FILM REVIEW: “Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-1990)”

The icons of American punk rock have largely been identified as hailing from New York City (Ramones, Television), Detroit (MC5, Iggy Pop), or California (Germs, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag). Not to say people aren’t aware that Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi) is from Washington, D.C., as is his childhood buddy, Henry Rollins. However, the Washington, D.C. punk scene, from 1980-1990, is far more complicated than your copy of that Minor Threat compilation CD. And if we’re being honest, Rollins became better known as the front man of one of Los Angeles’ most influential punk bands (Black Flag) than as a representative of the DC scene.

Nevertheless, the DC story is unique in a number of ways: 1) by the mid-1980s, DC became known as the “Murder Capital” of the United States, 2) the Mayor, Marion Barry, was caught on film smoking crack with an unsavory woman, and 3) perhaps nowhere else in United States could the Reagan 80’s be more strongly felt. As one of our stories orators notes, DC was “morally bankrupt.” Throw into the mix the progeny of educated, white collar parents and the only possible outcome could be politically aware punk rock. Not to imply those other cities didn’t have their own socio-political issues manifest in fast and sloppy punk rock, but perhaps nowhere else could meat-and-potatoes politics be more strongly felt as it was viewed through the lenses of young people considering the international implications of their daily lives; or more importantly, what they could do with their lives.

The scene originates when MacKaye, Rollins, and cohorts attended their first Bad Brains show. From that point on, dozens of bands began to form in and around greater D.C. Getting gigs was tough when they were under 21 years old, as well as the majority of their fan base. But, when a relentless and intelligent group of people (of any age) get together, the possibilities are endless. Soon the gang gets club owners to agree to put giant black Xs on each hand of under age attendees.  These Xs would mark under age drinkers and protect the club from inadvertently serving them.

Eventually, these bands would go on to record their songs and release them on their own independent labels. Concurrently, those among them who also happened to be interested in photography or music journalism, began publishing fanzines that documented this burgeoning D.C. scene and spread its happenings on a regional, and eventually, national level. But, what really defines the D.C. scene is its natural partnership with social activism. The film introduces numerous individuals who helped rally and organize the punk scene towards social activism. During this time they protested Apartheid, played HIV/AIDS awareness shows, and gigged within earshot of the White House. This era of social activism in the DC punk scene wasn’t fueled by a simple “fight the system” attitude, rather by inspired young people who were desperate to make the world a better place. It is this aspect of the film that highlights what was specifically unique to the DC punk scene in relation to other punk geographies in the United States.

There are also some notable guest appearances: A sweaty Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) sips tea spiked with hipster whiskey while un-ironically describing the band Fear as “emblematic of the most core of hardcore coming out of D.C.” J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.) talks about his Dischord Records mail-order experience and Fred Armisen (Portlandia) has a few seconds on Ian MacKaye versus beer and bars at rock shows. There’s also plenty of trivial ephemera that the rabid fan base will surely eat up (e.g. a discussion of the Faith/Void split album, the details of Minor Threat’s last show and break-up, or that Brian Baker coined the term “emocore” as short for emotional hardcore).

The film deserves credit for not just being a love-letter for scenesters, but a well balanced history of the era. The filmmakers don’t hide the fact that the scene was sometimes misogynistic (in part because of the juvenile majority), that the “straight-edge” way of life was as polarizing as it was unifying, or that slam-dancing (or moshing) became a behavioral ritual (credit to I. MacKaye) – or mask for violent behavior – at punk shows that turned off many of the scenes original founders. This warts-and-all approach keeps the audience grounded throughout the ebb-and-flow of the decade. While the scene was not free of its own dissenters, even today most of them can only look back on the era fondly.

If you’re only superficially familiar, or completely unaware, of what happened in the Washington, D.C. punk scene of the 1980s, you will find truth and inspiration in this film. If you’re a long time fan, the coverage of artists, activists, scenesters, and partners-in-crime is broad enough to satisfy those critics with a stronger knowledge of the era. The focus isn’t Ian MacKaye or Dischord Records, rather a wide shot of the scene as a whole. The good times and the bad are weighed in equal measure as they influenced the music and DIY business model that lead into the roaring 1990s. One could say that only the most core of the hardcore fans can nitpick with the coverage or facts of this film.

In the immortal words of Brian Baker, “Later, Nerds.”

J. Kevin Lynch

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray, September 18, 2015.

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