Various Artists: American Hardcore [DVD]

Various Artists

See also Meremu C.’s review of this DVD

To the uninitiated most of the footage featured on American Hardcore is nothing more than repeated video-camera footage of a maelstrom of shaven-headed punks beating each other up in different venues whilst a ‘band’ struggles to blast out another 90 second ‘song’ from within the eye of the hurricane. In fact much of the time that is what it actually is: musical prowess and subtlety was NOT what these guys were all about. However, thanks to the excellent quality of the interviews and the detailed geographical context given to the nationwide spread of the U.S Hardcore scene the nuances of each fight/concert soon become distinct. Washington ‘noise’ and LA ‘noise’ were just were not the same, though fans of Coldplay could be forgiven for failing to spot the difference. Hardcore ‘songs’ mostly consisted of spittle-spewing torrents of aggression delivered over rudimentary chords, and drums played as hard and fast as humanly possible whilst the whipped up crowd stormed onto the stage. In this documentary Director Paul Rachman and writer Steven Blush deliver what is surely the definitive visual testament to this short-lived but hugely important genre.

Beginning with footage of Ronnie and Nancy at the Presidential inauguration this film makes it crystal clear that the roots of the Hardcore explosion grew from a profound dissatisfaction with the ethos of social conformity and wealth worship that the Republican government propagated in the early 1980s. Indeed many of the Hardcore scene’s crudely produced leaflets and gig advertisements repeatedly featured the ex-cowboy President in scenes from his gun-toting past as if to say: ‘HE is the reason we exist’. The other reason it seems was the proliferation of bloated airbrushed MOR Rock with its emphasis on musical expertise and financial aspiration and also the club and radio dominance of Disco: as one interviewee says ‘Hardcore owed the least debt to Black music’…of which more later. Links between the US Hardcore Punk scene and British Punk bands like the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks are glossed over with a brief comment, the implication being that the two had next to nothing in common other than an ostensible dislike of the social and political orthodoxy. Musically Hardcore appeared to be a distillation of original Punk right down to it’s core elements.

We then get a kind of Countrywide tour of the Hardcore scene starting out from its base in California with bands like Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. There is something quite charming in the interplay of contemporary interviews of the major protagonists still defiantly punk in attitude but unmistakably paunchy and middle-aged with the intense squalling scrapping footage of their muscled-up sweat-drenched bands twenty-five years ago. What is evident though is that there is not so much as a hint of embarrassment or regret for the profoundly primitive/amateurish nature -the Circle Jerk’s first album had fourteen songs and lasted fifteen minutes- of their music and the ramshackle gigs that frequently descended into pandemonium. Each interviewee is proud of their contribution to a movement that was more about personal catharsis and defiant non-conformity than having a music career, or any spurious notions of artistic longevity.

The film then moves on to look at the spread of Hardcore to the East Coast where the music and the ethos of the bands took a more extreme and possibly sinister turn. Not content with merely providing an outlet for disaffected urban youths to perform / participate in a noisy amateurish scene as an outlet for spleen-venting energy, those at the vanguard in Boston and Washington introduced an ethical militancy that had not been evident previously. Advocating a zero-tolerance approach to narcotics, alcohol, and tobacco the ‘straight edge’ scene grew out of seeds sown in the Minor Threat song that carried the slogan as its title. Their lead singer Ian MacKaye proves to be a fascinating and eloquent interviewee but is clearly uneasy at allegations of racism in the song “Guilty of Being White”, allegations he strenuously denies. Boston band SSD pushed things even further, ejecting audience members for even daring to uncap a beer. There is footage of their guitarist Al Barille being interviewed at the time and denouncing what he calls “New-Wave faggots”, a pronouncement that sadly goes unchallenged in the up-to-date interview conducted for the film. Minority elements within the Hardcore scene have long been linked to Far-Right extremism, a link which betrays the communal leftist idealism of the scene’s original exponents. It’s a shame that Rachman doesn’t confront this schism head on; a deeper analysis would have been welcome rather than a continuation of the dizzying, exhaustive roll-call of every band to have been part of the growing nationwide scene.

Also inexplicable is the absence of any footage of the Dead Kennedys and their, still politically active, lead singer Jello Biafra. Along with Black Flag and Bad Brains they were one of the most significant and resonant of the early Hardcore bands yet here receive no mention at all. However, these points aside this is an excellent document of a vital counter-cultural movement. The live footage captures the raw, visceral nature of the gigs and are backed up with stunning original black and white photographs taken by Ed Colver. Rachman presents a wide and diverse selection of interviewees including ‘Cremaster’ director Mathew Barney, Moby and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist ‘Flea’ as well as the obvious candidates like Rollins and MacKaye. All in all this is a solid piece of work as interesting for devotees of the music as it is for anyone with an interest in (un)Popular-Culture.

RATING 8 / 10