'Salad Days': The Story Behind the D.C. Hardcore Doc

A new movie chronicles the rise of the Eighties DIY punk scene in our nation's capitol

Minor Threat singer Ian MacKaye, right, schools fellow punk rockers at the 9:30 Club in 1983.

In 1984, Scott Crawford was a scrawny 12-year-old living in the D.C. suburbs when his friend's sister played him a few records by some local bands. The music was fast, the lyrics were screamed or barked, and the groups had names like Minor Threat and Government Issue; within as afternoon, the budding punk-rocker was hooked. "I wasn't into any of the typical things that kids were into," Crawford says. "And for whatever reason, I became really preoccupied with [those bands]. I read every fanzine I could, bought every record I could — I just immersed myself in the whole thing."

Despite his age and the fact that "I was half the size of everyone else," Crawford began going to hardcore shows at venues like the 9:30 Club and DC Space. He even started his own fanzine, MetroZine; for the first issue, he interviewed Dischord Records co-founder and scene patriarch Ian MacKaye. "I felt some kind of connection to these people I didn't know, thanks to this shared experience," he remembers. "It was heavy stuff for a 12-year-old to discover — but it changed my life."

Now, 30 years after the D.C. hardcore scene was in its heyday, Crawford is revisiting those bands, their fans and the fostering of a homegrown youth subculture. His documentary, Salad Days, takes a stem-to-stern look at the evolution of the punk scene in our nation's capitol, capturing performances by everyone from pioneers like the Bad Brains and their fellow Eighties progenitors (Dag Nasty, S.O.A., Scream, Marginal Man) to later acts such as Embrace and Fugazi. Subtitled "A Decade of Punk in Washington, D.C. (1980-1990)," the movie not only acts as a musical primer but as a monument to a moment: when punk was both a way to find kinship with like-minded oddballs and a tool for fighting issues like racism and economic disparity. (It opens in New York City this weekend.)

Crawford approached the project with a fan's zeal, arranging interviews with roughly 100 people who'd either been directly involved in the D.C. scene (MacKaye, Dave Grohl, Henry Rollins), or were on its periphery (author George Pelecanos, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Portlandia's Fred Armisen). "People were really accessible," he says. "They gave us amazing access to a lot of their personal collections, whether it was photos or scrapbooks or demo tapes or videos or fliers."

Crawford also brought former scene photographer Jim Saah on board to help assemble this cinematic scrapbook; he'd started documenting D.C. bands in 1982, when he first shot a Minor Threat and Government Issue concert, and dozens of his images appear in the film. "It was a pretty amazing experience to go through all that stuff again," he explains. "Looking at every frame 30 years later, there was so much more that I never took note of at the time. A lot of crowd photos or things that didn't mean as much to me at the time now take on a new meaning."

There's no question that the region's scene was influential in terms of music — bands still namecheck the Bad Brains and the Faith, and the term "emo" was first associated with Guy Picciotto's pre-Fugazi group Rites of Spring. But its true lasting effect may have been associating punk rock with idealism rather than nihilism, and the age's template for fostering a vital, self-sustaining underground — self-made labels and zines, all-ages shows, book-your-own-show spaces — can still be found in full effect in cities like Brooklyn and San Francisco. "The DIY thing has become so empowering," Crawford explains. "Someone asked me the other day, 'Well, what made you think you could do this film?' And I'm not sure I would have been able to think I could pull this off has I not come from that period of time where you were encouraged to be yourself and have the courage to do it and the willingness to try something and fail."

Crawford is even seeing that attitude around the film's release: "I'm getting these great emails from these kids — they're not promoters, they're not bookers, they just say 'Hey, I wanna screen this film, how do I do this?' They'll go out and find the space and rent the projector, charge five bucks, and it's exactly what the film is supposed to be about. It's beautiful."