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Punk in the Chocolate City: A Review of Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, D.C. (1980–90)

Mike Amezcua photoMike Amezcua is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He earned his Ph.D. from Yale University and is presently at work on a book about Latinos, race, and urbanism in postwar Chicago.

Most people recognize that disco and hip hop came out of the American cities of the 1970s. But punk rock in the U.S. also arose in the aftermath of the urban crisis, a periodization that frames the late 1960s and 1970s primarily through its deindustrialization, capital and white flight, and racialized poverty and violence. At the turn of the 1980s, punk and hardcore scenes (“hardcore” a name given to more aggressive and faster punk) multiplied in the ghettos and inner cities of L.A., New York, Boston, and D.C. These scenes exploded with aggressive edge, speed, and attitude. Guided by their dedication to a self-fashioned do-it-yourself ethic that began with bedroom record labels, ‘zine making, and underground shows, punk developed a national network through the trade of tapes, records, ‘zines, and college radio airplay, which opened up the door for touring and booking all-ages shows.

Over time, the urban roots of punk and hardcore have subsided and its connection to race has remained foggy. Along comes Salad Days, a film by ‘zine maker turned documentary filmmaker Scott Crawford, about the epicenter of punk and hardcore music in Washington D.C. The film provides a fascinating account of the punk movement that re-introduces the city as an integral part of D.C.’s punk scene. However, it falls just short of charting new ground because it fails to interrogate, and thus reproduces punk’s uncritical embrace of racial colorblindness.

Salad Days documents the story of a group of young people coming of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Washington, D.C., who set out to make music for themselves and their friends. In the process, they created a hugely influential underground music scene that forever changed the stakes of independent music. The attitude and sound generated by fast paced distorted riffs and screaming intensity stood as a rejection of 1970s arena rock and disco that centered on partying, drug use, and sexual promiscuity. These youths, “out of step” with societal norms and inspired by their punk rock records, searched for a space to belong. They took to the streets of Adams-Morgan, Anacostia, Georgetown and other neighborhoods where their dress—long hair, leather jackets, studs—and their anti-straightedge stance put them in confrontational clashes with jocks—giving birth to the D.C. punk scene.

Salad Days compiles incredible photographs and film footage from throughout the decade, showing how and why two teenage friends, Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, started their own bands and an independent record label, the legendary Dischord Records, tastemaker of the hardcore scene throughout the 1980s. However, Salad Days is not a auto-biographical documentary of MacKaye and Nelson nor their legendary band Minor Threat, though the film’s title comes from one of the band’s seminal songs. Instead, the narrative is anchored by interviews with various  D.C. hardcore icons such as Alec MacKaye, Henry Rollins, John Stabb, and Brian Baker who give various takes on the inception of the D.C. punk scene. The narrative also features outside perspectives from more well-known artists like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., who talk about the larger impact of the scene and how listening to D.C. bands inspired them to produce punk.

Although the film makes it clear that in the world of zines and record labels, hardcore became synonymous with D.C., it is less clear about what precisely made D.C. unique to hardcore music. Where is the “Chocolate City,” a popular nickname for D.C. because of its majority black population, present in the punk and hardcore scene? Salad Days contends that there were moments of overlap between D.C.’s mostly white subculture and local majority black culture most exemplified by collaborative performances with local Go-Go music bands (the drum-inflected music born in the streets of black D.C.). And although prominent African American members were always a part of the punk scene—most notably the pioneering all-black hardcore band, Bad Brains—the scene remained overwhelmingly white. Additionally, the fact that this burst of punk activity occurred in mostly all-black or transitional neighborhoods in which white youth found creative spatial opportunities in areas ripe with discriminatory real estate practices and some in the process of gentrification. There is a great deal of context left unexplored. The film avoids deeper questions about the performance of a particular white punk identity in black inner city spaces. The film does a better job of showing how by the mid- to late eighties, D.C. punks had more to scream about by getting serious about politics, from dismantling apartheid in South Africa to challenging violent dancing at shows to advocating for feminism by supporting women in punk. Additionally, the film recovers D.C.’s important place in the influential Riot Grrrl scene, which has been conventionally understood as a West Coast development.

Salad Days recognizes, but does not truly grapple with, the importance of D.C.’s black metropolis to the development of hardcore punk. In the film, black and blighted neighborhoods serve as the backdrop of D.C.’s punk scene, as underground shows cropped up in dingy clubs, community spaces, and high school auditoriums that were entrenched in post-urban crisis D.C. Yet the narrative fails to capture black voices that would give insight to living in this landscape. Visual evidence of punk shows, such as those amazing early 1979 Bad Brains photographs by Lucien Perkins, stunningly capture a kind of punk “secret city.” In these early photographs, black youth are screaming into microphones in front of white youth who themselves are captivated by the sounds from the amps. Similarly, black youth are interspersed in the crowds gathered in front of all-white punk bands. The Perkins photographs captured a “secret” that no one else knew about except for these kids, that inside the abandoned buildings of an “urban crisis” city one could find a multiracial commingling of youth engaged in uncivil acts of musical aggressiveness. Kids travelling from the Northern Virginia suburbs to punk shows in D.C. found it enticing partly because of its “danger,” but we hear little from D.C. area black kids who experienced the punk scene as it set up shop in their ‘hood and how they felt about participating in the scene.

All of this sets up a dramatic context for the film that again is replete with missed opportunities to engage with the city’s racial urban geography. One way to address the racial colorblindness of the punk scene would have been by asking different questions of the film’s already thought-provoking interviewees. For example, why did Ian MacKaye write the hardcore song “Guilty of Being White,” a naïve song expressing backlash against white guilt over slavery, when he was a teenager? How did his views on this decidedly racial topic change over time as an adult? Kenny Inouye, guitarist of the D.C. punk band Marginal Man, also makes a prominent appearance in the film, but little is mentioned about the place of Asian Americans in a dominantly white scene that was moving about a dominantly black city. The name “Marginal Man” was borrowed from sociologist Robert Park, who theorized about the marginality experienced by minorities perceived as permanently foreign. This may have resonated with Inouye. The band Soulside also demonstrated an interest in academic research on race by taking its name from an anthropological study of black neighborhoods of D.C. entitled, Soulside: Inquiries into Ghetto Culture and Community published in 1969 by Ulf Hannerz. Asking Bobby Sullivan, the thoughtful singer of Soulside to reflect on this could have added depth to the meaning of “Revolution Summer,” a musical turning point in the scene during the summer of 1985. To some in the scene, like Sullivan and Mark Andersen (the leading activist of D.C. punk), “Revolution Summer” was a “call to arms” to make music motivate others to political action (e.g. in the form of boycotts and Percussion Protests against Apartheid in South Africa) while to others it was just a reshuffling of the first wave of D.C. punks, mostly white guys again, except now a little older, with better lyrics and better musical ability.

Nobody wants to think that the Dischord house was built on top of neighborhood disinvestment, segregation, white flight, escapism and gentrification; especially since the record label picked up a reputation for moral high handedness in the punk world, fairly or unfairly. Its founders challenged drug and alcohol abuse by taking a straightedge stance, playing benefit shows for good causes, addressing violence at shows and banning stage diving, keeping record prices low and affordable, committing to supporting local music,  and the list goes on. However, documentaries are inherently historical projects. Exploring the deeper interconnected layers can complicate and enrich future stories about race, punk, and the city during the 1980s.