A Fugazi show in the late 1980s Jim Saah

Filmmaker Scott Crawford on the birth of hardcore in 1980s Washington.

In 2012, Scott Crawford launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a project he'd already begun, a documentary about the heyday of punk music in Washington, D.C., during the 1980s. Crawford was an established music journalist and graphic designer (he edited the now-defunct Harp magazine from 2001 to 2008), and had been going to D.C. punk shows from the ripe age of 12. But he was a novice filmmaker, chronicling an obscure and, well, noisy genre of music.

That didn't dampen the Kickstarter, which blew past his $32,000 target in less than a week. It turned out that people—lots of them—were excited to revisit this underground local music scene from 30 years ago.

The old 9:30 Club on F St. NW. It has since moved to a bigger space on V St. (Historic American Buildings Survey/Library of Congress)

If you're from D.C., even if you're not much of a music fan, it comes as no surprise. Hardcore punk may be obscure everywhere else, but it's a source of pride for Washingtonians and the stuff of local legend. In the early '80s, bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat forged a new kind of sound that was harder and faster than the more radio-friendly punk from New York (the Ramones) and London (the Clash). It was best heard live, because of its propulsive power, and that was often the only way to hear it.

Most D.C. punk musicians were just teenagers, at first, and their hometown—then struggling with high crime and population loss—was no L.A. or New York. Washington didn't have a music industry, so getting signed by a record label was out of reach. Kids had to do it themselves, whether "it" was convincing a club to open its doors to fans of all ages (as Fugazi's Ian MacKaye did) or putting out a record (as Fugazi and many other bands did on the label that MacKaye founded, Dischord Records).

The D.I.Y. ethos came to define D.C., as well as the city's other homegrown musical form, go-go. In turn, D.C. punk greatly influenced mainstream genres like grunge and emo, as Crawford makes clear through dozens of interviews and concert footage in his film, Salad Days, which premiered on November 14 at the DOC NYC festival.

Next month, the film will come to D.C. for a nearly sold-out run at the American Film Institute. CityLab talked to Crawford about the punk scene and what it reveals about the city then and now (disclosure: this reporter used to work at the same company as Crawford and knows him in passing).

What would a map of D.C. punk look like? What are its landmarks?

There were clubs that were around before I started going to shows—like Madam's Organ in Adams Morgan—and then there were other places that didn't last very long. For me personally, it would have to be D.C. Space [on 7th and E Streets NW], the old 9:30 club [on F Street NW], [and] the Wilson Center, which was the basement of a church at 16th and Irving. I saw some amazing shows there. They were all in Northwest D.C. …

Crawford (front) at an early punk show

The great thing about D.C. Space and the 9:30 Club was that they were a block or two apart, so sometimes you'd go to two shows in one night. You'd just walk from the one to the other. But it was a pretty dicey part of town back then.

Brian Baker of Minor Threat says something interesting in a Salad Days clip—that Washington isn't a working-class town, and that's why our punk music doesn't sound working-class.

That was one of the things I wanted to kind of look at and explore, because it really isn't a working-class town. When you look at the parents of a lot of [the early musicians, who came primarily from D.C.'s more affluent Northwest quadrant]—Brian Baker's father was a producer for NBC. You're talking about lobbyists, media people, lawyers. There's a lot of that in DC. …

If you listen to that first Bad Brains record, there was something different: a sense of musicianship, just something a little different than what was going on in, say, Boston or New York or L.A. Lots of people have lots of different theories. There was a certain—intellectual, maybe—component to a lot of these kids' upbringing. I think that comes out a little bit more in the music. It tends to be a little more cerebral.

This interview comes right after the death of Marion Barry, who was D.C.'s mayor through the period that Salad Days covers. His Summer Youth Employment Program is mentioned in the film. Some people say D.C. punk's political awakening, the "Revolution Summer" of 1985, wouldn't have been possible without that program and Marion Barry.

I think it certainly helped make it possible. You had all these things come together at just the right time. You had these kids who are these really creative, energetic kids: Let's face it, they were getting paid [through the employment program] to not do a whole lot, just sit around. They had a lot of time on their hands.

Say what you will about Barry, I know he's a polarizing figure, but … he allowed this stuff to happen on his watch. He signed off on a lot of these outdoor punk shows that would take place. Because of the urban blight and what was happening downtown, whether it was his intention or not, it allowed a lot of this stuff to exist. ... You had these clubs that were able to kind of do what they wanted.

Now, liquor licenses are so hard to get, neighborhoods are so gentrified. I go to Black Cat [on D.C.’s fast-developing 14th St. NW] now, and I don't even recognize that neighborhood. It's just incredible, what it's become. It's a success story, for sure, but when you think back to the city 30 years ago, even 20 years ago, it was not a place you wanted to hang out for that long.

D.C. punk is having a moment, with Dave Grohl's Sonic Highways episode focusing on it, and your documentary, and another film that just came out about the D.C. punk activist organization, Positive Force. There was an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, too. What do you think is spurring this revival?

Crawford (left) and Jim Saah, director of photography, at the
Salad Days premiere

There's enough material out there to make another 20 documentaries on the subject. When I started working on it, there wasn't anything. That's why I was so excited to do it. It had been overlooked for so long, and I just couldn't understand why. I'm happy to see it, and I think even more stuff will come out.

Mark Andersen of Positive Force says in a trailer for your film that our salad days are now—he urges viewers to go out and make stuff happen. Do you feel like the same kind of youth movement could happen in D.C. today?

Punk and hardcore, and political activism, [are] still very much alive and well … There's some great all-ages clubs that are out there. I've talked to lot of people about this, club owners, who've said the energy just isn't there in the same way it was. But it's still very much alive locally. It's hard, it's like comparing apples and oranges in some ways.

There was a sense of: You had to do this, you had to make something out of nothing. ... When there was a show coming up, you had to get there. You didn't know when the next one was going to be. There wasn't a lot to do. … I think it's great that's not the case anymore, but that's how it was then. It was almost like life or death. Or when you're a dramatic kid, that's how it felt.  

Salad Days Official Trailer from Scott Crawford on Vimeo.

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