Spirit of ’79
Photos capture the birth of D.C. punk
Published: July 24, 2013
In September of 1979 Lucian Perkins, future two-time Pulitzer-winning photojournalist (then a lowly intern for the Washington Post), happened to have a drink at D.C. Space. There, he accidentally stumbled across an early show by a then-unknown local band Bad Brains and shared a conversation with the band’s charismatic frontman, H.R. (Paul Hudson). Struck by the band’s enthusiasm and energy, Perkins decided to try to document the then-infant punk scene in the area. The resulting photographs of the Brains, as well as Trenchmouth, the Teen Idles, and their fans, are gathered in his new book, Hard Art, DC 1979 (Akashic), and were taken at four shows over five months in that year. Paired with explanatory text from Alec MacKaye (brother of Ian and member of seminal D.C. bands the Faith and Ignition), the book attempts to capture a pivotal moment in time for the nascent D.C. hardcore scene in particular and the national punk scene in general.
Good live concert photography should strive to do more than document a show for posterity; it should try to capture the feeling of the time, the fans, the overall scene, and general atmosphere; it ought to make the viewers feel, at least a little, what it was like to be there, in that moment. These photos generally manage to do that, but with varying levels of success.
The best photographs in the collection also belie an interesting perspective, since Perkins was himself an outsider to the scene and a stranger to these kids. He seems to treat his project more like an anthropological expedition than a weekend-style assignment, and that is a big part of what makes this collection interesting. Perkins seems both bewildered and delighted by what he is seeing and lingers on details: a group of awkward kids sharing a beer on the steps; a couple, shot from the waist-down, the emphasis on their punk gear, which must have been outlandish to Perkins’ eyes at the time. And occasionally, iconic figures pop out: Is that a sullen, teenaged Ian MacKaye curled up in the background of one frame? (It is.)
Perkins’ outsider perspective is all the more interesting because his subjects also seem like outsiders, still exploring and inventing their own culture—at this time, punk wasn’t yet so codified—and the result is something of a cultural time capsule of the early moments of the scene.
All four of the shows documented in the book were held at unorthodox underground venues, a detail which confirms part of the legend of D.C. hardcore: The kids, shut out of legit venues by bar owners and the establishment, created their own scene and thus spawned the DIY ethos that has defined so much of the scene ever since.
We see shows at hippie hangouts, art galleries, and, by far the most interesting location, Valley Green housing complex (a public housing project). Inspired by a series of (much larger-scale) RAR (“Rock Against Racism”) concerts in the U.K., “H.R.’s plan was to get punk rockers to step out of the embrace of the downtown art scene and take it to the streets,” as MacKaye puts it in the accompanying text. The resulting images are striking in their ability to capture that attempt. Fans of Bad Brains and Trenchmouth (a short-lived but fondly remembered D.C. band) contort themselves in a crowd of alternatingly confused and jubilant neighborhood youths. The images are arresting, as is the concept itself. It would still be great, over 30 years later, if someone tried to bridge the gap between communities here in Baltimore in a similar way.
Looking at these photos, one wonders again and again about Perkins’ role in the events unfolding before his camera. In some of the images, subjects break the unspoken rule of concert photography, or photojournalism in general, hammily posing for the camera, even blocking the view of the band to do so. But these images are also among the most stunning. You get the sense that no one—not the band, not the crowd, and certainly not Perkins—really knew exactly what was going on here, and that sense of newness of experience comes across.
H.R.’s early persona is one of the true revelations of this book. Perkins manages to capture the young man as a mercurial, enthusiastic, charismatic performer—twisting in front of the crowd, screaming into the mic, a loose bundle of barely contained energy. Countless pages have been dedicated to the man H.R. later became, but the glimpses of the boyish, energetic performer we find here go a long way to explain the reverence embedded in the hushed tones that animate stories about Bad Brains in those days.
The last section of the book focuses on one of the first shows by the Teen Idles, the first band on legendary label Dischord (itself founded by Teen Idles members Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, who went on to form Minor Threat, one of the bands that defined hardcore punk). Perkins captures the new band in all their awkwardness, and yet there is an evident sense of drive in their demeanor. As Henry Rollins, who came up in this scene, says in an essay that accompanies these photos, “It was our youth. . . . The Teen Idles showed so many other local bands what was possible. You can make a record and put it out. You can start a label. . . . Once they had broken through that barrier, I knew that others would follow and the whole scene was going to open up. It did.”
In the photographer’s statement, included with the press materials for the book (but, bizarrely, not in the book itself), Perkins recalls showing the images to a stunned Bob Woodward, then-metro editor of the Washington Post and co-author of All the President’s Men, whose reaction was to shake his head and say “This doesn’t exist in Washington.”
Only months before these photos were taken, it didn’t. But Perkins managed to stumble into and document a particularly interesting and important moment in musical history. The resulting collection is ultimately a worthwhile and fascinating document of that time and place.
Lucian Perkins and Alec MacKaye speak about their work on Thursday, July 25 at Normal’s bookstore in Baltimore (normals.com).
See more photos from the book at photos.citypaper.com
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