Monday, October 23, 2006

AMERICAN HARDCORE

I knew that seeing this film would be something I wouldn’t be able to restrain myself from writing about. So much for my self-imposed hermetic exile from music writing – it lasted all of one month. My personal ties to hardcore are those of the relative latecomer. In 1981, when this was all exploding across the US, I was 13-14 years old. For some kids – I always think of Lou Barlow and J.Mascis from DEEP WOUND – that was fine, they started participating and sneaking away from their parents for the surefire comfort of the pit at an exceptionally young age. Not me. Now, a couple years later I listened to the Maximum Rock and Roll radio show and a similar local college radio (KFJC) show called “Vinyl Rites” every single week, and got to hear all the great bands of ’82-’83 as their 45s and comps were first coming out (though I remember digging SIN 34, M.D.C. and a lot of dopey English punk the most), but the first hardcore show I saw was a 1985 Dead Kennedys/7 Seconds/Whipping Boy show, followed shortly thereafter by a Circle Jerks/Wasted Youth gig. Also saw the Bad Brains, D.R.I., Aggression and a crapload of crappy HC/punk bands around 1985-86, but nothing that was as remotely cool as seeing Black Flag with Dez on vocals; Minor Threat; Die Kreuzen; or Negative Approach. I missed it. Ah well. By 1986 I was totally obsessed and immersed in the hardcore of 4-5 years’ previous & was a bonafide punk rock record collector, but I always knew I’d missed the boat by a couple of years.

That aside, when I watched this film I somewhat perversely felt like I was re-living something I’d gone through. That’s probably because I threw myself so heartily into the 1981-84 mindset, bands, fanzines etc. that I’d unwittingly made myself an expert on the scene without actually having gone through it firsthand. Therefore, just as I felt when I was watching the MINUTEMEN documentary “We Jam Econo”, it really didn’t matter how great the film was or wasn’t, there was just such a constant barrage of reference points (I met that guy once! I had that record! Wow, I remember him! My cousin was at that show! etc.), most of which had been filed away back in my cranium, that it was a joy to let them loose in a flood again. “AMERICAN HARDCORE”, fortunately, is a pretty solid film through and through. While the story it tells is as scattershot and anarchic as the music it profiles, that’s also a strength, as it keeps you on your toes for nearly 2 hours, ready to devour every pearl of moronic wisdom from the all-grown-up hardcore elders.

I read the oral history/non-fiction book this film was based on, and this keeps very much in that spirit of breaking the hardcore punk “outbreak” scene by scene. Overlording everything is Los Angeles, and Black Flag in particular – which makes me happy, since that also fits my personal view of how punk rock became hardcore (the ‘Flag led the way and converted the nation on aggression, speed and force), and because LA arguably gave more incredible rock music to the world in the first half of the eighties than the rest of the United States combined. The other linchpin of the film are the BAD BRAINS, and that jives with my recollections from ‘zines and the radio shows – they were adored, and when you watch the live clips in this film it’s clear why. (The Target Video of a 1982 San Francisco show of theirs is a must-see if you can find it). Some assorted highlights and lowlights:

-- The realization (and I forget which guy makes this point) that hardcore punk probably truly was the first strain of rock music that was not reliant on black music (blues, R&B etc.) for its beat, tempo and structure. A 100% Caucasian music – for whatever that’s worth.


-- The lack of attention or even derision paid to New York City hardcore, which had by far the worst bands of this era, and came at it way late to boot. The book paid way too much attention to this scene; the movie does not repeat the mistake.


-- Watching the meatheads from SS DECONTROL and NEGATIVE FX hold court on straight edge livin’ while acting like bruising lower-class jock goons. The singer of the latter wore a Bruins hockey jersey on stage and called up his “Boston Crew” to sing with him – what a dork!


-- Brief footage of SSD and GANG GREEN after they’d gone metal (’85-’86), particularly the Tin Pan Alley-meets-hair farmer outfits being worn by SSD at their last show, which are amazing, and the full-blown skateboard ramp Gang Green took onstage with them


-- The inanities spewed by Vic Bondi from Chicago band Articles of Faith (who were awful). The guy has this practiced set of “quotables” he throws out, as if he’d been practicing them in front of the mirror for weeks. Sure enough, many of these made it into the film’s preview – but I still don’t buy this guy as a true representative of anything.


-- The contrasting claims by Steve DePace from FLIPPER and Moby (!) about whether or not Moby spent any time fronting Flipper. This is the sort of low-stakes controversy I was not familiar with and naturally would love to learn more about – pretty great that full-time member DePace has no idea what Moby’s talking about, though.

The other thing that struck me was what the ravages of time have done to the hardest of the hardcore. Chris Doherty from GANG GREEN, who was a notorious celebrator of alcohol, can barely rasp out his words and unfortunately looked sick; others who were known to have routinely answered the “party with me, punker” call in the 80s look nearly as bad. I’m no teetotaler, but I couldn’t help but notice how contrastingly healthy and vibrant-looking the fortysomething Ian McKaye and Henry Rollins were – two guys who, to the best of my knowledge, haven’t touched a drop in three decades. It makes a drinker think, doesn’t it? I’ll bet former straight-edger “Springa” from SS DECONTROL has had a few since ’81, though.

It’s really something to have a sustained mental vision of these folks that I spent an inordinate amount of time listening to, reading about, and thinking about, only to see them 20-25 years older and, in some rare cases, wiser. It’s why I’ll always go see a film like this about bands I enjoyed in my relative youth, and if your ears can tolerate nearly two hours of intense, righteous, blazing hardcore punk & lots of blabberin’ about it, then this is a film for you too.

8 comments:

John R said...

A few comments I would make:

1) I found it more depressing than enlightening. Yeah, I couldn't stay away watching it either, but, jeesh, I left it wondering what's next? When is the PBS special on hardcore punk coming? A lot of unseemly, self-congratulatory back-slapping and living in the past going on in the film. And I think from here on out I will boycott all punk docs with MacKaye, Rollins, and Morris. Those guys sure love to stick their mugs in front of a mic. Let's dig a little deeper next time and, particularly, not take MacKaye as the be-all, end-all on the DC scene.

2) While the Bad Brains were amazing and the live footage shows they were second-to-none on stage, I think it is interesting that the film chose to completely ignore the controversy surrounding the Brains' religion, views on homosexuality and women, and extremely questionable business dealings. Particularly surprising since the book went into all three in great detail.

3) The film gives total short-shrift to Texas and the Midwest, which -- as far as hardcore goes --produced music that was FAR superior to DC and Boston. That really sticks in my craw.

4) I thought the film did a much poorer job than the book in contrasting and explaining the different scenes and how -- much like the early blues scenes -- you had all of these self-contained, isolated scenes doing their own thing across the country. DC hardcore was different from LA hardcore which was different from Texas hardcore which was different from Midwest hardcore, etc. And, I am not just meaning sound alone, but also how active the scenes were, how political or socially-minded they were, the types of places that shows were held, the level of harrassment from the "local authorities," etc. To me, the film throws everything into one big blender and misses out on a very important historical point. The 1980s were not the 2000s and American hardcore may be the last time in this country where you find such regional musical diversity.

5) According to the film, hardcore died in 1986. Oh, really? While hardcore peaked and unquestionably had its glory days from 1980-1983 -- and while clearly there is a BIG difference in terms of societal acceptance of punk in general today than at any time in the 1980s -- it is just a bit too pat, arrogant, and self-serving to let all of these guys get away with saying hardcore ended in 1986. Oh, yeah, why? Why 1986, as opposed to 1984 or 1992 or some other date? I.e., I would argue that the hardcore of the early 1990s (Born Against, Econochrist, Rorschach, Life's Blood, etc.) was at least as good as the hardcore of 85-86.

6) A lot of white male faces on that screen. Maybe that could have used a little exploration? For folks not fully immersed in 1980s hardcore watching the film, isn't that the equivalent of ignoring the "elephant in the room"?

7) Jay, while NYC was hardly the gold standard of hardcore, it did produce some worthy stuff in the early 1980s: the Misfits (NJ), Reagan's Youth, Urban Waste, Mad, Kraut, the Stimulators... However, given that the film mostly ignores Texas and the midwest, can't argue at all with it ignoring NYC.

I know this is a LOT of nit-picking and there is NO way they could have gone into all of the detail I seem to demand without the film exceeding four hours.. But, you just know, that this film will become the bible/final word for many on what hardcore was like in the 1980s. I will admit, though, that probably no 2-hour movie would satisfy me...

I guess I'll keep waiting for the Ken Burns 9-part PBS documentary. I mean, that is in the works, right?

Kelly said...

Not that it's anything to brag about, but good old power pop is every bit as pasty faced and white as anything in hardcore. When Andrew Weiss and Sim Cain came aboard the Flag, they had plenty of "groove" in their approach.

tim ellison said...

Why would it be something to brag or not brag about? It just is what it is. I'm not convinced, fwiw, that hardcore was more divorced from African-American idioms than plenty of rock genres before it: folk-rock, heavy metal, prog, etc.

Anonymous said...

Probably the ONLY friendly person I met from the Hardcore scene was a Black woman named Yvonne Duckworth. She found out that I had an interest in the music, and within a few weeks sent me some great mixed tapes: Middle Class, Die Kreuzen, Necros, the Meatmen, Minor Threat, etc. Just a passing thought.

Gerard said...

I'll refrain from comment regarding AHC, the book and the film -- but do hope I'm not violating any sort of deeply kept secret that Springa was at no time "straight-edge." While his pals and acolytes revelled in stories about beers being knocked out of non-SxE'rs hands, fronting SSD was merely Springa's best gig. This was a guy who was gonna end up in a band no matter what, and for him, the SxE thing was more a matter of timing than anything else.

The same cannot necessarily be said of others that crew.

Kyle said...

I don't know about the music being completely removed from Black music. Black Flag was known to start their songs off slow in the formative stage, so that there was still a bit of "grease in the groove" as they zeroed in on the ultimate speed they were going to be and, frankly, I hear it in their music. But, sure, it is pretty far removed I guess. Tim's comments on prog rock and folk rock are right on, though; they ain't any more rootsier.

Jeffery Schmitz said...

I enjoyed the film also and pretty much agree with your review. I do think Articles of Faith was an important band though..growing up in Chicago they were a nice alternative to the Evanston kids who followed the Effigies and were nothing more than rich kid fashion punks IMHO with their elaborate band logos stenciled on the back. AOF was also the first Chicago band to play fast as shit

Anonymous said...

Negative Fx was not upper middle class as Mission of Burma was.The gig from the movie was on a night when good old Boston class war was in full effect.Listen to FX's Boston Boys or look at SSD's record cover storming the state house-it scared the crap out of people.SSD and Negative FX started out at Gallery East,an art gallery where Mission of Burma also played.None of these bands was imune to situationst,dare I say it,art ideas.Tag1957