Hardcore was the angry, aggro, rapid-fire punk rock that came after the late 1970s first wave and reigned concurrently with two of the worst times in recent memory: Ronald Reagan's presidency and the corporate record industry's regurgitation of pure punk as wimpy new wave. While old school punk was ruled by junkies, mutants and the sexually ambiguous, hardcore drew rowdy boys who did not want nuance, space age love songs or whatever the pop-culture overlords had beaten with the hip stick that week. They just wanted it loud, they wanted it fast and they wanted it easy to knock the stuffing out of one another to.
"It's the jocks that found punk rock," is how the legendary/notorious/revered/hated Henry Rollins of Black Flag fame sums it up in the new documentary American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986. "It's that 'What's up, dickhead?' mentality."
Paul Rachman, whose humble beginnings photographing Boston hardcore shows morphed into a career as an in-demand MTV video director and filmmaker, based his doc on writer/co-producer Steven Blush's 2001 book American Hardcore: A Tribal History, which contains many of the still images blown up for the big screen. Rachman also coopted hardcore DJ-turned-journalist Blush's style of letting the underground scene's participants—and not a narrator or outside observers—define and push forward the story, which is fleshed out with period music and archival video footage.
In a perfect world, American Hardcore would play on an endless loop at the Orange County Museum of History, the Orange County Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Cuckoo's Nest that was re-erected—brick-for-brick—on its former plot on Placentia Avenue in Costa Mesa. Alas, the world is not perfect and those venues do not exist, which is a shame because this is more than your typical Sunday afternoon VH1 rock doc; it chronicles the disenfranchised youth in what's hailed as this nation's most conservative county as they lashed out during those supposedly halcyon Reagan years.
Thanks to American Hardcore, we get to:
•Catch up with Mike Patton and Jeff Atta, who were high school classmates in Santa Ana who'd sneak off to Hollywood punk shows in the late '70s before forming the Middle Class, which released what may be the first hardcore song, "Out of Vogue." (Others credit Washington, D.C., band Bad Brains' "Pay to Cum"; both came out nearly simultaneously.)
•Dive into the Black Hole, the Fullerton apartment complex where the Adolescents honed their sound, which produced hardcore's first big hit, the "Amoeba" 7-inch. Adolescents interviewed include Steve Soto, Frank Agnew, Casey Royer (also of D.I.) and Tony Cadena, who looks dazed though not necessarily confused as he says he wrote angry songs "to nullify my Orange County existence." Says Soto over grainy footage of a much younger and skinnier Cadena flopping across a stage, "It was like putting a cat in a bag and shaking it and then throwing it out at the crowd."
•Recoil as TSOL front man, Huntington Beach raconteur and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Jack Grisham, who is hailed by Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz as "the Iggy Pop of LA hardcore," spins his true tales of defiling homes, stealing shit and fighting cops.
The Orange County influence is so intrinsic to hardcore that the nickname for the original slam-dancing/stage-diving kids was "the HB's," for Huntington Beach, although it could have just as easily applied to Hermosa Beach, the heart of the South Bay's hardcore fanaticism. The HB's, whom Jello Biafra vilified in his Dead Kennedys song "Nazi Punks Fuck Off," are credited in American Hardcorewith pushing the underground scene across the country.
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But as the film hails raging bands such as Black Flag, D.O.A. and the Minutemen—deserving of praise all—to embrace the groups without acknowledging the wreckage they left brings up American Hardcore's greatest black hole. Hardcore has been blamed for killing punk, but hardcore probably killed hardcore as well.
Oh, sure, we can adopt the film's line—disillusionment with Reagan's second inauguration sucked the spirit out of the scene, causing it to fragment—but surely playing a role were the drugs, the violence, the incarcerations, the violence, the police crackdowns on hardcore venues, the violence and the musicians actually learning to play their instruments.
Still, if American Hardcore can slam just an ounce of original hardcore's attitude, dangerousness and raw power into today's mopey rock scene, we'll forgive it any flaws.
AMERICAN HARDCORE WAS DIRECTED BY PAUL RACHMAN; WRITTEN BY STEVEN BLUSH, BASED ON HIS BOOK; AND PRODUCED BY RACHMAN AND BLUSH. AT EDWARDS UNIVERSITY, IRVINE.