A vivid look at a vibrant era
The 1980s punk-rock scene in Washington becomes the subject of a coffee-table book
The 1980s punk-rock fans who squeezed into Madam’s Organ, moshed at the Wilson Center and experienced latenight ecstasies at the 9:30 Club’s “harDCore” matinees were a diverse lot. But they surely had at least one thing in common: None of them ever thought, “Someday this will be the subject of a coffee-table book.”
Those spectators — who included me — lacked the foresight to anticipate “Spoke: Images and Stories from the 1980s Washington, DC Punk Scene.” This largeformat hardcover packs about 150 photographs, mostly blackand-white, alongside short oral histories of 25 local bands formed between 1977 and 1989.
Most of the featured musicians caused not a ripple in the pop mainstream, but the scene did produce influential cult acts such as Bad Brains, Rites of Spring and Fugazi. Its most famous alumnus is Dave Grohl, who went from Scream to Nirvana and then to Foo Fighters.
“Spoke” was compiled and designed by Scott Crawford, who graduated from an ’80s punk fanzine to editing and art-directing two professional music magazines, Harp and Blurt. He also penned a few of the book’s introductions to the bands, although most were written by others.
“Spoke” is, in a sense, a DVD extra. It grew from “Salad Days,” Crawford’s 2014 documentary that covered the same subject in a different format. The book allows the filmmaker to salvage remarks that didn’t make it into the final cut, although it also contains some that did. Many of the photos are by Jim Saah, Crawford’s collaborator on the movie.
The pictures, which include some posed portraits but are mostly concert shots, are the chief attraction. They freeze moments of adolescent release, vein-bulging intensity and sweaty communion that fuse performer and audience.
“Salad Days” was named for a song by Minor Threat, a group fronted by Ian MacKaye. “Spoke” takes its title from a song by Embrace, a subsequent MacKaye band. That’s not a fluke: MacKaye has long been D.C. hardcore punk’s de facto (if sometimes reluctant) spokesman. Nearly every band chronicled in the book is linked to MacKaye or the label he co-founded, Dischord.
Yet that wasn’t the full universe of 1980s D.C. punk. “Spoke” spotlights just one band, Black Market Baby, whose members were “older” — that is, over 19 — as the decade began. (Crawford was 12 when he discovered the local punk scene, circa 1984.) A few other groups outside the Dischord galaxy are mentioned, but only in passing.
The absence of a larger context (also an issue with “Salad Days”) distorts the significance of certain developments. One example is the belated flowering of women in what was initially a testosteronesloshed demi-scene. Only two groups chronicled in “Spoke” have female members, and the first, Fire Party, doesn’t arrive until 1986. But nearly a dozen D.C. punk outfits with female musicians had already debuted before the book’s chronology even begins.
Such oversimplifications make “Spoke” a poor introduction for outsiders, but the book isn’t really meant for them. Names and places are mostly unannotated, so that only local punk veterans will fully understand the stories being told. Even the locations in photo captions are sometimes vague.
But the photos themselves are vivid and evocative. In addition to Saah’s, there are fine shots by Lucian Perkins, Cynthia Connolly, Peter Muise, Chris Carilli and others whose names are lost to the ages. The most unfortunate omission is the extraordinary 1982 work of Rebecca Hammel, a few of whose images are glimpsed in “Salad Days.”
It’s amusing to speculate where copies of “Spoke” will reside. On a shelf with vinyl reissues of Dischord classics? Mounted on a wall next to a skateboard emblazoned with the D.C. flag’s stars and bars? At the bottom of a stack of YA novels, all unread by a retired punker's juniorhigh-age kids? If a copy does end up on an actual coffee table, let’s hope it’s one supported by two battered practice amps.
TOP: Ian MacKaye at the Wilson Center in 1983. “Spoke: Images and Stories from the 1980s Washington, DC Punk Scene” has oral histories of 25 local bands formed in the ’70s and ’80s.
SPOKE Images and Stories from the 1980s Washington, DC Punk Scene