Recently in LA, I sat down with Kyle Kilday, the director of the forthcoming documentary The Last Scene. Kyle invited me to talk about the turn-of-the-millennium burst of mainstream interest in pop-punk, hardcore, emo, and “emo.” We had a great conversation, and I’m looking forward to seeing the final product. If you’d like to support or learn more about the project, you can do so at the official website, here.
Happy Almost-Summer, everyone! As you may have noticed, I added this to the sidebar widgets here, but I hadn’t taken a moment on this blog to properly announce… [drum-roll, fireworks, and elaborate Busby Berkeley-derived dance sequence] I have a book out!
It was released earlier this month on Palgrave MacMillan Press. Special thanks to my editor Josh Pitt in Melbourne (who should be no stranger to anybody who’s been on this site over the past month), as well as to Sophie Li in Shanghai for an awesome cover, as well as to Karthiga Ramu and the whole copy editing team in India. I never suspected the academic publication process would be that globetrotting, but that’s the 21st century for you and an added bonus to an already great experience.
Early reviews I’ve read of the book have been humbling and flattering, both in the best way. I’m grateful that this project, which began in earnest ages ago, has finally coalesced and brought so many people together who factored into this story. As Palgrave enumerates on their website, the book includes exclusive new interviews with music legends like Ian MacKaye (Fugazi, Minor Threat, Dischord Records), Craig Wedren (Shudder to Think), and Cynthia Connolly (Banned in DC) as well as a number of key characters in the growth of French punk. It also features over thirty photos of this slice of punk history, many of which are exclusive, never-before-seen images.
You or your library (please tell your library!) can purchase Capitals of Punk in hardcover or as an ePub/Annotated PDF from Palgrave at their official marketplace here. Here is the synopsis via Palgrave’s website:
Capitals of Punk tells the story of Franco-American circulation of punk music, politics, and culture, focusing on the legendary Washington, DC hardcore punk scene and its less-heralded counterpart in Paris. This book tells the story of how the underground music scenes of two major world cities have influenced one another over the past fifty years. This book compiles exclusive accounts across multiple eras from a long list of iconic punk musicians, promoters, writers, and fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Through understanding how and why punk culture circulated, it tells a greater story of (sub)urban blight, the nature of counterculture, and the street-level dynamics of that centuries-old relationship between France and the United States.
If you would like to review the book or have me as a guest on your radio show or podcast, I’d be happy to do it. Please get in touch at SONICGEOGRAPHY [AT] GMAIL or (+1) 865 974 6033. You can contact Palgrave via the page linked above.
I know I need to write a bit more about my upcoming book on Palgrave, Capitals of Punk, but one of the epiphanies I hit in the conclusion (spoiler alert sorta) is considering how much hardcore defined itself as antithetical to the mainstream, it’s a real testament to its universality how hard the mainstream has been working to catch up to hardcore four decades later. These are the things I think about while listening to Minor Threat playing on the stereo system at an indie coffee shop overcrowded with multiple generations of patrons on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Anyway, I braved the flooding roads and 908th consecutive night of rain here in Knoxville to check out a fantastic pop-punk show last night. A friend got his band back together for a night that felt like a family reunion I’d just been adopted into. In the spirit of the evening, I was listening to Squirtgun’s 2003 LP Fade to Bright beforehand. In case you haven’t heard their music, Side A Track 2, “Burn for You” [video] is one of my favorite songs in the whole subgenre (which is saying something).
This afternoon, I was looking for a YouTube video to prove to a friend that Mass Giorgini (Squirtgun bassist and producer extraordinaire) was a Spanish language sports reporter, and I happened upon this: Dr. Massimo Giorgini presenting a TEDx talk about “The Don Quixote Code.”
What a cool study. At the beginning, Mass discusses yet another in the litany of overlaps between punk and critical thought/research. It’s like Christmas morning whenever I find out another punk veteran is a PhD, especially in a topic I’m invested in academically. What a cool presentation, and it got me thinking about Don Quixote in a whole new light, which is the point of any research. Well done, Mass! And thanks for your hand in this Murderers’-row of records at Sonic Iguana.
Happy New Year, everyone! Classes start in one week, and I have a mountain of items to catch up on after being out of town for so much of December. Two of these items include posts for this website, one of which is long overdue and another was inspired by a stops I made on the road in the Midwest last month. One of the most pressing, however, is putting the finishing touches on a project over three years in the making that I look forward to announcing soon.
I thought I would share this video I found of a SYNDROME 81 gig I attended in Paris in the summer of 2015. This was the night I met Fast Fab (the vocalist), who became a good friend and great informant for my dissertation. I wasn’t able to spot myself anywhere in here (probably hiding off to the side, snapping photos), but I had a good time.
Fab later told me that the moniker Syndrome 81 is a joke (much like the name of his old band, Thrashington DC) that makes fun of how people think it’s completely insane (“syndrome”) for somebody born in 1981 to still be making music like this. I could probably ask myself the same question and rename half of this blog “Syndrome 83.” Regardless, Syndrome 81 have released a solid brief catalog of music over the past few years to solid critical acclaim from blogs and zines that appreciate the classic style.
Anyway, 2019 – how about that? More posts and announcements very soon.
Stopping by to leave a note in remembrance of Steve Soto, the longtime bassist and songwriter for the Adolescents. I don’t remember ever having the pleasure of meeting him, but multiple accounts from friends in and out of the SoCal punk community are unanimous that he was one of the nicest and funniest people in the history of that scene, as well as throughout the American ’80s hardcore underground.
I never played in a hardcore band, but I can’t overstate the importance of the Adolescents (especially their canon 1981 self-titled record) to me when I was getting into hardcore. They also played a role in unlocking my curiosity about the contrasts between Orange County and LA, a schism I would later dig into as a novice geographer sitting on the border of the two in Long Beach. Outside of my buddy Carlos’ mom’s amazing restaurant in Santa Ana, downtown Fullerton (one of the band’s home bases) would become, and remain, my favorite thing about the OC. A growing, collective interest in OC punk would also lead my Berlin colleagues Lucas Elsner and Lauri Turpeinin to present research on Californian suburbia at the 2016 AAG Meeting, where we met and have been friends ever since.
I had the opportunity to see the Adolescents play in 2006, when they toured through the Black Cat in DC. At the time, the original members were all in their forties, but the teenage son of one of the Agnew brothers was playing guitar in Rikk’s place, so the band’s name hadn’t lapsed into irony. When I heard that Soto had passed this morning, I thought back to that show, and I remembered how clearly Steve was doting on the young kid between songs, patting him on the back, smiling and shouting words of encouragement. The underground scene was lucky to have people like him.
Rest in power, Steve.
Thanks for reading! If you don’t own Adolescents, correct that immediately. I’ll be back soon with more geo-updates; I appreciate your collective patience. The summer has been much busier than I’d anticipated.
Sad news today. Fred Smith, guitarist of the charismatic DC Revolution Summer group Beefeater and multiple other bands, was found dead in a park in the San Fernando Valley. Thanks to Mark Andersen for sharing this via social media. I imagine other details will emerge soon as his many friends from over the decades come forward. The Los Angeles Daily News reported that he was homeless at the time of his death, but that may have been in error.
Smith had lived and played in bands in Los Angeles since the 1990s, from what I understand. He also showed up on the Tonight Show in 2010, doing his best to make this clip enjoyable against Jay Leno’s humor deficiency. Hopefully more details on Fred/Freak’s life will emerge in tributes soon. Here’s a video of Smith playing with Beefeater in 1985.
Being able to teach an advanced course in Cultural Geography this semester has been great for many reasons, most of which stem from the ability to dig deeper (or, I guess in the case of this entry, drink deeper…get it? No? That’s fine) on both places and topics. One particular place has been my longtime hometown (and dissertation focus) of Washington, DC, and one topic has been how music both operates as a representation of the place it was made and reflects back upon the place to influence public imagination of that place (see Lily Kong “Popular music in geographical analyses.” Progress in human geography 19, 1995).
I’ve discussed DC’s perpetually-increasing role within the scholarship on musical geography before, but last week, I had the opportunity to present the geographies behind DC’s legendary underground music scene to my Cultural Geography course. It was a neat coincidence that Bad Brains, largely considered responsible for the “big bang of hardcore punk” (credit) in the Nation’s Capital, were nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this week. It doesn’t require a background in pop culture studies (which I don’t have) to realize this is a big deal. This means that, even if/when the Bad Brains don’t win the induction this year (considering all of the dad-rock they’re up against), DC has finally cracked through the record industry’s hegemonic glass ceiling. Obviously, the scene has created some fissures in the glass over the years; the biggest of which were probably Dave Grohl’s rise to super-stardom and the signings of brilliant yet completely unmarketable DC post-hardcore bands to major labels in the early 90’s. Also, the fact that Fugazi had four albums chart (albeit swimming in the top 200) with absolutely no help from conglomerated media was remarkable. But now, the baby-boomer “rock” establishment has finally peered around the corner and realized that maybe those bands really did change the world without any #1 hits or platinum records.
As part of my lesson plan, I presented a truncated version of the first decade of harDCore, which had many unfortunate but necessary omissions due to time constraints. For example, I did mention how the now-universal terms “straight edge” and “emo” originated in DC in 1981 and 1985 respectively, but I completely forgot to mention that even the term “hardcore” punk emerged in DC as a way for the then-teenage Georgetown punks to differentiate themselves from poseurs who only dressed the part. A more thorough retelling of the story is readily available in Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins’ book Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital (2001, Akashic) among various other titles in print and on video, which I make no pretenses to replicate. I don’t need to retell the whole story since it’s already been told so well from so many different readily-available vantage points.
The story that my dissertation does tell, however (in predictably greater detail than here), is how Washington, DC’s geography affected that music scene. In my lecture, I began in the mid-1970s and stopped at the end of the 1980s to (1) conclude that every key trend in underground and punk music either originated in DC or had some noteworthy filtering through that city, and (2) ask the question: WHAT IS IT ABOUT WASHINGTON, DC?
I encourage my students to pose some form of that question to themselves whenever approaching any topic. For example, our East TN History Center visit sought out answers to the question “what is it about Knoxville…?” So, it was only fitting to bring in that question template when breaking down the wonders of the DMV. Here we go:
1. DC is where The South meets The North
When teaching the history of American popular music, it makes sense to begin with Stephen Foster, the first American Popular songwriter. Foster spent much of his adult life in Cincinnati, which was a similar gateway between the South and the North due to its location on the Ohio River. Foster was able to borrow Southern musical traditions and references from workers who came up the Mississippi River, which coalesced with the English, Scottish and Irish traditions of the North and generated South-fetishizing songs like “Oh, Susanna.”
While DC’s (to paraphrase JFK) blend of “the warmth of a Northern City with the efficiency of a Southern one” wasn’t the only reason that harDCore happened, but it was why so many progenitors of the people who built the scene moved there. Ian MacKaye’s mother Ginger’s family came from Georgia, bringing with them a long Southern-Gothic storytelling tradition that eked into “the archive” that made punk so available over the years and is making it possible for mainstream sources to pay tribute.
2. DC has the Federal Government
The thing responsible for the greatest misconception about DC (that it has no indigenous culture or local scene) is actually responsible for most of that indigenous culture and those local scenes. The Federal Government brings people from all over the United States and world together into one veritable melting pot. The punks who emerged from that melting pot are too numerous to mention here, but a couple in particular spring to mind.
Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) came to DC to serve on the Hill even before Hawaii was officially recognized as a state. His son Kenny, born in Hawaii in 1962 and raised in DC, founded Marginal Man in 1982. Kenny remained one of the band’s core members throughout its existence, and even led the band to be one of few in that orbit to leave DC and tour. Here’s a video of them playing sometime in 1985.
Others came into the DC punk scene through more subversive paths. The photographer Cynthia Connolly, longtime Dischord employee, came to DC in 1981 when her mom got a job working for Reagan’s new government. Connolly even talked her mom into buying a house near Georgetown because that’s where she heard the punks hung out. She recalls as much in her notes at the end of the latest printing of her seminal photo-book Banned in DC, which gave much of the world their first visual glance into that volcanic scene.
3. DC is Small
Though the DC metropolitan area stretches well out into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs (even farther depending on where gentrification has pushed some people), and actual District is bounded within a pretty small physical territory. When punk was young, it had few places to exist and even fewer in the suburbs, so many of those had to be centralized. Tiny co-ops like the Hard Art Gallery and Madam’s Organ gave Bad Brains central locations to perform and teenagers from the more affluent side of DC could venture in if they could arrange a ride or were willing to brave the Metro. Unlike LA, which had dozens of nodal communities that were physically and ideologically distant from one another, DC’s social life existed upon a relatively small amount of acreage. This reason goes hand in hand with how…
4. DC is Diverse
…albeit segregated to no end. Natalie Hopkinson wrote in her great 2012 study on Go-Go music that DC was one of few segregated cities (at least formally, pre-Civil Rights era) to have infrastructure in place that afforded black citizens the luxury of living full professional and social lives without interacting with a single white person on a quotidian basis. Certain blue-collar domains within DC culture are also arguably quintessentially black provinces, such as the custodial culture on Capital Hill. I remember my friend Brian, who interned with Congress in 2005, being amazed that every single custodial worker that he saw while at work was black. This is hardly a coincidence; for generations, cleaning the chambers of lawmakers was among the more prestigious jobs to which many working-class African-Americans in DC could aspire.
All that being said, the growth of the Central American community in the DC area over the past thirty years has added another dimension to the town’s productive diversity. Though most of the suburbanites who commuted to Metro Center or Federal Center and spent little actual free time in the District wouldn’t have known it, the DC underground featured a vast array of blending “white” and “black”-coded cultures throughout the 1980’s. Trouble Funk, one of DC’s biggest Go-Go outfits, played several shows with harDCore bands like Government Issue and Minor Threat. The shows weren’t always successful, but at least they were f**kin’ trying.
Another byproduct of DC’s diversity and social structure was a prominent black middle class. Obviously, not all black harDCore musicians had been middle class kids, but it did contribute to a noticeably high proportion of musicians of color in the DC punk scene in bands like Void, Scream, Dag Nasty, Fire Party, Beefeater, and others. The standard-bearers of hardcore being African-American certainly didn’t hurt, either.
5. DC is a College Town
This is another commonly overlooked facet of DC. It has five major universities (Georgetown, George Washington, American, Maryland, and George Mason), yet people rarely mention it in the same “college town” breath as Boston or Columbus. But taking a cue from the Federal Government, universities provided fertile locations for outsiders to mix ideas, bands to form, and musical tropes to circulate. Although tape trading and mail-order existed well before 1983, I wouldn’t be shocked if the first time a lot of Washingtonians heard Naked Raygun was on the tape decks in the dorm rooms of Midwestern transplants. By the end of the 80’s, Dischord bands (and those in that orbit) were actually inspiring people to attend college in DC, as the most recent comment on this YouTube video of Shudder to Think in 1989 would attest:
I was there. BYOB, as I recall. Freshman year GWU. I chose my GW ’cause of Dischord Records and no other reason, never even visited the campus before moving there. 1989: One of the best years for D.C. bands since the Minor Threat days. Seemed like Fugazi played live every damn week that year.
Even if it’s not the punks themselves who come to DC for school, a lot of their parents had come to DC for school and stuck around. Guy Picciotto, best remembered from Fugazi and Rites of Spring, is the progeny of a French-speaking Italian-Syrian who came to Washington for graduate school, fell for an American woman, and stayed put.
6. Nobody Cared about DC
I should clarify that plenty of people cared about DC; it’s just that the American hegemonic mainstream looked down on it, and they had their reasons in the 1980’s. It was blighted- a well-documented “murder capital.” The crack epidemic was in full swing, and white people of any means had by and large jumped ship a full generation prior. DC had a notoriously troubled mayor in Marion Barry, who was caught smoking crack on video in 1980 and still won reelection eventually. It figures how far he stuck his neck out for DC’s 8th Ward and other underrepresented people in an underrepresented (still, to this day) District.
Of course, the same people had no idea about everything amazing that was happening. The public perception of DC’s landscape as something untouchable or beyond hope gave those who actually lived in the District freedom from certain expectations. The bands were playing for their friends and each other; they weren’t aiming for the pop charts or trying to please people outside of their means. This same phenomenon was occurring in Seattle, San Diego, and other cities that didn’t exist within most music writers’ vernacular. Even after REM scored their first top-40 hit in 1987 and people began buzzing “what is it about Athens, Georgia?” many similar culture hearths would have to wait a full generation to get their due.
Hopefully this has provided a satisfactory primer on the how and why of 1980’s Washington, DC. Music fans often say that the influential hardcore movement would not have happened without Reagan in office, but I tend to disagree. The geographic factors of the landscape that spawned harDCore were already in place by the time he assumed office in 1981. I could also list further reasons why DC became what it was in the 1980’s and, via legacy, still is today in the face of incalculable gentrification and subsequent landscape modification. Its toxic culture of pre-packaged tourism and nationalist symbolism, for one, motivated many progenitors of punk to take great care when representing their city abroad. DC’s proximity and easy access to other east coast cities like New York and Philadelphia also aided in the circulation of people and the music they carried with them. The reasons go on and are still accumulating.
Thanks for reading. If you’re looking for a documentary about this era of the underground in our Nation’s Capital, there are several. American Hardcore, which came out in 2006, takes a wider focus but of course addresses the phenomenon of DC. Salad Days, Scott Crawford’s documentary on DC hardcore, came out in 2014 and is readily available. It has a lot of great footage and interviews, including some with Crawford himself (which may be a no-no for some documentary buffs). The next one coming soon will be James Schneider’s film Punk the Capital, which traces DC punk back through rock and new wave in the area. I had the chance to meet Schneider in DC and saw some of the amazing archived footage that he’s weaving together. He actually shared one highlight on his YouTube page, which I’ll embed here. In the summer of 1985, Gray Matter climbed onto the roof of Food for Thought (a restaurant near Dupont Circle owned by Dante Ferrando’s father) to play their cover of “I Am the Walrus.” The cutaway shots show a curious crowd watching from the graffiti-tagged median as well as several abandoned storefronts, common at the time. It wasn’t a paradigm-shifting spectacle when they did it, but it was part of one in the movement that was ‘Revolution Summer.’ Either way, they beat U2 to it by a couple of years. Enjoy.