When Black Flag first started shredding on the West Coast, DC was forming its own scene. Emerging from the small punk scene that had been established by bands like the Slickee Boys, DC hardcore maintained a largely DIY ethos. Because many of the venues were basements or churches, it lent itself to be more welcoming to younger punks than places like New York or Los Angeles, where most shows were in clubs and all ages venues were scarce.
In the dawn of DC hardcore, the Bad Brains formed in 1976. Initially they weren’t even a punk band – beginning as a jazz fusion band called Mind Power, they transitioned into a tougher sound after discovering bands like the Dead Boys and the Sex Pistols. Few bands at the time reached the momentous tempo their songs possessed, with H.R.’s snarling voice topping searing guitar licks from Dr. Know. Not only was their sound incredibly innovative, they were some of the first pioneers of all-African American punk groups (along with lesser-known Death from Detroit). They relocated to New York after they were “Banned In DC” for having notoriously wild shows with rough pits, but their impact on DC’s punk scene was ineradicable.
Georgetown University became a central location for the growing scene, with its student-run radio station WGTB being the primary means of access for teenagers in the community to discover new music. After WGTB was shut down, the students hosted a benefit that featured The Cramps. This was the first punk show that Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson ever attended, and its impact was obvious. Influenced by bands like the Bad Brains, the two formed the Teen Idles, an aggressive punk band with barking vocals and splitting guitar riffs. Their seminal EP, Minor Disturbance, laid the groundwork for the future of DCHC. MacKaye ultimately decided he wanted to be a frontman, and Minor Threat was spawned from the ashes of Teen Idles. Unarguably the most important band to come from that scene, Minor Threat had a huge influence on their peers and community. Bands like S.O.A. (featuring Henry Garfield, later Rollins), Void, The Faith (featuring Alec MacKaye), Iron Cross, Youth Brigade, and Government Issue formed in their wake. Straightedge, as a movement, also was started in part due to the efforts of Minor Threat, whose song “Out Of Step” declared “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t fuck.” Nelson and MacKaye also founded the pivotal record label, Dischord Records, which is still actively putting out albums today. Ian MacKaye also fronted several other influential bands, including Embrace and Fugazi.
Revolution Summer occurred in 1985, challenging the state of punk at the time. It had transitioned into a tough guys’ scene, largely in part due to slamdancing and skinhead violence. Shows had become violent and aggressive, with women and other marginalized groups pushed out. Ian MacKaye became disenchanted with the new norm of punk and, along with people like Amy Pickering of the band Fire Party, began restructuring the scene. There was metamorphosis of sound from abrasive machismo bands to more melodic and emotive hardcore. Rites of Spring, Dag Nasty, and Embrace came to the forefront of the scene, confronting the aggressive mindset that had consumed DC. Rites of Spring, though short lived, transformed the idea that hardcore had to be pigeonholed into blast beats and splintering guitar. Their complex song structure bent the rules of hardcore, with lyrical content that focused on personal issues, not typically seen in punk bands at the time. After the demise of Rites of Spring, Fugazi was formed and continued to play until 2003.
DC continues to be run with the same do-it-yourself thought process as it was based on. Shows are mostly hosted at pizza joints, churches, or whoever opens their doors to them. It has grown even more diverse in recent years, with women, POC, and LGBTQ+ members of the community dominating many of the bands. The scene continues to encourage younger kids to join bands and take part, something that’s incredibly rare in a society where most shows are held at 18+ or 21+ venues. Just a handful of contemporary bands include Pure Disgust (featured in NPR’s top 50 albums of 2016), Stuck Pigs, Stand Off, and Protester, with dozens more springing up around them. You can read more about that here.
You can also find paragraphs about the Bad Brains and Minor Threat here.
Thanks to Farrah for the photo of Pure Disgust.
RECORDS I THINK ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN OTHERS BECAUSE I HAVE AN OPINION
SOA – NO POLICY (1981)
Before Henry Rollins was writhing around onstage fronting Black Flag, he was Henry Garfield, working at Haagen Dazs with Ian MacKaye. He also fronted State Of Alert, along with Michael Hampton and Ivor Hanson, who’d go on to play in The Faith. Hampton would also later join Embrace. Though not as often acknowledged as Black Flag, SOA was pivotal to the DC hardcore scene. No Policy features a whopping ten songs that pack a punch on an eight-and-a-half minute seven inch, writing off cops and girls and addicts ruining the scene. Rollins’ signature hoarse howls are backed by urgent powerchords and sped up drums. The record is raw and underproduced but that only adds to the snarling attitude the band forces on you. It kicks off with a song renouncing drug addicts, a common theme in DC at the time. “Lost In Space” is about being better than someone who’s constantly walking around in a daze and missing out on their surroundings. While a first listen to “Girl Problems” might seem a little sexist, reverse the pronouns and it’s honestly a little empowering. It’s less about girls being fucked up and more about how you shouldn’t rely on a romantic partner to make you feel validated. The song is peppered with fight anthems and shit talking. “Gate Crashers,” a song talking shit about a washed up musician, has the line “your hair’s too long/and so’s your set” which describes the antithesis of the DC hardcore scene. At the time, Rollins had a shaved head and I mean, this record is eight minutes.
GOVERNMENT ISSUE – LEGLESS BULL (1981)
Government Issue wrote fast, angry songs renouncing the “cool guy” aesthetic many punks had adopted. “Rock n Roll Bullshit” probably sums this up best; John Stabb growls about how he’s sick of the Clash and the Ramones and Supertramp and so on. So what’d Government Issue do in response to being bored of what was being handed to them? They released Legless Bull, a pivotal album that helped shaped DC’s punk scene. The EP clocks in at barely nine minutes, but delivers ten songs in that span of time. They’re quick and barely give you time to realize what they’re about, but you can gather the sentiment from the splintering guitar and what few tongue-in-cheek lyrics you can understand. Even when Stabb’s spitting vocals are incomprehensible, the guitar riffs are catchy as they screech over blasting drums. The EP features the original version of “Asshole,” about a dude showing up at a show just to be a dick and starting fights instead of listening to the music. “Asshole” was later re-recorded with Ian MacKaye. The songs on the record flow seamlessly into each other while being distinct enough to play on their own, ending on another song talking shit about stupid trendy idiots, “Cowboy Fashion.”
FAITH/VOID SPLIT (1982)
“Faith vs Void” is an argument I constantly have with myself. I mean, there’s no correct answer. Both sides are absolutely incredible. Void definitely seem to have a little more of a cult status (I mean, I have the two crosses stabbed into my leg), but The Faith, fronted by Alec MacKaye, are just as crucial to the scene. They’re almost incomparable in their influence, but their combined efforts make this one of the most vital records of the time. The Faith side kicks off with “It’s Time,” which almost sounds like the Stooges played at 45rpm thanks to the thick bass sound. The Faith side may be a little tamer, with generic lyrics about being straightedge and denouncing “cool guy” acts, but their musical quality surpasses their peers with similar subject matter. Alec MacKaye definitely does not hide in his brother’s shadow; his voice is commanding and full of rage. The Faith utilize insanely quick paced blasts coupled with calculated breakdowns, creating a sound not incredibly unique, but definitely well articulated. But where do you start with Void? Where as the Faith lacked originality, Void transcended the bands of their time. Though they had just as much indignation as bands like SOA and Teen Idles, they had a particularly idiosyncratic sound. There’s pounding drums, warped guitar, and what could’ve been too much feedback had they been any other band. There’s a distinctive Sabbath influence in the rumbling bass and singer John Weiffenbach obviously was a fan of Darby Crash, but Void were not like any other band. Void cut themselves loose from the confines of the genre, with taunting lyrics spat out over shredding solos. But I mean, for a band who isn’t going to listen to “those fools, I’m gonna live by my rules,” would you expect them to compartmentalize themselves?
RITES OF SPRING – SELF TITLED (1985)
Rites of Spring were one of the first bands to shift the hardcore sound away from aggro-tough guy hardcore and steer it towards a more conceptual, melodic genre. Their self-titled clocks in at nearly forty minutes, a real feat for DC punk. Both this and the Faith/Void split are mentioned in Kurt Cobain’s iconic list of his favorite records. Rites of Spring often reject being labeled “emo,” but definitely have more intimate lyrics than their predecessors of punk. The step away from traditional hardcore is also obvious in the composition of the songs. Instead of searing powerchords and blistering drums over verse-chorus-verse-chorus-end, there’s intricate guitar patterns and structured sections. Guy Picciotto’s yowling voice is almost constantly pleading over the course of the record, emoting more than just the quintessential gruff barks found in earlier bands. Both Picciotto and drummer Brandon Canty would go on to play in Fugazi, another highly influential post-hardcore band from DC that featured Ian MacKaye. The whole album is consistently strong, but a few songs stand out more than others. The third track, “For Want Of,” is lyrically desperate. While before, bands had just focused on fighting and police and what drugs they do or don’t do, this song is devastatingly real in that it describes the feeling of being ready to give up. “All There Is” is almost a love song, twisting with bass that compliments the lead guitar under Picciotto’s hoarse screams. While Rites of Spring as a band reject the “emo” label, they were incredibly instrumental on the conception of the genre.
IRON CROSS – SKINHEAD GLORY (1982)
SCREAM – STILL SCREAMING (1983)
MARGINAL MAN – IDENTITY (1984)
EMBRACE – SELF TITLED (1987)
FUGAZI – 13 SONGS (1989)