I recently watched a documentary called American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986, directed by Paul Rachman and written by Steven Blush. It’s based on Blush’s book American Hardcore: A Tribal History.
The film details some of the bands and history of the music, tying the appearance and disintegration of the scene to Ronald Reagan’s first term. One of the musicians interviewed talked about the crazy-fake back-to-the-1950s look that came out after Reagan was elected, and how the bands were reacting to that, saying that’s not us. An idea that maybe works better in retrospect.
There are interviews with various musicians: Henry Rollins (of course), some good talks with Ian MacKaye, and lots of others. One oddity was the interview with Mike Watt of the Minutemen. The Minutemen’s music didn’t fit the hardcore image, and the filmmakers didn’t try to make it fit, but also didn’t explain why they interviewed him. The band was on the same label as Black Flag, played the same clubs and such, so inclusion makes sense as a way of discussing the origins of the scene. A little more of a connection would have been useful. The Watt interview scenes in fact felt like outtakes from the excellent Minuteman documentary (We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen).
I was in college for much of the period referenced in the film (on election night 1980, I went out to hear Gang of Four—as un-Reagan a band as you could ask for). I was into a range of music, local bands, national, which included bands that could fall into the hardcore punk category (though most of the bands I liked didn’t like categories).
It was a great time for music in Austin. New live music clubs were opening and older ones were allowing more interesting bands to play. The same thing was happening in other cities throughout the U.S. Bands set up touring networks, trading information with each other, erecting the structure for the popularization of so-called alternative music that came later.
The American Hardcore film makes it seem as if the profusion of bands and sharing of information was exclusive to hardcore. My recollection is that a many-faceted explosion of bands was happening; some were similar, some were different, most congenial with each other despite differences. Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981–1991 presents the expanding touring networks and inter-dependence in a way more like how I remember it. He talks with bands included in the American Hardcore’s purview and others outside of it.
The possibility of seeing Austin’s The Big Boys was what drew me to the film. I knew there was at least a mention of them (which turned out to be one very short snippet of a live performance).
The first time I saw Big Boys perform was February of my freshman year. I still have a poster from the show. They opened for a band called the Uranium Savages, who played satirical/humorous music, often set to the tunes of other songs. I had been wanting to see them. I had never heard of the Big Boys. Afterwards, I forgot about the Uranium Savages.
My sophomore year, I took a creative writing class. I decided I wanted to be a writer. Not knowing how to go about that, I became a journalism major. In my first journalism class, one of our assignments was to interview someone and write an article. As a subject, I chose Tim Kerr, Big Boys guitarist. After that initial meeting, I would visit Tim often to hear the latest music he was listening to, talk about bands he liked, borrow albums of bands that were coming to town so I could write articles about them for the college newspaper.
The Big Boys encouraged everyone in their audience to start their own band, fanzine, something. Their shows were parties; anyone who wanted to could get on stage and dance (as long as they didn’t damage the equipment). Sometimes they would open for a lesser-known visiting band, to give that band more audience (behavior that makes friends but not fame).
There were many (many) bands I listened to before (and after) the Big Boys, but the kind of band they were and the timing of my introduction to them increased their impact. The band helped me begin the soundtrack of my adult, creative life. And they taught me that I could be a creative person. I didn’t start a band or ’zine, but I started writing fiction. It took me a long time to figure out how to write fiction that represented the music I was listening to, duplicating a punk ethic by writing what I want to write, following my subconscious instead of market trends. Which is what I still do.
Traveling in Italy, 1984, I went into a Florence record store to browse. The store carried a number of indy-label released from the U.S., including the Big Boys Fun Fun Fun EP. In the long-ago pre-internet age, how could someone have even heard of it? I couldn’t help feeling that it had been placed there for me to find.