Like a shrapnel-packed meteorite, the U.S. hardcore punk scene exploded in 1980, scattering its influential seeds through basements, churches, abandoned gas stations, living rooms, and arcades over the next six years. Paul Mahern even remembers his band, the Zero Boys, playing at a dog-training school.
Lantern-jawed, hulk-like Henry Rollins, who once ruled the hardcore roost as frontman for Black Flag, describes this fast-paced, primitive form of touring and networking as “pollination.” Bands from Washington, D.C. could play in Vancouver, B.C., assured that D.O.A.’s Joey “Shithead” Keithley would save them a space on his floor. Lacking the funds to afford a gig? You could always try to barter your way in, like TSOL’s miscreant singer Jack Grisham, who once offered the performing band a pipe bomb in exchange for admission. They wouldn’t go for it, so Grisham used the device to blow up a neighboring garage door, instead.
Director Paul Rachman’s “American Hardcore” immortalizes this blinding era of sound, capturing the warts-and-all, cosmetic-free vibe of U.S. punk music. Its jarring editing – made up from 120 hours of interview footage – could prompt celluloid whiplash. Unlike the garish, glossy finish that preserves many music archives like so much thick formaldehyde, much of its concert footage is shot in crude video pulled from fan memorabilia stashes.
Author Steven Blush, whose 2001 book, American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Feral House), inspired the film, states that today’s chord-craving kids seldom talk about million-selling bands from the early eighties like Styx, Journey, and REO Speedwagon. But they hold that decade’s hardcore bands in high regard. Perhaps the staying power and ongoing appeal of these groups comes from their homespun, under-the-radar integrity, more backyard gigs and cassette demos than gold records and arena-rock venues.
“There were a lot of backyard shows,” recalls Rachman, who entered the scene as a music video director. “Those always flipped me out. Sometimes there’s a single parent there. The backyard thing was kind of weird. I went on the road a few times with the Circle Jerks and Gang Green, and it really is all a blur.”
“These bands were cutting edge,” confirms Blush. “Paul kept this edginess in the movie. A lot of things that probably wouldn’t pass quality control in some places were integral parts of our film. That little bit of imperfection. That was the essence of this music. This was not about being a rock star playing guitar solos. It was about getting up there, doing it, and giving it all.”
“American Hardcore” is no “film-for-hire” hackwork. It’s a labor of love – and the filmmaking equivalent to the DIY (Do It Yourself) ethos that defined the film’s subject matter. Rachman and Blush were scene insiders during punk’s early-eighties reign, with the former shooting band videos while the latter promoted concerts.
When hardcore punk’s U.S. constituents burned out like some vivid-but-short fireworks, the duo moved on to more promising pastures. Rachman relocated from the East Coast to L.A. in the early nineties, helming music videos for Pantera, Alice In Chains, Kiss (“Working with Gene Simmons was pretty hardcore,” he proclaims), and Temple of the Dog. He also directed a slew of short films (including 1992’s “Memories with Joe Frank”), and the feature movie “Four Dogs Playing Poker” (2000). Blush became a Big Apple music promoter, and authored .45 Dangerous Minds, an antihero manifesto featuring interviews with such fringe-dwellers as Richard “Night Stalker” Ramirez, Ron “Hedgehog” Jeremy, and Anton LaVey.
Proving that the world becomes smaller every time it rains, the older, wiser friends bumped into each other in 2001, on the streets of New York. After brainstorming the concept of “American Hardcore” as a film, Rachman and Blush began a four-year road trip of interviews and fact-finding.
Their resulting film is as much sociopolitical commentary as it is rock doc. When President Ronald Regan was sworn into office on January 20th, 1981, many punks found the new leadership synonymous with bland conformity. “Reagan represented a huge turn,” explains Rachman. “Everything that happened before was bad and f****d up, and now we needed to reinstate these neo-conservative values and just make America clean and sober again. Underneath all of that, there was this youth gone wild. They weren’t gonna take it. Reagan became the perfect target for that, representing everything that hardcore was not. He was the perfect tool. You put a great Reagan caricature on your flyer and everyone is gonna look at it.”
Does the mix of conservative political climate and bland musical sterility sound familiar? While Dubya’s current policies echo those that rattled punks 25 years ago, Nickelback, Staind, and the American Idol of your choice represent the current chunks of audio Chinese water torture monopolizing U.S. airwaves.
Blush can see the connection between then and now – but with a slight twist. “Bush America is very much like Reagan America, and what it represented,” he suggests. “But today it’s a little bit different, because there’s a different kind of conformity. It used to be, ‘Be like everyone else, and buy our product.’ Now, it’s ‘Be an individual, and buy our product.’ A lot of the ad campaigns even say that. They got really wise to it. It’s kind of evil.
“It’s a little bit different in that way,” Blush continues. “What I remember about the late seventies was that everybody was ‘cool.’ Everybody had long hair, played guitar, and was riding on the fumes of the hippies. That’s kind of what we have now. Everybody is a hipster. I would submit that when everybody is a hipster, nobody is a hipster. That’s what I see today. There’s still a real herd mentality. That’s the similarity, if one wants to bring it back to the ‘American Hardcore’ era.”
Rachman and Blush include other insights into hardcore’s appeal and philosophy. Greg Hetson, guitarist for Circle Jerks and Bad Religion, suggests that the movement’s focus on attitude over ability lured players intimidated by virtuoso musicianship and bombast. “I could never be Gene Simmons,” he admits in the film. “I couldn’t play like Eddie Van Halen. I still can’t. The new sound was simple and aggressive.”
“All of these people just picked up a guitar and made it work for them,” confirms Rachman. “All of a sudden, a bad song doesn’t sound so bad, because it has so much heart behind it.”
While the American hardcore punk movement certainly owed a great debt to earlier “classic punk” pioneers like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, it also consciously distanced itself from these seventies predecessors. Mike Patton of Middle Class (Santa Anna, CA) points out that punk’s originators – including the Germs, X, and the Zippers – had a different attitude and aesthetic. “They were into glitter,” he describes. “They were musicians. Hardcore (bands) didn’t really know how to play. They just put it all into energy.”
Ian Mackaye, of Minor Threat and Fugazi, describes original punk rock as being defined by the Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious “He was a nihilistic junkie,” Mackaye says of Vicious in the film. “We were not. We were trying to carve out our own place – we’re hardcore punk.”
In direct contrast to Vicious’ drug addict image, certain factions of the hardcore scene even prided themselves on sobriety. With their anti-drug song “Straight Edge,” Minor Threat inspired “Straight Edge Punk,” a subgenre dedicated to clean, chemical-free living.
“They were totally different,” claims Rachman, comparing punk’s first wave to that of U.S. hardcore. “The English influence, including the Sex Pistols, came from the New York punk influence, like the Ramones and everything. Then that scene kind of died out, and represented nothing at some point. Everything went to commercial new wave. Hardcore punk was really a reaction to that; the time after the original punks had faded away. And those original scenes were really vibrant in New York and Los Angeles. But they weren’t in Indianapolis, and Boston. Hardcore spread through the country to the little towns.”
When outsiders think of hardcore punk, images of some tattoo-covered, Lilly-white, testosterone-fueled skinhead are likely to appear in their cerebrums. But much like the notion of heavy metal fans being lame-brained misanthropes was challenged by Sam Dunn’s recent documentary “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” “American Hardcore” clarifies that these images are simplified stereotypes. In fact, the Aryan, neo-Nazi stance that some people equate with the hardcore scene is quickly squelched by the appearance of the Bad Brains, a black foursome from Washington, D.C. that many peers cite as their primary musical inspiration.
Comprised of powerhouse vocalist H.R. and musicians Dr. Know, Darryl Jennifer, and Ear Hudson, the Bad Brains welded complex, jazz leanings onto a primal punk framework. Their onstage energy – spearheaded by H.R.’s jubilant shaman spirit – influenced successors of all styles, colors, and nationalities. Meanwhile, they proved that punk transcended the limits of Caucasian suburbia.
But the Bad Brains didn’t stop there.
In a unique spin on punk-rock brotherhood, these generous punk gurus assisted admiring upstarts like the Teen Idles (who would eventually morph into Minor Threat). Dubbing these apprentices “undergraduates,” the group would provide musical support, while also referring their subjects to two books: the Bible, and Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich,” with its concept of Positive Mental Attitude. Ultimately, “P.M.A.” would become a song – and a war cry, of sorts. “I think they were trying to have a positive message,” explains Rachman of the Bad Brains’ proactive approach, “and they used that book as their vehicle. It was a positive direction.”
It was also indicative of a movement that put music before racial ideology. In one of punk’s most notorious ironies, the band Minor Threat was accused of racism with its song, “Guilty of Being White.” Band member Ian Mackaye, who penned the track, explains onscreen that the lyrics reflected his insecurity as a minority presence in Washington, D.C.’s predominantly black school system. Mackaye insists that it’s clearly anti-racist. His logic makes sense, considering the singer’s roots as a Teen Idle mentored by the Bad Brains’ all-black membership.
“It was a very small scene that survived on its music, and at these shows, having these special relationships with your audience,” describes Rachman, who scoffs at suggestions of inherent racism within the scene. “It’s a young, seventeen year-old boy culture, you know? And that kept it thriving. There was a lot of dream and ambition, and just having a good time. That’s really what fueled it. The racial issues were other peoples’ problems. “
Cinema freaks might recognize the Bad Brains’ most famous song, “Pay to Cum,” from the 1985 comedy “After Hours.” During a surreal, horrifying night of bad choices and misinformation, Griffin Dunne’s ill fated Paul Hackett stumbles into a Big Apple punk club. While manhandled by an abusive bouncer and partially mohawked by the club’s enthusiastic barber, Hackett’s sensitive-guy ears are pounded by Bad Brains’ brutal riffage.
Unlike many films, where songs are recklessly thrown into scenes like so much audio wallpaper, Rachman confirms that director Martin Scorsese’s use of this music rang true. “That was definitely the era where the Bad Brains had just come to New York. That was happening then. It’s a compliment to Martin. He had good people working with him, or else he knew about it himself. We thought about talking to Scorsese about that (for “American Hardcore”). But he’s so busy, we decided, ‘Why bother?’ It would probably be one sentence in the film.”
Like the volatile scene he documents in “American Hardcore,” Rachman’s completion of the film has been an exhausting haul. In January, the movie premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for theatrical distribution. “The cut we decided to bring to Sundance is the cut that everyone is going to see. It’s been color-corrected, re-mixed, and put on film. But there’s nothing different, editorially, in the film. You always have that hidden fear somewhere that they’re gonna say, ‘OK, let’s change it.’ But this never even came up.”
No stranger to the film festival circuit, Rachman co-founded Park City’s Slamdance Film Festival in 1995 as an earthier, more underground alternative to Sundance. Formed by a dozen renegade directors who had faced rejection by Park City’s larger better-known, increasingly elitist festival, Slamdance geared itself towards first-time directors. “It’s really about helping filmmakers, and creating opportunities for young filmmakers,” describes Rachman of Slamdance. “It’s a much more intimate, friendly atmosphere. If you’re a less tough, more sensitive filmmaker without guts of steel, you’re better off going to Slamdance first. Take your second or third film to Sundance. You’ll have a better knowledge of the business.
The director is stoked that major distribution will allow this tattered, battered, under-appreciated musical subculture into a permanent, accessible time capsule. “I started my career with hardcore punk in Boston,” reflects Rachman. “That’s where I started filming. And it took me to Hollywood. But it wasn’t until I came back to New York, and was able to sink my teeth into something that I had complete control of, that I was able to really connect to and have no outside interference with. It took four and a half years to make ‘American Hardcore.’ And I’ve been able to take it all the way. There’s a big trade-off there. There’s the financial trade-off. You don’t really make a lot of money making films yourself, then selling them to the big boys. But the rewards are different. It’s really about trying to find the balance.”
And even as the hardcore scene flew below the corporate radar throughout its low-budget, grass-roots existence, Rachman hopes that “American Hardcore” can escape obscurity and reach audiences far beyond the devout, selective stage-divers and moshers that his subjects’ bands attracted. “Hopefully,” says Rachman, “a lot of people get to see this movie.”