Punk scenes are rarely welcomed into communities with open arms, but it's fair to say that the culture of Washington, D.C., and the punk/hardcore scene of the late 1970s/early ‘80s had a particularly incompatible relationship.
"People said, 'You cannot do this here. This is a radical kind of music and it can’t happen in D.C.’ But once it took root, it grew in ways we could have never imagined," opens the trailer for Paul Bishow and James Schneider's new documentary Punk the Capital, which explores that dynamic and chronicles the scene from 1976-1983 through archival footage and interviews with the people and bands who were there (Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Black Flag, and many more).
Since the documentary premiered in June, Schneider has been traveling the country for screenings and Q&As with the people featured in the film. At the Pittsburgh screening at Union Project on Oct. 8, he'll be joined by Jeff Nelson, co-founder of Dischord Records and drummer for Minor Threat. City Paper spoke with Nelson ahead of the screening to discuss note-keeping, underage shows, and reliving your youth on screen 40 years after the fact.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I saw an archival photo from the film that's attributed to you. Were you documenting a lot of your life at that time?
I’ve always kept really good files and records and squirreled things away. Ian [MacKaye, Minor Threat singer and Dischord co-founder] did as well. We have quite extensive archives, we didn’t keep them the same years, but we both kept journals so that’s helpful and hilarious to dip into.
Was that something that you and Ian discussed at the outset of Dischord, to make sure you were archiving and keeping notes?
No, that was not something that we’d be discussing. For me, it’s just an inherited trait from my parents and grandparents, keeping things and preserving things.
The film frames the punk scene as fundamentally at odds with the culture of Washington, D.C. Was that your experience?
It’s hard to say whether it’s that different from other cities and their early punk scenes. I think punk was shocking early on whenever and wherever it took place.
Can you tell me about the years leading up to the scene exploding in the early '80s?
The D.C. scene was very tiny. Those of us from the later scene, meaning '79 or '80, are very excited about all the things that came before us. We never knew that much about it, we weren’t going to shows at that point. We think it’s great that the people who came before us are getting their props. The film does a good job of showing the very earliest years of the scene. Before we came along, it was still a very small, tight-knit community. When we came along, there were very few punks. I’ve never thought that just because someone was a punk or a hippie or any other follower of a style, I’ve never thought that that meant that automatically you had things in common with them or that they were a good person. But in general, there were so few of us in the punk scene that when you did see a fellow punk, it was a big deal.
The scene became very incestuous in terms of bands, but it was incredibly low-key, no thoughts whatsoever that four decades later people would care about the scene. In other words, it was just what little shows you could get in somebody's basement or garage, or at a rented hall. Or as the case of the Teen Idles, which was our second band, before Minor Threat, we would sometimes manage to get shows opening for some other band, but rarely got asked back. Occasionally [we’d] actually [get] banned, but usually just not asked back. Either they were nervous about the dancing – which at that point was quite tame, similar to slam dancing but it was much more friendly and less aggressive early on – but also the fact that it was such a young scene, and we weren't drinking alcohol, which is how clubs make their money. Plus they were always worried about underage kids drinking. It was always a risk.
Most notably when Ian met with the owner of the 9:30 Club and discussed that very fact. "Why don't you let us play matinee shows? We can put big Xs on hands" — which later came to symbolize straight edge around the world — "but most of the kids won't try to drink, they don't want to drink. They'll buy Cokes and stuff, but you won't have to worry about underage drinking or getting in trouble. And we'll fill your club."
I imagine watching all this old footage and reliving these stories was a mixed bag: entertaining, nostalgic, maybe uncomfortable.
I don't think there's anything uncomfortable other than wishing I didn't speak in such a monotone voice. I just thought it was pretty great. It made me happy and proud for the part I played, and even if musically it's not everybody's cup of tea, it's still a totally enjoyable story.