“American Hardcore”

“American Hardcore” – Soundtrack & Film Reviews

“American Hardcore” - the soundtrack

If you were an American suburban teenager in the early 1980's, and you felt unfulfilled by life and the popular culture around you, you might have found yourself drawn to punk. But at that point, what was left of it?

For the most part, the stalwarts of the New York and London scenes had either grown up or broken up. Sure, you could buy an old Pistols album or even a new Ramones release, but the glory days of early punk were gone. So, if you wanted to be part of a scene, you had to remake punk into something of your own.

And so the hardcore movement started… Faster, harder, younger, violent, more masculine and eventually more rule oriented than those earlier punk scenes, hardcore bands started springing up across America. But unlike early punk, there was no major label interest. USrecord companies had already learned firsthand that punk didn't sell in America. They weren't going to get burned again.

But that didn't matter. Because hardcore bands were rebelling against the music the majors were releasing. They wouldn't sell out--even if they could. These bands didn’t sound like Journey or REO Speedwagon. Their music was like the Ramones -- but much harsher, faster and usually way less melodic.

So getting the music out there became a “DIY” or “do it yourself” operation. Everything was done within the scene. You and your friends recorded and released the records yourself, you toured the country in a van, sleeping on fans’ floors, and you promoted your music in fanzines made by the fans.

Although hardcore was hugely influential on what later became known as "Grunge," the scene was then, and remained, about as below ground as could be. If you weren't involved in the hardcore subculture, you didn't know much about it nor did you care about it. So while many great books and even a few films have been released over the years which examine the early New York and UK punk scenes, there has been very little documentation about hardcore.

One exception was Steven Blush 2001 tome "American Hardcore, "a detailed history of the movement. This year, Blush and director Paul Rachman released a documentary inspired by the book. The film is spotty and has provoked a lot of ire amongst hardcore fans. I’ve reviewed the film separately. First let's focus on the film's soundtrack -- becauseit’s really good.

The “American Hardcore” soundtrack consists of twenty six short harsh blasts of power --also known as songs. Unlike many earlier hardcore compilations which focused on a specific regional scene like Boston or a specific label, like SST, this is a broad survey. Bands from the East and West coasts, the Midwest and even Canada are included.

It kicks off with one of the most famous and iconic hardcore track ever, Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown." Keith Morris sings on this pre-Rollins era song, and I guarantee that the minute it starts playing, you're going to wish there was a moshpit nearby -- even if you've never moshed before. I may be a bit biased, since I used to attend a lot of Black Flag shows, but in my opinion hardcore didn't get any better than Greg Ginn and company.

But if you were to argue that it did, you'd probably site two legendary Washington DC bands -- The Bad Brains and Minor Threat -- both of whom are also featured on this compilation. The Bad Brains, who are probably the only all Black, Rastafarian hardcore punk band ever, are also probably hardcore’s best and most powerful musicians. Their early song, "Pay to Cum," which is included here, can peel the paint off your walls. They were a great band in their day (And from what I've heard about their recent reunion shows during the final week of CBGBs, they've lost none of that power.)

Bad Brains' protégées, Minor Threat, led by Ian MacKaye (later of Fugazi),inspired the "straight edge" movement - no smoking, no drinking no drugs. And punk teen across American loved them -- both because of and in spite of this. Their song “Filler,” included here, is a great introduction to a band whose work still inspires teenage punks today.

Rounding out the first few tracks on the album (along with the Middle Class and D.O.A.), is Keith Morris's post Black Flag band, the Circle Jerks. Although often noted for their humor, the band's "Red Tape" (also featured in the film "The Decline of Western Civilization") is a straightforward complaint on life's red tape.

The rest of the soundtrack is a geographical jaunt around the country. Boston's aggressive scene is represented by Gang Green, Jerry's Kids, SSD and The Freeze and New York’s by an early demo of the Cro-Mags. The Texas contingent includes DRI, MDC, the Big Boys and Really Red, while the Midwest is represented by the legendary Die Kreuzen and --

-- Awe heck there are twenty six bands on this album. I’m not going to list them all. But, you've also got Seven Seconds doing the fun "I Hate Sports," DRI performing "Runnin' Around," and the Adolescents early demo of “I Hate Children. ” The album caps off with San Francisco legends, Flipper, playing "Ha Ha Ha," a memorable and somewhat slower tune.

The American Hardcore soundtrack is not for everyone. Your loved ones and neighbors will probably hate you for playing it. But if you like your music with edge and want to learn more about hardcore, or if you grew up in the scene and want to relive your youth, then this is definitely a recommended purchase for you.

“American Hardcore” - the film

“American Hardcore” is a controversial film.

But it’s atypically controversial. You see, the right wing conservatives who you’d think would be this punk documentary’s mortal enemies, could care less about it. Instead, the negativity is coming from some of the people who were a part of the hardcore scene back in its heyday. Yes, the people who should be this film’s core audience, are the ones doing all the complaining.

This film follows in the footsteps of author and filmmaker Steven Blush’s equally controversial book about the movement, ”American Hardcore: A Tribal History.” Blush’s and director Paul Rachman’s new documentary has angered many long time punk fans with its somewhat flawed depiction and analysis of the hardcore scene’s history.

To take a closer look…

This documentary surveys the American hardcore punk music scene of the 1980s. On a positive note, the filmmakers have managed to collect tons of great obscure old concert footage: Gang Green, D.O.A., Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Minor threat, and many, many more. These are clips you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. It takes you right back in time, and makes you feel the joy of being a young, rebellious, adrenalin-filled kid seeing great raw bands live.

The filmmakers also filmed more recent interviews with some of the original stalwarts of the scene. As a long time SST Records fan, I particularly enjoyed seeing former members of Black Flag, Painted Willie’s Dave Markey, The Minutemen’s Mike Watt and former label co-owner, Mugger.

But there were a lot of problems with this film. First of all, the bands it didn't include. Obviously, any survey of an art form will have voids. But how do you talk about San Francisco, without citing the influence of the Dead Kennedys? Or New York without mentioning the Misfits? Those are two pretty big omissions.

I would also have liked to see more discussion of the role fanzines played in the music community. These homespun magazines made by the scene for the scene, were the ultimate form of do it yourself communication and publicity. Reading reviews in ‘zines like Flipside and Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, was one of the main ways that kids across the country learned about new bands.

But as I said before, no overview can be complete, so you have to accept the holes. But this film had other problems.

Technically, some shots were filmed from horrible angles. Now this was to be expected with the old footage, but it shouldn't have been the case for the newer interviews that the filmmakers themselves conducted. Was Keith Morris filmed from below during his interview to make him seem like a powerful figure --with the audience literally being forced to look up to him? Or was that just the result of a badly set up shot? We were practically looking up his nose.

One could make the argument that bad camera angles were part of an artistic choice used to make the film seem more "punk rock." Okay, so, putting that criticism aside, I think the film's biggest problems were its weak narrative and lack of analysis. There seemed to be no real theme driving it. It didn't have much of a point of view except that "hardcore came, hardcore existed in different scenes around the country, and then hardcore went away."

There just wasn't enough analysis of the movement. In the beginning they spoke about how Reagan was the main impetus behind hardcore. I don't buy that. Did his election play a part? Sure, definitely. The wholeYuppie 80's culture certainly played a role in inspiring hardcore kids to rebel. But remember, quite a few of these young musicians were from well off families. When Minor Threat started their band, they were NOT living on the dole.

I think the filmmakers needed to go deeper in asking the musicians why they formed their bands. I bet they might have found that one of the main things that instigated this movement was something which has always been behind rebellious youth culture -- kids who are bored, frustrated and feel like they don't fit in, look for something new and creative with which to define themselves.

The other place in whichI feel this film fell short was in its analysis of why the hardcore movement ended. (Which in truth, it actually never did. New bands and fans came as many of the older ones moved on).The film primarily attributed "th end" of hardcore to all the violence in the scene. And yes, there was definitely plenty of violence. But there was so much more to it than that. I wish the film had addressed how regimented the scene had become, and what affect that had on its breakdown.

In the early days of CBGBs, "punk" was very free and experimental. It included The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and Television. But hardcore was filled with unwritten rules about what was acceptable. You MUST dress a certain way. You must have an anarchy symbol on your jacket. Your hair MUST be short and spiky. You MUST have that fast moshing rhythm to your music. Hardcore in many ways became the antithesis of what punk originally was. By the end, there were so many self-imposed rules that it was like being in an army.

Although I’ve always enjoyed hearing and seeing the bands, I found the closed mindedness of scene a little too stifling. And so did some of the bands. They would try to develop and grow, but their audiences wouldn't let them.

By the end of their run, Black Flack were playing a weird, yet great, combo of jazzy sludgy punk metal and they'd grown their hair long. The result? A huge percentage of their fans deserted them. In 1986, I attended what turned out to be Black Flag's last San Francisco show. It was at the On Broadway over the Mabuhay Gardens and that large venue was almost empty. I counted 50 people there that night. A lot of the punks just hated what they were doing.

None of this regimentation was discussed in the film. And that was probably the biggest place where I think the filmmakers fell short.

All that said, I would still recommend the film. Why? Because hardcore punk is a piece of American musical culture that has not gotten a lot of attention, and despite all the film’s flaws, the creators put a lot of effort into bringing the story of the music to the public. Thanks to them, maybe some younger music fans won’t think that later day “punk” bands like Good Charlotte and Blink 182 are the be all and end all of American punk. Maybe they’ll go out and buy a 7 Seconds album.

As for the rest of us, all that great old band footage is a joy to see.

American hardcore
Bonnie Datt – tMx 27 – 11/06
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