Hey there, punk rock kids, don't you just hate it when some fat, graying used-ta-be sneers at your mohawk and black leather jacket with "The Exploited" painted on the back and snidely informs you, "You had to be there"?
Like it's your fault you're too young to have lived through the '80s, and Ronald Reagan, and Journey, and "Rambo," and the godsend that was hardcore punk in the midst of all that conformity and mind-rot.
Sure, most of the rebellious thrash bands of that era sounded alike, but they were really punk, man. They traveled in beat-up vans and played in rundown church basements and Kiwanis Club lodges, wherever some enterprising brat looking to boost his local "scene" wanted to book them. They didn't marry models, or go on MTV reality shows, or show off their disgusting wealth on "Cribs." Wealth? Ha!
Well, kids, I hate to tell you this, but ... you had to be there. D'oh!
Fear not, though, my body-modified young friends. A new cinematic document of the era exists, and it comes pretty close to putting you there. Paul Rachman's "American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986," based on Steven Blush's book "American Hardcore: A Tribal History," does OK in tracing the growth of slam-dance culture from its roots in Southern California and bands like Black Flag, The Adolescents and TSOL, to its fanzine-facilitated metastasis throughout the American heartland.
The rare performance clips are really the draw here, even those with the sound quality of old punk concert videos you can rent for a dollar at VisArt. Rachman dug up some good footage of bands known only to the faithful, such as Negative Approach, Millions of Dead Cops and Jerry's Kids. More famous bands, such as Minor Threat, Bad Brains and Black Flag, get plenty of screen time. In one hilarious clip, beefy Black Flag singer Henry Rollins smiles maniacally at some maroon in front of the stage as he methodically smacks Rollins for about a minute. Then it's Rollins' turn -- he whales on the guy. Classic.
Violence turned out to be a sad, predictable aspect of '80s punk, the thing that really killed it in the end. Speaking in the present, punk icons such as Rollins, Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi, The Evens) and Paul "H.R." Hudson (Bad Brains) provide valuable commentary on the rise and fall, but the interview-performance-interview-performance format gets a little tedious after a while.
And some of the historical fudging is annoying. Rachman needed an ending to the film that vividly demonstrated the demise of hardcore, and the footage he uncovered of Gang Green's embarrassing attempt at crossing over to hair metal ("We-ee-ee were born to ROCK!") would have done most of the work for him.
Instead, he has to suggest that The Bad Brains -- clearly a band he reveres, and with good reason -- became rastas in the late '80s and started playing reggae. Actually, they were rastas all along, and they were mixing reggae with their incredible hardcore stuff at least as far back as 1981.
On a personal note, the Raleigh hardcore scene really gets short shrift here. Corrosion of Conformity founder Reed Mullin is interviewed about the good old days while standing in front of the Brewery on Hillsborough Street, but the film contains no performance clip of any Triangle punk bands, not even C.O.C., who were truly frightening back then. The only artifact we get to see is a flier for a Triangle show, drawn by Simon Bob Sinister, the lead singer of (ahem) my own Durham-based band Ugly Americans (I played guitar).
Hey -- we were PUNK, man. Ahhhh, you had to be there.
Staff writer Danny Hooley can be reached at 829-4728 or firstname.lastname@example.org.