Friday, January 18, 2008


It's no wonder that The Replacements ended up being my favorite band of all-time. Like me, they briefly flirted with the world of hardcore punk, cranking out one pseudo-hardcore EP with heart-wrenching songs like "Go" alongside spirited, but out-of-place anthems like "Kids Don't Follow" and "Fuck School".

As Mats bassist Tommy Stinson says in the documentary AMERICAN HARDCORE, listening to the music of the time made you want to go out and play that stuff, but they just weren't that band.

Unfortunately, Stinson's 30-seconds is about all the insight you'll get on Minneapolis's role in the American hardcore scene in the 1980s. Oh sure, the incredibly influential Husker Du – one of the genre's truly great bands, critical darlings and success tales before their flameout – gets a brief mention and their iconic logo shows up on a map at one point, but that's about the only mention in this sometimes interesting but largely disappointing documentary.

Not to be confused with the bands that mainstream media had labeled "punk" (Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones, etc.), American hardcore punk was an angry, aggressive, testosterone-fueled outburst ignited by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan, the failed movie star, was seen as an anti-Christ, a vacuous talking head whose Republican politics meant nothing good for anyone other than America's elite.

Striking a blow against the government and pop culture fads like disco and new wave all at the same time, American hardcore exploded on the scene thanks to bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains and Minor Threat. Pretty soon those bands were pressing and releasing their own records and – more importantly – touring and spreading their message and music in towns all over the country thanks to gigs in shitty venues like abandoned glass factories, church basements, suburban backyards, and VFW halls.

I came a little late to the punk party, first getting into bands like The Misfits, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Lords of the New Church and New York Dolls around 1983. By the time I reached college in 1984 and ended up on the school's radio station, my musical horizons opened up before me and I found myself sampling hardcore to go along with my leanings toward new wave and power pop. But here's what I realized at the time and what was driven home by watching this documentary – a lot, and I mean a LOT of this stuff really, really sucked and was unlistenable. Then and now.

Oh sure, there were some great bands: pre-SLIP IT IN Black Flag, the aforementioned Husker Du, some of the SoCal punk groups like Channel 3, Circle Jerks, TSOL and Agent Orange, and mid-American punks like the Zero Boys to name a few. But I never "got" the likes of Minor Threat or Bad Brains (though they're both widely revered) and the less said about Gang Green, SSD, Cro-Mags, etc. the better.

The film attempts to chronicle the genre's explosion on the scene in 1980 and its eventual – and inevitable – implosion in the mid-80s when it seemed to just, well, end. As one interviewee in the film suggests, it wasn't even a gradual decline, the genre just seemed to come to a screeching halt.

Along the way, director Paul Rachman talks to some of the biggest names on the scene: HR (Bad Brains), Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat), Greg Ginn (Black Flag, SST Records), and no surprise here, Henry Rollins (Black Flag) as well as members of the Cro-Mags, Jerry's Kids, SSD, MDC and more.

What's missing, though, is almost any – and I mean ANY – mention of the Dead Kennedys, a massively influential band known in many circles as the most important American hardcore band. Ever. How you make a documentary that chronicles this era and you don't talk to Jello Biafra or anybody else involved with making what's arguably the most savagely brilliant – and best – music of the genre is beyond me.

It's oversights like this that make AMERICAN HARDCORE a disappointing and hardly encyclopedic look at this brief, incendiary time in punk rock history.


Joe said...

A friend and I pondered the same Dead Kennedy’s question a few months back after seeing the film. From what I have come to understand the director did actually film and or create a good bit about DK for the movie but unfortunately the movie was being put together during the height of the band's legal battles and this put proper ownership on rights to something’s into an area of uncertainty.
This doesn’t change the many other glaring omissions and annoyances such as to go by this movie you would think that Hardcore began and ended with the Bad Brains and this from someone who unlike yourself is a big fan of that band.

Dan said...

Thanks Joe... somebody else mentioned that to me as well off the blog. Legal issues or not it's such a glaring omission that it colors the whole film for me.

And, yeah, Bad Brains get a LOT of love in the flick. You'd think they practically invented the genre.