More than just a Scene: Hardcore Norfolk

When I was a young teenager growing up in the suburbs of Virginia Beach in the early 90’s, one of my favorite things to do was to walk up to the local record shop, Birdland Records.


After flipping through the bins of music, I’d stop to study the rack that held all of the local zines and show fliers before leaving. Bands with names like ‘Antic Hay’, ‘Butt Steak’, ‘The Candy Snatchers’, ‘Nocturnal Zoo’, and ‘Ant Man Bee’ jumped out at me from between those grainy photocopied pages. I was not sure what the music sounded like, but I somehow intuitively knew that it was probably a tad different than the Depeche Mode my brother was listening to at the time. Clubs such as King’s Head Inn, Friar Tuck’s, and Cogan’s Instant Art, all listed on those show fliers, became seared into the radar of my subconscious. They played host to the gritty rock and roll I longed to experience. Norfolk seemed to be where everything was happening, and it became duly noted in my fourteen year old brain.

Norfolk was where things were happening in the 90’s, and they had been happening for a long time before that. In the mid-1950’s Church Street was in full effect, hustling and bustling with a major music scene. Live shows were always happening at clubs like The Eureka Lodge, The Enterprise, Queen’s Lounge, and The Plaza Hotel; and musicians like The House Rockers, the 35th Street Gang / a.k.a Raw Soul, Ray T. Jones, The Church Street Five, Gary U.S. Bonds and Lenis Guess were some of the rockers around to rock it. The man at the nucleus of the scene was Frank Guida. A transplant from the Bronx, he moved to Norfolk in the late 1950’s and transformed the community with his hunger for helping to promote good music.

He started out by opening Frankie’s Birdland, his record store on Church Street. Frank not only sold music; he wrote it, recorded it, and produced it. He is mainly responsible for the birth of the “Norfolk Sound,” which is known internationally. Described by some as being “aurally dense,”  it was a device used by Guida to compensate for the not so great acoustical conditions in the recording studios on Church Street and Sewell’s Point Rd. Vocals were double-tracked, sounds were layered, and voices and hand claps were mixed in to the background to give the songs a real “party” sound. This device was a sort of horror vacui, or cenophobia of sound, if you will; devised to make things more pleasing for the ears. This was the Norfolk Sound. And it was no small thing. Gary U.S. Bonds went all the way to the number one spot on the Billboard music chart in 1961. And in 1963, Bonds headlined a European tour above a group of relative newcomers that called themselves “The Beatles.”

Things were moving right along through the 70’s. Some people credit an appearance by the Ramones at ODU’s Webb Center in 1977 as providing the impetus that helped spawn the early punk and new wave bands that proliferated here in the 1980’s. Daily Planet, Tango Storm, The Rave (later called the X-Raves), the Naro’s, and the Spitterz were a few of the bands that played often. A few more Norfolk bands received national and international attention, including the M-80’s and Waxing Poetics. The 1990’s followed with a plethora of bands, the ones I saw cut and pasted all over those zines and fliers in the record shop; and it kept Norfolk’s scene charged with musical electricity.

The brief history mentioned here is merely a slice of a big ‘ol delicious pie. Just what is it about the city of Norfolk that makes it such a fertile hot bed for a thriving music scene? A local trio has set out to address this question, and the answer shall arrive in the form of a two hour music documentary “Hardcore Norfolk: The Movie,” which is showing at The Naro this Saturday, August 20th. It was the countless hours spent researching, interviewing, recording, and editing by Debra “Hardcore Bitch” Persons, Andrea “RZO” Rizzo, and Paul Unger, videographer extraordinaire, that shall provide for us an intimate and in depth exploration of some of Norfolk’s captivating musical heritage.

Last fall the Hardcore Norfolk website approached me about being a featured artist as part of their artist profile series. I was struck by their high degree of professionalism, and by the way they were able to edit out all of my “ums” and “uhs” and create an interesting video spot. I began hearing word about the movie from them and mentions of it on their site. I asked Debra, Andrea, and Paul some questions about their project so that I could share it with my fellow AltDaily readers.

AltDaily: What does the name “Hardcore Norfolk” mean?

Debra: To us, it means a group of diehard, loyal fans of the local underground music scene. The term was originated in the mid ‘80’s when a group of ODU students and local punks joined forces to create a venue on Hampton Blvd. in Norfolk called Connection Hall where hardcore punk bands played. The original Hardcore Norfolk crew was a 100% DIY operation that booked shows, both national and local bands, in a weird all-ages space behind a beauty parlor just off 38th St. I knew some of that original crew and we were inspired by their spirit and, with their blessing, began using that name for our Facebook and website page. I think it perfectly describes our scene’s long term commitment to our bands and artists.

What inspired you to make the film? Was there an “ah-ha” moment that you can recall at which you knew the story had to be told?

Andrea: After Paul asked Deb and I to be co-directors, we were at first concerned that there would not be much of a story. However, once we started doing interviews, we realized there were so many meaty stories in this area that you could do a 10-part series!

Debra: I have always loved history, film, music, art and have long suspected that the story of our music scene here in Norfolk and the surrounding cities was an interesting one, filled with many fascinating characters and stories. So, I have been inspired all along, but I imagine most people fantasize about what it would be like to document their youth or the pastime they are passionate about. It took the perfect storm of meeting Paul, who had the technical skills necessary, and getting Andrea, with her professionalism and additional experience, on board, for me to know that it was a project that could be accomplished.

Paul: I would tape bands locally here in the Tidewater area, and always made it a point to try and catch a quick interview of the band and make a fun, edited 3 minute video out of it; band profiles, if you will. I started noticing my collection of tapes growing and along with a real interest about the music history of this area. I really wanted Deb and Andrea to be my partners on this movie and I’m glad they said ‘yes’ to it about a year ago.  A few months later, we realized that there was a story to be told through the interviews, revealing itself gradually more and more through the filming and editing part of the project.

Is the film an homage to the past, a prayer for the future, or both?

Andrea: It’s a little bit of both. We definitely want people to be proud of where they came from, but to also realize there is still a very fruitful scene here that they can make even better. You can do anything in Norfolk—take advantage of it!

Are there any music documentaries in particular that inspired the style of your documentary? How many hours have you spent collectively making the movie?

Andrea: I definitely love old rock ‘n’ roll documentaries like ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Cocksucker Blues’ and ‘Urgh! A Music War’, as well as newer ones like ‘Dig!’, ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’, and ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston.’ Those type of narratives show you the human side to music making, which we are trying to do with our movie. I have always been a reader of non-fiction too; people’s true stories are endlessly more fascinating than fiction. Hours spent? For me, it’s almost every hour outside of my day job since January. I have spent that time interviewing people, digging up photos and video, creating the movie soundtrack, or just thinking about it.

Debra: I won’t speak to style, as Paul does most of the creative editing. I am happy with 90% of what he shows us. I have favorite documentaries and filmmakers, of course. But I just tried to focus on what Paul was creating, not compare him to other filmmakers, and I’ve been very happy with his work so far. Hours spent? As Andrea says, the hours are endless, but it’s a labor of love. I find myself on the computer on and off most of my waking hours, as a stay at home mom, doing tasks associated with the movie. And when I’m not at the computer, I am thinking of the movie and the things that still need to be done. If you had told me two years ago I would be involved in making a documentary, I certainly would have laughed, but it’s really been a wonderful experience.  Extremely intense, and at times emotional, but wonderful.

Paul: Thanks Deb.  While I was recently watching the Clash movie, ‘Westway to the World’, I was focusing on this pretty elaborate gritty flickering film strip, label or scratch effect (whatever you want to call it) they would use over and over, and thinking “How in the hell are they doing that?” I slowed it down and realized it was a simple overlay effect, but they did it so quickly.  I watched this other movie online called ‘NY 77: The Coolest Year in Hell.’ Very impressive silhouettes, 3d photo effects and layering…pretty cool stuff.   But you don’t want to go overboard with animation too much. Sometimes it just isn’t necessary and the video and pictures by themselves do the talking. No real need to apply effects on what’s already apparent to the viewer.

What has been the hardest roadblock in getting the film made?

Andrea: Time and working. I wish we had three years or more to just dedicate solely to this project. The more research we do, and the more people we meet, makes the story that much better.

Debra: There were a very few people who I felt were pivotal to the movie that we could not convince to let us interview them.  Some people are more private than others, of course, but I found that very frustrating. Overall though, we have had overwhelming support from people in our scene. Most everyone we have contacted has said yes to interviews, sharing photos or flyers, or their talents. It has truly been a collaborative effort and there have been very few roadblocks.

What would be the line up dream for a Hardcore Norfolk show? You can    include past and present bands.

Andrea: We kind of already have it with the hardcore show featuring Dead Aim and White Cross on the night before the movie, and The M-80’s, The Candy Snatchers, The Bottle Babies and The Hydeouts, playing the night of the movie. Also, Ant Man Bee will be performing after the movie. For nostalgia sake, I would add Antic Hay and Buttsteak too—and maybe my old band, The Hustlers would open up (and actually perform well!).

Debra: Front Line, Zombie Luau, Birds on Drugs, The Hustlers, Antic Hay, M-80’s and Buttsteak.  But that’s just me. And that would just be the first two nights.

Paul: Cool question Marissa, to be honest, there is a lot happening that weekend that really is a dream come true for many.  Deb does mention Frontline above, I wouldn’t mind that happening.  But really, everyone, please come on out, have a beer, dig the music and have some fun!

What is the next step for Hardcore Norfolk and the movie?

Andrea: Great question. We are going to submit to film festivals and put out a DVD release as soon as we are able to according to festival guidelines. We would like to show the movie again in this area, and take it on the road nationally and even internationally. Our scene has inspired many!

Debra: I am looking forward to sharing the movie and our kickass scene with the world, as Andrea says. We have friends in cities all over the world who are anxious to help us show the movie. As far as Hardcore Norfolk, I am looking forward to getting back to work on our website, which has been a little less active while we’ve been finalizing the movie. The Facebook page continues to be used as an open forum for musicians and artists to share information, and I will continue to use it to promote current shows in our area and especially interesting ones elsewhere.

Andrea, you have lived in Chicago and New York City and covered the scenes there, but chose to move back to Norfolk. Paul, you came here from Detroit, and Deb, you’ve chosen to stay in the area and raise your family here. What is it about Norfolk that keeps you here?

Andrea: I definitely struggle with this area. Although I love it, it’s very frustrating to me how much it costs to live here and how few touring bands come through. Conversely, I have so many great, lifelong friends here that are supportive of everything I do and vice versa. It’s much easier to get things accomplished here than in the major cities. And let’s be honest: the last thing a city like New York or Chicago needs is another writer, musician or artist. Norfolk needs all of us!

Paul: When I arrived here in 2007, at first I realized you really had to search for those gritty rock ‘n’ roll bands that played here. Finally I got over to the Taphouse at the advice of Jeff Maisey to see the Candy Snatchers. It was like a breath of fresh air! After that I was hooked.  By 2008, I was finding out about all these current bands through the net and word of mouth mostly. Andrea is right, this city needs writers, musicians and artists. One thing I really want to give Tidewater, especially Norfolk, props for, is that people are just so genuinely nice here, especially the bands, artists, filmmakers, etc. I mean really, compared to Detroit back in the late 90′s, hey, some of those bands may have been good, but a lot of them (not all of them) had that “I’m a gifted artist/musician!….praise me!” ego… I have yet to get that attitude here in Norfolk.  We have a very friendly community with a lot of talent that we all should be proud of.

Debra: I know Norfolk isn’t for everyone, but there’s nowhere else for me. I tried living in the mountains, and almost lost my mind. I love so many things about our area. One of the most important to me is the proximity to the ocean. I spend a lot of time with my husband Grey and our ten year old son on the OBX. I grew up here, went to high school in Va. Beach and have family here, roots. Grey and I met going out to see bands in Norfolk over 20 years ago, and we’ve never really stopped. We just find a real community here in our music scene; a group of real friends who support each other and generally just have a lot of fun together. We are an extremely diverse group, I’m proud to say, but the one thing we all have in common is our love of loud, in-your-face, live punk rock music. It’s something you just can’t explain. I love a small town, it’s easy to manage, and I feel we have the best of many worlds here with Ghent and downtown, rural areas like Pungo and Suffolk and the beaches of Va. Beach and North Carolina. I’ll travel often, but I’ll always call Nafuk home!

One of the great aspects of watching this movie on Saturday night is that after the credits roll, you can emerge from the theater into a place where the story continues to unfold. There are so many amazing musicians and bands and even DJ’s practicing and playing shows out on a regular basis in Norfolk that there are simply too many to mention here. History shall continue to be made; the musical heritage of Norfolk further preserved and strengthened. The night of the show there will be events happening simultaneously around Norfolk at local bars and restaurants; including a reunion show of Ant Man Bee at the Belmont.

Paul Unger