Look back and laugh
By Howie Goldklang
I want to tell you a little story
‘Cause it makes me warm inside
It’s about some friends growing up
And all the things they tried
I’m not talking about staple shit
They went for something more
I guess it was too much dreaming
Too much to hope for
One day something funny happened
But it scared the shit out of me
Their heads went in different directions
And their friendship ceased to be
Minor Threat, “Look Back And Laugh”
From Out of Step (1983, Dischord Records)
“Today’s kids are missing the point, man. They need to take out the iPod headphones and log off of fuckin’ MySpace and listen up.” Steve Blush, on the phone from his New York apartment, is emphatic. “This film is the story of American hardcore.”
Blush is the author of American Hardcore: A Tribal History. After publishing his book in 2001, Blush and fellow scenester and music video director Paul Rachman spent four long years tracking down musicians, fanzine writers, girlfriends, promoters, photographers, indie label owners, fans, college DJs and club owners: anyone that helped define the hardcore movement; a short-lived, riotous era in punk rock music whose lasting effects are what makes up the dirt under the nails of rock and punk music today.
The result: the landmark documentary film American Hardcore – The History Of American Punk Rock 1980-1986, which stands as an unflinching, 100-minute lightning bolt of hardcore history featuring 115 interviews, highlights culled from over 100 hours of rare stock performance footage and hundreds of photographs of hardcore heavyweights in their prime. American Hardcore made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year and was immediately picked up by Sony Pictures Classic. “They haven’t changed a single frame of the movie,” says Rachman, also checking in from New York. “It’s all there.”
Making American Hardcore
American Hardcore is a film of non-stop cuts and clips, seamlessly mixing vintage live performance footage of Bad Brains, MDC, Minor Threat and Black Flag with numerous contemporary interviews with the grown-up versions of the scene’s major players. “The film is very direct, with a first person point of view,” explains Rachman. “That was very important; to get the story told from the people who shaped it.”
Using the book “as a roadmap,” Blush and Rachman set out with bare equipment essentials: a DV camera, a few microphones and a laptop for editing. “I did shop the book around,” admits Rachman. “But it’s hard to sell a project with a bloody face on the cover. It scared people.” So the two went back to their roots. “We did it the only way we knew how – with hardcore D.I.Y. ethics and outside of commercial channels.”
Tracking down usable footage was difficult at best, verging on the sublime at times. “The whole VHS revolution was happening, and some of the footage in the film is from kids,” says Rachman. “It was usually a thing where a kid borrowed his dad’s VHS camcorder, so the master tapes we edited from were shot in 6-hour mode. We found someone in Philly who taped everything. Sometimes there were old TV show reruns in between the gigs. We spent a lot of time cleaning up the picture and sound.” Finally, in 2005, the two were satisfied that they had enough at hand to tell hardcore’s (intentionally) largely undocumented story.
Hardcore is born
Seemingly lost in the punk shadows between the late 70s (Clash, Ramones) and the early 90s (Nirvana, Jane’s Addiction), there stands the decidedly anti-commercial, sociopolitical explosion of hardcore. From 1980 to 1986, hardcore tore up the underground, setting the eternal definition of D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) for generations to follow. It was Brit punk minus the new wave, keeping the music furious and stripped down. “This was a scene created by kids, run by kids, played and performed by kids and could not have existed any other way,” says Rachman.
Generally unheralded at the time, hardcore musicians made little money and never received the notoriety that future punk bands garnered. As time passed however, the bands at the core of the scene – Bad Brains, The Misfits, Gang Green, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, Fear, Black Flag, Die Kreuzen and The Dead Kennedys – achieved legendary status in the punk pantheon.
But hardcore was and is about more than the music. It was a moniker that bonded a lock-step tribe of angry suburban youth fed up with authority and hungry for an outlet. Hardcore was it – an unapologetic blend of “ultra-fast music, thought-provoking lyrics, and a fuck-you attitude that forever altered American youth culture,” according to Blush. Hardcore’s influence paved the way for a diverse array of artists from Moby to The Beastie Boys (named with the initials BB to match Bad Brains) to Metallica to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Both Moby and Flea appear in the film, weighing in on the importance of hardcore in shaping music to come.
“The hardcore scene was a reaction by kids to a bullshit Regan-era suburban lifestyle: we all shared a general disdain for authority,” remarks Blush. “I came up in DC listening to The Clash and Bowie, but that scene was from a whole high art, bisexual Warhol-thing. It wasn’t on a level that I could relate to.”
At the same time, Rachman was a student in Boston. He was introduced to the hardcore scene through his roommate, Alec Peters, a hardcore promoter and band manager in the emerging Boston scene. Blush was Peters’ contact down the coast in DC for booking shows, wrangling together sound equipment and finding bands a place to crash. “At least half the bands in the film have slept on my couch or floor at some time or another. It became part of the code of ethics. If any band was in your town, you’d do what you could to get a show together and put them up.”
Do You Remember?
While the film focuses on hardcore’s growth in major hubs on the East and West Coast, American Hardcore does spend time in the Midwest, citing Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis as important contributors to the hardcore legacy. On the local front, Die Kreuzen and its singer Dan Kubinski are featured, named as major players in establishing a Midwest outpost for hardcore.
Says Blush: “I remember seeing Die Kreuzen and No Trend open for The Dead Kennedys. They were great. Their EP was an instant Midwest classic.” The majority of Die Kreuzen’s records were produced by fellow Wisconsinite Butch Vig, who went on to produce Nirvana, Garbage and the Smashing Pumpkins. Other Midwest players with nods in the film include Chicago’s Naked Raygun, The Effigies and Zero Boys and, of course, Bob Mould and Hüsker Dü out of Minneapolis.
Hardcore blows up
Hardcore flourished into 1982 and 1983. Shows graduated from basements and random industrial spaces to 1,000+ capacity ballrooms. Penelope Spheeris’ documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, captured the hardcore scene as it was unfolding, reluctantly pulled toward the mainstream. Ironically, just as it reached new heights of public awareness, hardcore started to collapse.
With the added attention also came pressure from the police. Shows were broken up without cause, and fans and musicians were beaten. Inside the scene, tension and aggression escalated. Fans took their swirling slam-dancing directly onstage, attacking musicians and destroying sets. Violence erupted between old-school hardcore fans and the newly-arisen thrash metal scene, with hardcore kids attacking bands and fans at thrash shows for “selling out.”
But according to Blush, the real cause of the death of hardcore was apathy. “By 1986, the scene itself committed suicide. People just didn’t care. When you have a scene created by 16 year-olds ready to explode, the ideas and issues that fueled it [in the first place] are different when you’re 22. It just didn’t feel right anymore.” VS