Director Scott Crawford chronicles the gloriously awkward adolescence of a movement in Salad Days: The Birth of Punk Rock in the Nation’s Capital
Any music buff worth their weight in rare vinyl records knows the profound, lasting impact of Washington DC’s underground in the 1980s. Music, DIY culture and independent media would not be what it is today without the contributions of its local artists, musicians and activists, whose legacy is chronicled in the brand new documentary titled Salad Days: The Birth of Punk Rock in the Nation’s Capital. The film was spearheaded by two of the scene’s leading cultural archivists: writer and filmmaker Scott Crawford and renowned punk photographer Jim Saah, who met as teens. In 2012, they initiated a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, and with the support of close friends, neighbors, famed musicians, and their loyal fans, the film was fully funded within six days.
So what makes this documentary so special? Although films such as Punk’s Not Dead and American Hardcore offered comprehensive takes on punk music, Crawford felt there existed narrative vacancies that 1980s DC deserved to occupy. We spoke over the phone, shortly after the film began its first wave of screenings across the United States. “In watching these punk documentaries, I didn’t [see] my experience,” says Crawford. “It wasn’t quite my world. There needed to be better representation of the people, of the music that changed my life.”
As most good things do, American punk flourished under the adversity of the 1980s, getting only more and more aggressive with time. On a national level, Ronald Reagan’s eight years of presidency coincided with the rise of the AIDS epidemic. On a local level, the capital experienced surging levels of poverty, crime and drug use, triggering the mass abandonment of urban spaces by white, middle-class residents (otherwise known as “white flight”). The story of DC punk begins in the late 1970s with local Rastafarian thrashers Bad Brains, whose high-speed infusion of reggae and metal inspired scores of DC kids to start their own hardcore bands. Ironically enough, Bad Brains shows were being shut down in DC, prompting their relocation to New York (and their song, “Banned in DC”). “Whether you agreed with what they said or not, you have to give them credit for their incredible musicianship and passion,” says Crawford. “They laid the groundwork for everything that came after, even if they didn’t stick around in DC.”
Crawford was only 12 years old when he first started prowling the punk scene in 1983. By that time, Bad Brains had left. Young guns S.O.A. and Minor Threat had already disbanded, and former Minor Threat members Jeff Nelson and Ian MacKaye were fully devoted to running their independent label, Dischord Records. Even if a bit tardy to the movement, Crawford’s whole world was kickflipped upside-down when his best friend’s older sister introduced him to bands like Government Issue and Dead Kennedys. “Everyone gets obsessed with something at that age,” says Crawford. “For some kids, it’s football. For me, it was [punk].” It wasn’t long before he had his mother’s boyfriend drop him off at his very first basement show, where he first saw the band Void.
In September 1984, Crawford founded Metrozine, a fanzine series dedicated to local punk and hardcore acts, who he often shadowed at shows with a handheld recorder. By 1985, he was a self-publishing powerhouse, manning the Xerox machine at his mother’s office and compiling regular submissions from older writers and photographers. One of them was his co-producer Jim Saah, who would produce some of the most iconic images of that era.
“There’s virtually no music industry in DC,” says Crawford. “We had to create it all for ourselves. And I was lucky enough that DC was one of those towns where people were willing enough to take me in and set that example for me. If I was in LA and Darby Crash was my mentor? My life would be a lot different!”
Indeed, Crawford and Saah’s film eschews the focus on sex, drugs, and straight-up squalor that hallmarked the punk scenes of New York, London, and Los Angeles. Washington DC was like an alternate universe, one in which all-age shows became the local standard, and where teens got pumped about not doing drugs, as per Minor Threat’s 1981 anthem, “Straight Edge.” Crawford also curtails the white masculinist reverence of punk docs past, capturing the more goofy, babyfaced sides of DC icons like Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins, or Scream drummer Dave Grohl, who later rose to rock royalty status with Nirvana and Foo Fighters. Yet, one of the biggest highlights of Salad Days is not its wealth of celebrity cameos, but its spotlight on the unsung heroes of the “harDCore” scene.
Among the performers, members of Marginal Man, Void, Beefeater, and others helped disrupt much of the white homogeneity that the scene often gets written off for. But Crawford also cites go-go, a strand of electronic funk music, as an unlikely but paramount influence on the scene. Pioneered by Black communities in 1980s DC, go-go music drew the attention of punks of all colors, who frequented Real Essence and Trouble Funk shows. “The go-go scene and the punk scene were very different,” says Crawford, “But they worked together in some ways. The punk kids loved go-go and were inspired by its DIY methods. They saw posters for go-go shows on every street corner and said ‘Hey, we should do that!’ Also, at some point, the clubs stopped booking both punk and go-go shows because of all the crowds and the violence. Both scenes were very misunderstood.”
Another downplayed group of key players, Crawford argues, were the young women of the scene. Even before the Riot Grrrl intervention of the ’90s, women were quite essential to punk’s proliferation, whether it was on the stage with Fire Party, Special K or Jawbox; or under Amy Pickering’s leadership at Dischord Records; or in Cynthia Connelly‘s photography. Yet still, it seemed all too easy for members of the scene to chalk up juvenile displays of misogyny to the fact that the scene was overrun with, well, juveniles. “I remember vividly when Monica Richards of Madhouse first talked about rape at a show [in 1985],” Crawford says later in our interview. “Madhouse was opening for Circle Jerks. These skinheads were just yelling at her, throwing stuff on stage screaming, ‘Show us your tits!’ But even as a 12-year-old kid, I knew this wasn’t cool. It marked a turning point for us all.”
The turning point Crawford describes would take place in the summer of 1985, otherwise known as Revolution Summer. As a response to widespread issues of sexual and racial injustice in punk culture, various members of the scene formed the DC chapter of activist collective Positive Force. Led by Mark Andersen, who would later author the DC hardcore retrospective, Dance of Days, the group would facilitate hundreds of fundraisers and benefit shows. There, Andersen would often open performances by delivering manifestos on everything from apartheid, to AIDS awareness, to attacks on reproductive choice.
As bands like Fugazi and Beefeater turned their focus outward by addressing global issues, bands like Rites of Spring, Embrace, and Gray Matter turned inward. Although these bands retained the signature speed of hardcore, the changing, more intimate nature of their lyrics would give birth to a new genre known as emotive hardcore. (Or, the predecessor of what we now call “emo.”) According to MacKaye, this wasn’t anything particularly remarkable: “Like if hardcore wasn’t emotional already,” he notably spat before an Embrace show in 1986. But Crawford saw this turn towards the emotional as emblematic of the scene’s growth; as DC’s chief punk musicians were maturing in age and artistry, so did punk rock, eventually. “To make yourself that painfully honest and vulnerable on stage… There was hardly anything quite like that before,” Crawford says. “And what happened here spawned what later happened in Seattle, with grunge. And then it happened everywhere.”
Crawford admits he doesn’t go out as much as he used to, but he remains confident in the current direction of punk culture today. Zine libraries are now popping up at various universities, including one at the University of Maryland, where copies of Crawford’s Metrozine can be found. In the meantime, Dischord continues to support the work of young artists, distributing releases by both DC bands and acts from all over the world. DC punk veteran Ian Svenonius (formerly of Nation of Ulysses) is very much alive and literally kicking as the frontman of doo-wop punk band, Chain and The Gang, sharing bills with local rising stars like Priests and Neonates. And though MacKaye continues to offer his services as ordained punk rock curmudgeon in various documentaries, these days he betrays a more relaxed outlook than he’s known for. “I still get crank [sic] calls to this day from kids saying, ‘Hey duuuude, I’m drunk! Is that freaking you out?’” MacKaye laughs, “I’m 50!”
“I named the film after the Minor Threat song, ‘Salad Days,’” says Crawford. “I love the song, but I hate the idea that my best days are behind me! If we could make that movement happen back then, with no infrastructure, with no internet, then there’s no stopping somebody from doing that and then some now. The best days don’t have to be behind you, at all. You gotta always think ahead.”