Washington, D.C., is a one-business town, and during the scary ’80s, when the streets cleared out at night, a fearless kind of music emerged. Scott Crawford’s propulsive, decade-spanning chronicle of hardcore is marked by the same traits that typified the bands themselves: It’s brainy, loud and tinged with a hint of insider preciousness. The evolution of the scene rushes forward like a rocket, with groups like the radical all-black Bad Brains and pivotal Minor Threat staking a claim for seriousness. Elsewhere, we learn how to assemble our own vinyl sleeves, take the reins of distribution and energize a youthful base: A black X on the backs of hands (indicating an underage bar-goer) becomes an emblem of solidarity.
Interviewees like Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl testify to being blown away, and if the music still sounds like a frenetic, sludgy mess, it nonetheless finds a flattering showcase as a phenomenon of teenage aggression. The most fascinating part about Salad Days, unusual for any rock documentary, is its owning up to middle-class privilege: These were the children of well-employed, educated parents, many of whom were supportive. (A photo of Henry Rollins working his day job at Häagen-Dazs is a scream.) It makes sense that the bands got political in both lyrics and behavior—here’s where abstemious “straight-edge” comes from—but their discipline allows for a reboot, 1985’s “Revolution Summer,” that made the music even better. Crawford has produced an inspiring primer, sure to remind viewers that the power has always been in their hands.
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