If there was ever a testament to punk as an evolving document, forever building on its past, it was the Washington, DC hardcore scene and the growing pains its experienced in the mid-’80s. Nothing makes that more clear than Scott Crawford and Jim Saah’s exhaustive new documentary Salad Days, which premiered late last year in DC and makes its New York premiere this week at the IFC Center. Though Crawford’s personal history with DC punk began when he was the preteen writer of MetroZine, his documentary is more for the hardcore novice — the person who recognizes the significance of the DC hardcore scene but couldn’t name more than a few Dischord bands.
Now a journalist, Crawford packs a number of big issues — like sexism, racism, and classism — into an otherwise straightforward chronology of events from 1980 to 1990, as told by the scene’s primary forces. Perhaps because Crawford has a history with these people (and asserts that throughout by appearing as a talking head), his aim is to be as comprehensive as possible, which at times forces him to move a little too quickly.
DC hardcore has never had a documentary to assert its cultural significance to outsiders before, so this well-sourced, well-shot primer is long overdue. But it’s the personal details — like Henry Rollins hiding his fellow punks from violent DC bros in the Georgetown Haagen-Dazs where he worked — that feel the most illuminating, not a list of bands put to film. Still, as a documentary meant to inform the masses, Salad Days is as close to the full story as is humanly possible in just 90 minutes. (For what it’s worth, there’s another DC hardcore doc coming out, which appears to be more focused on the scene’s initial wave.)
Among the influential music scenes in American rock’n’roll history, the Washington, DC hardcore punk scene is perhaps one of the most thorny to navigate. This is part of what makes it both a satisfying and difficult subject to document. Early on, the bands who weren’t straightedge navigated these polarizing identity issues, which were at the heart of the early DC scene thanks to Ian MacKaye and his band Minor Threat. But by the mid-’80s, there were bigger issues. The bands that had laid the scene’s groundwork felt alienated by the violent, suburban, teenage machismo they now saw at their shows.
Of course, this being DIY, the DC hardcore scene rebuilt itself in the second half of the ’80s, as the city itself struggled with a wave of crime and crack. The summer of 1985 was dubbed “Revolution Summer,” and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Organizations like Positive Force brought activism — around issues ranging from AIDS to South African apartheid — back to the forefront, though not everyone was so pleased. “I just didn’t understand why we had to go back to the ’60s and have it be a movement for good causes,” Kingface’s Andy Rapoport says in Salad Days.
Bad Brains had moved away and Minor Threat had broken up a few years earlier, but MacKaye funneled his cultural commentary into a more musically sophisticated project with Fugazi. Likewise, other veterans of the scene started new bands; some of them — like Rites of Spring — were dubbed “emotional hardcore” or emocore, much to MacKaye’s dismay. “Punk had been emotional from day one,” MacKaye argues in the film. “Johnny Rotten was emotional!” This all-too-brief section of the film connects the dots between one widely credible musical movement and a maligned one in a way not explored since Andy Greenwald’s 2003 excellent book on emo, Nothing Feels Good. To focus on it would require another documentary altogether, but it’s these detours that prove to be the most interesting in Salad Days.
As the mainstream continued its poaching efforts on MacKaye and Jeff Nelson’s Dischord Records, even lesser-known DC bands could play headlining shows all around the country based on the Dischord reputation. But as the ’80s turned into the ’90s and Scream’s Dave Grohl went from a DC hardcore dude to a grunge guy, the scene shifted and splintered again. Those at the center of it all were too committed to their punk values to become the next Nirvana, even when Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun offered Fugazi a million-dollar deal with autonomy comparable to that of the label’s then-recent signing of the Rolling Stones.
Great political punk bands — like Priests — still exist in DC, but the ’80s scene retains its place in history as the pinnacle of political American hardcore music. This is the place that Salad Days works from, which is ironic given the meaning behind the Minor Threat song for which the doc is named. “We call those the good old days,” MacKaye sings, “What a fucking lie.” You wouldn’t know it watching Crawford’s film.