- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

Quit whining, all you IPod-addled indie-rock scenesters with your $150 jeans, your “Aren’t-I-oh-so-intellectual” eyeglasses, the laptop that cost more than my first car and that pathetic “Garden State” soundtrack. Quit whining, and storm a barricade.

If hardcore punk had emerged today, rather than in the Reagan era, that’s how its ethos might be expressed.

Along with a good, solid pummeling of the thorax, too.

“It was more than just music; it was a way of life,” explains Steven Blush, producer of the documentary “American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986,” currently playing at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.

To many ears, it didn’t even sound like music.

“It was dissonant. It was angry. It crept under your skin, and you wanted more. It had this power,” says director Paul Rachman. “You either instantly recognized that in yourself or you didn’t.”

Lots of important bands did: Hardcore strongly influenced the likes of Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beastie Boys, the Pixies, Nirvana and Green Day, on down to the present day and all those binky suckers of the annual Vans Warped Tour. One even can hear faint echoes of its primal screams in the affected outbursts of Conor Oberst and the keening of Chris Carrabba.

Hardcore itself, of course, was an unprofitable backwater — and, anyway, success would have violated what Mr. Blush calls the movement’s “ethical code.”

Yet it caught a draft of teen angst in the early 1980s, particularly here in the District, which incubated seminal hardcore bands such as Bad Brains and Ian MacKaye’s Minor Threat, as well as the influential future Los Angeles transplant and Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins.

The music, with its breakneck beat and violent subculture, gave its players and intensely devoted fans the trappings of a novel, unadulterated identity at a time when arena rock was at its most bombastic and mainstream American youth was in a distinctly unrebellious mood.

“We worked in a period of hyperconformity,” says Mr. Blush, whose 2001 book “American Hardcore: A Tribal History” supplied the basis for the movie. During the heyday of the scene, he promoted hardcore shows in the District and provided a crash pad for touring bands.

“Kids like us were looking for a new kind of music,” he continues. “What was most appealing about it was that it was barely ‘music’ by conventional standards. But there was this incredible energy to just ‘bring it.’ ”

That energy was viral.

“You saw your first hardcore show, and you wanted to hear it again,” recounts Mr. Rachman, whose college roommate promoted hardcore shows in Boston. “It wasn’t in the record stores; it wasn’t on the radio; it wasn’t in the clubs. But you had to make sure that, next Sunday afternoon, there was another show somewhere — and it took a personal investment of time to make that happen.”

Fans and promoters alike propped up the scene by publishing fanzines, posting fliers, throwing parties and renting out church basements. With little radio support to speak of, hardcore bands quickly flanked the West Coast from Los Angeles to Vancouver, British Columbia (home of D.O.A.). It sliced the middle of the country from Minneapolis (Husker Du) to Austin (the Big Boys). And it spread north from Washington to Boston (SS Decontrol, Negative FX) and, later, New York City (an odd laggard, considering its central role in punk’s original mid-‘70s eruption).

We’re well familiar with hardcore’s do-it-yourself (DIY) recordmaking and distribution methodology by now: the stamp-licking, grassroots effort that eschewed corporate meddling and ensured artistic integrity.

One would think there are enough indie success stories, self-starter labels and contempt for right-wing politics out there to affirm hardcore’s DIY, authority-tweaking legacy. But when Mr. Rachman and Mr. Blush look at contemporary culture, they see technological anomie and lazy young consumers who moan about overweening corporate influence and spotlight-hogging dinosaur rock stars but are too darn respectful to do anything about it.

Hardcore’s anarchic energy is easy to replicate, Mr. Rachman says. Even back in the day, “Anybody could pick up a guitar, play it really fast and call it ‘hardcore’ — people would believe you.”

What’s missing now, the “American Hardcore” filmmakers say, is the us-against-them fraternity that hardcore offered. The (mostly male) bands and fan base had no video games or Internet to distract them. Whereas today, Mr. Rachman says, “It’s not about having a party in somebody’s basement and having 15 people come over; it’s, ‘Let’s start a band and get our MySpace page.’ ”

Despite their enthusiasm for what they see (rightly) as a distinctly American cultural artifact, Mr. Rachman and Mr. Blush don’t interfere much with “American Hardcore’s” highly engaging blend of archival footage and first-person testimonials. (The cast of hardcore veterans is exhaustive, and band affiliations are numerous; a flowchart might’ve been nice.)

Still, viewers walk away asking themselves, in Mr. Rachman’s words, “What happened? Why isn’t there this visceral, angry artery of youth in America?”

Adds Mr. Blush: “What we want people to know is, look what these bands were able to accomplish with such meager resources. They had no money, they had no industry ties, and they had no talent in the conventional sense.”

There’s no excuse, in other words, for not bringing the noise.


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