Few music scenes in history have been as influential—and as misunderstood—as Washington, D.C.’s hardcore scene of the 1980s. After Minor Threat introduced its fierce, anthemic sound and attitude in 1980, the band’s label, Dischord, became the epicenter of a subculture that evolved both musically and ethically as the decade progressed. Minor Threat and its frontman Ian MacKaye, later of Fugazi, unintentionally sparked the drug-and-alcohol-abstaining movement known as straightedge, while the wave of D.C. punks bands that sprang up around the Revolution Summer of 1985 gave birth to the more complex, melodic, and introspective style that came to be known as emo.

Scott Crawford had a front seat. As a showgoer, zinester, and musician in the ’80s, he witnessed and participated that decade’s musical upheavals in D.C. His documentary Salad Days: A Decade Of Punk In Washington, D.C. (1980-1990), which comes out on DVD September 18, chronicles that tumultuous and vastly inspirational scene, with the help of commentary by everyone from Thurston Moore to Fred Armisen to Dave Grohl (who, as a member of Mission Impossible and Scream, was part of D.C.’s punk scene before joining Nirvana). Crawford talked to The A.V. Club about the elusive definition of emo, being teenage friends with Grohl, and why he wishes cellphones had been around in the ’80s hardcore scene.

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The A.V. Club: You practically grew up in the D.C. hardcore scene of the ’80s. How young were you when you got into it, and what drew you to it?

Scott Crawford: I was 12. Why that music struck a chord with me, I honestly don’t know. A friend of mine and I were getting into music together when we were kids in the early ’80s. Neither of us were really into sports, so we got into music. We were discovering a lot of the new wave stuff through my friend’s older sister, who was really into new wave. I remember buying Robert Hazard and Flock Of Seagulls, all this horrible stuff. It wasn’t necessarily being played on the radio all that much either.

Anyway, my friend’s sister sat us down one day and said, “Look, this is what you really need to hear.” I’ll never forget it. She played Out Of Step [by Minor Threat] and Still Screaming [by Scream] and “Teenager In A Box” [by Government Issue]. I was just floored. I didn’t know what I was hearing, but I loved it. Maybe initially, because I was so young, it was just because Ian MacKaye sang “fuck.” [Laughs.] I just thought that was awesome. There was something about that music, the aggressions and the urgency.

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AVC: Were you an angry kid?

SC: My parents were divorced, but I wasn’t an exceptionally angry kid. I didn’t have a really fucked-up home life or anything. I was just one of those kids who was all in. Whatever I was interested in, I needed to know everything about it. When I got into fucking Star Wars figures when I was 9, I needed to now everything about Star Wars figures. I needed to know what kind of plastic they were made of and what the release date for the next line was. I was just into that geeky shit. I was just one of those kids. When I discovered D.C. hardcore, and I realized these people were in my backyard, my curiosity just took off. I just needed to be a part of it. It helped that it was so accessible. These weren’t rock stars. You could literally reach out and touch these people.

AVC: What was your first D.C. hardcore show?

SC: My first hardcore show was Rock Against Reagan in ’83 [headlined by Dead Kennedys], but my first D.C. hardcore show was later. My mother’s boyfriend took me. He waited in the car while I went inside. It was very strange.

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AVC: Who played?

SC: Void. It was like seeing Bad Brains for your first show. It was really intense. I just walked out of there shell-shocked, in the best possible way.

AVC: Void was a notoriously physical band. You must have been the smallest human there.

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SC: Yeah, it was scary. I didn’t know what was happening. I wasn’t sure what it was. It was like a bomb went off when they started playing. I can remember getting a few laughs when I walked in, because I was so little. I can still remember the smell of leather and clove cigarettes and sweat. It was this kind of sensory overload. It was pretty intoxicating, really. But I knew this was it. These were my people. Even at 12, I felt this sense that I belonged. Which was odd, considering I knew nobody.

AVC: How was D.C. different back then, both as a music scene and a city?

SC: That’s something I tried to illustrate in Salad Days, how different D.C. was than how it is now. I wanted people to get a sense of what it was like to hang out on the streets at night in D.C. in the ’80s. I think it’s [D.C. scenester and archivist] Tom Berard who says this in the film that the streets were pretty vacant, and it was kind of like a playground. There wasn’t anyone paying much attention. It was just a lot of boarded-up storefronts and a lot of stores that closed at 5 p.m., when all the government workers went home.

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It was always an adventure getting to the show. That was kind of half the fun, trying to figure out how the hell you were going to get down there and trying not to stress out about how you were going to get home. And not get mugged. I’d be walking to the club, and I’d be offered anything you could imagine along the way. There were a lot of drugs around there back then, but also a lot of prostitution and sex shops and 25-cent peepshow places across the street from [legendary venue] D.C. Space. Of course, that’s all changed now. What used to be D.C. Space is now Starbucks. It’s a very gentrified city now. There was also this underlying racial tension back then. It was a little dicey.

AVC: Then again, many cities in America were in bad shape in the mid-’80s. How much did you want Salad Days to be a portrait of that urban decay?

SC: I wanted to point that out, but yeah, D.C. wasn’t alone. Think about the Lower East Side of New York City at the time. Think about Sonic Youth and all the music coming out of that area at the time, and it was a shithole. CBGB and that whole area was really sketchy and horrible. Now that’s not the case. There was a lot of urban blight in all the major cities back then. In D.C. you still had the remnants of the race riots, which had really only been 15 years previous. I can remember some of the abandoned storefronts in D.C. in the ’80s were still burned out from those riots in ’68. You kind of had those weird reminders around you. My original storyline for Salad Days got into more of that gentrification aspect, but I realized that was a pretty big issue to tackle in a 100-minute film about hardcore. So I decided to stick with what I had, but I did want to create that context.

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AVC: Race is another big issue that you tackle in the film. What kind of a balance did you want to strike there?

SC: Again, it was one of those things that was a tightrope walk. I didn’t want to go too far in either direction. But I wanted to let people know that D.C. race issues were something that did make their way into the hardcore scene. I think D.C. was unique in that the band that really started everything and raised the bar for everyone was Bad Brains. They were four African Americans playing incredibly tight, breakneck-speed hardcore at a level of musicianship that was really without equal at that point. That in and of itself was pretty noteworthy. At the time, D.C. was 80-something percent black. So in a way, Bad Brains wasn’t that unusual. Statistically, I’m sure we had more African Americans in the scene than many other cities did. Even then, though, I can remember hearing racial slurs in the audience about bands that happened to be black or have a black member. It was still something that we were very much dealing with.

AVC: In the ’80s you started your own zine, Metrozine, which documented the D.C. hardcore scene. Was that just another way to satisfy your curiosity?

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SC: That was part of it. But I also knew that I’d become a part of this really special thing, and I didn’t really have a way to articulate that. It was life-changing stuff. Looking back, Metrozine was more of a diary than anything else. It didn’t come across as “Dear Diary,” but it really was an outlet for me that way. I was documenting these thing I was witnessing and being a part of, writing them down and putting them out there. I had this weird need to it. Other people were doing it, and I was really encouraged. In my mind, there was an expectation in D.C. If you were going to go to shows, then you needed to support it. You needed to do more than just show up at the shows. That was my interpretation of it, my contribution.

AVC: What about playing in your own band?

SC: Yeah, in ’87 I started playing in a band called Darkness At Noon. I played guitar and started a band, because that’s just what you did. I quit Metrozine, though, because I thought it might be weird to be in a D.C. band and write about other D.C. bands.

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AVC: Did you have any conception back then of what a conflict of interest was, or journalistic ethics in general?

SC: I think I did. I think what I felt was, this is going to make me vulnerable. I play in a band, yet I’m critiquing other people’s bands in Metrozine. It just felt weird. Anyway, the band only played for about a year and a half. Every show we played was an amazing bill. We just lucked out. Our first was opening for Soul Side. We played with Shudder To Think, Kingface, Swiz, Government Issue, Fugazi twice. We weren’t great, but the bills we played on were great.

AVC: Two of hardcore’s most enduring and misunderstood subgenres, straightedge and emo, were born in the D.C. scene in the ’80s. How did you feel about those labels back then, and how do you feel about them now?

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SC: First of all, I was a straightedge kid. You never would’ve known it, though. I never wore Xs on my hands. I never walked around at shows knocking beers out of people’s hands. Straightedge just resonated personally with me. I never got into that New York straightedge hardcore, like Youth Of Today, that came out toward the end of the ’80s, the super militant straightedge. It just didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t understand the militant aspect. That just seemed to counter to the whole thing. Minor Threat’s “Straight Edge” was just one guy’s experience that he wrote down in a song. It was a great fucking song, but it just took on a life of its own. You really started to see that militant attitude at the end of the ’80s, but not in D.C. That just wasn’t a thing here. It might have been a thing, but I wasn’t aware of it. It wasn’t my experience.

As far as emo goes, those live shows were intense. But I wasn’t into either of those labels, straightedge or emo. But in terms of subgenres, the stuff that’s quote-unquote emo, looking back now and classifying it, was what I listened to at the time. When you’re an angsty teenager, they were everything. But honestly, I don’t even know what the hell emo means anymore.

AVC: When did you decide to make a documentary about the scene, and how prepared were for the size of the undertaking?

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SC: I started making the film over four years ago. I knew what I wanted to cover, so I know that it was huge. As I started getting in there and really feeling the story and hearing other people’s takes on it, the story became tighter and tighter. But there were many times when was overwhelmed by it and just didn’t know where to go next. I can remember many times just being stuck. After a while I became comfortable with the idea of not trying to tell every detail or every little bit of the story, to not try to make it everything to everybody. I sort of settled on tying things around my experiences and the things I was interested in. Once I settled on that, I was able to push through.

Salad Days Official Trailer from Scott Crawford on Vimeo.

AVC: What was the most challenging thing about putting the movie together?

SC: Trying to find a balanced way to put everything together. I took more of a journalistic approach, rather than trying to find an agenda. I wanted to show that there were multiple sides to every major event that took place in the D.C. scene over the course of the ’80s. I wrestled with that.

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AVC: Specifically, what were some things you had to balance?

SC: Straightedge was one. It was really the first of several things that became, well, I don’t want to say divisive. First of all, I wanted to remind everyone that “Straight Edge” was just a song. Second of all, not everyone in the D.C. scene was straightedge, and the people that were straightedge got along completely fine with the people that weren’t. It wasn’t this militant, black-and-white thing. I do think, however, that there was a sense of responsibility. When you set up shows at some new performance space, there was an expectation. It was like, “Look, don’t tear this place up. Don’t rip the urinal off the wall. Don’t shoot up in the hallway. We’ll get closed down.” That’s not straightedge exactly, but ultimately straightedge was about taking responsibility.

I think Revolution Summer was another big thing I wanted to balance. It has taken on this almost mythological tone. I really wanted to break that down a little bit. To some people, that term “Revolution Summer” meant nothing. To others, like [activist and author] Mark Anderson says in the film, it was a rebirth.

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AVC: Anderson’s appearance in Salad Days is one of the film’s most emotionally powerful moments.

SC: Yeah. He really broke down, right there on camera.

AVC: It’s a reminder that, regardless of how mythological the D.C. scene has become to some people, it was a very real thing that changed people’s lives.

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SC: Absolutely. That’s what I wanted to show. What’s fascinating to me is, some of the people who say Revolution Summer was mostly just a phrase to them are the musicians who made some of that music, the quote-unquote Revolution Summer bands. But it really did mean something. I remember thinking, oh, I’m going to go to a Rites Of Spring show. This is going to be great. You know that if you went to a Rites Of Spring show, it was going to be a certain group of people. It wasn’t going to be the knuckleheads. They weren’t really welcome or tolerated. You have to remember, there was always crazy shit going on at these shows. There was always some drama, out on the street with windows getting smashed, or people fighting in the club. But when you went to these Revolution Summer shows, that didn’t happen. There was a safety there. People were there for the right reasons.

AVC: Rites Of Spring is one of the most legendary bands from the ’80s D.C. scene, but there’s never been much video footage of the group. The same can be said of many of the other bands in Salad Days, including Void. What were the difficulties of tracking down archival video for the film?

SC: There was footage out there, but I wanted to be as selective as possible. I didn’t want Salad Days to be one of those punk-rock documentaries where the footage is just shit. There are already enough crappy clips in the film as it is. [Laughs.] There were certain clips I could have used, but I just thought the quality wasn’t good enough. The biggest challenge I had was Void. The Void footage in the movie is just not great, but they were so insane live. I had to use it. And yeah, there’s very little footage of Rites Of Spring in existence. I really lucked out on what I found. I was at that show [that appears in the film]. In fact, that was around the time when stagediving was beginning to become a no-no in D.C. In that clip, I’m the kid stagediving. [Laughs.]

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I kind of like how the movie starts out with his grainy, 8-millimeter, black-and-white footage from the early ’80s, and by the end of it, there are all these two-and-three-camera, Betacam shoots from the late ’80s. It was really cool to show the evolution of the scene in that way. Still, it took years to find some of this stuff. Some of the best footage I didn’t find until the last month of production, when the film was pretty much done. I just stumbled across some great footage and put it in at the last minute.

AVC: It’s funny now that people holding up their cellphones and filming video at concerts is such a contentious issue. When you were making Salad Days, I bet you wish everyone had had cellphones at those D.C. shows in the ’80s.

SC: Totally. I remember asking myself, “Why couldn’t I be doing a documentary film about some music scene happening right now?” I can’t imagine how much footage I would have had to work with. I get that argument against cellphones at concerts, by the way. There is something about being in the moment instead of filming it. But I was also the kid with a notebook in the crowd, trying to write everything down and document it.

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AVC: Dave Grohl appears Salad Days, and the D.C.-themed episode of his HBO show Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways aired in October 2014, around the same time Salad Days premiered. Were you working on them around the same time?

SC: Yeah. I actually helped him with that episode. I’ve known Dave since I was a kid. I put out a compilation record in 1985 called Alive & Kicking, and it had six D.C. bands: Gray Matter, Marginal Man, United Mutation, Beefeater, Cereal Killer, and Mission Impossible, which was Dave’s band. So I’d known him since then, and I’d kind of kept in touch. When I started working on the film and reached out to him, I really didn’t expect to hear back from him for a while. But literally within an hour, he was like, “I’m in.” That was for the first interview I did with him for Salad Days. The second interview I did with him was actually at Inner Ear Studio in D.C., when Foo Fighters were recording a song there for Sonic Highways. But we had fairly different stories we were trying to tell. He was trying to tell his story and his experience. He had 20 minutes to do it, and I had the luxury of 100 minutes. But I thought he did a great job.

AVC: Salad Days ends at the start of the ’90s, just as great D.C. bands like Jawbox, Nation Of Ulysses, and Shudder To Think were taking off, not to mention the biggest group from that scene, Fugazi. Why cut it off there?

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SC: I felt like Fugazi was a great place to end the film because they kind of serve as that bridge between the ’80s and the ’90s and beyond. Their success, at least on paper, seemed like the culmination of all the work that had been done in the D.C. scene in the ’80s. To me, what happened in the ’90s, that story is just so fucking tragic, so far as what happened to so many bands who signed to major labels, and not just the ones from D.C. [like Jawbox and Shudder To Think, both of which flopped and were dropped by major labels in the ’90s]. But I did want to touch on that a bit. J. [Robbins of Jawbox] does talk about that a little in the film, and Ian [MacKaye] talks about Atlantic Records wanting to sign Fugazi, and how silly all that was.

I wanted to show where all that success was leading, but I didn’t feel qualified to cover the entire decade of the ’90s. I came of age in the ’80s, and that’s the stuff that changed my life. That’s not to say that the stuff that came out of D.C. throughout the ’90s wasn’t good. I love those bands. I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, but the part of the story that meant the most to me was what came out during a more pivotal time in my life.

AVC: The interest in ’80s D.C. hardcore has never been higher than it is now. Why does it still resonate?

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SC: When you look at bands like Rites Of Spring or Embrace or Gray Matter or a lot of those key, quote-unquote emo bands, they’re writing about really basic human stiff like heartbreak, things that we all experience. Certainly you feel those things harder when you’re younger. Like, why does every new generation that comes along discover The Smiths? It’s because of Morrissey’s lyrics, and it’s because they still speak to people. It’s universal in a lot of ways. I think the same goes for D.C. And it was a very unique aesthetic and sound. You can’t really compare it to other hardcore. When I listen to Rites Of Spring, I’m hearing a pop band playing really loudly. Through Marshalls.