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SALAD DAYS: A DECADE OF PUNK IN WASHINGTON DC (review)

Review by Clay N Ferno
Produced by Scott Crawford, Jim Saah
Written and Directed by Scott Crawford
Featuring Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore,
Fred Armisen, John Stabb, Dave Grohl,
J. Mascis

Wishing for the days
When I first wore this suit
Baby has grown older
It’s no longer cute
Too many voices
They’ve made me mute
Baby has grown ugly
It’s no longer cute

But I stay on, I stay on
Where do I get off?
On to greener pastures
The core has gotten soft

— Minor Threat, Salad Days (1985)

Reflecting on these lyrics thirty years later, the documentary Salad Days: A Decade Of Punk In Washington DC serves as a backstage pass to one of the most explosive and important hardcore punk scenes in this country.

One could argue that Ian MacKaye’s bands and Dischord Records label defined the look, attitude and stage behavior of East Coast hardcore and straight edge kids from up in Boston down to Gainesville for years to come.

This documentary puts the spotlight on McKaye and Jeff Nelson (Minor Threat, Dischord Records), Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Dave Grohl as well as horror comic writer Steve Niles (Gray Matter) among many others to patch together a decent image of D.C. punk in the 80s.

I was pretty stupid back then.

Well, let’s say uncultured. Let me go back. I was a teenager once.

Like many teenagers, I needed to rely on older siblings to clue me into my next move. It wasn’t my sister (Guns-N-Roses fan) that got me into punk rock. Rather, it was a complex web of a social circle and older siblings that circulated mix tapes of everything cool from Violent Femmes (who’s ‘Add it Up’ connected with me the way it could only connect with a virgin’s sex drive) to Minor Threat, we had it figured out.

And then we started our bands. The rest as they say is a rather boring personal history that means nothing besides that it was real. Real to us. Music, expression, Minor Threat and the Dead Kennedys and the through line to McKaye’s later band Fugazi and $5 shows was very real.

Hot summertime basements were filled with our bands. We scrawled giant X’s on our hands one week and then asked the same older brothers to buy us beer the next. We played next to washing machines and bicycles in the cellar and waited for the cops to come.

We bought army jackets, paint, sewed patches and made our own version of ‘The Sound of Punk to Come’. We weren’t very cool, but that’s what we were.

90% of what we were TRYING to do every day was to be like Minor Threat.

It turns out that in the infamous year that punk rock broke 1977, D.C. was going through some major ley line shit. The District of Columbia is already a turbulent place, the center of our National government, suits, lawmakers and income disparity.

Salad Days dives deep into the history of how the same kinds of kids that we were actually got it done. They put out their own records, made their own artwork and cared not what a label could do for them (and little as to what they could do with their label besides break even).

Arguably the best punk bands from the ‘80s came from D.C. — Bad Brains, Rites of Spring, Dag Nasty, S.O.A. to name a few.

Interspersed with interviews with surviving band members are outside observers Thurston Moore and J. Mascis. Moore and Mascis viewed D.C. from afar and J. Mascis relates a story of sending cash in the mail to the Dischord offices and getting a record he never ordered but that he really dug.

In 1980, Ian’s first band Teen Idles went on tour across the country and came up with the infamous “X” across the hands to indicate that fans were underage and not allowed to drink. This became the standard for getting all ages shows to happen at the infamous 9:30 Club but also inadvertently started a fashion statement for the teetotalers.

Inspired by Minor Threat’s song ‘Straight Edge’ coupled with the X marks started a Straight Edge movement. This cornerstone abstaining faction of hardcore kids is still strong today, some kids trading the Sharpie “X” for a permanently tattooed version.

To hear McKaye tell this story and also the other side of the fence (some D.C. bands drank plenty and thought the whole movement was and can be exclusionary — opposing other inclusionary aspects of the punk scene) was great and a welcome insight to what became a dominate political stance in punk rock. It all started just to get kids to see their favorite bands, really!

The amount of interviews in the documentary are too many to list and touch upon, but fans of punk and hardcore should look to this movie as a great resource.

A lot of the music business and even the fact that punk rock bands have become a commodity and a business itself has changed but the ethos of DIY (Do It Yourself) still rings through today.

Graphic Design is done on a computer (not as hands on as Nelson’s razor blade minimalist photocopy record covers and flyers) but you still can record a song by yourself and put it out into   the world on your own terms.

Listening to Ian and Henry Rollins talk about the good old days — excuse me, Salad Days — is something I’ll never get tired of. You get lots of that in this documentary.

Sometimes the film trails off into little tangents, but this is a mostly successful documentary.

One welcome tangent was the discussion of sexual politics of the early punk scene with members of female band Fire Party and how it wasn’t quite the same as the Riot Grrl scene that would happen soon after. Unfortunately, the Fire Party girls had to put up with a lot from the Boy’s Club.

Salad Days does it’s best to thread a solid narrative to a long ago time with the people that lived it.

It’s no Ken Burns documentary, but with lots of source material to show from the age of video and personal archives, the movie is great fun to watch.

Salad Days is currently playing and streaming via Vimeo and arrives on DVD & Blu-ray September 18th

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