Fast, Cheap and Out of Control
Director Paul Rachman retraces the history of punk rock.
Paul Rachman’s American Hardcore is a salute to the U.S. underground punk scene that exploded in 1980. Inspired by Steven Blush’s 2001 book American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Feral House), Rachman’s blunt documentary was culled from over 120 hours of interview footage, as well as a stack of archival concert videos compiled from closets, shoeboxes and fan memorabilia stashes. The film also documents a phenomenon that Rachman and Blush observed firsthand, before the scene fizzled in the mid-’80s. “The scene burned out before anybody came to capitalize on it, so it’s very pure,” Blush says. “That’s what kids like about it today. People today don’t talk about the ’80s bands who sold a zillion records at that time, like Styx and Journey. They talk about the bands that sold 5,000 copies back in the day. Black Flag. Bad Brains. Minor Threat. People use the word edgy, or cutting edge…but these bands really were the cutting edge.
AMERICAN HARDCORE. PHOTO: EDWARD COLVER
Mirroring the kinetic, road-warrior autonomy of its subjects, Rachman’s film acts as a vicarious cross-country tour in a beat-up van. We’re yanked from Washington, D.C., and booted into Texas. We’re ripped from New York and catapulted onto Huntington Beach, California. It’s a disorienting ride — by design. “Hardcore songs are fast, short and pinpoint-specific,” Rachman says of his film’s rough-and-tumble look. “The way the story is told, the editing is very much like that. Bam — idea and information. Then cut. Move forward. You need to be jostled through the story. I knew that the editing and the feel of the film had to reflect how it was to go through that scene. To be on tour, or whatever. Nothing quite works right. You’re living on kind of an edge. The jarring editing, fast movement and bold, to-the-point graphics were meant to enhance that feeling.”
Front and center during punk’s early-’80s heyday, Rachman filmed band footage in Boston while Blush promoted concerts in Washington, D.C. However, the mutual acquaintances eventually sought out greener pastures as their favorite sounds died out. Rachman moved to L.A. in the early ’90s, becoming a respected director of music videos (Pantera, Alice in Chains, Kiss, and Temple of the Dog were among his clients), short films (including 1992’s Memories with Joe Frank), and the feature movie Four Dogs Playing Poker (2000). Blush took on the New York City nightlife as a music promoter and author (his second book, .45 Dangerous Minds: The Most Intense Interviews From Seconds Magazine, features interviews with such fringe-dwelling antiheroes as Richard “Night Stalker” Ramirez, Ron “The Hedgehog” Jeremy and Anton LaVey).
The older, wiser friends were reacquainted on the streets of New York in 2001, however, eventually brainstorming the concept of American Hardcore as a film and beginning a four-year road trip of interviews and fact finding.
Fortunately, their subjects embraced the opportunity to reminisce. “Everybody was pretty forthcoming,” Rachman says. “Steven and I conducted the interviews, which were a lot more like conversations. Together with his six years of research on the book, and both having been part of the scene, we knew all these people at one time or another in the past. Reconnecting with them was kind of fun. The interviews were intimate enough that I was able to edit in the whole story through these people’s first person [accounts]. There’s no narrator. There are no explanations. It’s all told in their own words.”
American Hardcore is a jerky, staccato movement that conveys the forced, against-the-grain evolution of a homemade scene during an era of safe, big-hair conformity. “We wanted to keep the video look,” Rachman explains. “The movie had to look like bad ’80s video. There was no attempt to make this stuff look pretty, or tie everything together so that the film has a unique tonality. The hardcore scene was very erratic and spontaneous, which is reflected in the film editing. It’s messy. It was a very B&W world that happened very fast. It was very raw.”
It’s not surprising that the scene’s undiluted, white-hot energy burned itself out by 1986. But Rachman’s electric document of stateside hardcore punk is especially relevant in 2006. Hearing its practitioners describe the bland cultural rut that gave way to their steamrolling scene, one can’t help but think of today’s faceless pop-music limbo.
D.O.A.’s Joey “Shithead” Keithley appears early in American Hardcore, proclaiming the early ’80s “one of the worst periods in music possible. Disco was at its peak, and rock bands were like Foghat — crap.” Meanwhile, dreadlocked onetime Black Flagman and Circle Jerk Keith Morris denounces the era as a septic stew of shiny cars, feathered hair and wine coolers.
“It was Journey, Eagles and Fleetwood Mac,” he laments in the film. “Great bands for what they do, but when you’re hearing them over and over again, you’re gonna vomit, jump off the nearest cliff or throw yourself in front of an oncoming bus.”
Meanwhile, President Ronald Reagan was sworn into office on Jan. 20, 1981. Vic Bondi, of Chicago-based band Articles of Faith, was not smitten with the new administration. “The country goes into this really puerile ’50s fantasy,” he describes in the film, “where they’re dressed in cardigan sweaters. We were just like, ‘Fuck you.’”
The film makes clear that hardcore punk was a direct response to what its practitioners perceived as a wave of stagnant conformity that had taken over the country’s politics — and music. Turning their backs on a record industry seemingly more concerned with blow and babes than with anything authentic, the punks revolted through complete grassroots autonomy. Minor Threat’s Brian Baker describes low-budget, zero-flash packaging aesthetics as part of the scene’s do-it-yourself mentality. One scene provides a visual description of how to fold and manufacture a record jacket, a ritual that many hardcore groups were forced to master.
The scene also spawned commercially viable musicians who eventually went on to chart-topping success. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea once played for L.A.-based Fear. Prior to his days with Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver, another bass player, Duff McKagan, strummed for The Fartz in Seattle. Most interview subjects, however, now live humble, working-class existences. Some became accountants. Others own furniture stores. Many are unemployed, or struggling by with odd jobs. American Hardcore combines the movement’s obscure heroes and familiar faces, making for a dynamic talking-head tapestry.
“The criteria for the interviews were that you were in a band during those years, and were part of that scene,” Rachman says. “And if you weren’t part of that scene directly, you’re not in the movie. The people we chose for that were in legitimate hardcore bands in the early ’80s, when this scene kind of sprouted. Some brought this added perspective of looking back from the successful side, and it’s not so different from looking back from the side that many would perceive as ‘failures.’ It’s the same attitude, the same memory. That’s how good it was.”
Despite the scene’s antipathy toward status-driven competition, American Hardcore makes it clear that one band, the Bad Brains, dominated hardcore punk. Hailing from Washington, D.C., the Bad Brains combined jazz-fusion arrangements with punk ferocity, influencing nearly every group that crossed their path (including the Beastie Boys). Producer Jerry Williams praises the band’s “extreme precision,” calling their music “technically challenging.”
“Musically and performance-wise, they were tight and talented,” recalls Rachman of the Bad Brains. “They came out of the whole D.C. funk scene, then discovered punk rock and took it to a new level. In terms of technical proficiency, they were real musicians.”
A black foursome with Rastafarian leanings, the Bad Brains also subverted hardcore’s image as a refuge limited to angry young white men. Dreadlocked singer Paul “H.R.” Hudson proved a charismatic whirlwind of energy onstage, but his mania seemed the product of joyful, proactive enthusiasm, not nihilistic rage. “As a teenager,” H.R. explains in the film, “I was into acrobats.” He describes the euphoria of being onstage as “feelings of jubilee.”
“The bigger bands all had incredible frontmen,” confirms Rachman. “But H.R. of Bad Brains was above all others, by far. He really was this incredible inspiration to everybody on the scene. Everybody worshipped the Bad Brains. When that band came to town, you canceled everything, and you were sure to be at that show. It was like a drug — an addiction to this instant injection of adrenaline, that drives you for two hours at a live show.”
Like the volatile scene he documents in American Hardcore, Rachman’s completion of the film has been an exhausting haul. In January the movie premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, where Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for theatrical distribution this fall. “It’s been a long ride,” says Rachman with a chuckle. “It’s this crazy, hidden dream that you’re almost too embarrassed to mention that you’re thinking about. Then it happens. It’s good. And we were never asked to change one frame of the film, ever.”
No stranger to the film festival circuit — Rachman co-founded Park City’s Slamdance Film Festival in 1995 — he has a good explanation for why he didn’t show it at his festival. “We were able to take it to a more challenging audience. The Slamdance audience is the audience where everyone is already gonna love this movie. But at Sundance we were able to get some other people interested. The film is more than just a rock documentary. It really is a social commentary on a piece of musical American history. We were able to get that scope. I wasn’t a first-time filmmaker either, which is what Slamdance is all about.”
Blush is hopeful that a new generation of youth gone wild will find inspiration in the film, using hardcore’s DIY philosophy as fuel to launch rock and roll’s next musical revolution. “American Hardcore is a film about bands,” Blush explains, “but it’s really about being an alienated kid growing up in the Reagan era. About being a misfit, and finding your way. I think that’s universal. And as much as the film is for the old guys who were there, it is really a message to kids. To let them know that in a small way, you can change the world.”