It could be confirmation bias, but I have seen more documentaries about the early days of punk rock than any other music scene, including classical. Punk musicians around that time are in their fifties now, some with families, yet directors force them to talk about the angriest part of their lives as if it was also the most important. Salad Days, the Kickstarter funded documentary about DC’s punk scene, veers between inessential and eye-opening. Director Scott Crawford devotes some attention to the problems with D.C.’s hardcore punk community, particularly in terms of its exclusivity, and while he goes into more depth the D.C. punk documentaries that precede him, his conclusions are pretty much the same as everyone else’s.
Crawford starts in the early 80s, with bands like Minor Threat, Void, and the Bad Brains. Most of the history comes from Ian MacKaye, the ubiquitous front-man of Minor Threat, and various other bands on the Dischord label, which MacKaye co-founded. In addition to lauding DC’s DIY punk ethic, Crawford has the talking heads discuss their experience as scared kids in Georgetown. The suggestion is that they had the right fashion/attitude without the music, and they would get harassed on the street until a push from none other than Joe Strummer helped them start bands.
Through interviews and concert footage, some of it incredibly grainy, Crawford looks at the hardcore/straight edge movement, its inevitable backlash, and “Revolution Summer,” a period in 1985 where the scene got more political and personal. Still, by the end of the 80s all D.C. bands lived in Fugazi’s shadow. The first section of Salad Days is borderline tedious, with broad context and little new insight. If you have seen the documentary American Hardcore, which focuses on scenes throughout the country, then Salad Days will not offer much.
Crawford’s most refreshing insight is how he conflates the evolution of the scene with personal growth. It is important to remember Minor Threat started while MacKaye was only 18, an age where self-aggrandizing adolescent rage has lots of personal influence, so he along with any other punks now have the wisdom to realize they were just kids. A buddy of mine once described 80s MacKaye as (I’m paraphrasing), “A rich white kid from D.C. who hated Reagan.” It’s a reductive summary, except now I think MacKaye wouldn’t object to it. He’s always been principle crank, to the point where he can be annoying, so Crawford also interviews former bandmates who confirm the same thing.
Despite all its posturing, including the purity of straight edge, the D.C. punk scene was far from perfect. Crawford devotes sizable attention to the violence of hardcore, both in terms of slam-dancing and its inherent misogyny, and some punks bristle at the introduction of a narrative that goes against what they’ve been selling. Salad Days transitions its focus to 1984 and 1985, a period where the crack epidemic and its subsequent crime wave denigrated the city, and how that coincided with Positive Force as well as “emo-core” from bands like Rites of Spring.
Unsurprisingly, Crawford handles this stretch with more nuance since he was a part of it. There is footage of him at shows in the mid-80s (he was just a kid), and the influential zine he started is the basis for this documentary. Crawford also doubles as an interview subject: he speaks in front of the camera like several other talking heads, which creates a conflict since he is trying to sell a story harder than the others who speak about the scene fondly.
It has hard to imagine Salad Days will have a big audience beyond punks and longtime District residents who are curious about a small part of its history. Unlike A Band in D.C., a recent documentary about The Bad Brains, this documentary is not exactly a character study. In fact, it has more common with a Ken Burns documentary, particularly in terms of cinema, only the background music is much louder, and more abrasive. Salad Daystalks to all the right people, including members of old Go-go bands, so the film has genuine credibility.
The final minutes are a call to action, with old punks reiterating the profound freedom of DIY. The irony is that Crawford has little interest in D.C.’s current punk community, which is thriving with the same integrity as it was thirty years ago. Crawford instead gives the last word to Dave Grohl, who understands his roots even if he long left the scene for the mainstream. That’s always the problem with punk documentaries: the talking heads get keeping older, while the scene kids stay the same age.
Salad Days screens tonight at the NPR building (1111 N Capital St. NE) at 7 p.m. Click here for free tickets.