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Minor Threat, 1983Photography Jim Saah

Immortalising Washington D.C’s 80s punk revolution

Following up his 2014 doc ‘Salad Days’ on the U.S capital’s hardcore scene with his latest book, Scott Crawford reflects on the state of the electrifying subculture then and now

Punk: a term that's arguably been thrown around in a number of circles over the past years, whether that be in fashion or fonts. In the UK we recently watched what some called the demise of this movement, with Joseph Corré opting to burn the remainder of his 70s memorabilia. It’s a subculture that’s arguably been commodified to the point, as some might say, of no return to true subversion. 

Across the pond, however, Scott Crawford, the man behind the acclaimed documentary Salad Days, has given us another taste of the best-kept secret of 80s in his new book Spoke: Washington DC’s hardcore punk scene. As Crawford tells us, D.C was the catalyst for hardcore stardom, with a number of bands including Minor Threat, SOA (Henry Rollins’ first band) and Bad Brains all carving their place as pioneers of the genre in the capital, each oozing individuality and brutal social engagement. The fans would flock and lose themselves in the sonic maelstrom of revolution against the Reagan institution, all with “The White House in their backyard”. We spoke to Crawford, a man who himself found solace in hardcore shows and in the depths of his own fanzines, on the state of punk today and why a creative revolution is both imminent and necessary during these troubled political times.

Tell me about D.C's punk scene and the genesis of Spoke.

Scott Crawford: Well I grew up in DC in the 80s and was really a part of the DC hardcore scene at a pretty young age, starting from around 12. It was just a very pivotal time for me and a lot of other people. That scene really changed my life in more ways than I'm even aware of. The film seemed to resonate with a lot of people, but I felt like in a lot of ways I wasn't done yet. Akashic books approached me about doing something based on the film and I thought it was a great opportunity to maybe include some folks that I wasn't able to in the film and paint a better picture of some of the individual bands. Each chapter is a band and there are about 20 bands. It's all anecdotal, so just quotes from various people about specific bands. Telling the full arc of each band in each chapter. There's so much amazing photography that didn't make it into the film and it just made sense to me. 

“When you think about Fugazi for example, they were so outspoken about social issues, and that’s just a part of anyone’s DNA that’s born and raised in D.C. You’ve got the White House in your backyard” – Scott Crawford

Why do you think D.C specifically was the bedrock of this scene? Did the location play a large part in it?

Scott Crawford: I think there are a number of factors that I uncovered in the film. I think it's a combination of things – the punk rock scene was always socially active. When you think about Fugazi for example, they were so outspoken about social issues, and that's just a part of anyone's DNA that's born and raised in DC. You've got the White House in your backyard. A lot of the kids’ parents at that time were involved in some way with the government. Not only do you have a huge Federal Government workforce here but you have a lobby of lawyers, politicians, some of these kids were sons of politicians. It's just kind of part of our DNA. I think also the fact that we weren’t New York, we weren’t LA, we had something to prove. When you have the Bad Brains – they kind of raised the bar for everyone really early on. I think you have all those factors coming together. It was really fascinating to peel back some of the layers and get stories from information that I wasn't even aware of. I thought I kind of knew everything and I realised I didn't know a damn thing. It's fascinating.

What do you think of the current state of punk now? How has the scene in D.C changed?

Scott Crawford: Punk rock in general had been co-opted years ago, but there’s always going to be this grassroots level of DIY music. That'll always exist – you gotta hope it always exists. It’s kind of every generation's responsibility to push the boundaries and things like that. The DC scene there's more clubs now certainly than there were in the 80s. There's a really vibrant scene going on here, just as there are in all the other cities in the country. I think now with a President like Donald Trump I think you're going to find some incredible protest music being made in the next couple years and I hope a lot of that comes from the punk rock underground.

“That’s the beauty of punk rock is that those divisions don't exist... it wasn’t the rockstar bullshit. All those walls came down” – Scott Crawford

The best thing we can get out of this is some revolution from creatives.

Scott Crawford: Absolutely. I mean you're dealing with it too in the UK, with Brexit. But here it was like “Oh shit, Donald Trump's going to be our next president”. I just had a bad feeling and I was right, but if you think back to the 80s when you had Ronald Reagan in office, I don't know how many punk rock songs were written about him. So now we've got this asshole in office, I expect some really great revolutionary music. We've got to put a positive spin on this somehow. If we can’t, we’re all just going to curl up and die.

One thing I gathered from this scene was the bridge between the artist and the fan – there was no elitism like there is now where you can’t get near to these people. 

Scott Crawford: None. That’s the beauty of punk rock is that those divisions don’t exist. Maybe they do now but they didn’t then. It wasn’t the rockstar bullshit. All those walls came down. 

Do you think there’s room for that today or do you think the Internet has pulled us back?

Scott Crawford: I think it's brought us together. The kind of dynamic between audience member and artist, and the personal connection you can have now with bands, whether it's the band member tweeting you directly or you tweeting to them or on Facebook or whatever, that personal connection is now even greater than it was then. Back then you were in the audience and you could reach out and touch them and you felt like you were all just together in the room just celebrating this music and just reacting to it. It was crazy – the walls were sweating, it was great. I think that connection still exists in a very real way. 

Was it daunting coming into a scene like that at such a young age or was it welcoming?

Scott Crawford: It was welcoming actually. I think a lot of the older guys in the scene kind of looked out for me, that’s why nothing ever really happened to me. A couple shows were scary because you didn't know anybody, and there’s so much testosterone going on in a room and you're this little guy, but everyone was always really cool. There were certain times with Nazi skinheads and things like that, it got a little scary, but I’m sure you have that sort of stuff in England too. When I think about that I'm not sure how I survived some of those nights. I just sort of came of age during that time. And I was like a little dude. I still have people come up to me now and say “Oh I remember carrying you in the audience like on our back, you were the kid doing backflips onstage”.

It’s interesting that the punk scene, while it was ferocious, was quite a caring one. 

Scott Crawford: That was my experience – I think that exists today. You always have people that are going to ruin it and take it to a whole other level, but for the most part I think that still exists, maybe even more so today than it did then. People are a lot more aware in general. I think that punk has really become, especially the underground stuff, more synonymous with social issues.

Can you tell me about any of your favourite new pieces or stories you found while making the book?

Scott Crawford: The Minor Threat chapter was interesting to me because I had heard some of how it went down as far as the band breaking up, that it was an ugly break up, but I didn't realise some of the little nuances and dynamics between the members. That's all in the book. There are some photos that I'd never seen before that people had sent me after the film was done. The Rites Of Spring chapter I thought was really good, just talking about how much of an impact they made. They were kind of the original emo band before emo was emo. Every band has something of note in each chapter. There’s something I didn't know about or is just telling about them. The thing to remember is that so many of these guys and women were literally kids. We're talking 19, 20, 21, 22, some even younger. They made mistakes like every kid makes. It’s just interesting when we talk about it now and reflect. 

What has the process for the book been like in comparison to the film? Has it been more difficult?

Scott Crawford: It took a lot longer than I expected, it took over two years to put the whole thing together. It was challenging because you’re trying to tell the story or at least a portion of the story of each band, from when they first got together to when they broke up. It wasn’t always easy but I had a lot of fun doing it and I uncovered a lot of photos that I’d never seen before. It’s a coffee table book like it's 132 pages, mostly black and white photography but with some colour as well. 

“The thing to remember is that so many of these guys and women were literally kids. We’re talking 19, 20, 21, 22, some even younger” – Scott Crawford

You’re making a documentary about Creem Magazine, where are you with that?

Scott Crawford: When I was working on Salad Days I was sort of working on rough outlines on what a Creem documentary could be. It's a documentary that basically records the heyday of the magazine, throughout the 70s until the magazine folded in the 80s. It's really about the 70s. We're interviewing everyone from like Iggy Pop to Wayne Kramer from MC5 to Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. It's a real cross-section of people. It's a magazine that changed my life in a lot of ways. It was really where I discovered what real Rock n Roll journalism was all about, so it's how I made a living because it informed my career choices over the years. DC's punk scene and Creem were the two things that kind of changed my life. I'm working on the documentary right now and still doing interviews, but it’s funny when I was doing Salad Days a number of people I spoke to actually mentioned how Creem was the first magazine that they'd ever read about punk rock. It kind of makes sense as like a logical next project. But yeah, it's going to be a hell of a film and hopefully it'll be out early 2017. 

Spoke is available now in hard copy from here. Check out the Salad Days documentary here