Have you ever noticed?” is one of life’s great questions, and the query can be applied to a wide variety of subjects. For instance, have you ever noticed that people always close their eyes when they sneeze? Have you ever noticed that British singers tend to vocalize without their British accent? So many bizarre aspects to life worth interrogating. And where should we turn for reliable, definitive information on such matters? While libraries and the internet may serve as valid research options for puzzlement of this nature, we are often left with more questions than we started with.
Most recently, with the post-pandemic concert scene—more specifically, hardcore punk and metal gigs—beginning to flow once again, a longstanding question has resurfaced with regard to the wild form of crowd participation that is common practice at such gatherings: HAVE YOU EVER NOTICED THAT CIRCLE PITS ONLY SPIN COUNTERCLOCKWISE??? I mean, ONLY COUNTERCLOCKWISE! What? This is true of every circle pit everywhere in the world since the beginning of circle pits. The phenomenon cannot seem to be explained by science, nor by punk historians, but let’s go down the road with it, shall we?
“It’s just always seemed natural. I’ve never questioned it,” offers Lou Koller, lead screamer for New York hardcore legends Sick of It All. “Sometimes from the stage I’ll yell, ‘Circle pit! ’ and spin my finger around to get it going. The finger always goes counterclockwise, and the crowd just follows it. I didn’t realize any of this until you asked me to talk about it. As soon as you did, I was like, ‘Holy shit. He’s right!”’
The act of pogoing, or jumping up and down at punk rock gigs, is the undisputed precursor to all this mosh pit business we’ve grown accustomed to. The Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious claimed to have invented it to mock non-punks’ (awkward and insincere) reaction to punk bands in the clubs, but who knows? As the music became more intense, naturally so did the fans’ reaction to it. Enter slam dancing.
“I’ve been known to get out on the dance floor at shows, ” explains NYC quartet Burn’s dynamic frontperson, Chaka Malik. “I remember my dad bringing home an issue of Interview magazine with an article on slam dancing and me saying, ‘I want to do that. ’ I saw cool people, cool clothes.... It seemed dangerous, but fun. Plus I loved the term ‘slam dancing.’ I never really gravitated toward the term ‘moshing.’”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve at one point or another become acquainted with the word “moshing.” MTV and the mainstream music media picked up on the label and ran fast and far with it during the midto late ’80s, applying the expression to anything and everything remotely resembling slam dancing. However, as any responsible OG will tell you, each opposite coast of America had its own unique way of getting down at hardcore and, later, thrash metal gigs. “Moshing,” to be succinct, was a distinctly East Coast dance style, born out of Washington, D.C.’s Bad Brains’ intimate relationship with reggae and its associated gyration: skanking. Punks sped up the steps and applied the moves to punk, and it took on a life of its own at venues from New York to Boston and beyond.
Where did the term “mosh” come from, you ask? As is traditional with many reggae artists, at some point(s) during a performance, there would be a call from the stage to “mash” up the place. “Mash,” in Jamaican slang, literally means “destroy,” but more generally it serves as a directive to let loose and dance. The story goes that either a New York or Boston punk rocker took H.R. from Bad Brains’ plea to “mash it up,” injected their own native pronunciation, and voila, MOSH! It stuck, and East Coast slamming became known as moshing from that point on.
“When I first started going to hardcore shows, everybody would start a circle pit,” remembers Koller. “I guess it came from either the videos we saw or photos or whatever, but we just naturally started circle pits. But then later, when we went to our first Agnostic Front show at CBGB, it was just chaos! It was more of a disruptive thing. It wasn’t as uniform as circle pits were. Sure, there were some people going in the circle, but then the band would hit the [New York-style] dance part and it was just mayhem. There was a unique style to it, and you were fighting to get your own space to move.”
Now, legend has it that slam dancing was born, not in any big cities, but in Southern California beach towns such as Huntington Beach by angry-as-fuck, disenfranchised youth looking to let it out to the violent soundscapes of outfits like Black Flag, Circle One, Social Distortion, Adolescents, T.S.O.L., and others. Author Steven Blush notes in his excellent historical accounting of early American hardcore, aptly titled American Hardcore, “According to lore, Mike Marine, former US Marine, and star of The Decline of Western Civilization, performed the first slam-dance in 1979. Marine created a vicious version of punk dancing.” Blush goes on to describe the pure violence of the movement, with Marine strutting around in a circle, swinging his arms and hitting everyone within his reach. Apparently it was some sort of effort to separate the punk men from the punk boys, so to speak. At first the dance was actually referred to as the “HB,” or “Huntington Beach strut,” due to its place of origin, but the underground music world has come to know it more simply as a circle pit.
This circle pit sensation eventually spread like wildfire to greater Los Angeles and, slowly but surely, to locales all throughout America, as the SoCal bands took to the road, bringing along with them vanloads of supporters and friends looking to show off their newfound swiveling wherever possible. Dozens to even hundreds of punks, communally swirling in the same direction to the loud, fast, and raw sounds of punk rock, but...how did these punks know which direction the circle should go in??? Hardcore punk bands were playing all over the country now, and circle pits ONLY ever went in one direction, counterclockwise, or as some put it, anticlockwise. How? Why?
Take a look at the history of the Olympic Games, which date back as far as 776 BC. Track events and chariot races consistently went counterclockwise. Horse racing, which came to prominence in the 18th century—also, only counterclockwise. Followers of Islam, who make annual pilgrimages to Mecca to circle the Kaaba in a display of unity with the world's Muslims, do so anticlockwise. In more recent history, NASCAR races, cycling, speed skating, even baseball games are run counterclockwise.
The sun, planets, and asteroids? All rotate counterclockwise, could that be the explanation?
The sun, planets, and asteroids? All rotate counterclockwise, could that be the explanation? Or does it have something to do with the fact that inside the human body, the heart is slightly to the left, thus causing blood to flow to the left (anticlockwise) as well? Maybe it’s related to one’s distance from the equator. While none of the above seems to explain why punks run around in circles to Suicidal Tendencies and Bad Religion tunes, there are well-educated folks out there who swear by some form of reasoning for each mentioned. But still, WTF?!
Which brings us to examining the dominant sides of human beings. If you’re like approximately 90 percent of the earth’s inhabitants, you are right-handed. This also means your right foot is the dominant hoof, your right ear is the prominent hearing hole, etc. The remaining 10 percent are either lefties or ambidextrous.
Generally speaking, it’s more natural and pleasant to the body for right-handed folks (most people) to move to the left thanks to our dominant right limbs. The rest have simply been programmed to follow the herd. This, to me, is what makes the most sense as to why counterclockwise is the preferred movement.
On a recent tour of Europe, Koller put the counterclockwise theory to the test, instructing fans to move against their natural tendencies. The crowd essentially refused, so he gave up. Punk is clearly still a counterculture, but some habits are hard to break.