A few weeks ago I went to the latest showing of the Music Driven series at Nitehawk Cinema on American Hardcore. It is a documentary on the hardcore music genre, which was in its first wave from 1980 to 1986, roughly. It's an offshoot of punk that has never been a huge part of my musical intake, but it has strangely hovered around my life for quite awhile. One of the first friends I made in high school was my entry point. He was a fan of the music, which was thriving locally in Erie, PA in the late 90s for the all-ages crowd. I forget most of the band names now, but he and a few other guys I sat with at lunch freshman year were also into bigger acts like Minor Threat and the Misfits. Most recently, I've discovered my boss is into hardcore. She named her daughter Kira after Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler. Hardcore is always around if you look hard enough it seems. Here is what really struck me about the film and the genre.
Geography was incredibly important.
My favorite thing about the film was learning about the evolution of the genre through the local scenes that sprung up. It begins in Southern California with Black Flag, but each community in and around LA seemed to have its own vibe: Hermosa Beach (Black Flag), Fullerton (Adolescents), Huntington Beach (TSOL) to name just a few examples. The other pivotal early scene was DC, home to bands like Bad Brains and Teen Idles. There were scenes in San Francisco (the Dead Kennedys being most prominent, though they did not participate in the film), Boston (SSD), and New York City (Crog-Mags). The film also touched on stuff happening in the Midwest, the South (mostly in North Carolina and Virgina), and Texas. I find the intersection of place and music so cool, and hardcore is a great example of how communities formed all over the map. The level of scene awareness helped the genre grow, as the bands would utilize each other as a network for tours, crucial in the pre-Internet era.
Hardcore embraced a DIY ethos.
The other thing I really liked was how much the bands were about autonomy and action. This movement has become more prominent in retrospect, but in its day, there was little to no mainstream coverage. To make anything happen largely meant doing it yourself. Whether that was Ian MacKaye's anecdote of cutting out paper, folding it, and gluing for record releases, creating record labels like SST and Dischord, booking shows, making posters, arranging tours and sleeping on friend's couches, or creating zines, the bands dove in full-on to spread their music however they could. The sense of community seemed palpable and the ability to do all these things was clearly as much a part of the lifestyle as the music itself. I think the last few years of changes in the music industry have brought these hardcore methods back to the forefront for tons of new bands, even if most of them are far removed from the genre musically.
Hardcore was a true alternative music genre.
The reason DIY was so appealing and why scenes formed all over the place was because hardcore represented a different way of viewing the world, a source of refuge for outsiders, and a channel for a lack of expression. In the 1980s, there were tons of alienated young men who did not like how the country was being run, did not like the songs and bands at the top of the charts, and were brimming over with anger. Hardcore was an empowering "opt-out" and a chance to be part of something different than adults or society would want. More than a lot of other musical genres, much of it was defined as an opposition or confrontation with things the young people didn't like. I know a lot of music intends to appeal to youth culture, but with the lack of commercialization, hardcore seems to stand in rare company for how much it set itself apart from everything in its early days and created an indelible mindset.
But hardcore was not completely inclusive.
There are definitely parts of hardcore that are problematic. I understand the purpose it served as an outlet for youthful anger and defiance, but the genre could easily spill over into something malicious. So many of the stories of the era were about the violence at shows. There was a gang mentality to some extent. I get how the police could seem antagonistic (not that fighting with them is justified necessarily), but it was a little shocking how much infighting there could be among hardcore fans. Henry Rollins would get attacked while performing! Sometimes this machismo is a real turn off. It was a little heartbreaking too, to hear Kira of Black Flag talk about having to play the song "Slip It In," and the lack of gender equity. A handful of hardcore punk bands were actual racist hate groups. As writer and producer Steven Blush said afterwards, he wasn't trying to condone the behavior, just capture it honestly. That was how things were. Fine, but it is important to point out that the genre, for all its effort to build a community for marginalized groups and serve a creative purpose, does not have a sterling track record, just like plenty of other types of music.
What about the music?
Ultimately, I'm writing this because hardcore is a musical genre. I've peppered in songs from the soundtrack throughout, but I feel I should discuss the music itself briefly. I can't say it works too well for me, at least in this era. Some of what evolved out of the early days of the genre I like quite a bit, but this more pure form isn't quite my thing. I do think the viscerality is appealing; the rush of these brief songs can definitely hit the spot. It's a music that prioritizes delivery and sensation, which is a good thing. It tends to be the opposite of what I gravitate towards, but I recognize the benefits of something so primal. However, the lyrics are generally not understandable and when they are, not that interesting. Also, the brevity is a little frustrating, though long songs really aren't possible in the style. Sometimes the primitivism of the playing is just too rough and unsophisticated, though the drums tend to be the easiest instrument to appreciate this way. I enjoyed hearing it in the film (especially while seeing clips of the performance – which seems way more important than any isolated album listening sessions) and putting on some songs while writing this, but it's not something I feel inclined to listen to much.