This summer marks the 30th anniversary of a seminal event in punk history, the “Revolution Summer” of 1985 in Washington DC. Online Music Editor Joe Stewart looks back at this cultural and musical phenomenon that, although largely forgotten, changed the trajectory of punk for good.
[dropcap size=small]Y[/dropcap]ou could say punk that music, that fast, snotty, and angry offshoot of hard rock, finally matured in the summer of 1985. As the genre grew throughout the late 70s and the early 80s in the UK and the USA, it’d be fair to say that it experienced a few growing pains. The first of these (albeit one which was courted with enthusiasm) was the widespread disapproval punk inspired in the public. According to the mainstream media, punk was a threatening musical abomination that sought to strip naïve adolescents of their morals – although, lest we forget, The Beatles were also once deemed a social enemy. As punk grew, too, its ideology became confused. Originally associated with anti-authoritarianism and non-conformity, the genre soon became host to a wide variety of contradictory political stances, including the working-class socialism promoted by The Clash, the straight edge lifestyle of abstinence practiced by Minor Threat, and even right-wing conservatism, surprisingly favoured by Johnny Ramone. The music didn’t stay the same, either; the genre began to blend with others, notably ska and dub, and, in some scenes, boundaries were being pushed, most notably in the hardcore subgenre.
A fast, aggressive and often overtly macho type of punk, hardcore came to prominence in the early 80s. Although it was founded with a nod towards community and solidarity, the genre became troubled by increasing violence both at the shows and on the street, as well as its co-option by neo-Nazi skinheads and straight edge gangs. As the media reported on this worrying trend, the genre’s founding ideals were lost on newer fans who participated in the kinds of behaviour that led to the genre’s demonization. If punk and hardcore were going to continue and make a positive impact, something had to change.
That change started to take shape in Washington DC, America’s capital, around 1984. The city had long supported a burgeoning hardcore scene, perhaps due to its eternal association with the politics of Capitol Hill and the ever-present divide between wealthy and poor. DC was the first home of hardcore pioneers Bad Brains, and headquarters of the hugely influential Dischord Records, owned by Minor Threat member Ian Mackaye. As punk and hardcore started to become visibly corrupted by violence and a move away from their founding principles, however, Mackaye and other seminal figures in the DC scene recognised that they had a part to play in repairing the very community which they lived in and believed in.
The solution, of course, started with a band. The displaced members of a number of recently broken-up DC bands came together in late 1984 to form Rites of Spring who, although they only played 15 shows in their existence, have come to be recognised as one of punk music’s most important progenitors. As their name borrowed from Stravinsky’s avant-garde orchestral work suggests, the band sought a new way. Ditching the machismo and simplistic grunt of much hardcore of the time but keeping its passion and wild energy, Rites of Spring overlaid the music with deeply introspective, personal lyrics and stunning melody to create something progressive and different. In June 1985, following the distribution of an unofficial bootleg record and growing local hype, Dischord Records released the band’s 12 song LP, and the Revolution Summer began. DC was inspired by the electricity and passion of Rites of Spring, and a host of new bands, including Ian Mackaye’s Embrace, formed. Where there was once undirected anger and cynicism, there was now self-analysis and introspection; where before, politics was tackled with brute opposition, at least lyrically, there were now discussions about productive solutions.
The “Revolution Summer”, of course, implies more than music, and the political scene was also set alight. Street gangs were replaced by debates regarding feminism, race, and foreign policy. In one notable incident, a “punk percussion” band turned up at the South African embassy to protest apartheid. Zines were published in record numbers. Punks also began to question the politics surrounding their shows: whilst the genre had long been cheap, largely due to the lack of a promotional infrastructure, $5 gig tickets, a do-it-yourself ethos and accessibility for all became a matter of ethics and absolutely crucial were bands to take part in the community. Embrace’s song “Money” perfectly captures this feeling, a long-overdue return to punk’s anti-authoritarian and anti-consumerist drive.
Although the Revolution Summer did eventually burn out – Rites of Spring, like many DC bands, broke up after a few years, and hardcore’s problems were never entirely stamped out – it is impossible to understand modern punk, so far removed from its early incarnations, without considering this landmark event. Although it is arguable that it has been historicised with an overt nostalgia and collates events which some would consider unrelated, to look at what followed is to see its lasting legacy. Fugazi, Mackaye’s next band, took punk ethics to their absolute conclusion. Grunge bands incorporated the personal lyrics and combination of melody and chaos favoured by Rites of Spring. Today’s bands, including emo stars Jimmy Eat World, pop-punks Paramore, and post-hardcore acts like Title Fight, would not exist if the Revolution Summer had never happened. It is refreshing, too, to see that the large majority of punk shows remain cheap and, for the most part, accepting. Punk today, unless in reference to ultra-mainstream acts like Green Day and Blink-182, still provides an alternative to the sky-high ticket prices of arena shows, the disappointment of artists who turn up late to nightclubs only to play two songs, and the mechanical production of talent-show superstars.
Punk and hardcore still certainly have their problems, but are for the most part better of as a result of the summer in which punk didn’t just challenge the values of others: it questioned its own.
Joe Stewart, Online Music Editor