“Salad Days” provides a solid, borderline exhaustive survey of the Washington, D.C., hardcore punk scene of the 1980s — possibly the nation’s most influential such milieu, if not tied with Los Angeles. Scott Crawford’s feature is playing mostly one-off dates around the country, with longer runs booked at San Francisco’s Roxie (started March 27) and New York’s IFC Center (April 16). It should do well among music fans as a download item.
The saga is told in roughly chronological fashion by a large cast of talking heads, and illustrated with plenty of archival materials; the degraded quality of much of the older concert footage is apt enough for a scene that was anything but slick. Two of the higher-profile interviewees, Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi) and Henry Rollins (a D.C. native who formed his first band, S.O.A., there before moving to L.A. to join Black Flag), kick things off describing their first exposure to punk music. “I borrowed some records, and my mind got changed,” the former recalls.
D.C. being an “industry town,” many of its public areas were basically deserted at night, when government workers went home. That made early gigs both exciting and dangerous, as the city suffered a crack epidemic-driven crime wave and punk kids were frequently targeted for beatdowns by anyone who took offense at their looks. “It was like the Island of Misfit Toys, with all the weirdoes and the smart kids … there weren’t many of us, so we had to stick together,” says Sab Grey, who founded the skinhead outfit Iron Cross.
The Reagan era’s conformist, conservative tenor spawned a lot of dissent, and hardcore provided many of the most belligerent voices. Eventually a kind of orthodoxy hardened around the musical/political focus, as defined by the bands signed by the pioneering local indie label Dischord. But the DIY aesthetic the scene fostered was also liberating, encouraging everything from Xerox art to the convention of “all-ages” shows (accommodating underage fans who couldn’t get into shows at 18-and-over bars). The African-American punk outfit Bad Brains was a huge influence on an otherwise overwhelmingly Caucasian milieu. A mutual admiration society briefly existed between some hardcore bands (notably leading D.C. act Minor Threat) and concurrent go-go acts like Trouble Funk — go-go being a regional funk derivation that never quite caught fire nationally.
As a channel for young white male discontent, D.C. hardcore was so successful that it began to alienate some of its original supporters, let alone more diverse audiences. The mosh pit became routinely violent, and the scene in general was perceived as misogynist and homophobic. By 1985 these issues had inspired a backlash: That year’s “Revolution Summer” introduced a new wave of “positive energy” within the hardcore world that spread from D.C. outward, though not everyone was thrilled by the changes. Some voices here still grumble at the rise of the term “emo” (applied to bands whose lyrics shifted from political rants to personal feelings), though Crawford’s film suggests this trend was a major factor in later musical trends that gave rise to everything from MacKaye’s more musically adventurous post-Threat outfit Fugazi to grunge superstars Nirvana (whose eventual drummer Dave Grohl was in major D.C. band Scream).
Crawford himself surfaces as an interviewee, for what turns out to be good reason — as a kid, he began attending shows and creating a series of hardcore fanzines. While D.C. hardcore wasn’t for everybody, it did foster an environment where a 12-year-old boy could be pretty safely dropped off for the night, if he and his parents were willing to make that leap. “It wasn’t about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” says Bobby Sullivan (Soulside), who like many here is still involved in non-corporate DIY creativity and political activism. As loud and aggressive as much hardcore was, at its best it was also altruistic and idealistic by nature.
Those not particularly interested in the bands or era portrayed may find “Salad Days” a bit too much of a good thing. But they’re unlikely to be viewers anyway, and fans will find the documentary’s fast-paced but detail-oriented progress satisfying. Packaging is decent; the pic’s subtitle, “A Decade of Punk in Washington, D.C. (1980-90),” is prominent in the publicity materials but not actually shown onscreen.