When Punk Rock Took Over Washington, D.C. - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When Punk Rock Took Over Washington, D.C.

By Lorena O'Neil


When you think of Washington, D.C., do you think of punk rock? If not, maybe you should.

Thinking back on the 1970s and ’80s in Washington, D.C., your thoughts may turn to the Watergate scandal or Reagonomics taking hold. However, if you were to look deeper, you’d see the birth of the punk rock subculture that swept through D.C.’s underground music scene.

The era’s D.C. punk rock scene is currently the subject of two documentaries in progress: Punk the Capital, which focuses on the transition from punk to hardcore from the mid-1970s to mid-’80s, and Salad Days, which explores the evolution of punk and independent music in the ’80s.

The D.C. scene was often singing about how you can change things, you do have power, you can do things better. 

Paul Bishow, one of the Punk the Capital filmmakers, moved to D.C. in the late 1970s and says the punk scene had already started in a small way when he arrived. “I think there was a certain amount of frustration with the music scene, with the disco and the sort of overall big music scene, cover bands and stuff like that,” says Bishow. “There was a lot of creativity that wasn’t getting out. We wanted to make our own music.”

He explains the punk music was “a little louder, a little faster” than traditional music, but that the most important aspect of it eventually carried over into mainstream music and is still alive: the lesson that “you can do it yourself.” He describes an atmosphere teeming with creative collaboration. Madam’s Organ, an artist’s collective on 18th Street NW, played host to art, film and music, and Bishow recalls that people would be in the audience at a show there one week and then be in the band the next. Musicians would often jump from band to band, and when newcomers came in saying they wanted to participate, they were welcomed openly.

Bw Shot of Madams Organs

Madam’s Organs

Source Getty

D.C.-based bands included the Slickee Boys, Fugazi, The Urban Verbs, Government Issue and countless more, including one of the more well-known names in punk, Bad Brains, a group of black musicians who were inspired by self-help author Napoleon Hill. Bands weren’t the only thing forming in the punk rock scene, either. The do-it-yourself ethos extended to people starting up local record labels like Dischord, Dacoit, Limp, Teen Beat and Simple Machines.

The 9:30 Club was central to D.C.’s punk rock era, having replaced the punk-averse club The Atlantis on the same spot. Dave Grohl spent his teen years there, as did former clubgoer Natasha Reatig, who remembers the early days. “I loved the way many of the bands were pushing the envelope and trying to be outrageous,” Reatig tells the Washington Post. ”As outrageous as one could be was a way of saying no to the limousines and fur coats and diamonds that were suddenly seen on the streets near the White House, with Reagan in office.”

Booking agent Steve Ferguson told WaPo, “The fans who wanted to see that kind of music would go into what was the crap area of town, because they didn’t care. The music was edgy, and they were being edgy by going there.”

Bishow says that sincerity is what carried the D.C. punk rock scene so far. “That whole NY [punk scene] was, like, ‘I’m going to beat up the next hippie I see,’” he tells OZY. “The D.C. scene was often singing about how you can change things, you do have power, you can do things better. It took a different point of view.”

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