‘Punk was about action!’: A new documentary, 16 years in the making, charts punk history

Bijou Film Board: Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement screening and Q&A w/ James June Schneider, Jeff Nelson

FilmScene Chauncey — Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 7 p.m.

Punk Show

Gabe’s — Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 9 p.m.

Teen Idles (Nathan Strejeck, Jeff Nelson, Ian MacKaye and Geordie Grindle), photographed outside of Madam’s Organ, a D.C. performance space featured in ‘Punk the Capital.’ — Lucian Perkins

“I remember first hearing about punk in Newsweek or Time magazine in the summer of 1976, when we were living in Afghanistan,” mused Minor Threat drummer Jeff Nelson, whose father worked for the U.S. State Department. Nelson was born in 1962 in South Africa and lived in other far-flung places before the family settled in Washington D.C., where he attended Woodrow Wilson Public High School.

“I heard my first punk records in 1977 when I was living in America,” he continued, “but I really didn’t start getting into it until 1978.” He connected with Ian MacKaye in a high school German class at the beginning of 11th grade, and they became fast friends. “We talked about music, exchanged cassettes of rock bands we liked, and got into punk at the same time.”

“It was ’78,” MacKaye said, “and a lot of people in my high school were getting into new wave and punk, and I was a skateboarder who was into Ted Nugent, hard rock, heavy funk.”

He thought this new music sucked and was happy to share that opinion, until someone asked if he had ever actually listened to a punk record.

“No,” he admitted, so MacKaye borrowed Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols and some other discs from a friend. “I was struck by how unpleasant the music sounded,” he recalled. “It was so weird, but also scary. I was a little freaked about it, but I think that if something is that appalling, I tend to go towards it.”

A Cramps show on Feb. 3, 1979 sealed the deal for the two friends. “A lot of the people who were early punks were there,” MacKaye said. “Guy [Picciotto] from Fugazi, that was his first show. It was absolutely an incredible, defining moment.”

The next day, he cut his hair and decided to pick up the bass, an instrument he had never played before.

“The thing that was so exciting to us was the electricity in the room,” Nelson said of that Cramps show. “Compare that to Ian’s and my first concert — which we both attended, though we hadn’t met yet — which was Queen and Thin Lizzy. It was an amazing show, but it was an arena rock concert and a different experience.”

Within a year, the two friends started a band and co-founded Dischord Records, one of the most influential, venerable independent labels in the U.S. Their band, Slinkees, practiced all summer and played one show in a garage before their singer went off to college in the fall of 1979, after which they evolved into Teen Idles.

“Then Teen Idles broke up,” Nelson said, “but we saved $600 and decided to put out the single, and that became Dischord Records’ number one. By that point, we had already formed Minor Threat.”

The punk-rock dominoes continued to fall. Before Amy Pickering became the vocalist for Fire Party — another key Dischord band — she attended H-B Woodlawn High School, which hosted a show by Teen Idles and other early D.C. groups.

“I immediately was taken,” she said. “I got involved initially volunteering to glue seven-inch single sleeves over at the Dischord house, and then that morphed into 22 years of working there.”

Many of these events are captured in the 2019 documentary Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement, a meticulously crafted film that took 16 years to complete.

“I grew up in Washington D.C. in the mid-1980s punk and skateboard communities and was introduced to the music when I was 12 by an older kid on the school bus,” said Punk the Capital co-creator James June Schneider, who will be in Iowa City with Nelson for a screening of the film at FilmScene Chauncey on Oct. 15, presented by the Bijou Film Board. “The first record I ever bought was Minor Threat. It all started local for me.”

Schneider said that Punk the Capital’s vintage Super-8 film footage — much of which was shot by co-director Paul Bishow — forms the film’s foundation, as do other archival sources.

“They did an amazing job of capturing that era we all grew up within,” Nelson said. “The film is very carefully distilled, and really conveys how shocking and different punk was compared to what was going on at the time.”

D.C. punk shows in the late 1970s took place in a variety of D.I.Y. spaces, but one of the main spots where the scene coalesced was in a group house named Madam’s Organ. This old townhouse had a gallery and stage on the first floor and was inhabited by older Yippies and various remnants of the 1960s counterculture, including a witch and other assorted pagans.

“I went to a number of shows there early on,” MacKaye said, “and December of 1979, Teen Idles played our first show, and then we got a call from Bad Brains about opening for them at Madam’s Organ. Playing at Madam’s Organ was the big time for us. It was just a tiny house, but it had a stage, which made it seem like a real show.”

D.C. punk was unique in the way that it was fairly bookish and also political. “The intellectual quotient drove the politics and the music,” Pickering said. “Punk was about action! I was lucky to find myself in a group of thinkers, readers and community-minded givers.”

Nelson observed that his early bands — Slinkees, Teen Idles, Minor Threat — were not overtly political. “But by the time we were in our mid-20s, around 1987, we started to have our own opinions about things and felt like we knew enough that we could shout about it.”

This coincided with the emergence of Fugazi and other D.C. bands that critiqued both the nation-state (they lived in the U.S. capital, after all) and gender politics.

“Why can’t I walk down a street free of suggestion?” MacKaye sang on Fugazi’s 1988 debut record, imagining himself in the shoes of a woman like Amy Pickering.

“Ian wrote ‘Suggestion’ inspired in part by my frequent arrival at the Dischord house, apoplectic at being harassed on the street while I walked there,” Pickering said. “It was almost too much to take when I first heard it. Clearly, it hit every button on my anger spectrum around the topic.”

For many key players in the D.C. punk scene, the intellectualism that drove their activism was absorbed through osmosis from their families.

“Lots of people we knew were State Department brats or their parents were in the government,” Nelson said, “and Ian’s dad was an editor at the Washington Post.” Nelson also came from a newspaper family, from Iowa.

His maternal grandparents, Leslie G. Moeller and Dorothy Wilson Moeller, met at the School of Journalism at what was then known as the State University of Iowa, and both graduated in 1925 (Leslie became the director of that school in the late 1940s). The couple worked at newspapers in different parts of Iowa before marrying, and they eventually became owners of Waverly’s twin weeklies, the Waverly Democrat and the Bremer County Independent.

After moving back to Iowa City, the family settled in a large house near downtown at 623 College St (it burned down in 2015 after being struck by lightning). Nelson often visited his grandparents back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the future Minor Threat drummer would play in College Green Park across the street, or in the back staircase of the house where his mother was raised. His parents live in Iowa City now.

For Nelson, growing up in a learned family proved to be just as influential as seeing the Cramps, something that complicates simplistic punk narratives that foreground anger and anarchy.

“What I got from punk,” MacKaye said, “was skywriting saying, ‘Self-Definition: You Decide Who You Want to Be.’”

Kembrew McLeod first saw Fugazi in 1988 as a teen in Virginia Beach, a show that stands out in MacKaye’s mind because, as he recalled, “Just before we went on stage, a skinhead with a swastika earring told me that there was a ‘hit’ out on me for ‘betraying the scene’ — a crime that I had not realized was punishable by death!” This article was originally published in Little Village issue 272.

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