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When the Capital was Punk

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

Concert poster, from DC History Center People's Punk Archive

Oh the 80s, a decade that defined a generation who spent it separating themselves from its Baby Boomer parents; a decade that saw the final sudden end of the Cold War; and a decade that had innovative, rebellious new styles of music. Two forms of music emerged in DC during this era. One was Go Go, a funky sound birthed by local DC musician Chuck Brown that has elements of Caribbean, funk, and reggae, and has become inseparable in from the city. The other is Punk. Though Punk started in 70s Britain, it took hold in the US and found centers in New York, LA, San Francisco, and yes, stodgy 80s Washington, DC. Is it really any surprise? Let’s be honest, DC is a perfect place for political music, and punk was undeniably political.

After all, the 80s was the decade that also saw the Reagan presidency, which would go on to define rightwing and conservative politics up until the mid-2010s. The hippies of the 60s and 70s became yuppies as grownups, having gone from hyper-individualism to settling into staid and comfortable suburbia. Their kids looked around and felt frustration at what they saw as a focus on the commercial and superficial. Reagan had also reinstated the Selective Service system when he decided to re-invigorate the Cold War at the beginning of the decade, after the Contras took over Nicaragua. Young men saw themselves as pawns in a war in which they had no belief.

The Punk Scene in DC was spread out, from downtown to the suburbs, and primarily underground. Punks met up in small venues, filling community spaces, utilizing warehouses, university halls, and squeezing into basements. Some of the venues that are associated with the punk scene are still around today, primarily the 9:30 Club. Originally located at 930 F Street NW (the address being the origin of the name) in the Atlantic building, the club hosted the underground punk and other fringe music scenes throughout the 80s and 90s, and continues to do so even after it moved to its current address at 815 V Street NW. Other popular venues were the Wilson Center on 15th and Irving St NW, d.c. space at 7th and E street NW, the Wax Museum in SW, and the Lansburgh, behind Ford’s Theater. Madams Organ, now one of DC's best stages for the blues and bluegrass scene (and one of my personal favorite venues) provided a space to the punk scene when it was an art collective, before it was established as a restaurant/venue in 1993.

While researching the DC punk scene, there a couple of things that surprised me. First, there was an emphasis on being “straight edge." That is, not drinking or doing drugs. It was an assumption on my part that, as with so many other music scenes, drinking and drugs were part and parcel. But these kids were looking at arena rock and glam rock bands, and seeing their idols die young from overdoses and excessive lifestyles (example: Sid Vicious, an early punk icon who died of a heroin overdose). They rejected losing their minds to anything else besides getting lost in the music and getting the high from a good run in the mosh pit. The other thing that surprised me was how young they were. According to “Banned in DC” a pictorial and anecdotal collection by Cynthia Connolly, Leslie Clague, and Sharon Cheslow, and “We’re Not Here to Entertain” a book on the scene by Kevin Mattson, punks were overall very young. Like, teenybopper young. In fact, the first section of the latter book is titled “Teeny Punks.” Also, very suburban. Most of these kids, at least in the DC scene, were not savvy, cynical city kids. But they were aware of their cushy surroundings and rebelled against the vanilla safeness of it all. They were also mostly white and male, though as Mattson points out, there were a fair number of female bands (Sharon Cheslow herself was in an all-female band, Chalk Circle), and African American leads, such as HR of Bad Brains.

One of the primary figures of the DC punk scene in the 80s and beyond was Ian MacKaye, one of the founding members of Minor Threat and is credited with coining the term “straight edge.” He would go on to found Dischord Records, an independent label that ensured punk music would get on the market. After Minor Threat broke up he went on to start Fugazi, a band that would eventually get more mainstream attention and last into the 2000s. He still lives in DC to this day. Other DC-based bands included The Zones, Teen Idles, Government Issue, 9353 and Fear, who would go on to tear up the Saturday Night Live stage and was thereafter banned. Another DC native, Henry Garfield, aka Henry Rollins, was a mainstay in the scene and would go on to found the California-based Black Flag. Kids would pack in to see these bands for shows that were advertised by rough hand-drawn flyers. Hand-drawn, copied, and stapled together “Zines” were a critical feature of the Punk scene as well, containing poetry, essays and news.

The punk scene in DC persevered beyond the 80s, but with the rise of Alternative rock it lost its edge as the musical outlet for angsty youth. D.c. space ceased as a music venue in 1991, and is now one of a hundred Starbucks in the city. The Wilson Center, one of the most popular venues for punk, closed down in 2001 and is now a bi-lingual charter school. Almost all of the other venues that hosted punks shows are now gone, except for the 9:30 Club, which persists in offering both mainstream commercial acts, as well as lesser known newer bands. Black Cat, which opened in 1993 and counts Dave Grohl (another DC native) as one of its investors, became one of the few venues that continues hosting fringe music genres. Thank goodness it is still around. My only hope is that these stalwart music venues for alternative music persist after COVID is over. #saveourstages

I’m currently developing a tour around this topic, and still have so much more research to do. Not exactly a hardship though, the 80s and the music that emerged from it is a walk down the memory lane of my childhood. It was indeed a unique time with unique music, and in days that feel increasingly surreal, provide an interesting long term perspective. Keep following this blog, my instagram #otmdc and my Facebook to stay in the loop about when I roll out this tour! Oi oi oi!

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