Film Review – Salad Days: The Birth of Punk in the Nation’s Capital
It’s for good reason that there is still a lot interest and respect for the highly influential DC punk rock scene and for Dischord Records, the label in which many of its bands belonged. While the majority of groups and record labels associated with American hardcore punk fizzed out only a few years after the genre peaked in the early ‘80s, the DC scene matured and expanded, creating a socially-conscious, post-hardcore sound and ethos that proved to have a lasting relevance that none its participants could have imagined at the time.
Salad Days: The Birth of Punk in the Nation’s Capital is yet another documentary that tries to wrangle-in the sprawl of information about the hardcore-punk era and one of its key figure-heads, Ian MacKay. However, unlike many of the other punk-rock docs, this one ties to narrow the scope of its subject by specifically zeroing in on the Washington DC scene, though of course there were other American cities exploding with new bands performing a similar style of fast, angry, low-fi rock. Luckily for writer/director Scott Crawford there’s plenty of information and avenues of interest within this subject to explore. In one hour and fifty minutes Crawford tries to tackle the birth of DC hardcore with bands like Bad Brains and Teen Idles, MacKay’s indie success with Minor Threat, the establishment of Dischord Records, the birth of straight-edge, the city’s concurrent Go-Go funk scene, the highly successful Positive Force movement and satellite movements such as Riot Grrrl. It’s probably too much to cover in one movie and while there’s a lot of valuable history in this documentary and fascinating footage captured from the era, Crawford always feels like he’s rushing to get to the next thing, doubling back on the time-time and leaving satisfying resolution behind as he goes.
As we can expect from aging punk rockers, the interviews are candid and honest and the first hand testimonial style of their formative experiences injects life into the film’s chronology. Ian Mackaye and his Minor Threat band-mate and label partner Jeff Nelson provide most of the movie’s context, but other punk familiars put in their two-cents as well. Other interviews include James Robbins of Jawbox/Government Issue, Foo Fighter’s front-man Dave Grohl, who used to drum for the Virginia band Scream before joining Nirvana in the early ‘90s, and DC-native Henry Rollins, who talks a little about his time with Dischord before moving to LA to join the equally seminal Black Flag. Likewise, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore recalls his artsy New York perspective of the young and violent Dischord sound. Even SNL’s Fred Armisen, former drummer of the Chicago-based post-hardcore band Trenchmouth, gets a word in. By just seeing just how many of these people helped shape popular culture as we know it, audiences should appreciate the distinction and importance of this staunchly independent musical collective.
Of course one can’t talk about DC in the ‘80s without talking about the scene’s political and social convictions, particularly the still-controversial ‘straight-edge’ movement. Though a number of Dischord associates featured in the documentary do not claim to have followed the no-drink/no-smoke/no-fuck policy of straight-edge to a tee, MacKaye and his stable of bands were nevertheless forever linked to this somewhat misunderstood philosophy. MacKaye does his best to disassociate himself with the larger and sometimes uglier movement as a whole, but even now in his 50’s his deeply-held ethics are still evident. The interviews detailing the spread of this movement and how some bands felt unfairly lumped into its stringent lifestyle are interesting, as this kind of nuance is usually ignored by broader punk documentaries.
As much as people generally know about straight-edge and MacKaye’s early days in the primitive Minor Threat, this documentary also covers the scene’s second-wind in the latter half of the 80s, after a refocusing and rebranding period in DC punk known as the ‘Revolution Summer.’ This gave rise to the activist group Positive Force, who would use Dischord bands to sponsor large charity concerts, and a much less macho, jangly style of passionate post-hardcore, mockingly called “emo” by jaded skinheads who were still looking for the next mosh-pit. The coverage of this movement and its charismatic leader Mark Anderson, who wrote one of the key texts on DC punk activism, is fair and representative but somewhat brief and unfulfilling.
Other key moments within this jam-packed decade are also skimmed or left out altogether in favor of more stories about inter-scene squabbling and concert violence. There’s minimal attention paid to the enormously important Rastafarian hardcore band Bad Brains–of which MacKaye and the other, whiter Dischord bands owe everything–and a shockingly small amount of time spent on the first few years of Fugazi, the most successful and influential band to have ever come out of DC.
As an obsessive who has read and watched much about this time and place in American indie rock, it’s easy to see where this windy and multi-faceted subcultural narrative had to be truncated for sake of a manageable edit. In trying to streamline all of this underreported history the movie occasionally feels restless and unstructured. That aside, the information is lovingly presented and those who would like a brief account of what happened in DC punk rock during its most vital decade will leave this documentary with a broad appreciation for its DIY charm.