The first time I saw a Minor Threat sticker was in the early '80s.
It was slapped on a beat-up old car in the Brighton Green pool parking lot on the South Side. I recall thinking it was a cool name for a band, considering it was both funny and somehow vaguely threatening, implying some understated menace with its black and white scrawl. Little did I know the group was at the forefront of the Washington, D.C., punk scene, which was a national epicenter of sorts for the speedy, streamlined version of punk that blossomed in major cities around the country between 1980 and 1986, later known as "hardcore."
The name stemmed as much from an aggressive musical front as its associated lifestyle of do-it-yourself (DIY) idealism whether politically motivated or rooted in some other societal frustration. This was the early '80s. Conservative darling Ronald Reagan had ascended to cowboy-in-chief, while youth on the fringes felt increasingly alienated by a dominant culture of rampant consumerism, conformity and horribly stagnant music. Often when working kids came together after a long week at some underpaid job, they let loose by destroying everything in a swirling mosh pit of elbows and shaved heads. Hardcore provided the soundtrack.
All this is aptly covered in the documentary "American Hardcore" by video artist Paul Rachman, adapted from the book "American Hardcore: A Tribal History" by Steven Blush. The film is scheduled to open at the Westhampton Theatre Dec. 15.
Rachman chronicles the phenomenon through interviews with pioneering figures, quickly intercut with grainy footage from various live shows in the heyday of the music's popularity and subtly enhanced to make the lyrics intelligible. It's an often funny story that follows the music as it pollinates the country, beginning in Southern California (Black Flag, Circle Jerks) and spreading to Washington, D.C., home of the Bad Brains, arguably the genre's most influential group, then to Boston and, eventually, New York.
There are brief props for Virginia, represented in the film by Dave Brockie (of GWAR), Richard "Crispy" Cranmer (White Cross) and bassist Greta Brinkman (Unseen Force), who has played with everyone from Debbie Harry and L7 to Moby, shuttling between New York and her home in Oregon Hill.
"The book definitely has more dirt," Brinkman says from home. "I think the film was a pretty good overview a sort of 'Hardcore for Dummies' of one of the last American movements that was truly independent before the Internet or cell phones or many of the rules and restrictions we have today."
In the film, Brinkman is asked about the role of women in hardcore, to which she replies that they were mostly behind the scenes. She tells me, however, that there was a later time when nearly every band had a female member before the music veered (sadly) into funk/punk territory.
"[Back then] we certainly didn't think anybody besides us would still be interested 20 years later," Brinkman says. "We were just kids having fun. We really did have fun, though!"
Shot on digital video, the filmmakers fit the DIY aesthetic by using affordable technology and telling the story with a straightforward, no-frills style. But by the end, after the movement self-destructs in the mid-'80s under the weight of violence at shows, police crackdowns and the disillusionment of its originators, one is left feeling vaguely empty. The methodical way the story is told offers little emotional resonance, other than as a snapshot of a musical moment in time. The filmmakers aren't overly analytical and the narrative can seem scattered.
The film does feature plenty of good music and funny commentary, though, and it makes clear the lasting influence the genre has held on top-selling superstars of the '90s and today. Toward the end we get several interviewees who bitterly lament today's coddled MTV punk stars in their plush mega-buses. But it's Brockie who seems the most candidly honest when he admits, "I'm just jealous because they're young and having all the fun, and I'm just old and bitter . broken." S
"American Hardcore" is scheduled to open at the Westhampton Theatre Dec. 15.