Adrenalin, Aggression and Anger

City Newspaper | December 8, 2006
It was the early 1980s and an increasing number of bored, angry suburban kids were about to explode. Alienated, disconnected, and disenfranchised by what society had to offer, they found a voice in hardcore punk’s primal power and energy. Not since rock ’n’ roll’s early days had there been a musical genre where talent and proficiency could take a back seat to guts. All were welcome, with many fans weighing in as heavily as the bands. Hardcore helped abolish the rock star god. Hardcore was a statement. It was a reaction, it was a lifestyle. Most importantly it was music; primitive, violent, visceral music.

But the political climate was changing, and some of hardcore’s associated violence and exuberance began to overshadow the positive. By 1986 it was gone.

In his new documentary American Hardcore, filmmaker Paul Rachman reveals the holy trinity of music, social upheaval, and community that gave birth to this influential moment in 20th century American music. Rare, live footage of bands including Bad Brains, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, MDC, D.O.A., Minor Threat, and Agnostic Front, is paired with current interviews with artists like Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Joey Shithead Keithley, and H.R., who were --- and in many cases still are --- there playing, listening, reacting.

Rachman buzzed me on the phone from New York. We talked. Here’s an edited transcript of what we said.

City Newspaper: So what was your background in regards to the original hardcore scene?

Paul Rachman: I was a college kid at Boston University. I’m originally from New York. But from ’78-’82 I was up in Boston. My roommate was promoting shows there. I spent the summer of 1980 in Berkeley and San Francisco and got turned onto that whole explosive music scene out there.

When I came back to Boston, the Boston hardcore scene was just breaking. Bands like SS Decontrol, Gang Green, The Freeze. A year later the This Is Boston Not L.A. record comes out. I was 19 and I was going to these shows at very alternative spaces like Gallery East, which was like this small concrete room that was an art gallery. And on Sunday afternoons the owner let these kids from the suburbs come in and do these hardcore shows. So it wasn’t like a college-kid scene, it wasn’t an inner-city scene. It was 16- to 17-year-old kids from the suburbs who came in and just played this kind of anti-music. I went to my first show --- Gang Green, The Freeze, and the F-U’s--- and just loved it.

What about it got to you?

You know, you went to see this music and you either loved it or hated it. And it just struck me, kinda crept under my skin and I wanted more. And the thing about the hardcore punk scene in the early days was it was very small and the audience was really invited to participate or to be on the same level with the bands. They weren’t on big stages. You interacted with the bands before and after the show. The touring bands all stayed on our floors.

If you really wanted to hear this music again, like, the following weekend, you had to participate. Somebody had to be the promoter, help put on the show because it wasn’t in the clubs, it wasn’t on the radio. There were a few DIY singles starting to appear, like the early Minor Threat stuff, The Bad Brains’ “Pay To Cum,” and the stuff from Orange County in California.

You got involved how?

So I was smitten and in a few weeks I bought my first Super 8 camera and started documenting these bands. And I became part of it. This also coincided with the whole home video boom and, more importantly, the public access TV boom in the suburbs of Boston. All these little towns are getting cable TV and with that they’ve got TV studios and this equipment that was for the community. So you could go there and borrow equipment for free, learn how to use it. So I would go there, take equipment and go to punk rock shows.

How much of the vintage footage is yours?

I would say about 25 percent of it. A lot of the Bad Brains stuff, a lot of the Gang Green stuff, The Negative Effects stuff. There’s a lot of footage we uncovered from this guy in Philadelphia who was a promoter there in the early days. And he happened to have access to one of the early big VHS camcorders and he shot, like, every show in 1982 and 1983. It was basically these tapes that were in a shoebox in his closet.

You were documenting something you weren’t even aware existed yet.

Right. When you hit ’84, every band had a guy with a video camera, records are coming out, some of the bands are getting…not signed, but getting on bigger labels, or getting more distribution. But ’80-’83 was very underground and it was very small. The film really specifically tries to concentrate on telling the story of ’80-’83 because these were the beginning years, the underground years, the poorly documented years.

Steve Blush’s book American Hardcore suggests the hardcore movement was done by 1986.

Well, it’s not as specific as that. I think the scene really started to fall apart in ’84. By ’86 you had the advent of the next generation. And in our film we really delineate that with the Cro-Mags and the New York scene. They really represent this next generation of hardcore, which kinda opens the floodgates to what happens in the early ’90s with bands like Pantera and Rage Against The Machine and all that stuff.

So what actually kicked it off?

The initial hardcore movement, according to the way we researched it, really starts in Orange County, Southern California. And it’s really coming from bored, angry teenage suburban kids. Now Orange County in the early ’80s, there’s, like, nothing to do. It’s not like The OC that you see on TV. It’s a different world. It’s a wasteland. This music comes out of there from kids listening to the punk rock that came out of the city; you know, the mid-’70s with The Ramones and The New York Dolls and all that stuff happening in New York ’73-’74. It gets exported to England and in ’75-’76 you have this explosion of punk rock in England with The Sex Pistols and The Clash. That kinda falls apart; The Clash become a really commercial band, The Sex Pistols break up.

But that comes back to America and the kids from the suburbs --- not the cities. The original punk rockers were art school kids from the big cities, they were surrounded by culture and they rebelled against that. Kids from the suburbs listen to this music, become fans of it, try to imitate it, but they can’t play their instruments as well so they just make it rawer, faster, meaner, and angrier. And that’s really the birth of American hardcore punk.

In southern California bands like Black Flag really cleared the way, and then the Circle Jerks. Black Flag does this really important tour in early ’81 where they literally go out on the road in a van for six months and nobody knows who they are and they play in tiny little towns and they kind of pollinate. From playing shows in VFW halls with 50 kids, these kids start bands and start scenes, and it becomes this national network though fanzines, through word of mouth. That’s really the early story and in a way it was never properly documented, never properly told.

Do you think there are misconceptions to be cleared up?

I think a little bit with the younger generation. I think the younger kids really admire this music and because it had stayed underground for so long, it’s very important and credible. But they weren’t there. It’s kinda like the story gets told mouth-to-ear, mouth-to-ear like that game of telephone. By the time it gets to the 50th person the story has changed.

I think kids today look back and go, “Oh wow, Black Flag in ’80-’81, and The Bad Brains --- that musta been so cool.” Cool is the wrong word. It was hard. It was buried. These bands had an obstacle at every turn. The shows were in the worst part of town. And it was hard to get the word out. And that’s the reality view as opposed to the romantic view.

But I don’t think the film’s narrative is that harsh. The interviews are fascinating.

The interviews were conducted as conversations. These were people we knew and we wanted to get a very comfortable, emotional response from these people --- to let them say their feelings. And it wasn’t so much pre-written questions to guide the film into a pre-determined script format. I think the narrative structure really comes out of culling out the beginning, middle, and end of this undocumented, erratic moment in American subculture and history.

Political history as well as musical.

Putting into the context of the time was really what I think places it in history. We start the film with Ronald Reagan’s America. This is a story about a generation that kinda fell through the cracks between the failures of the Carter era and these phony new ideas at the time of the incoming new conservative Reagan era. To us as kids, I remember, Reagan came in and he was just trying to turn the clock back to the 1950s. And as kids we were like, “Screw that. We don’t want any part of that.”

Nothing that the Carter administration did gave these kids any opportunities. There were no more jobs, there was a failing economy, a lot of these kids’ parents were losing their jobs. Reagan’s answers to this didn’t kick in until the late ’80s really.

These are kids that take their own beliefs into their own hands and create this new music and just go balls out with it. And I think their stories about their music, their bands, and their attitude juxtaposed against this early ’80s America sets this very specific time capsule of this very influential music. These young kids created a true American radical subculture that maybe wasn’t politically sophisticated, but was sophisticated enough to reject what was around them.

Do we have this attitude around today?

In my opinion, we don’t. In making the film we thought, “Wow, there’s a lot of parallels.” You have a new conservative government now but you don’t have this angry, raging youth.

Why not?

I think in the late ’70s, early ’80s the multinational corporations really set out to co-opt lifestyle and sell it back to us. And now 25 years later they’ve really succeeded, they’ve gone too far. Kids today are really insulated, they’re told what to like and everything is pre-disposed. You know, they’re locked into the Internet with MySpace, and iPods, and iTunes. MTV really was a powerful bullet in this all. I think kids today have less time to think and speak their own mind because they’re so wrapped up in what they’re told they have to do.

There’s probably a very small subculture out there of angry kids, but they’re not bored anymore. The kids in the early ’80s were bored and had nothing to do and they dedicated their life to this music. Kids today dedicate themselves to a lot of different things. The DIY ethic still exists but it’s a lot easier, it goes a lot further. You’re on your computer, you do your song, you can mix it, burn it to CD, package it, and the next day you can bring it to school and sell it. It wasn’t that easy back then.

DIY initially involved more of a team effort.

There’s always great art, there’s always great aggressive music. I think what was important in the early ’80s was that there was a really dedicated, aggressive audience, too. I was an audience member who said, “I love this music and I’m gonna be part of it.” And it kinda changed the course of my life.

You really need this intersection of great new art and a really avid audience that’s willing to make something of it as well as a political or social atmosphere that allows for a certain amount of rebellion.

What surprised you in the making of American Hardcore?

One thing is it really reconnected me with music. I kinda started my film career with hardcore, went to California and was a music video director in Hollywood for 10 years. The first three or four years of that were fantastic. But I just hated working for record companies. It was very contrived, commercial. All of a sudden everybody at the record company is a director, everybody in the band is a director. It was more difficult for me as an artist. So I really turned my back on the music business for several years. I went into the indie film world in the early ’90s, co-founded the Slamdance Film Festival, and made a lot of short films.

It really got me back into music. That was my personal surprise --- that I still admired this music. And what this music did to me emotionally, it was doing again.

And then going back and seeing everybody and traveling around and interviewing these guys. Some of them have been successful in other areas, they have real jobs now. Some of them are still doing music, some of them are still sleeping on people’s couches. They still have that same kind of arrogant, antagonistic flame where it’s like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna do what I wanna do. I’ll still reject things around me if I feel that they’re wrong.” And they still have that attitude and that was a bit of a surprise.”

How did you set out to do American Hardcore?

It was important for me that the story was told in the first person from the people who created these bands and wrote the music. Hardcore was very raw, very real. It was very first person. These were 16- to 17-year-old kids who didn’t believe in failure as an answer --- it was not an option --- who spoke their word and went for it and didn’t care what people thought of them. And that was very bold for young high school kids who usually fall into sports or certain cliques. These were outsiders. And it was important for that story to be told by them today and not have experts explain it.

Will this movie make sense to those outside its fanbase?

At the initial screenings we have had the avid hardcore punk fan base that shows up for the film. But the fact that we’re setting it in context with the time and place…it makes sense.

With the current world situation it’s like déjà vu all over again.

There are a lot of similarities with today and I hope people walk out and say, “What the hell happened? Why don’t we have an angry, raging youth?” Because as a society I think we always need that. We always need somebody breaking down the barriers, rejecting norms just to move ahead.

It’s that intersection of a great audience, great music and the right environment. The hippies had it, the beatniks had it, hardcore punk had it. And it’ll happen again, it’s just a matter of timing.

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