If punk took years to get its deserved kudos from the establishment -- though now enshrined as a marketable commodity, it was long shunned by shibboleths like MTV and Rolling Stone -- there's little telling how long hardcore will take to get even a fraction of the same recognition. The fact that a relatively small number of people reading this will even know the difference is just one sign of how far the long-moribund sub-genre has to go before even approaching mainstream recognition. In the meantime, Paul Rachman
's encyclopedic and exhausting American Hardcore will serve as a decent chronicle of hardcore's sharp short years festering in the American underground.
Though punk was a reaction to the safe, staid, cash-register mentality of the '70s arena-sized music scene, it found itself all too quickly co-opted into the industry. Groups like the Sex Pistols disintegrated, The Clash morphed into an adventurous roots-rock, pseudo-ska outfit that started playing radio-friendly hits in arena gigs of their own, and The Ramones, well, they just stayed doing what they always did, never more or less popular than when they started. When the 1980s dawned, music seemed just as escapist as ever, only now many of the outfits were New Wave, punk's bastard offspring, retaining some of the adventurous musicality and edgy fashion sense but little if any of the antiestablishment anger. With a clenched-fist conservative like Reagan in charge, and a mainstream culture just as lobotomized as that of the previous decade, American punks realized there wasn't going to be another Clash coming around, and if they wanted more music of its raging ilk, they'd have to create it on their own. Enter hardcore. Article continues below
Made mostly in basements and garages with next to money and little hope or desire of ever attaining mainstream recognition or even a record deal, hardcore was a pared-down and punishing offshoot of the more listener-friendly first wave punk. Bands like D.O.A., Agnostic Front, and M.D.C. (Millions of Dead Cops) were out to play bare-bones punk of the most furious sort, with angry protest lyrics belted out over a fast-fast-fast beat and taking maybe 30 seconds or a minute before going on to the next number. The instruments were shot, the musicians barely trained, the fans tiny in number, and yet, like tossing a stone into a placid pond, the bands made waves in the few years before the sub-genre imploded in 1986.
Almost more important than being music of social protest, hardcore was also a means of tribal communication, a jury-rigged web of cassettes, 7-inch vinyl singles, and Xeroxed fanzines linking small knots of disgusted and disenchanted teens across the country. Rachman links the interview segments of the film with graphics jumping from one geographic "scene" to the next, talking to Bostonians like Dickey Barrett from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones or the guys from SS Decontrol before jumping to the L.A. scene and talking to the Minutemen's Mike Watt
or Black Flag
's Henry Rollins
. It's an all-inclusive approach, and one most likely to frustrate those not familiar with or appreciative of hardcore and especially the minute differences between, say, Murphy's Law and the Cro-Mags. Even the archival concert footage -- usually cruddy videotapes showing a few dozen angry teens moshing in a concrete basement -- will seem repetitive to those who didn't grow up on the stuff. But though it may become wearying to some, such scenes are nevertheless to be treasured, like time capsules of the suburban revolution that never was.
Although Rachman never worries about going over the same material twice, and his film at times can feel like an old-timers reunion, it is nevertheless a worthy addition to the growing band of underground music documentaries for two reasons. First, it reminds us that -- I Love the '80s and The Wedding Singer notwithstanding -- the '80s was not solely a time of monolithic consumer-crazed lassitude, and that underneath the shopping-mall fašade, resentment and anti-establishment rage boiled. Secondly, the film is perhaps the first to pay homage to arguably one of the decade's greatest and least-recognized band, the Bad Brains, an African-American anomaly in a mostly white scene whose stunning blend of white-hot thrash punk, reggae, and socially conscious lyrics sends many of the film's interviewees into paroxysms of nostalgic joy, two decades on. The look on the faces of these aging musical revolutionaries as they recall a certain Bad Brains show tells you everything you need to know about how vital this music was -- even if almost nobody ever heard it, or will.