Movies: 'American Hardcore'

American Hardcore
A scene from "American Hardcore." (Sony Pictures Classics)
Paul Rachman and Steven Blush
Director and Writer/Producer
Monday, October 9, 2006; 1:00 PM

The documentary "American Hardcore" looks at the bands that led the hardcore punk music scene in the early '80s, a movement that would influence later mainstream rockers like Nirvana and the Beastie Boys. Washington, D.C.-based groups such as Bad Brains and Minor Threat were among the most influential artists in that wave and both are represented in the film, now playing in New York and L.A. and opening wider on Oct. 20.

"American Hardcore" director Paul Rachman and writer/producer Steven Blush were online Monday, Oct. 9 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the film and the punk music scene it captures.

Rachman, who has directed music videos for Alice in Chains, the Replacements, Temple of the Dog and others, made his feature film debut with "Four Dogs Playing Poker," starring Forest Whitaker, Tim Curry and Olivia Williams. He also is one of the founding filmmakers of the Slamdance Film Festival. Blush has written for more than 50 publications, including the Village Voice and Spin, and is the author of two books on rock music, "American Hardcore: A Tribal History" and ".45 Dangerous Minds."


London, UK: In what ways do you think British bands such as the Clash and the Sex Pistols influenced the American hardcore scene, if at all?

Steven Blush: The English punk bands were a huge influence on the American hardcore scene. There would not have been an American hardcore scene were it not for the British bands. You had to be a fan of punk rock first and foremost to be a participant in the hardcore scene, and we were all fans of the original British punk bands, while we were absolutely fans of the music, I think the split came because. While we were fans of the Clash and the Sex Pistols and the original pink scene, we as American suburban kids could never quite be that. Punk had a whole history behind it and it comes out of Bowie and Warhol and art school. While we love the music, there had to be a music that spoke to kids from the suburbs and that's what hardcore was.

Hardcore arose circa 1980 and there were two things going on in particular. One was that the original punk bands had died off or changed. So there was not this original punk happening by 1980. The other part was punk was being marketed as new wave, which was basically fusing punk and disco and making dance music. So this new generation of kids from America created their own music with the emphasis on speed and aggression, which we all got from the punk bands. So hardcore was at once a reaffirmation of the initial punk fury and a reaction to what it had become as New Wave. That's why it was called hardcore punk, it was a reaffirmation of punk. It was almost like a fundamentalist movement within the punk scene. And there was a lot of zealous, religious-like fervor for the movement.

I don't think you could find anyone involved in the initial hardcore scene that did not tip its hat to the initial late '70s British punk movement.


Arlington, Va.: Did Washington, D.C. influence American punk in the '80s or did it all come out of New York?

Steven Blush: Washington, D.C. plays a crucial role in the rise of the hardcore scene. There may have been hardcore bands but there never would have been a cohesive scene were it not for what happened in Washington.

Paul Rachman: As far as New York is concerned, none of the hardcore movement really came out of New York. New York had a lot of the roots of what punk was, but hardcore really came out of the suburbs.

Steven Blush: Again, Washington, D.C. was crucial to what happened with hardcore. Hardcore was not just music. It was a lifestyle and an ethic. The idea of an ethical approach to punk rock music definitely comes from Ian MacKaye and Dischord Records. And the Bad Brains.


Kansas City, Kan.: What was the inspiration behind making this film? How receptive were the bands to being included in the documentary?

Paul Rachman: I think the inspiration Steven and I had was really about setting the record straight and telling the story of hardcore from the early years in particular. Really tell the story of how it had started.

There was a romanticized view from youth today as to what it really was. While Steven was writing the book, I always had this vision in my head that would be a first-person account from the people who started the bands to let them tell the story. And I think that's the best way to say how it really was.

It was really about validating these people's lives who had created this music and really, you know, kind of telling the missing link in rock and subculture American history that had kind of fallen through the cracks.

The bands were very receptive. A lot of these people were our friends. These were more like conversations. They weren't these kind of interviews with pre-set questions. So they were very receptive, very positive.

Steven Blush: We were able to do this film because we had past relationships with the artists. Our film is our tribute to these bands because they're our heroes. There was a tremendous onus on us to tell the story right. These bands left their entire legacy in our hands. And ultimately we feel we did them justice. At least we hope so.


Punktown: Did H.R. express any regret over his flake-outs at crucial times? I've read that Bad Brains was close to deals with some majors, but H.R.'s internal conflicts caused him to miss crucial meetings and anger his band mates.

Paul Rachman: With great art comes great conflict. I think H.R. has always battled with the intimacy with which he started this music. The intimacy he had with this music in the very early days was something so special to him. He really tried to help kids start bands. As Bad Brains got bigger and the scene got bigger, I think he always struggled with his place within it and his own personal demons. That band always had a lot of conflict within and without, but the music was always so amazing. The music was above it all. Sure, Bad Brains should have been the biggest band in the world, some say. The flip side of what makes H.R. so amazing is his internal struggle. If you want the great music, you have to learn to deal with that, too.

Steven Blush: The Bad Brains, by all expert accounts, should have been one of the biggest bands in the world. They were about to open for U2 and similar people of that ilk. And it was never a question of the music, it was the personal demons that made it so imperfect. But ultimately great artists are f---ed up, and H.R. is living proof.


Boston, Mass.: I hope this isn't too arcane for your discussion...

As I understand it, one of the central arguments of "American Hardcore" is that hardcore punk originated in the US. But at the time I remember second-generation UK bands like Discharge, Chaos UK, G.B.H., Crass and Rudimentary Peni were major influences, musically and dress-wise. Would you address this comment in your discussion?


J. Dale

Steven Blush: You are correct in your discussion of British punk bands. But they stood side by side with their American counterpart movement. The British bands continued the rich British punk legacy of the late '70s. The American bands were about tearing it down and creating something new. Those bands shared the stage and the audience in America, but they did not have the particularities of the American lifestyle and ethic.

Paul Rachman: The sound of the music was inherently different. Early hardcore bands from the American suburbs were much more dissonant sounding. It sounded a lot less like music than the British bands.


Arlington, Va.: The obvious question ... why is there no mention of the fact that there are plenty of hardcore bands and scenes alive and well to this day? To the outsider it would seem hardcore came and went in the '80s, then passed the torch to Nirvana.

Paul Rachman: You are correct. To the outside world, it goes right to Nirvana. I think that hardcore goes on as does great art, great new music, all that always continues. Jazz and blues continues, hardcore will continue. I think that in the film what the band members are saying when they say it was over, is that the environment surrounding the music was over, or what changed. The intimacy of the early years, the way of doing things in the early years and the fan base -- this kind of avid, dedicated, invested fan base -- changes. That's a change that happens. Like you say, punk rock breaks again in the early '90s and the environment is different so hardcore can't be the same because of the environment it exists in. The music continues.

Steven Blush: When we're talking about hardcore we're not just talking about the sound or the music per se. We're talking about the attendant lifestyle and ethics. There was an idea that I'm sure we got from the hippies even though we all hated hippies, that music could change the world. And I think everyone in hardcore bought into that, full-on.

There are still kick-ass reggae bands and rockabilly bands, but that doesn't mean there is a movement.


Silver Spring, Md.: What are your thoughts on the closure of CBGBs?

Steven Blush: We are, of course, sad about the closing of CBGBs. As New Yorkers it was a very important part of our lives. But to be fair, just like in hardcore where the scene around it changes, so is the same with CBGBs. No new bands were playing CBGBs in the past years, it became like a museum and a tourist attraction and that is very far off from what Hilly Krystal envisioned when he first started the club. It's a damn shame that CBs is closing, but it also makes sense. Downtown New York is nothing like the glory days of New York punk at CBGBs. And if we're going to be honest with ourselves and not live in the past, it's time to move on. And I say all this with great regret.


Chevy Chase, Md.: When I was in high school from '86-'90, there were several bands from our school that were inspired by the punk scene (one of which --Avail -- still survives out of Richmond last I heard). Any idea what is going on in today's schools -- did HS punk bands change with the times or die with the scene?

Paul Rachman: We're not in high school anymore, so we really don't know. I think we found that there's a very avid interest in this original '80s hardcore movement from high school-aged kids. That much we know. So I'm sure it's manifesting itself in some of the new bands.

Steven Blush: Having said that, you are correct. Avail was a great band and one of the last bands to really uphold that ethic we discussed. And when we say the ethic, we mean the following: Do it yourself attitude, disdain for authority, doing things not just for the money and being fearless in your pursuit of a dream.


Oceanside, Calif.: Obviously you could not cover every band, but there were three major bands that were not featured in the movie (Dead Kennedys, Misfits, Social Distortion). Was this due to money/licensing issues, since all of these bands are still generating quite a bit of money today, as opposed to most bands featured in the film?

Steven Blush: You are correct in your question. We would have loved to have had all those bands in there, but there were problems over money or conflicts between management that could not be resolved. It's like a high school reunion. Not everybody comes. For hardcore, almost everyone came but not everyone. Ultimately we wish they were there, but it doesn't help those bands' legacies either to not be included.

Paul Rachman: The important thing about the "American Hardcore" film is that most all the people in the film have never ever been in a movie before. Nevertheless, we felt we could tell the real, true story without those bigger bands.


Washington, D.C.: I read your book with great interest. Do you feel like hardcore has a homoerotic subtext? Are the participants aware of it?

Steven Blush: Adolescence is wrought with confusion, sexual confusion being one of them. I certainly do not mean to overplay a homoerotic subtext, but you have to wonder what's up with a bunch of boys with no shirts on jumping on top of each other. I was not looking for dirt, but I was stating the obvious that any outsider would have. To not have mentioned that would have left the story incomplete.


Encinitas, Calif.:

Saw the movie and really enjoyed it. I am curious of what your impressions are of hardcore immediately following 1986 (say til around 1991-92, til the "grunge explosion")? How do the contributions of Fugazi, Rites of Spring, Antioch Arrow, Bikini Kill, Youth of Today compare to those of the pre-1986 period?

Ryan G.

Paul Rachman: The bands before them really set the standard. In '80, '81, '82, these were 16, 17-year-old kids who kind of created this youth movement. But was more than just music, it was more than just shows, it was a way of doing things. And I think those bands created an environment, a subculture, that bands in the future kind of picked up and brought that ethic a little bit into the new environment that was appearing in the late '80s, early '90s. Because the environment changes. That's what's very important, I think. The environment changes and the music evolves.

Steven Blush: The bands you mentioned from Fugazi to Rites of Spring and Bratmobile are excellent, but they are not hardcore. In fact, it can be said that Fugazi and Rites of Spring were repudiations of their hardcore past. What all those bands retain was the DIY aesthetic and that's what lasts until today. But I think if you ask Ian MacKaye or any of those guys about what they were doing in the mid to late '80s, they would be fervent in telling you it was not hardcore. And ultimately, if the artist says that, then that's what was up. Ultimately if that's how the artist feels, that's the truth. We loved all those bands, but it was a very different world from the early '80s. That's why the "American Hardcore" story is 1980 to 1986.


Steven Blush: "American Hardcore" is not just a rock documentary. It is a testament to the power of youth. These bands didn't change the world, but they changed the music scene forever. When you look at bands today, there's stage diving and slam-dancing and ferocious lead singers, and DIY records and DIY tours. And that is the legacy of hardcore, or formative bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat and the Bad Brains.

Paul Rachman: What all these bands had when they were kids, when these guys started, these guys were strong. They didn't fear failure, they trusted and acted upon their gut instincts, and they didn't care what anyone thought of them. Those are important things for youth today to have in anything they do. That foundation is always solid.

Thanks for your questions. We really appreciate the input.


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