Things I Learned Watching American Hardcore


Nobody moshes harder than silhouettes

Depending on just how twee that new Michel Gondry joint is, American Hardcore is either the second or third-most punk rock movie to come out last weekend. It’s certainly exponentially less punk than Jackass Number Two, which I still haven’t seen but which apparently involves Bam Margera crying twice. Emo!

One thing that always drove me nuts about the Time-Life and PBS History of Rock & Roll documentaries that came out when I was in high school were the way they treated punk in the 80s. They’d have the Sex Pistols breaking up, maybe a minute or two on the Clash, possibly something about Sonic Youth, and then nothing until Nirvana in 1991, when there was this massive grassroots network of bands and scenes in America all through the 80s that deserved recognition and would’ve made for great TV. Well, all that stuff has been canonized now, and it’s been treated in pretty much the exact same way as Time-Life and PBS treated every other genre of music; I can’t for the life of me tell why I ever wanted this. It’s a weird thing, to see this sort of hushed, reverent treatment of a scene of music that actively disparaged hush and reverence, that had no use for anything made by anyone over the age of 25. And at least at the beginning, the movie gives hardcore the vague puffery treatment, holding up this scene as a lost authentic ideal when really what made it great is that it was just a bunch of kids punching each other in the face. There’s a lot of talk about Reagan and how hardcore represented a violent reaction against everything he ever represented, but I can think of a whole lot more hardcore songs about people’s parents than I can about Reagan. Things weren’t that cut-and-dried, and the engine that drove the music was this sort of vast, ambient, omnidirectional rage that didn’t have any one specific target. We also learn what hardcore wasn’t. Someone talks about how hardcore rose up during the worst-ever period for music, which is sort of ridiculous when you think about Blondie and Grandmaster Flash and Sham 69 and Joy Division and Prince and Iron Maiden and Michael Jackson and all the other great shit that was hitting its stride right around then. But none of this is given even cursory scrutiny. Someone mentions disco, and we get a shot of a mirror ball. Someone else mentions how new wave was terrible, the new wave bands’ main sin apparently being that they wore neon colors. Keith Morris allows that Journey and Fleetwood Mac were great at what they did but then goes on to talk about all the ways their music made him want to die. It’s not until a lot later when we get into the reality that most of the people making this music were just frustrated kids who really needed an outlet and who gave themselves one.

Things get a lot more interesting when we get into the particulars of a whole lot of individual scenes, of all the haggard-looking veterans fondly recalling stories about fighting cops or each other. All these guys look like they’ve been through wars, and a disproportionate number of them are currently rocking white-people dreads. One of the original Bad Brains looks like Uncle Phil from Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Dez Cadena wears an ill-fitting suit and generally resembles an extra-creepy mortician. Alongside all the giants of the scene, we get interviews with peripheral types who went on to become famous later: Flea, Moby, Jesse Malin, and Dicky Barret from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who we see sitting in front of what looks like his tie rack. Everyone has nice things to say about Black Flag and Bad Brains and, weirdly, SSD, who improbably get more screen time than Minor Threat. But we don’t get a whole lot of talk about the actual music; there’s more stuff about how tough such-and-such a scene fixture was than there is about the process of writing and recording the songs that ostensibly drove this whole subculture. From the movie, you generally get the idea that hardcore songs were more tantrums than actual songs with hooks and structures, even though no one would remember these bands years later if they hadn’t written catchy songs by the truckload. There’s a lot of talk about the New York scene, but we don’t ever get the sense that the Big Boys’ Fun Fun Fun EP had more good songs than the entire output of New York’s hardcore scene from 1980 to maybe 1986. From the movie’s take on things, the only bands that pushed hardcore’s aesthetic boundaries in any way were the Bad Brains and Flipper; there’s no evidence that the Big Boys and Black Flag and Husker Du and Minor Threat were all pursuing radically different takes on this music. And that isn’t helped much by all the live-show footage crammed into the two-hour movie. Sometimes those images are great and iconic (Henry Rollins completely fucking some guy up after letting himself get punched a few times), but more often, all these things blur into each other. We do get the sense of this huge interlocking national network of bands that all kept each other fed, which might’ve been hardcore’s single greatest innovation.

The movie ends on a particularly irritating note, when all the principle figures talk about how the scene totally died when all the original members moved on to other stuff, like any of the people who came along later could’ve possibly cared. These guys rant and rave and gnash their teeth about MTV or whatever, like there aren’t still a thousand basements in this country that play host to new generations of musical brawls. That sort of dismissive sniffing used to drive me absolutely fucking nuts when I was having my own basement punk-rock epiphanies ten years ago, like my experiences couldn’t possibly have mattered because someone else had them first. And it rings especially false when you realize that a lot of these guys, who discuss at great length how careerism was never a part of hardcore, are still making their livings playing this music. But then, that sort of bitterness comes with age. A historical retelling of this scene can never be as forceful and powerful as a movie like The Decline of Western Civilization, a document that was made when it was actually taking place. There’s plenty of fun to be had watching American Hardcore, but it contradicts itself just by existing.

Voice column: Rob Harvilla on American Hardcore
Voice review: Rob Nelson on American Hardcore