“There was nothing extraordinary about growing up just outside of Washington, DC, in the 1980s,” states author Scott Crawford in the foreword to his latest work, Spoke. It amazes me just how true that claim is. Rarely do those in the middle of historic moments, key shifts in culture and subculture, recognize the importance in what they are living through. It is only in retrospect that we look back on our experiences, small as they seemed, and see we were knee-deep in something meaningful.
Maybe that’s what people mean when they talk about nostalgia.
Created as a loose companion piece to Crawford’s 2014 documentary Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC, the book does a great job at chronicling the decade in which hardcore saw its humble beginnings.
And those beginnings were, indeed, humble.
Starting with Bad Brains, then leading into the likes of The Teen Idles and SOA, we see just how small the movement was. In the context shown in the text, it is truly amazing that the genre even gained any notoriety at all. The kids (and they were indeed kids) who would later be seen as music pioneers, at the time, had no inclination that what they were doing would ever reach an audience outside the small venues they played. As the book quotes Brian Baker reflecting on his days in Minor Threat:
It has to be remembered: this was our band that we did after school. Though it had achieved some level of success at that point, nobody had any inkling that it would have any resonance thirty years later, so it wasn’t precious to us. (31)
It’s strange to think of it that way. It’s almost a fluke that these bands would have so much influence over both mainstream and underground music a few decades later. Nothing they did was intended to change the course of history. They were only doing what they wanted, what they felt needed to be done at that time in history, for no other reason than to do it.
The book continues on, collecting pictures and stories from early, oft passed over groups such as Ignition and Void, all the way to the acclaimed later acts Fugazi and Jawbox. Via the words of those who were actually there, the book does a spectacular job at showcasing not only the importance of DC during those ten years, how it was likely the most important spawning ground for punk music, but also the way in which punk and hardcore evolved during that short time.
We see the Bad Brains taking influence from the Ramones albeit cranked to an 11. We see Ian McKay’s musical evolution from the raw Teen Idles, to the tight and progressively-minded Minor Threat, to become a forerunner to alternative rock in the art-punk supergroup Fugazi. We see the music transition naturally from primal expression into something tightly knit and experimental, and all the branches from there. We see the beginnings of thrash long prior to DRI, emo that predated the likes of Sunny Day Real Estate or even Jawbreaker, and the birth of riot grrl years before Bikini Kill hit the scene. To paraphrase the late Darby Crash, everything has to start with the germ of an idea. Here, Crawford holds a microscope to those germs like a scientist charting the origins of a species.
Don’t let the format dissuade you. It’s true that there is no linear plot or story. Lying somewhere between yearbook and mini-encyclopedia, the work collects snippets of that time and feeds them to readers one by one. However, this thin volume is a must-have for any rock historian or pop-culture buff. The photos are emotive and captivating while the short stories told by the musicians who lived through that time give you the feeling of having been there. And its a reminder that no matter how small our achievements appear, they can snowball into something grand later on.
This is the perfect punk coffee table book if ever there was such a thing.
So whether you lived through those days and want to relive the memories, or you were born too late and feel driven to experience it for the first time, Spoke will give you what you want…and maybe a little more.
Spoke is available online and in bookstores February 7th.