Washington DC has a reputation for being a town about politics and only politics. But what a lot of people don’t know is that DC was ground zero of a major punk movement in the 70’s and 80’s. Some pretty big names came out of this city from that time that you will definitely recognize. The music that has come from this city has been groundbreaking and had popularity that extended far beyond the beltway.
Georgetown looks pretty different now than it did in the 1970’s and 80’s. M Street was lined with Mom and Pop stores that people lament the loss of to this day. While the Ramones were playing CBGB in New York City, a little Georgetown University radio station shuttled punk to the forefront of the DC music scene.
In 1976, a bar called Keg in Glover Park hosted a band – Overkill. The reception was not even lukewarm. People wanted the rock and metal bands popular at the time. Between the radio station and a couple bands like Overkill, the next few years were peppered with people trying to bring punk to life. The radio station was shutdown by the President of Georgetown U.
In Sept 1977, a man named Skip Groff opened a record store in Rockville, MD, called Yesterday and Today. He intended for it to be a place for people to find 60’s music but when he realized that the punk records were flying off his shelves, he paid attention. His store becomes a place to get the records that they
In 1978, some of the early punk musicians were looking for places to practice and ultimately play. They found it in the Atlantic Building, which housed a venue called Atlantis. They played for free in exchange for rehearsal space. Atlantis was the main punk venue for a year. Until it closed. But it reopened in 1980 with a different name – one that everyone in DC knows. Hint – The address was 930 F Street.
The beginnings of punk in DC were typically in the “white” neighborhoods. As expected, these kids who brought the punk scene weren’t welcomed with open arms. People were coming off disco, listening to what we would now call classic rock – Boston, ELO Aerosmith. These guys were threatened by the punks.
Then a band, Bad Brains, formed by two black teenagers from SE DC, became the first breakout band, and the one to watch. When they play the Bayou, a club in Georgetown on June 24, 1979, a bunch of skater kids from Wilson H.S. used fake ID’s to get in. They are so enamored with this scene, they form their own band.
Ian Mackaye starts in a band called the Teen Idles. They lasted a year, made a record, formed a record label and then broke up by 1980. The record label was Dischord Records, which MacKaye started from his parent’s basement on Beecher Street in Glover Park.
They decided that all the people they knew in other bands – they would put out their records too. Their roadie from the Teen Idles, a guy named Henry Garfield – started S.O.A. – State of Alert. Their record was the second put out by Dischord.
These guys were high school kids. Henry Garfield worked at Haagen Dazs in Georgetown, which was at 1438 Wisconsin Ave. He went on to manage it. Ian MacKaye worked at Georgetown theatre across the street.
They move to a bungalow in Arlington so they can all live (and work) (and play) together. Ian goes on to front a band called Minor Threat.
They called the walk from Haagen Dazs to the Key Bridge a “terror walk” because the bars had patrons spilling into the street, ready to fight a punk for how they looked.
1981 – Henry Garfield who is singing for S.O.A. gets a chance to audition for a band Black Flag which was a pretty big deal. And, they hired him. Henry moved to L.A., leaving behind both D.C. and the last name Garfield. He is now Henry Rollins.
Kids below drinking age wanted to see these bands, Ian worked out with the 9:30 club that these kids get a black x on their hand. Ends up being the subject of Minor Threat song, “Straight Edge.” That’s where the term was born to describe someone who doesn’t drink, do drugs.
Dischord Records was criticized for not working with every band sent their way. They really wanted to keep the focus on the DC scene. They have stayed true to that “business” model.
First few years of the scene were not violent. The city was boarded up in many areas, and these neighborhoods lent themselves well to hosting a punk show in an abandoned building. In the mid 80’s, as more people joined “the scene” things took a turn. A new group of punk kids came into the scene but for them it was about drinking, doing drugs and being vandals.
1983 – The punks were running out of places to play their music. A place in Dupont just north of the circle at 1738 Connecticut Avenue called “Food for Thought” became a new hangout place. It was owned by a man Bob Ferrando. Bob’s son Dante who was in a few local punk bands as well, went on to open a club in DC named after the club his great-grandfather opened in NYC many decades earlier – the Black Cat.
What happened to Food for Thought? It closed in 1999 and became Bistrot du Coin.
1984 – There’s another wave of punk coming as more high school bands form and start playing. There’s a high school freshman named Dave who was a guitarist for a band and who was teaching himself to play drums.
Summer of 85 was “Revolution Summer” – the original punk scene was disenchanted with the new wave of violence.
Some new music and bands hitting the scene were singing about different topics – suicide of a friend, having a heart broken. This ends up being another wedge in the punk community of those who were “emo” for “emo-core” and those who weren’t.
Social activism of 1985, punk scene joins the apartheid protests in front of the South African Embassy, in the footsteps of a group called Positive Force, flex their muscles in the political activism arena. Concerts to benefit the homeless, spreading awareness of AIDS. Not all bands on board with this – just b/c they were in DC didn’t mean they wanted to be associated with politics. (totally get it.)
1986 – That high school freshman, Dave, was now 17 left his original band and dropped out of high school to join a band called Scream.
1987 – In come the women. The first chapter of female bands were very much about the music. The scene wasn’t exactly hospitable to them as audience members.
Ian MacKaye started another band – Fugazi. Some may say the music had a bit more mass appeal. They end up being popular tour internationally. These bands were never into political issues, but as their following grew and they got older, they started taking stances against the skinhead racist punk that had emerged, against the attacks of women, gay men, people of color.
Major record labels were paying attention. It was hard for some of these bands to look away – they were touring relentlessly and playing in towns where their records weren’t available. Signing with a label meant an end to that. This scene though was very anti-establishment, so getting signed was truly selling out. Fugazi is approached by the same man who signed Mick and the Stones. They said no.
DC Space and 9:30 club – both downtown continued to be the main venues where the bands play
Nirvana saw that high school kid Dave play and wanted a drummer like him. You probably know how this one ends…When Dave Grohl auditioned for Nirvana, he can’t believe they have 1000 people at their shows because the only local band he had seen with those numbers in attendance was Fugazi.
1991 – All girl punk band Bikini Kill – members start a fanzine, Riot Grrrl movement to represent the women in punk.
Nirvana’s Nevermind is out. Smells Like Teen Spirit video captures the crowd stage diving. Then this starts happening at the shows.
Crime is up in DC and nationwide. DC space closes, real estate crash hits the city. And this is where punk changes. Parts of the movement came into mainstream – and that is what we coin “grunge” music. Other parts remained what they would say “true to themselves” and didn’t do the media interview requests from Spin, Rolling Stone and MTV. It was definitely NOT in their plans to sign to a label.