Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Paul Rachman and Steven Blush both grew up in New York and discovered hardcore punk in their respective college towns: Rachman in Boston from 1978 to 1982, Blush in Washington from 1980 to 1985. Rachman began shooting videos of such bands as Gang Green and Bad Brains and later became a professional rock video director and filmmaker. Blush promoted hardcore shows in D.C., including a Dead Kennedys gig that threatened to become a riot when police tried to stop it but was salvaged from a meltdown. Later, he became a journalist and in 2001 published American Hardcore: A Tribal History. That book led to the documentary American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980–1986, directed by Rachman, written by Blush, and produced by both.
Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins are the authors of Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital, which covers some of the same territory as American Hardcore. They discussed American Hardcore with the filmmakers last week in a large conference room in the basement of Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel.
Jenkins: I know the film needs a structure. It needs an ending, which is something our book doesn’t exactly have. You chose the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and his re-election in 1984, as the beginning and end of hardcore. Yet the earliest bands were active in the late ’70s, and hardcore continued after 1984. How committed are you to that chronology, or was it really more of a device?
Rachman: It was really important to set the time and place at the beginning of the film to suck you into ugly 1980s America. So with the Reagan imagery, it was really easy for a lot of people to go, “Oh yeah, I remember that time.”
Blush: But I do feel that the political side of hardcore just kind of deflated around 1984. Everybody in the film says, for various reasons, that in ’84, ’85, the scene falls apart. I think it was combination of things, but I do feel that the re-election of Reagan was, if not the end, the beginning of the end. I think that’s fair.
Andersen: There’s a very famous Dead Kennedys show that you booked—and lived through. [Laughter] One of the things that struck me is the Dead Kennedys are almost not present in the film.
Blush: There are two bands that you will not see in the film, the Misfits and the Dead Kennedys. The problem with both those bands is that there’s a rift between the singer and the rest of the band. If you work with one, you don’t work with the other. We hated to do that. But this was a scene of no stars, and we wanted it to be about the scene. It’s like a high-school reunion. You wish everybody comes to the reunion. But it just wasn’t meant to be.
Rachman: With a film like this, very do it yourself, when you get into Sundance, all of a sudden you have to finish the movie. I was a huge Dead Kennedys fan, but there were these two bands that were kind of difficult. Everybody else was just so easy, and willing.
Jenkins: At Sundance, you made the connection with Sony Pictures Classics, which became the film’s distributor.
Blush: It was an extreme leap of faith for Ian MacKaye [of D.C.’s Minor Threat] or Greg Ginn [of Los Angeles’ Black Flag] to have their music appear on Sony Pictures Classics. Like all of us, I come from the underground music scene, so my bullshit detector is really on high. And in that world, Sony is a four-letter word. What won me over was their insistence that we don’t change a frame.
We understand the irony of this completely. You know, we’re sitting in the Four Seasons, talking about it.
Andersen: Some of the raw power of hardcore I definitely get from your film. But there are parts that I find a little problematic, such as the scene where T.S.O.L. lead singer Jack Grisham describes himself as a rapist.
Blush: We tried very hard not to whitewash this issue. We just let it come out and let it be. When Jack Grisham says, “I was fucked up. I was evil. I pissed on this girl’s face. And that’s just the way it was.” I think that hearing that, first person, is shocking.
But the interesting legacy of hardcore is that many of the women in rock that you see today very much come from the hardcore ethic. You can certainly draw a line from Kira [Roessler] in Black Flag to the riot grrrls and Courtney Love. Bratmobile, whatever. That whole thing does come out of hardcore.
Andersen: Although a negative reaction to hardcore.
Blush: Well, you could say that. I think that’s what a lot of D.C. bands were trying to get away from at a certain point. It had become like, this dumb boy thing. But then again it started as kind of a boy thing. I just felt it very important not to change the history to make it fit today’s mentality. I didn’t want to say, “Oh, girls were invited.” Because what I remember is the women were in the back of the room.
Rachman: The hardcore scene, especially in the early years, was very instinctual. The kids who were in these bands, and drove the scene, weren’t really worried about, “Oh, there should be more black kids here” or “There should be more women.” When I set out to make this film, I wanted to get at that instinctual feeling. I didn’t want to make a film where, as the filmmaker, I’m going to come in and analyze this and speak my opinion.
Andersen: But don’t you think that you can help people understand by having some critical distance?
Rachman: I think that’s been done so much. I wanted to keep this the story of the people who wrote the music and started their bands, in their own words. And none of these people, in two-hour-plus interviews, really went into validating it in any way like that. It was what it was.
Andersen: In the film, Ian MacKaye says something to the effect of, “I didn’t leave hardcore. Hardcore left me.” And of course Ian is part of something that happened in D.C. in 1985 called Revolution Summer, which in many ways is a reaction against the limitations and the contradictions of hardcore. What do you think Ian was trying to say?
Rachman: There are two quotes in the film that are really important. There’s that quote, and there’s Greg Ginn’s. When Ginn talks about breaking up Black Flag, he says that the environment that surrounded the music changed. The early years of teenage, fucked-up, fuck-you angst can’t carry on. I think that’s what they’re talking about.
Blush: There are two different types of history. There’s the history that happened, and there’s the explanations afterward, and the repudiations or affirmations. And we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about living in the moment, a time capsule that drops you in the early ’80s. That’s what was really important for me with the book, and in this film.
Rachman: In the early days, hardcore was visceral and raw. The first time you walked into one of these shows, in a room that was a third of the size of this, it was like, “Holy shit!” And that’s what I wanted people to feel like in the movie theater.
Blush: What was going on back then was, you were smart enough to know that there was something wrong with the world. And hardcore was like this umbrella group for dissatisfied teens. Black, white, gay, straight, junkie, straight-edge—they all kind of found themselves within this questioning of society, however you want to define that. I think the fracturing of the scene came as people got older and started coming up with answers. Nobody could agree on the answers.
Andersen: In the film there’s no mention of the famous Bad Brains bust-up with MDC over the former’s Rastafarian-inspired homophobia. And the account of the end of Bad Brains I found a little muddled. You get the sense that they’re divided over the question of whether to play reggae, and not the other issues that led to this collision between two of the biggest bands in the hardcore scene.
Blush: You’re getting at the heart of the difference between writing a book and making a film. When you’re writing a book, you can tell all these things. I remember when we were working on the film, half the time I would see a clip, I would say, “Oh, that’s great. That’ll be great in the film.” And it didn’t make the film at all.
Paul would say, “The film writes itself.” And I would think, “What a bunch of crap.” But it’s the truth.
Jenkins: You talk about this being a totally self-reliant scene. The kids did this and so forth. I think to a great extent that’s true. But in Washington there were definitely older people who helped the hardcore kids in the early days. And there’s the Church in Hermosa Beach, which is mentioned in the film. It’s a hippie place that became a punk place, as Madam’s Organ did here.
Blush: But it still essentially was a kids’ culture. It doesn’t come out of a total vacuum. We all knew about DIY from the punk bands, but where it really comes into action is in the hardcore days. It was an alternative lifestyle, with an ethic that was very different from what you learn from your family or from society. The hardcore ethic was do it yourself, disdain for authority, doing things not for the money but for the right reasons, and being fearless in your pursuit. That’s what I got from hardcore.
It may have been an unsuccessful revolution, in retrospect. It certainly didn’t change the world, but it changed music. Stage-diving and slam-dancing, and DIY records and DIY tours, are the legacy of Black Flag and Minor Threat. These were fucked-up kids. But for fucked-up kids, look what they did.CP