemic world, as many venues and governing bodies have now introduced anti-moshing laws under the pretense of Covid exposure. Indeed, if this was truly their concern, they wouldn’t be having shows period. It reeks of another attempt to crush misunderstood outsider culture, despite the real issue at concerts these days being scalper inflation and excessive filming on cellphones, both of which diminish the live music experience more than any designated area of hard contact ever could.
There is also the notion that, should an audience decide to mosh in decent numbers, there is very little most security teams could do about it. Judging by the average pit crowds and venue security I’ve seen thus far, in Canada at least, a lot of the participants would simply overwhelm security if they chose to, be it collectively or individually. The guards would do better to leave such behaviour alone, as a night catching of crowd surfers and watching a bit of mayhem unfold is easier work than the nonsense of breaking up fights between petulant manchildren at a ‘normal’ show or club night.
Most of us respect the venue and the staff more, not to mention ourselves and each other. Our aggression is channelled effectively, instead of repressed by the pressure of fitting in and showing off, and then misdirected drunkenly at our peers. We check our egos at the door, because despite the veneration of individuality, these subcultures are not all about the self, and we know there are people in the crowd who aren’t afraid to keep us in line if we lack self-control. A lot of them are genuinely far more menacing than the actual security detail.
There are few spectacles in life that rival the sheer bloody mayhem of being in large scale, high level pits at a festival or large venue, a swirling mass of humanity battering each other silly only to high five and hug each other afterwards. The competitive camaraderie is absolutely life-affirming, as is the sheer visceral thrill of watching Circle Pits collapse into each other to form a massive vortex of violence, or the palpable tension as battle lines are drawn along the Wall Of Death. It’s not for everyone, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. There’s a place for it, and the option of standing well clear if you’re not so inclined. Other styles of music have even adopted these strange rituals to great effect, and are doing an admirable job.
In The Pit, we’re all equals, merit is effort, and both the self and the collective can express that which society so often suppresses, in brutal yet beautiful harmony. If it seems savage, one need only look at the world around us, and question what savagery really is.