D.C. punk doc ‘Salad Days’ illuminates a vital corner of 1980s underground culture

For a musical genre that ironically came to be defined by its straitjacketed sameness, the 1980s hardcore punk scene in Washington D.C. always stood out from the field. It was more socially charged (some would say preachy), less nihilistic and certainly longer lasting than the ferment bubbling over in Los Angeles, its most obvious counterpart. And during its run, it would push more than most scenes at the boundaries of a sound defined by fast tempos, screamed vocals and three chords.

D.C. hardcore, in short, was a vital underground D.I.Y. scene that blossomed in a place that was at once the epicenter of the Reagan Revolution and a crack-infested poster child for America’s fraying inner cities.

So last night I was excited to catch a screening in Detroit of the 2014 documentary film “Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington D.C. (1980-90).”

Over the course of the ’80s, D.C. would become known for groundbreaking acts like Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Soul Side, Rites of Spring, Nation of Ulysses, Beefeater and Fugazi. It gave rise, wittingly or unwittingly, to both Straight Edge and Emo as offshoot genres. And at the center of it all was Dischord Records, the still-operating independent label launched by punk icon Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson.

A young Henry Rollins at the Georgetown Haagen Dazs where he worked.
A young Henry Rollins at the Georgetown Haagen-Dazs where he worked.

“Salad Days” blends archival footage and still photos with interviews to tell a linear story. To its credit, the film manages to avoid becoming the kind of extended strokefest that sinks so many other rock docs. Partly, that’s because it has a lot of bands, ground and time to cover. It’s also because there’s a good story to tell about youth culture and a Do-It-Yourself ethic set against a lack of mainstream acceptance, the social conservatism of the ‘80s and the backdrop of a violent city.

The familiar pitfalls of the genre are all there, including the violence, the rise of racist skinhead culture and the inevitable splintering of the scene. But the film depicts D.C. punk as a kind of evergreen impulse that essentially rode three distinct waves. There was the “Revolution Summer” of 1985, the brief alliance with the Positive Force political activist collective, the scene’s flirtations with the city’s black GoGo music culture and the late-‘80s revival that would give the world Fugazi and the explosion of alternative rock into the mainstream.

It all took place in a time before the Internet, with record sleeves and zines glued together by hand, and media coverage that took a dim view to the whole thing, if it paid attention at all. It’s hard to imagine a comparable movement in the digital age.

“Salad Days” is a fun and illuminating hour and a half, with a soundtrack that will make you want to get up out of your seat and break shit, incredible archival footage and interviews with key players from the scene (even rock doc regular Dave Grohl, who played drums with Scream, manages to not be annoying and is used sparingly). As a longtime fan, I learned a number of new things.

Watch the film’s website for upcoming screenings. In the meantime, here are a few of my favorite jams from the genre. Enjoy.

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