By Edward Avery-Natale.
The documentary zooms in on particular individuals and bands without falling victim to the easy and well tread path of tracing only the few bands that everyone knows…. [P]unk is about the fans and the small bands who never play outside of their hometown or record an LP.”
Punk the Capital, directed by James June Schneider, Paul Bishow, and Sam Lavine, traces Washington DC hardcore punk from 1976-1983, managing to pull off an impressive feat. The film covers some of the most well-known bands of the era without falling into the traps of “the great men of [punk rock] history.” It details an important, local scene while not disregarding the relationships that scene had to larger national and socio-political geographies. We are shown the lineage of punk bands while maintaining site of individuals; and in focusing on the contributions of individuals, the film does not ignore the fact that punk is also about bands, music, and scenes. This is a difficult task to accomplish that previous films, books, journal articles, and magazines, have often failed at.
To this end, the film emphasizes the uniqueness of Washington DC. We’re told that DC was a difficult space to create a punk scene in because, on the one hand, as the center of American hegemony, political radicalism and rebellious individuality were not well accepted; and, on the other hand, as a government city, they “rolled up the streets” at 6:00pm. This is in contrast to the image many contemporary viewers may have of Washington DC as a site of political protest with at least some modern, metropolitan elements. The significance of space and place is maintained throughout the film, as it emphasizes the importance of Woodrow Wilson High School, where some of the early DC punks met, Madam’s Organ, a former hippy venue turned punk, and so on.
In this focus on space, though, the film manages not to get lost in the grandeur of the capital of global capital. The documentary also zooms in on particular individuals and bands without falling victim to the easy and well tread path of tracing only the few bands that everyone knows: The Bad Brains, Minor Threat, etc. In fact, we don’t even see our first interview with Ian MacKaye until midway through the movie. Instead, we are reminded that punk is not only, or even mostly, about the famous and the national figures. Instead, punk is about the fans and the small bands who never play outside of their hometown or record an LP.
Furthermore, the film shows us that those famous individuals were not creative, unique subjects operating in a vacuum. This becomes clear, for example, when Ian MacKaye says that the band “White Boy” inspired him to put out his own album, which he did not know you could do before. Although in popular historiographies of punk we commonly, and not incorrectly, remember MacKaye as being central to the development of the DIY ethic, aesthetic, and the politicization thereof, here we see that the development of this ideal was not Ian’s alone and that he was inspired by bands, punk and non-punk alike, that came before him. And, on the topic of non-punk inspirations, Punk the Capital also refuses the lazy mantra of “punks hate hippies,” instead showing that punks have a dialectical relationship to the previous eras of hippy, yippy, and beatnik rebellions.
The film never forgets that punk rock, at least in some incarnations, and especially in that which is covered in Punk the Capital, is not only a music subculture or a movement of individual rebellion but is also a political movement.”
While focusing on DC as a local topography, the film manages not to lose site of the larger socio-geo-political spaces in which this scene emerged and against which it often railed. The film never forgets that punk rock, at least in some incarnations, and especially in that which is covered in Punk the Capital, is not only a music subculture or a movement of individual rebellion but is also a political movement. This is well shown through the claim that DC hardcore punks did not necessarily need to engage in the self-destructive tendencies of those like Sid Vicious. Instead, DC hardcore would live a rebellious, anarchistic life that aimed at radical individual, political, and social change all at once.
To the film’s credit, though, they do not simply glorify this ethic. Hardcore attracted a contingent of angry people. Anger, though, is an affect that manifests heterogeneously and can unfortunately include misogyny, white supremacy, and other destructive and fascistic tendencies that the scene’s earliest members had so vehemently opposed. In this way, the film manages to neither glorify nor vilify, which is line others documenting punk would do well to walk.
All along, Punk the Capital never loses site of the fact that, in spite of all of the above, punk is also and always about music, but that the music is not just music, the instruments are not just instruments. As we’re told, “If you start with the premise that the energy is the thing, then [the instruments] are just there for you to do something on.” This idea tells us something important about punk more broadly: yes, it is music; yes, it is rebellion; but the energy, the affective atmosphere of punk, is a part of an assemblage that comes together through the complex and imminent relationship between individuals, bands, scenes, spaces, places, nations, politics, histories, and more. We’re told that what DC hardcore did was “more like a church setting than a show,” and for all the sonic-assaults punk have leveled against organized religion, there is something right about this analogy. This is easily made sense of via a thread that joins the film together from beginning to end: Positive Mental Attitude (PMA), a concept deriving from spiritual thought but popularized in punk by The Bad Brains, which inspired DC punks to create straight edge, to be political, to encourage radical rebellion not just of the self, but against systems of injustice. From the individuals, to the bands, to the music, to the scenes, to politics, to the nation, and beyond, the film captures the significance of each of these pieces without losing site of any one and while holding the line of PMA throughout. Doing so is a very difficult task that runs the risk of producing confusion in the bricolage, but to its credit, Punk the Capital maintains the trajectory seamlessly.
Edward Avery-Natale is Professor of sociology at Mercer County Community College, NJ, USA. He is the author of Ethics, Politics, and Anarcho-Punk Identifications: Punk and Anarchy in Philadelphia (Lexington Books, 2016).