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That punk music pioneer Henry Rollins once worked in a Haagen-Dazs ice cream store, of all places, is but one of the fascinating tidbits unearthed in Scott Crawford‘s exhaustive and sometimes exhausting documentary whose subtitle, A Decade of Punk in Washington, D.C. (1980-1990) illustrates its textbook ethos. Geared mostly to those hardcore music fans who can identify such bands as Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Fugazi, among others, Salad Days is a comprehensive examination of the relatively little-known but highly influential music scene.
That the director was a teenager who created a fanzine documenting the scene is evident in the film’s methodical approach, which includes generous amounts of archival performance footage — much of it the black-and-white, grainy variety that perfectly suits the subject — and contemporary interviews with many of the key players, including such well-known musicians as Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Dave Grohl, the latter a member of the D.C. band Scream before eventually joining Nirvana.
With one interview subject describing the one-industry government town as “a petri dish of great ideas,” the film relates how the movement began in its Georgetown hub, with many of the musicians being the offspring of relatively well-heeled parents. Many testify to the importance of the African-American punk band Bad Brains, which infused its sound with reggae, R&B and soul influences.
“A black punk band but cool!” Rollins enthuses.
Thriving in their rebellion against the Reagan era, several of the bands were unhappy with certain aspects of the scene. The Teen Idles came to insist on an “all ages” policy for their shows, with underage patrons marked by X’s on their hands, signifying that they couldn’t be served alcohol. Another band, Minor Threat, released a song called “Straight Edge,” promoting refraining from the use of alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs.
Other topics addressed in the proceedings include the rise of go-go, a brand of funk music particular to D.C. whose primary stars were Chuck Brown and the band Trouble Funk — “The beat become just as important as the song,” one musician points out; the rise of crime in the area, which resulted in frequent violent attacks on the musicians by street gangs; and the disturbing prevalence of slam dancing, verbal abuse and rampant misogyny among audience members.
The latter led to the 1985 “Revolution Summer” in which many of the hardcore bands pushed for a more positive approach and booked themselves in less violent venues.
“Let’s play for each other again” became the rallying cry.
The now middle-aged interview subjects often rail about such unsafe practices as the ubiquitous stage diving, with one commenting, “So many necks were injured or broken.”
The DIY approach — many of the bands were signed to the still operating independent label Dischord Records, founded by musicians Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, both of the bands Minor Threat and The Teen Idles — provided an atmosphere of liberation that suited the anarchic music. That it eventually evolved into such things as “emo” rock — a term derisively referred to by Grohl, among others — is something that still clearly rankles some of the main players.
A valuable if fairly esoteric addition to the music documentary genre, Salad Days is receiving a limited theatrical rollout, with its primary audiences more likely to discover it in home video formats.
Production: New Rose Films
Director/screenwriter/producer: Scott Crawford
Executive producers: Jim Saah, Scott Crawford
Director of photography/editor: Jim Saah
Composer: Michael Hampton
Not rated, 103 min.
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