WASHINGTON, January, 22, 2012 —Washington DC is known for a great number of things. It’s always been one of the most recognized cities around the world, although that’s mainly due to its position as the capital city of the United States. Still, utter the city’s name in certain circles and your chances of being bombarded with a barrage of personal stories involving DC’s unique position in musical culture. Talk with music aficionados and chances are they’ll come back with detailed anecdotes about DC’s underground music scene in the 1980s as well as high praise for many of the bands that populated the scene during that era.
On a recent Friday and Saturday here, Black Cat was ground zero for a celebration of that near-legendary DC underground rock scene of the ‘80s. The catalyst for this event—and the reason for organizing it in the first place—was the soon to be released documentary focusing on that era. The documentary, called Salad Days: DC Punk Revolution catalogues the rise of the punk scene in DC, its nationally-known ethos, and its transition from straight punk into a sound that became unique.
The show itself did a great job of encapsulating what the DC punk scene originally was before it transformed into something distinctly different from punk. This mini-history included some well known bands from the area, but also stayed away from some of the more dominant names—names that would have overshadowed the proceedings regardless.
One of the bigger presences of the DC punk scene during the time was the record label Dischord, founded by the scene’s mainstay, central figure, and front man for Minor Threat and Fugazi (and so many other bands), Ian Mackaye. When most people think of punk or rock music in the DC area, Dischord is one of the things they immediately reference. The success of the label helped give the DC area and the local music scene a palpable sense of legitimacy as well as giving many of the bands a vehicle enabling them to get their music out beyond the city. Paradoxically, while the label was hugely important, it could and sometimes did unintentionally muscle out other bands that weren’t associated with it.
Finessing this issue was an important part of the success the Black Cat’s show, which included as much about the scene as possible without allowing one distinct influence to become the primary direction of the entire event. This was a key to the show’s success. It would have been much simpler to deploy one of the bands as the main focus of this two night show, appointing them as representing the essence of the era in the documentary. But that would’ve been performing a serious disservice not only to the documentary, but to the history of the scene as a whole.
Instead, what the audience actually got were six bands, ranging from the well known to the obscure, all of them representative of what DC punk meant to everyone who either lived through the era or identified with it after the fact. The event might have started with the likes of Bad Brains and Minor Threat, but each band performing evoked something different that made them special during those times all of which the event took into account.
The first night kicked off with this sort of ideology in mind from the very beginning. The first band to take the stage was the relatively obscure King Face. At events like this, the primary opener might be more important than it may initially seem to be. King Face turned out to be proof of concept. They might not be as well known as some of their contemporaries today, but they defined what the DC scene was transforming itself into in the mid- to late-1980s. Their set showed off a band that identified with the spirit of punk, but not necessarily its musicality. Instead, they were willing to push the boundaries of the genre while still remaining viable to an audience that turned out reliably ready for plenty of punk energy.
This was the perfect lead-in to the next band on the docket, which was Dag Nasty. This is one of the many treats DC punk fans enjoyed throughout the two day event, made even more distinctive as the band boasted an appearance by its original lead singer Shawn Brown, who hadn’t fronted the band since 1985. This surprise appearance may have been telegraphed by the remastering of the songs from Can I Say that were sung by Brown but never previously released in 2011. But it’s still something new to anyone who may have missed Dag Nasty’s original incarnation.
Dag Nasty was very much embroiled in the hardcore punk scene during the ‘80s, but was recognized as a band that incorporated a genuinely melodic output that eventually became known as the “DC Sound.” With Brown on vocals though, the band’s output had more of a hardcore feel to it while still maintaining the intricate musicianship of the band’s early albums. This is something the audience responded to in force at the Black Cat, creating the most energy and synergy of all the sets among the six bands. Incorporating Brown into the line-up for the first time in ages gave Dag Nasty a perfect mix of old and new, which is exactly what the show was aiming for.
The next band, Black Market Baby, showcased the first real departure from the main channel represented in the Salad Days show. Black Market Baby is one of those bands that was known in the area but almost purely as an underground band. They only had one full length release, although they put out several additional odds and ends. But importantly, they also mark the first departure from the Dischord lineage, which had been represented by the first two bands of the night. Unlike Dag Nasty and King Face, Black Market Baby is just a straight up punk band from the very early days of the scene, and their set demonstrated this perfectly. Front man Boyd Farrell plowed ahead at a blistering pace, and the audience got a see a band that, for the most part, they had only heard about as one of the almost mythical first bands to enter the DC scene.
The second night built off Black Market Baby’s example by incorporating three bands that played more the more reliably punk side of things rather than taking the melodic path. Youth Brigade opened the night, yet another of the early bands that defined the initial scene of that era. They got together and broke up so quickly that they don’t recall the emotional resonance of the other bands. That said, their set provided something of a time capsule for the early ‘80s in DC, representing the kind of sound that was persistent at that point in the scene’s unique trajectory.
The next two bands performing on Night Two were a pair of the most clearly relevant bands that defined the DC scene. Government Issue and that band’s only consistent member, front man John Stabb, have been associated acts of the DC scene forever and it showed in their performance. Stabb stood on stage with his light-up jacket, commenting on everything from the scene itself, the various bands, and the straight-edge ethos of the era in between each straight-ahead punk song. Most people at the show were already familiar with this or that Government Issue story, but were ready, willing, and enthusiastic about hearing this band again.
Scream ended up being the last band to perform on the second evening. Their appearance highlighted the fact that they may have gained the most recognition outside of DC than any of the other bands, but this was purely by happenstance. Their appearance here represented their original line-up, but the clips from the documentary were sure to remind everyone that at one point in time this was a band that Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl actually drummed for back in the ‘80s. It’s a footnote that makes Scream vaguely relevant outside of the scene, but also causes people to pay attention to them a bit more. That proved to be a good thing because their set was tight and deserving of this recognition.
Yet that’s really something that could be said about every band that performed at the Black Cat during this two-night event. During the Salad Days clips, Ian MacKaye made the point that the DC scene produced something of undeniable musical importance in the 1980s. It’s hard to argue that point, as bands that came out of the scene are still regarded highly by people who follow music.
The various bands’ performances over the course of both nights effectively covered the spectrum of the known and the unknown of the 1980s era. But taken together, all these bands made a strong case as to why the DC Scene in the ‘80s was important, and why a documentary like Salad Days is relevant and necessary viewing for anyone wishing to get acquainted with the real reasons why DC is such a big deal musically. Salad Days: DC Punk Revolution is directed Scott Crawford and is slated for a release later in 2013.
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