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Watch the Tunes: Salad Days: A Decade Of Punk In Washington, DC (1980-90)

On September 16, 2016

There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Salad Days: A Decade Of Punk In Washington, DC (1980-90), which is streaming over on Amazon Prime.

The last two weeks of Watch The Tunes have been divisive. We looked at an old school doc on The Insane Clown Posse and then I ruffled some feathers by poking a few holes in the logic of the Kurt Cobain conspiracy theories presented in Soaked In Bleach. Elsewhere on the blog I wrote about Phish and thus managed to win the triple crown of music nerdus contention. While I’m 100% super proud of those write ups, I’m looking forward to putting my byline a post that doesn’t result in people unfollowing VMP on various social media networks. Happily, the film we have lined up this week is Salad Days: A Decade Of Punk In Washington, DC (1980-90), is not only excellent but I mean c’mon is there anything more widely agreeable than Ian Mackaye, Henry Rollins, and Dave Grohl (amongst a dozen others) talking about D.C. hardcore music? Strap in for some fun.

If you don’t know much about the DC scene in the '80s and '90s (or have only scratched the surface as far as Minor Threat and Fugazi) a great place to start, sonically speaking, is the Flex Your Head comp from 1982. If you’re looking for some real deep dives into the nitty gritty of how the bands formed, check out the DC chapter in Steven Blush’s oral history of various scenes American Hardcore: A Tribal History. I’m saying all this because while Salad Days, directed by Scott Crawford, does a great job of presenting the sound and the history, the real magic on display is the way that it connects the dots of what it was that made the scene tick, charting the subtle ways that it grew and changed over the years. This is a film that will leave you wanting to get involved with whatever it is that’s going on in your city, as soon as possible.

The flaw of documentaries is that you can only fit so much raw info between the credits before it gets tedious. Look at the two and a half hour long Zappa doc from a few weeks back for a good example of that way to present info and you can see the flaws of that style of presentation. Salad Days, on the other hand, does an excellent job laying out the kind of basic history of hardcore in the so-called “City of Magnificent Intentions,” but what it excels at, in a more oblique sense, is in documenting the dynamic personalities and individual roles that are needed to make a scene of that size function. You need some guys making zines for instance (one of whom in this case is a tween who would grow up to direct this very film were covering!), and you need someone who takes things seriously, and another who doesn't take anything seriously, etc etc. Most importantly though you need a label, which DC had in Dischord. Everyone played a part in keeping things going.

Any dissection of the DC music scene is going to put Ian Mackaye somewhere towards its center, and rightfully so. He was in a handful of the most important bands from each era of the region's music history, from the Teen Idles back before he was old enough to legally drink, followed by the legendarily influential Minor Threat, and finally Fugazi which was itself a sort of post-hardcore supergroup whose dogged touring and critical success through the ‘90s cemented the importance of everything that came before it. Mackaye is an incredible resource for the filmmakers but they take pains spread things around past just Mackaye’s direct sphere of influence.

In DC they ended up with the "good" problem of having fans drive in from the surrounding areas to catch shows. While this sort of support is great for lots of reasons, it brings with it the unique problem of having to acclimate these relative bumpkins into the way things are done inside the city limits. Just cuz you think you can "mosh" or "slam dance"  cuz you saw it on MTV doesn't mean anyone there wants you to go stage diving across someone's face. When everyone realized that shows were becoming less and less friendly towards women, there was a concerted effort to look out for them. As the ‘80s became increasingly politicized, the scene itself took great pains to align itself with progressive causes.

Very few regional scenes have had as much far-reaching effect as the one that flowered right in Reagan’s back yard. From the first band that anyone referred to as being emo, Rites Of Spring, to the concept of being “straight edge,” to proving that the rigorously DIY spirit of $5 shows and $9 albums (postpaid!) can scale pretty big actually, all this for better and worse can be traced to the DC scene and Salad Days hits on just the right balance of presenting the bigger picture of what it was like to be there, and the nuts and bolts minutia that kept things rolling along from show to show. I’m sure that I’ll get back to pissing people off with these columns soon enough, but for now enjoy this film that for real should make just about everyone happy.

Profile Picture of Chris Lay
Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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