I know, I know, another documentary on DC punk rock. If you think the need for more documentation of the scene is redundant or indulgent, I get it, trust me: in the last ten or so years, books, docs, and podcasts have come out of the woodwork, hashing and rehashing accepted histories, codifying them, often at the expense of participants who aren’t white dudes. At this point, a healthy sense of skepticism is part of watching any documentary or reading any history, especially when D.C. is involved.
This skepticism is the framing device for Punk the Capital, a documentary film by filmmakers James Schneider and Paul Bishow. One of the film’s most distinctive qualities is its archival footage—starting in the late ’70s, Bishow brought a Super 8 camera to shows with him. The resulting clips are astounding: Bishow was at early gigs by all the progenitors of the DC scene, filming bands like Bad Brains, Teen Idles, and S.O.A. His camera wasn’t always kind, which makes for fascinating viewing. The grainy intro shots of Washington DC, with its grime and rows of boarded-up houses, immediately establish the filmmaker’s credibility, making the music scene more art of the city and less elevated to a pedestal. And the bands themselves? Jeez, everyone was so little in 1979, you know? Henry Rollins is skinny! Ian MacKaye has zits! None of this should be surprising, of course, but previous docs have sometimes felt airbrushed by telling and retelling the same stories.
I mentioned skepticism up above. In 1985, Flipside published a famous family tree of the D.C. scene, following members of bands as they broke up and reconfigured into new outfits. Boyd Farrell of Black Market Baby wrote a letter to Flipside arguing that the family tree was incomplete, and discussed all the missing entries. Farrell appears onscreen in Punk the Capital, reading his letter as a framing device. Following Farrell’s lead, the film shows viewers the shift from a traditional rock scene in clubs, with early D.C. bands like the Slickee Boys and White Boy playing to audiences old enough to drink. From there, the focus shifts to Bad Brains, who even in their early days were completely blazing onstage—H.R. probably stuck a perfect backflip moments after being born, you know? Amazing. Rather than playing clubs, Bad Brains and the first wave of harDCore bands played an old yippie art gallery/crash pad in the Adams Morgan district of D.C. called (wait for it) Madam’s Organ. The space’s penumbra of burnt-out, aging ex-hippies showed the young D.C. punks the end result of substance abuse—better to be straight and fully cognizant. And Madam’s Organ also proved that all ages shows were a viable option. After Madam’s Organ shut down—and after D.C. bands played any number of benefit shows for a new, all-ages space which never materialized—the scene shifted to the first incarnation of the 9:30 Club. The downside is the invasion of suburban kids, mostly male, making women in the scene feel ostracized.
Punk the Capital is a film that’s deeply aware of the way music histories are told, retold, and eventually transformed into hagiography. I’m a huge nerd about D.C. stuff, and went into this one wondering why I needed to watch another D.C. doc. The answers are numerous and satisfying: a new telling of the scene’s origins, new footage, and focus on bands like the Enzymes and the Nurses that haven’t traditionally gotten much discussion. Great stuff. –Michael T. Fournier (punkthecapital.info)