The thriller Green Room opens quiet, but the film is a ripper. Even as the story of a punk band trapped in a racist skinhead clubhouse becomes fraught and stained with nasty bloodshed, the film needs no assistance from music to create intensity. For a punk rock film, in fact, this movie is pretty muted. The music we do hear front and center is important, but writer/director Jeremy Saulnier uses many of the most brutal tracks to build tension and atmosphere. They're deep in the background, shoved between bits of dialogue like shards of glass between the fingers in a fist.
That incidental music helps draw a portrait of the extreme music scene that gets so many details correct: van life, the crappy gigs, the push and pull between being "legit" and embracing the individuality that punk supposedly values. These songs are more metal than traditional punk, as part of the gradual blurring together of extreme music communities that began in the '80s. All help tell the story of a fringe music scene that has spawned enough bands, legends, and sub-scenes to choke a lifetime of 'zines.
The official soundtrack release does a terrific job of highlighting the score by Brooke Blair and Will Blair, and songs by newer bands such as Patsy's Rats, Hochstedder, and Midnight. (I particularly like Hochstedder's "Inevitable Failure".)
With an exception or two, the songs I focus on below are not found on the official soundtrack release. These are the tunes which help set scenes, or which fill out details of the film's depiction of the music scene in which Green Room is so deeply rooted. All together they form their own loose story, describing an underground community that developed in the late '70s and thrived into the 1990s and beyond.
Fear, "Legalize Drugs" (1995)
Lee Ving had recovered from being Mr. Boddy in Clue and was the only remaining original member of Fear when the band recorded this third LP, released in 1995. Few of the DC punks who drove to Manhattan for the band's amazing original SNL appearance would recognize this Fear, but that doesn't matter because the record has some ragers knocked into near-classic status thanks to Ving's throaty roar.
(Note: the album also features "Honor and Obey", an ode to old-fashioned gender politics that has always sounded too straight-forward for Ving to claim any irony. This "performance" of the song has appropriate crowd interaction.)
"Legalize Drugs" is tight, and the song plays into one of the very best edits in Green Room. Singer Reece (Joe Cole) drops the needle on a record and we hear Ving's oft-used countoff (ONETWOTHREEFOUR ONETWOTHREEFOUR) and little more than the very first lyric, "legalize," before time jumps forward several hours. Note that while Green Room is crazy authentic, it's not so authentic that Reece drops the needle to the correct cue -- "Legalize Drugs" is buried toward the end of the LP's first side, not right at the beginning.
Napalm Death, "Suffer the Children" (1990)
While punk was born in part as a rejection of the big-business music industry that supported the biggest early metal bands, it wasn't long before there were just as many underground metal outfits as regional punk collectives. The two genres began to cross over in the early '80s. DC and NYC hardcore bands openly folded metal influence into their music. California skate punk and metal bands would play the same shows to an increasingly combined audience. The iconography of skaters -- with art by people like Pushead, who worked with Metallica and the Misfits as well as the skate outfit Zorlac and mainstay skate mag Thrasher -- soon served punk and metal equally.
At the same time, over in the UK, English bands were forging more extreme combinations of metal and hardcore punk into grindcore with short, breakneck songs and rapid blast beat drumming. Napalm Death is the premiere grindcore band; their debut LP Scum packs 28 tracks into 33 minutes. Suck it, Slayer. "Suffer the Children" is sourced from their third record, which leans far more into death metal and marks the debut of vocalist Mark "Barney" Greenway, who has been with the band ever since.
Dead Kennedys, "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" (1981)
Watching Green Room with an audience you can tell who the punk fans are right off -- just look for whoever laughs as soon as the Ain't Rights launch into their first song at the bunker. Faced with a room full of racist redneck assholes, definitely not the band's intended crowd, they pull a punk as fuck move, belting out a make-no-mistake anti-facist anthem.
The larger sequence this scene kicks off also contains something smaller but far more important: a strange unity in the extreme music scene. The Ain't Rights are ideologically opposed to their audience at this gig, but their playing is good enough to get the audience nodding and then slamming along, and for the purposes of the show that's all that matters. Once they move into material after "Nazi Punks" they're accepted as a band -- even one of the scariest, most violent dudes in the room later praises their work. Setting aside the fact that acceptance by a bunch of racists is no good thing, there's still something cool in the image of a community that can be unified for the duration of a few heavy songs.
While we're building bridges here's a link between two entries: the "Nazi Punks" cover by Napalm Death, released in 1993.
The video above features great in-studio footage of the Kennedys, which I chose because we don't often get to see their incredible drummer DH Peligro at work. The version of the song in the YouTube playlist linked below, on the other hand, is unique to the 1981 compilation Let Them Eat Jellybeans!, one of the earliest punk rock comps, released by the Dead Kennedys' label Alternative Tentacles. If rights issues hadn't caused this one to go out of print after its LP issue, Let Them Eat Jellybeans! would be one of the essential US punk primers. As is, you can still find the entire original LP on YouTube, so get to it.
(This comp also features the early single version of "Pay to Cum" by Bad Brains, which is one of the greatest punk songs ever recorded. Another track is courtesy of Really Red, who I mentioned in passing in the Everybody Wants Some!! deep cuts piece.)
Obituary, "Paralyzed With Fear"
By the mid-'80s punk had long since begun to mutate as a movement. Its stripped-down DIY ethos worked well as a blueprint for a huge variety of bands working outside the music industry mainstream, whether indie rock, experimental noise, or any of the rapidly proliferating metal subgenres. Punk may have given a voice to a relatively large group of kids, but all these individual scenes that followed provided identity for outsiders on a local level across the US and in many other countries.
The building blocks of these scenes weren't just songs, but cheap black and white fliers and 7" single art, shows at grungy bars and alternative performance spaces. For pre-internet kids who couldn't connect to mainstream culture this helped foster a sense of community that promoted a scene as a whole. (Admittedly, these scenes were often male-dominated; true inclusivity was far off for many fandoms. Extreme music appeals to fans across any gender lines, but those communities have frequently failed to support fans who weren't straight white dudes.)
Some of these underground music movements gained momentum because of some vital aspect of infrastructure, a producer or a studio, which helped otherwise inexperienced bands knock a recording into shape. DC's hardcore scene was mentored by Don Zientara, who recorded countless bands on the cheap at his Inner Ear studio. Steve Albini and Corey Rusk helped record and release bands in Chicago. In Tampa, Florida, there's Morrisound Recording.
Florida had its punk scenes in the '70s and '90s, with some hardcore in between, but if you were in Tampa in the '80s and early '90s, the major scene was death metal. Where grindcore saw the metal/punk combo leaning in the direction of thick, noisy hardcore punk, death metal leaned (perhaps obviously) more to the metal side, heavy on distorted, downtuned guitar, with gruff vocals and violently detailed lyrics.
Morrisound was the nexus of the death metal explosion that rocked Tampa beginning in the mid-'80s, when local band Nasty Savage began to electrify audiences. Soon a veritable core of impressive and increasingly extreme death metal acts became Florida's own DIY punk movement. Chief among them were Death, Morbid Angel, Deicide, and Obituary. All relied on Morrisound to some extent, as Jim and Tom Morris figured out how to record extreme metal in a way that preserved both power and clarity. As some of these acts, especially Death, traded raw intensity for precise chops (splintering into technical death metal, as on Death's incredible LP 'Human'), the early Morrisound touch was profound.
Oh, and that Napalm Death record mentioned above, Harmony Corruption? Recorded at Morrisound. Just in case you might think being on the extreme end of the musical spectrum was enough to keep fans happy, people who loved the more concise hardcore blast of Napalm Death's first record considered this move to be some total sellout shit.
All that said, this particular Obituary track is from their latest LP release, Inked in Blood, recorded at the band's own Redneck Studios in sessions funded via Kickstarter. There's a big fan argument over that process, as Kickstarter money was meant to allow a fully independent release, after which Obituary released the record via the label Relapse. The important thing is that Inked in Blood is better than most latter-day releases from '80s and '90s bands who quit in the late '90s/early '00s only to reform years later. If this track whets your whistle at all, simply proceed straight to Obituary's second LP, Cause of Death, a genre classic.
Corpus Rottus, "Mutilation" (1991)
This Delaware band isn't likely to be on the radar of anyone not hunting for gems in the metal underground. They never got famous, and they didn't record enough material to build a big legacy catalog. But their debut 7", Intensified Gore, has two raw as hell death metal tracks and an amusingly ridiculous bit of cover art.
While there's probably more to the Corpus Rottus story, theirs is not a tale well-documented online, or in any of the vintage books and magazines I have around. No matter: their music, raw and nasty, does all the heavy lifting.
For their first full-length they re-recorded those two songs, showing off improved technical chops without sacrificing all the ugly power of the original EP. Furthermore, they recorded that full LP with Don Zientara at Inner Ear -- the same studio mentioned above, where so many bands from DC and surrounding states laid down tracks.
Poison Idea, "Taken By Surprise" (1990)
How about a nice rock and roll break after the last couple tracks? Hell, "Taken By Surprise" is close to being a full-blown anthem. By the time of this third full-length LP in 1990, Poison Idea had swerved away from the unvarnished Germs influence and chunky hardcore of their early days to something that had a big, almost arena-ready hard rock influence at its core. (Not unlike the shift between the first two Suicidal Tendencies records; someone would probably start a fight with me for making that comparison.)
Bassist Sam (Alia Shawkat) names Poison Idea as her "desert island band" during the interview session. We can tell it's a lie even at the time, but it's a good image-building choice. Poison Idea had all the unpolished "regular dude" intensity and unpretentious image that earned cred in some scenes. Even as their sound changed somewhat, you always knew more or less what Poison Idea was going to deliver.
Truthfully, this track is a discovery of sorts for me. Coming of age in Boston in the early '90s, I always lumped Poison Idea into a loose collective with Slapshot, Sick of it All and a few other bands. These guys played stuff I liked, but they also felt more "bro" than I was willing to put up with at shows. Listening to this track and the entire Feel the Darkness LP now I realized I was dumb for nudging Poison Idea off to the side, because the crossover appeal of this release is deep.
Slayer, "War Ensemble" (1990)
Even in a film packed with extreme punk and metal, Slayer stands out. Not that they're better than anyone else, but Slayer had identity down. Even when they veer into punk covers or (ugh) nu-metal influence, the band always sounds like Slayer. They're among the most consistent acts around, even when accounting for lineup changes. (RIP Jeff Hanneman.) The band defined underground persistence and success in metal. In Slayer's first decade their relentless touring and uncompromising vision earned cred other bands would kill for.
There's another reason to feature Slayer in Green Room, however. A big part of the band's image-building, right from the start, was accomplished through visual iconography. Like their musical sound, it wasn't that they did it better than everyone else, but that they could gauge the temperature of their audience perfectly.
More to the point, Slayer used Nazi imagery as a heavy component of their style. Their fanclub was christened the "Slaytanic Wehrmacht," and images of German military ephemera were incorporated into their promotional artwork. The dominant image of the tour for their 1990 album 'Seasons in the Abyss,' which is opened by 'War Ensemble, and the tour that followed, was a decidedly Nazi-ish eagle.
The band has long invited questions about the degree to which they were seriously or ironically playing on these images, though the intent always seemed to be button-pushing more than anything else. Interviews, especially in the past two decades, place them squarely on the side of irony rather than ideology. That doesn't change the effect some of the images have on audiences, especially right-wing groups like the one in Green Room.
Bad Brains, "Right Brigade" (1982)
When a movie is all about tearing up a racist skinhead venue, Bad Brains make for perfect walk-off music. Not that there's any doubt as to the cultural politics of Jeremy Saulnier's film, but bashing into the credits roll with "Right Brigade" hammers it home.
The ferocious and wildly imaginative Bad Brains mutated from a jazz combo to a punk band in the late '70s. Their songwriting, which slalomed from hardcore to reggae and back again, was supported by technical chops few other punk bands could boast. The image of an all-black punk band was attention-getting in 1979, but any aspect of Bad Brains image was second to the fact that they could out-play absolutely everyone.
If there's one punk record you must own it is the Bad Brains Roir cassette (now also available on CD, LP, digital, etc), their first full release, which features "Right Bridge" as one of eleven near-perfect punk songs interspersed with a few slow reggae jams. A year later, Bad Brains recorded a new version of "Right Brigade" for their second full-length and first vinyl release in 1983, Rock for Light.
Here's where it gets complicated. The original mix of "Rock for Light" is long out of print, replaced in 1991 by a significantly different mix created by the record's producer, Ric Ocasek. That 1991 mix (which is what you'll find on Spotify and every other current release) is not just pushed towards a more polished sound; it is also sped up, making for a radically different effect. The original ROIR tape version of "Right Brigade" is still the top choice, but that original mix of "Rock for Light" is a very close second.
Here are two slightly different playlists covering this whole set. The YouTube version is more or less identical to the list above, while the Spotify version changes things around a bit due to the fact that a couple tracks are not available on the service.