The band Articles of Faith, from the documentary “American Hardcore
How Hard Was Their Core? Looking Back at Anger
Last Friday night about a hundred well-behaved hipsters packed into the basement of the Guggenheim Museum for the taping of a television talk show that doesn’t exist yet. “Soft Focus” is a project of VBS.tv, an offshoot of Vice, the downtown magazine. And the main draw was Ian MacKaye, who talked a bit about his early-80’s group, Minor Threat, perhaps the ultimate hardcore punk band.
Mr. MacKaye has made plenty of music since then, with Fugazi, the Evens (his current project) and other bands. So he could afford to chuckle at his former self. He said, ruefully, that in the Minor Threat days, he tried to write lyrics so obvious that no one could possibly misinterpret them. But one topic was off limits. “I remember clearly resisting the urge to put the word Reagan in any of the songs,” he said. He wanted his music to outlast the administration he loathed.
A new documentary, “American Hardcore,” tells the story of Minor Threat and like-minded bands. And it begins with hardcore veterans talking about the guy Mr. MacKaye wouldn’t sing about. Vic Bondi, from Chicago’s Articles of Faith, talks about the genre as a reaction to Ronald Reagan’s “white man order.” Henry Rollins, the Washington native who moved to Los Angeles to lead Black Flag, remembers seeing Reagan everywhere: fliers for hardcore shows often featured the president’s face, smiling and crudely desecrated.
But hardcore wasn’t exactly protest music. For starters it wasn’t popular enough. Inspired but unsatisfied by the absurdists of the original punk explosion, these kids (as they often called themselves) created something meaner and faster and grimmer; no charts were topped. Besides, these kids were skeptical of the power of protest music. Better, maybe, to focus on the local scene and ignore the grinning guy on the flyers.
To anyone who was never obsessed with this stuff, “American Hardcore” will probably seem more than a little perverse. There are lots of camcordered images of concerts that look like bar fights, and often sound like them too. Disdainful of musical embellishment, these bands prized speed, volume and ferocity.
Fans celebrated the chaotic guitar virtuoso Greg Ginn, from Black Flag, who found a way to smuggle psychedelic noise into his furious chord changes. And fans celebrated Bad Brains, whose warp-speed songs were so hot they glowed.
But there’s hardly any music talk in “American Hardcore,” and maybe that’s appropriate: hardcore was a musical movement that was oddly ambivalent about music itself; community and ideals often seemed more important. Bands were identified by city, and everyone seemed to be obsessed with ethics. Whereas punks sneered at a broader society, hardcore kids grappled with a narrower one.
Hardcore spawned the anti-drug, anti-alcohol, anti-casual-sex movement known as straightedge. (Funny how flexible that word “casual” can be.) And countless songs were written about concert etiquette, false friends and the uses and abuses of petty violence. Minor Threat’s thrilling “Stand Up” is an anti-pacifist anthem, but Mr. MacKaye isn’t talking about fighting the government or fighting Communism or even, really, fighting for your civil rights. He’s just dispensing practical advice: “Don’t go alone/Go with a friend/ You might need him/In the end.”
As you watch the film, Mr. Bondi’s three-word epitaph for the Reagan era — “white man order” — comes to seem like a pretty good epitaph for the hardcore era too. This was mainly a boys’ world. And the sense of laddish fun gets darker when Jack Grisham, lead singer of T.S.O.L., jokingly (though who knows?) describes himself as a rapist.
The film also hints at an underlying anxiety about race. As one former hardcore kid puts it, the genre was one of the few that “felt like it wasn’t totally ripping off black culture,” which might be another way of saying it felt white. One big exception: Bad Brains, an all-black band viewed with a mixture of awe (they were clearly better than everyone else) and fear and puzzlement. While other bands were busily organizing and debating the scene, these guys were reading the self-help book “Think and Grow Rich” and exploring Rastafarianism. If Minor Threat was proudly “out of step with the world,” Bad Brains were out of step with the out-of-step scene, even though their music helped inspire the scene in the first place.
Mr. MacKaye mentions another out-of-step experience — his years as a white kid in a majority-black school — by way of explaining his song “Guilty of Being White.” It’s an anti-racist song, he says, meaning anti-anti-white: “You blame me for slavery/A hundred years before I was born.”
Black Flag had a similar song, “White Minority,” which promised, “Gonna be a white minority.” (It was sung by a Latino singer, Ron Reyes, emphasizing the sarcasm.) Hardcore is, among other things, the sound of whiteness under siege, and in an odd way it’s a joyful noise. In the early 80’s, thanks in part to these bands, even white suburban kids could feel like righteous underdogs.
This film arrives in the middle of a minor glut of hardcore histories: Steven Blush’s book “American Hardcore: A Tribal History,” on which the film is based; Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins’s “Dance of Days,” about the influential Washington scene; Ross Haenfler’s “Straight Edge,” a sociological study. And Michael Azerrad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” about post-punk culture in the 1980’s, is in part the story of hardcore and its aftermath.
Friday’s event at the Guggenheim was also part of this wave. The other guest was Mr. Rollins, who has built a successful career as an actor and ranter. (He’s most charming, though, when he’s punching someone in the head; the film provides definitive proof.) The host was Ian Svenonius, a later fixture of the Washington scene.
You could tell Mr. MacKaye felt uncomfortable in this context: he hates being one of the “white dudes in their 30’s or 40’s, reflecting on back in the day,” as he put it. He didn’t endorse the movie, and he said he hadn’t read any of the recent books on hardcore.
It’s easy to sympathize with his fears, but the truth is that the music holds up surprisingly well. You can get Minor Threat’s discography (excluding a couple of newly released tracks) on a single CD, on Dischord, which makes a better argument for the genre than any film ever could. The official soundtrack, on Rhino, compiles 26 hardcore songs in little more than half an hour, from Void’s freaked-out rants to Flipper’s deadpan provocations. And if you’re looking for it, you can find the genre’s influence everywhere, from Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters (a former drummer for the Washington hardcore band Scream) to My Chemical Romance (composed of nth-generation hardcore kids from New Jersey).
The best thing about the current hardcore revival is the way the genre still resists idealization. What can you say about a video of Choke, from the Boston band Negative FX, wearing a Bruins jersey and bellowing a knuckleheaded song called “Might Makes Right”? This scene wasn’t pretty. To anyone who doesn’t love it, hardcore must seem downright indefensible.
But then, the same might be said about America itself. And although many of these bands defined themselves in opposition to Reagan’s country, the violent, petty, proud, often thrilling place they created wasn’t always so different. It’s tempting to idealize subcultures, but hardcore is a reminder that underground worlds aren’t usually any nobler, or any better, than the overground one. All those Reagan heads on flyers seem pretty spiteful, but maybe there’s also a hint of envy: tough young white guys paying grudging tribute to a tough old one.