Near White House, Washington punk spirit still resonates

4 min
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Washington (AFP)

Office workers in suits and high heels heading home for the weekend cross paths in the streets of the US capital with a crowd sporting worn jeans, leather jackets and dyed hair.

Just a 10-minute drive from the White House, outside a Unitarian church, sounds of furious guitar chords and pounding drums escape from a concert -- part of the Damaged City Fest, celebrating Washington's lesser-known status as the epicenter of hardcore punk.

"Hardcore" became popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Known for its raw, frenetic sound and socially conscious lyrics, the genre still inspires fans and musicians today.

"We're in the industry of the government. Everyone works on Capitol Hill (in Congress) around here and this is kind of a breath of fresh air from all of this, all this politics," said Rael Griffin, a 19-year-old university student and Washington native.

"I feel like I'm part of history right now. Some of my favorite bands are Minor Threat and Bad Brains, those are the guys that were like pioneers of DC punk music."

- Precursors of grunge -

Washington is not usually considered a rock music destination, overshadowed by New York just a few hours' drive away.

Undaunted, a handful of local teens fascinated by punk started the first hardcore bands. As the genre took off, the musicians didn't wait for record companies to notice them, organizing their own concerts and self-producing albums -- no small feat in the pre-Internet era.

That do-it-yourself spirit paved the way for the explosion of grunge.

Former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who grew up in the Washington suburbs, got his start with local hardcore band Scream.

"The reason why I got into Nirvana was because they liked Scream. And so they came to see Scream play and they saw me play and they're like, 'Man, if we could get a drummer like that, we'd be set,'" Grohl said on the documentary "Salad Days", about the early punk scene in Washington.

Ian MacKaye, former singer of Minor Threat and Washington post-punk band Fugazi, said an early Minor Threat record carried the label "Putting DC on the map."

"It was a joke because what map in our world is DC not on?" he asked.

"But in a way it was also very true. We created something different."

- Invisible -

History played a big role in shaping the city's music scene. Following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, race riots in Washington drove many white residents from the city center to the suburbs.

Ten years later, "downtown was a place where (musicians) could do whatever they wanted and it didn't cost a lot, a lot of the early venues where the people played were just in desolate parts of town," said Georgetown University music professor Benjamin Harbert.

MacKaye agreed.

"The music industry, they didn't see us. The federal government, the DC police, they didn't see us, they had much bigger problems than some punk rock kids," he said.

"Our friends thought we were ridiculous. We were invisible. So we swarmed, it just kept going."

Because many of the Washington musicians and fans were young teens, they had to fight to negotiate all ages concerts. From there, an offshoot called "Straight Edge" -- named after a Minor Threat song and rejecting drugs, alcohol and tobacco -- was born.

The city's hardcore punk scene grew from shows at venues like churches and community centers, or bars that marked the fans with a large X on the hand so bartenders knew not to serve them because they were not old enough to drink legally.

- Having a blast -

Mark Andersen, a co-founder of the group, helps to organize Damaged City Fest, reaching out to venues where young fans can attend shows.

"It keeps hardcore and punk in accessible places and then also keeps hardcore and punk headed in a healthy direction," said Nick Candela, a Damaged City Fest co-organizer.

Washington's punk and hardcore fans show a distinct sense of responsibility and political activism, turning away from the nihilism often associated with the genre.

"The DC punk rock scene to me means doing whatever you want. I don't like people telling me what to do," said Griffin, the young Washington fan.

"It's having a good time, but you also got to be respectful of people. It's not about breaking someone's nose, it's about having a blast."