Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, D.C. (1980–90)
Directed by Scott Crawford
New Rose Films, 2014
“Punk rock is ultimately a very challenging, even revolutionary kind of idea. And that is that people are not nearly so stupid, or pathetic, as society seems to believe that they are. That really we have the ability to run our own lives a whole lot more, to live our own lives a whole lot more than society gives us credit for,” said Mark Andersen, a longtime participant in the Washington, D.C., punk scene, in a 1991 interview. The ideas Andersen evokes are at the heart of Salad Days, a new documentary that explores the culture and politics of that scene in the 1980s, a time and place that helped redefine what punk could be.
The film incorporates extensive interviews with scene participants, archival footage and photographs, starting with the wave of bands that emerged in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The most prominent of those early bands was Minor Threat, formed in 1980 and fronted by Ian MacKaye. They played a minimalist style of hardcore punk that was technically simple, such that a group of relatively untrained musicians could play it without too much trouble. But it was also fierce and strangely beautiful, a style of music that people would get excited about listening to and playing. Several interviewees in the documentary cite this combination of accessibility and emotional punch as a source of empowerment, especially for youth that felt alienated and disempowered in other realms of their lives, like school or work. This “do it yourself,” or “DIY,” ethos became a theme in the D.C. scene, which saw an explosion of new bands and record labels in the 1980s.
“Straight edge” culture, which came to be one of D.C.’s major contributions to punk, emerged from one particular way in which MacKaye and his bandmates felt alienated — their decisions not to drink or do drugs while many of their peers did. These feelings led to the song “Straight Edge,” the title of which is a reference to being “straight,” a then-current slang term for not drinking, and a straight-edge razor. This stance would not have raised eyebrows in conservative social circles, but to suggest that it could be punk to not drink was a radical claim. In the early 1980s, punk was relatively new in the United States, and some of its most high-profile expositors, notably the London-based Sex Pistols, were apparently completely dedicated to nihilistic excess.
This synthesis of punk’s defiant energy with an express rejection of self-destruction indicated new possibilities for what punk could be. American punks responded with interest, and the phrase “straight edge” gained currency as a shorthand for not drinking or doing drugs. A subgenre of punk, “straight edge hardcore,” emerged in several American cities, although in the documentary MacKaye disclaims interest in leading or encouraging a movement. But the basic idea of constructive, generative rebellion became part of the “D.C. punk” brand, especially as later bands like Fugazi became well-known in the city and beyond for their ethical commitments.
The idea percolating around D.C. that punk could be a positive, not just destructive, force found institutional expression in the formation of a collective titled, appropriately enough, “Positive Force D.C.” As Salad Days narrates, in the summer of 1985, a malaise had settled into the D.C. punk scene, which many participants felt had lost its direction as it attained more visibility. Then one enterprising young punker seeking to promote a show began pasting up fliers that announced a “Revolution Summer.” The slogan proved popular, and became the moniker for a series of punk benefit shows in support of a variety of causes, including AIDs awareness, countering apartheid and opposing Ronald Reagan.
The Positive Force collective emerged out of Revolution Summer’s ferment and dedicated itself to organizing benefit concerts and social service projects. As several of the interviewees in the documentary recount, Positive Force provided a constructive, and deeply meaningful, outlet for feelings of discontent. Mark Andersen, one of the founders of Positive Force, tells us that he divides his life into the periods before and after Revolution Summer.
While Salad Days gives ample attention to the traditionally political aspects of the D.C. punk scene, it pays surprisingly little attention to the ways in which the personal is political. Interviewees note, for example, that the scene, especially in its earlier years, was a “boy’s club,” but the film doesn’t really explore why this was or what it means. Does the fact that the vast majority of the musicians in the scene were men have implications for the film’s discussion of seemingly universal themes of creativity and idealism? The film doesn’t ask or attempt an answer, unfortunately.
On issues of race, Salad Days is even more circumspect. It’s a serious omission, especially considering its setting in D.C., then a mostly African-American city. Some brief discussion of the Bad Brains, an innovative and influential African-African punk band from D.C., is included, but most of this time is taken up with white punk rockers discussing how much they liked the Bad Brains. The film also highlights the affinity that many in the punk rock scene had for go-go music, a style favored by the local African-American community. It notes that go-go fans didn’t seem to like punk as much as punk fans liked go-go, but doesn’t inquire why. What does it mean, again, that the creators heralded as embodying independence were almost all white men making music in a majority-African-American city? Asking this question of interviewees would have led to a more complex, deeper film.
Salad Days is named after a song from Minor Threat’s last EP, which was released in 1985, after the band had broken up. It’s a sarcastic song, tweaking the nostalgia that had begun to settle in even back then. The song concludes, “We call those the good old days / What a fucking lie — I call it a lie.” For all its dreams of revolution, the D.C. punk scene ultimately reflected many of the flaws and inequalities of broader American society. But the film’s affirmation of DIY culture as a positive force remains a relevant message, one that leaves open the hope that those to come, doing it themselves, might do it better.
Salad Days begins screening at the IFC Center on April 17. For more, see ifccenter.com.
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