Originally Published September 7, 2006
Had it not been for the American hardcore punk scene of the early 1980s, there wouldn’t be bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers or Beastie Boys today. The fast, angst-driven music of punk pioneers such as Black Flag, Minor Threat and Bad Brains paved the road for the commercialized rock music of today.
The independent documentary “American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986” chronicles the rise and fall of the hardcore punk scene that was the soundtrack to a social movement that was fueled by anger towards the Reagan administration.
Inspired by the book “American Hardcore: A Tribal History” by Steven Blush, director Paul Rachman calls upon the most influential artists and other participants of the hardcore punk scene to give first-hand accounts of their experience in the nationwide hardcore punk scene.
The film is enhanced with motion graphics and animation by John Vondrace. Flashing images of concert footage, flyers and maps of the United States with punk band logos as landmarks from each city and state interlace the interviews and visually add to the commentary.
Hardcore punk sought to overcome the materialistic greed that drove popular music of the time. Disco and later new wave music of the 1980s was a flashy, neon-colored aesthetic that hardcore punk rebelled against.
The most influential band on the scene was also one of the very first. By 1979, Bad Brains was among the forerunners in the early years of the hardcore punk movement in Washington, D.C. Their high energy performances, which included stage dives had them banned from most performance venues in the area. They relocated to New York where they were leaders of the hardcore movement there.
Minor Threat, another Washington, D.C. band, got their first gig opening for their heroes, Bad Brains. They formed their own record label, Discord Records, where they hand-packaged and distributed their music.
Other bands were springing up nationwide, and in Southern California, the most influential band was Black Flag. They formed in 1979 in Redondo Beach, Calif. Their influence became evident as the band’s logo, four imposing black bars, were found spray-painted all over the Los Angeles area. Black Flag’s first singer, Keith Morris, later formed another leading band, Circle Jerks. The intensity and angry performance style of his replacement, Henry Rollins, became the paradigm of rock performance.
Members of these bands, and countless other bands, roadies, promoters and fans discuss their memories of the hardcore punk scene through personal interviews that engage viewers as if they were sitting across from them having a conversation.
The spread of the hardcore scene is the result of the bands touring, where they traveled mostly by van and stayed with band members who resided in the city being visited.
The concerts took place mostly in backyards, abandoned buildings and anywhere else where authority was not present. When these bands would play large venues with police officers or security present, the concerts would often end with brutality.
While the fans consisted mostly of white teenagers, the bands they followed represented diverse backgrounds and lifestyles. The members of Bad Brains are African-American who drew inspiration from Rastafarianism and positive attitudes.
The “peace-punk” movement, inspired by left-wing politics, drew in the band MDC from Austin, Texas when they relocated to San Francisco, Calif. In the documentary, the lead singer, Dave Dictor discusses his experience of being accepted even by Nazi fans despite his homosexuality. MDC continues to perform and maintains a loyal fan base.
In 1984, Reagan’s re-election disillusioned many who sought change. The violence occurring at concerts became stupid and pointless, according to Mackaye of Minor Threat.
The last words of the film from Zander Schloss of Circle Jerks are, “Punk is dead. Go home.” Nevertheless, his band continues to perform, along with many of the other bands featured in the documentary, and by their obvious influence over mainstream bands and continued success and stable fan base, it’s hard to accept that punk actually died when these punk pioneers grew up and possibly got over the anger that inspired their music.