Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement in Washington, D.C.

Birthplace of Dave Chappelle and Duke Ellington, the Washington, D.C. of the mid-nineteen-seventies to early nineteen eighties was a city still recovering from the riots that engulfed it after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. Like most big cities across the country, it was segregated along racial and class lines. A battleground of the antiwar and civil rights protests cradled in the nineteen sixties, the early to mid-nineteen seventies will usher home-rule for Washingtonians around the same period when Go-go music was establishing itself as the soundtrack to the emerging “chocolate city”.

This was the Washington, D.C. of Marion Barry, the Mayor for Life; it was a place still recovering from the political dramas that was Watergate. It was the place that gave Hollywood Deep Throat and “All the President’s Men.” As much a city of scoop-digging journos and Reaganomics, but in many respects, D.C., like most US cities of the era, was still slumped in the heroine high that trailed soldiers returning home from Vietnam. And like most US cities, D.C. then like now was segregated along class and racial lines.

While the D.C. of 2019 is obviously different from what it was in the seventies, yet unsurprisingly, in the eyes of visitors and transients, Washington, D.C.’s identity remains anchored to the federal government and institutions that constitute the basis of the city’s founding. It is no wonder then that for the likes of those scribes confined to the city’s ivory towers and bow-tied cocktail dinners, the names 9:30 club and Madam’s Organ might not have any particular significance.

However for the local teens who flocked to these venues for refuge — guitars and drum kits in tow — between the years 1976–1983, defying the racial and class differences that colored their city, these places represent prominent markers not only in their development as individuals and artists but as the founding elements of the sound movement that the recently released documentary, “Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement in Washington, D.C.” excavates from its pre-Madams Organ roots in the early seventies, its rise from the mid-nineteen seventies to the early nineteen eighties.

“If D.C. seems like a town where punk shouldn’t happen then maybe that’s exactly where it should happen; it did make us want to scream,” recalls Jake Whipp of White Boy, one of the bands to emerge from the era featured in the documentary.

Director James June Schneider, like most teens of his generation and background, was part of a skating crew whose soundtrack was being made by bands whose shows he frequented, he recalls that he came of age after the local punk movement had already established itself.

“I grew up in D.C. when punk rock had already gone through its two main transformations: the first being the coalescing of the scene at (the original) Madams Organ in 1979 and the second being Revolution Summer in 1985. So I wasn’t a witness to either of those but Paul Bishow the co-creator of our film was front and center at Madams Organ.”

Nonetheless, Schneider credits the city’s punk movement for not only impacting his life but also providing the basis of his own creative impulses.

“It created a framework within which I felt I could develop creatively with a better sense of direction, a sense of wanting to be part of something bigger than just yourself and a sense of maybe knowing yourself better,” said Schneider.

Despite his attachment to the movement, Schneider reveals that making the film resulted in new discoveries that remain fascinating even for someone who was familiar with its history.

“There was a whole untold story about the original Madams Organ Artist’s Co-op that I discovered… It is the centerpiece of our film and it echoes throughout the 88 minutes. At one point we entertained the idea of doing a film about just Madams Organ, but that wasn’t the film’s destiny. PS: Madams Organ should not to be confused with the blues bar, also on 18th street who usurped the name,” wrote Schneider in an email to this writer.

At once a testament of the singular role these creative shrines played in the emergence of bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, The Enzymes, Bad Brains, Fugazi among other bands who will define the ethos and pulse of the movement, the film also explores the context from which the sound that will propel some of these bands to the iconic status they now occupy in the punk imagination while also establishing D.C. as a mecca of Hardcore punk and significant donor — however unheralded — to the American sound.

The filmmakers, pictured from L-R, Sam Lavine, Paul Bishow and James June Schneider (photo courtesy of Christopher Grady)

While 88 minutes is not sufficient to fully capture the undercurrents that defined the movement’s spirit, filmmakers Paul Bishow, Sam Lavine and Schneider film pay a timely homage to the teens whose youthful angst fueled the sound movement that distinguished D.C.’s punk sound from others. And though many of the members of the bands that drove the movement have outlived the party of their early years and the grownups in power like Nixon and Reagan who defined the social and political atmosphere of their youth, the film illustrates how, as grownups, the likes of Anne Bonafede, Sharon Cheslow, Cynthia Connolly, Martha Hull, HR, Darryl Jenifer, Ian Mackaye, Alec Mackaye, and Henry Rollins have not strayed too far from their punk roots. Their anecdotal contributions to this film is a reminder of the range of philosophical inclinations that drove the sound that made a significant mark on the city’s identity.

Besides being a trove of the era’s archival footage from the movement’s peak and retrospective reflections from its major players, “Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement in Washington, D.C.,” promises to inspire conversations about D.C. music history, a changing city, but perhaps also about the possibilities that lie ahead.

Schneider, who spent thousands of hours immersed in that history, is optimistic about the state of the city’s music scene. After spending years working and talking to those who led the city’s punk movement in the past, he considers himself a bigger fan of the music now than before he started the project.

“I’ve learned so much about the rich origins of the D.C. punk history that had largely been untold. So my appraisal? D.C. punk is alive and well! It’s not something in the past and its impact continues to spread in all kinds of ways. There’s also something of a renaissance going on now and I hope our film is part of making that happen!” Schneider said.

D.C. Curated covers Art, Food and People in the District and surrounding region.

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