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The Minor Threat song "Salad Days" critiqued a young punk scene's tendency to wallow in nostalgia for its early years. But the irony is mostly absent in the title of the new American hardcore-punk documentary Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90), which frames the 80s as a golden age for D.C. punk.
Salad Days is currently touring theaters across the nation, making its Chicago premiere at the Vic on March 28 and 29. The doc (which met its Kickstarter goal of $32,000 in just six days) explores the heyday of D.C.'s DIY punk scene, during which the likes of Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Government Issue, Faith, Void, and Marginal Man honed a regional style of hyperdriven punk at all-ages shows in and around the nation's capital. Though Salad Days largely focuses on the influential Dischord Records label founded by Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, the film also manages to incorporate a wider circle of interview subjects. The doc traces D.C. hardcore in a kind of birth-death-rebirth structure—along the way, the film illustrates how an explosion of interest brought the young scene-makers new sets of challenges (violence, sexism, politics) as the 80s progressed.
Superfans of D.C. punk may still learn a thing or two, but on the whole the doc plays to a more casual, but nonetheless curious, music fan. It also seeks to clarify some misunderstandings about D.C. hardcore—for instance, we're set straight on emo, the origins of the straight-edge movement, and the scenester's entry into political activism. Salad Days sometimes leaves us curious about questions it raises: Why, for example, did those D.C. bands not last very long (as Swiz's Jason Farrell observes)?
The doc is jam-packed with glorious and grainy live footage, still photography, and incendiary music from a broad range of acts, including the Slickee Boys, Egg Hunt, and Mission Impossible. (If Salad Days doesn't scratch your itch for this sort of thing, visit Sohrab Habibion's Vimeo channel, in which he has uploaded hours of D.C. hardcore shows he filmed as a teen, some of which appear in the film.) Salad Days is a homegrown production, too, from director-writer Scott Crawford (former editor-in-chief at Harp magazine) and director of photography Jim Saah (a longtime D.C. rock photographer).The film's incidental music was written and performed by Michael Hampton (guitarist for S.O.A., the Faith, and Embrace).
I called up Crawford, who began documenting D.C. punk with Metrozine at age 12, to find out more about the challenges of telling the D.C. hardcore story on film.
The film is a bit of a fan's journey, in some sense, in that we see the changes through your eyes. Was that intentional?
I did come of age in this scene—I wanted to explore that a bit in the original story line. It became harder and harder to talk about that—it just wasn't comfortable to me. I wanted to create some context for people who may or may not have been there; you wanna create something that's objective and unbiased. There's nothing worse than watching a biopic by somebody who just wasn't there at all.
I often get caught up in details, and I think perhaps the stuff I'm interested in would be hard to put in this film. I know you can't go down every avenue when you're making a film like this.
That was one of my biggest challenges. I saw this stuff, I heard a lot of stories growing up, and I witnessed stuff firsthand. My original outline touched on material that I was not able to find a place for. It was tough, because I'm kind of a geek about music in general—independent music in the last 30 years, 25 years.
I knew so many little details and weird firsthand accounts of things that I wanted to be a part of the narrative, but there wasn't a way to weave those in there and make it make sense. Midway through I realized that the stuff I might find interesting isn't something the average audience member might care about. If there's room for it in the extras, we'll put it there.
My initial path was way too bogged down in the details. Honestly, you, me, and like 20 other people in the world would have been like, "Oh yeah, totally." But early on we realized, "OK, this is inside baseball, no one cares about this shit." I had to stick to more general themes.
You had to take ten-plus years and pull out the story arc. It wasn't easy. The film took me almost four years.
When the film starts, you're dropped right into it. There's no setup, there's no buildup—it's like "Boom!" Ian [MacKaye] was kind of the device to kind of set up the whole story. When the film starts you're only seeing Ian, Henry [Rollins], Ian, Henry, Mark [Sullivan] . . . you're only seeing a few people. All of a sudden, as the story gets bigger and bigger, you start to see a lot more people. That's what I was trying to do. I was trying to show how small it was and how big it got.
I liked how later in the film, you're peppering more things and other people in the background, with the footage of United Mutation and such. I came away from this thinking, "Wow, this must have been very tough to do."
You began documenting this scene at a young age—what was the trigger for you to make this documentary now?
I asked myself that a lot. I don't know what the trigger was. It was a story I'd been wanting to tell for a very long time. Initially, I thought I could do it in a book, but obviously doing a book you're leaving out a huge part of what the story is about, which is the music. There's only so many adjectives you can use to describe the music. I just felt like that was central to what the story was about. So that's when I shifted my focus to a film concept.
I had done a consumer music magazine called Harp for eight years and made a living at it. Then 2008 came around and that was sort of the year all magazines died, at least music magazines. I was looking for what my next move was going to be. As my son turned 12, I started looking at the past. Having your son almost as your mirror, I was like, "What's my next move going to be?"
I'm going to do this. I can do a good job and maybe a few people would like it. Photographer Jim Saah—whom I've known since I was a kid—and I had continued to be in touch. It took some convincing, but then he came on board.
There's a bit of an angle in the film of correcting typical misconceptions about the D.C. punk scene. What are those misconceptions about D.C. hardcore?
I think there are a lot of them. I know from my own experience, any time I went to another scene or another city and people would ask me where I'm from and they'd go "Oh god, Ian, straight edge," or "Oh, are you an emo kid?" Or, "You're like a Positive Force, self-righteous kid."
A lot of what happened in that decade was very polarizing. For someone reading about it in a fanzine, I get it—I might be alienated, too. So I wanted to address some of those things—"Straight Edge," in particular. I think that song cast a shadow in D.C. at the time. I certainly remember Ian hanging out and having a great time with people who were drinking and smoking. It was never what it became later. That song and "movement" became perverted. Other people took that song and that message and they created something a lot more militant. That's not what I remember it being or the spirit of the time.
I felt like there were so many things that could have been talked about, even if you knew nothing of the scene at that time. I think the themes are universal enough that you could relate to them.
With emo, I wanted to point out that that was a term that started here. It was sort of meant to be funny. When my 16-year-old kid is using it in his everyday language, in my mind, it needed exploring. This is a term that's become a part of the American vocabulary. It started here.
Any things that weren't the way you thought they were when you looked into it?
You see me in the film and I was pretty young. Luckily I had a zine that I could go back and look at. So the main thing was to talk to other people and say, "This is how I remember it." Was my 13-year-old brain not seeing it the way you did? When you're so young, you tend to see things so black-and-white. With the film, I was more interested in the gray area. I wanted to get set straight on certain events that I might have gotten wrong. For the most part, my memory was intact.
Was there an effort to be inclusive of bands and people? It seems to get more inclusive in the latter half of the film.
I was trying to show that as the world got bigger—you suddenly had more opinions. As a kid, having friends that were experiencing a lot that was happening, I would hear so many sides to what was going on. I wanted to explore that and show that and make it as honest as I could. Whether it was Positive Force or straight edge, I don't remember everyone not being on board for what was going on.
I remember what Steve from Marginal Man told me when I asked him, "Why weren't you there?" about the punk percussion protests. He just said, and this was fascinating, "I didn't know what that was. I called over to Dischord house to ask how the album was doing one day and Jeff said, 'Hey, we're doing this thing called punk percussion protest at the South African embassy to protest apartheid. You should come down.' When I got off the phone, I was like, did he say 'punk percussion?' I had a full-time job—I couldn't come down there." As a kid, you think, "Everyone's on board with this." It wasn't that he wasn't on board—it was that he didn't know everything that was happening in the scene. That kind of stuff was interesting to me.
In some ways, the film is about a different form of tribalism. It's hard for people who have lived with mainstream ideas about what punk is . . . D.C. punk is so different from the goofy version. You have to explain all that before you tell the stories. You have to define this tribe, right?
You have to put all this stuff in context. It's not Darby Crash or the LA punk scene. It's not New York with Lower East Side street kids making punk rock. It was important to me to show those distinctions.
You start with Dischord, but there seems like a conscious effort to include the earlier D.C. labels. Skip Groff's Limp Records gets a nod and you weave a lot of other music in there.
Countless labels had done what they'd done, but Dischord took it and made it their own. I just wanted to show the amount of music that was being released in the 80s—there's a ton of it. It felt like a month didn't go by without a new release locally. So that was an important thing to show. Skip's label was really the model for what Dischord would become. Who knows how many labels took what Ian did and made it their own? What happened here in terms of putting out records was special. As Ian said, Dangerhouse in LA was an early model for them. Dangerhouse folded after two or three years.
The documentary explores the gender imbalance in the 80s D.C. scene. Was that something you had to draw out in interviews?
A little bit. It was something I wanted to address. There was a section that didn't make it in the film, a scene where there was a discussion among a lot of the women in the scene along with men in the Dischord scene or whatever you want to call it—an actual sit-down where they said, "What the fuck, this is not working, we've got to talk about this." That to me, editorially speaking, that really was fascinating to me, that this group of kids, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds would have the wherewithal to have an actual sit-down meeting to talk about this. It's not that different from them doing the same thing about all-ages shows.
Or with Revolution Summer: What are we going to do? The scene is exploding and a lot of people said, "This is really ugly and I don't want to do this anymore." There was this conscious decision to make change and that's huge considering the age of these people. These were all real-world challenges that were happening at the time. There was this constant evolution that happened and it wasn't just musical. It was intellectual and spiritual.
Is there something about D.C. as a cultural melting pot with its politics and a lot of educated young people there that made this punk explosion inevitable?
Absolutely. I can't tell you how that played out musically. It was clearly a part of it from the very beginning. It's what makes D.C. different from the rest of the country. It's a really powerful town. A lot of these kids are the kids of lobbyists, lawyers, politicians. These kids are seeing this stuff played out on a daily basis. How this finds its way into the music is something I'm not sure we'll ever know.