‘Persistent Vision’ lets music fans spy on the birth of DC punk

In 2011, digitized scans of the Dead Sea Scrolls were posted online to great fanfare. I confess that I have never watched them. But I’ve spent the past weekend happily lost in the Dead Sea Scrolls of DC’s punk rock past, thanks to a new online exhibit called “Persistent Vision: The DC Punk Collections at the University of Maryland.”

Pages and pages of material – concert flyers, fanzines, photos, recordings – make you feel like you’re there. And me has been the. But even so, I couldn’t follow everything that was going on in this fruitful scene at the time. “Persistent Vision” is a digital bolus of DC punk rock spanning from 1976 to 1992.

The online collection was co-created by John Daviscurator of specialized performing arts collections in university libraries, and musicologist and SCPA manager Ben Jackson. The over 1,000 digitized items it contains were selected from over 50 linear feet of SCPA material. (Visit it on exhibitions.lib.umd.edu/dc-punk.)

Flyers and zines are the most fun, but co-curators, with Jessica Grimmer, wrote thoughtful essays that set the scene for each time slice explored by the chronological exhibit. In DC, as elsewhere, punk was not created by multinational music conglomerates, but by fans, some of whom took instruments and others cameras or X-Acto knives or, just as importantly, tickets and 45s.

“Most punks were alienated by the long guitar solos, fantastic lyrics and jet set lifestyle of prominent rock musicians in the mid-1970s,” the curators write. “Punk offered an irresistible antidote, blasting out succinct, jagged rock-and-roll songs like the Ramones’ ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ and the Damned’s ‘New Rose’.”

Washington and its suburbs have spawned their own Ramones, their own Damned, bands with names like Bad Brains, Teen Idles, Tru Fax & the Insaniacs, Minor Threat, Madhouse and Rites of Spring. It is a song from the Rites of Spring which gave its name to the exhibition. Said Davis: “I asked [singer/guitarist] Guy Picciotto if he was okay if we used the title of the song as the title of the exhibit, and he very graciously said yes.

Scrolling through the flyers, you can see the evolution of a punk aesthetic, from a ransom-style design to something more stylish. There is also a change in nomenclature. Early flyers describe the bands as featuring “Real Rock & Roll”, “New Wave”, or “New Wave Music”. A Bad Brains show in Forestville, Maryland is described as “Another Punk Rock Bash”, suggesting that even fans grew tired of taxonomies – or at least could joke about it.

Zines such as Infiltrator, Descenes and Vintage Violence follow the ever-changing musical gyre. A page from the June 1978 issue of Vintage Violence notes that “Razz guitarist Abad [Behram] left the band and joined Artful Dodger while on another page, Slickee Boy Kim Kane laments the demise of a DC band called The Pop: “They were to me the best of the best ‘power pop’ bands in the US or the UK”

A reason for the breakup? Guitarist Tommy Keen left to join the Razz.

Ads are fun too. Go to Groff the influential Rockville record store Yesterday and Today is all over (“The records you want without having to go to New York”), while in the Infiltrator someone is selling a 1978 Fender Super Reverb amplifier for $285. It would probably cost you around $1,500 today.

Zines may cover a sometimes threatening form of music, but they are artisanal affairs. In the first issue of DCene from 1983, the editors thank “our moms”, while offering “no thanks to the people who Safeway sends their photos to, who lost a roll of my film”.

Scroll through the pages and you can see the mythos of hardcore DC being born. A review in Capitol Crisis of a 1983 Black Market Baby, SOA, and Minor Threat show at 9:30 a.m. Club notes: “Excessive preaching by Minor Threat’s Ian [MacKaye] (to protest smoking, drinking, and fighting) between numbers raised a few twitters in the audience, but it’s healthy to remember the Ten Commandments from time to time.

In this same issue, edited by Xyra Harper, there is a typed line at the bottom of a page. It’s there to fill the space, but it sums up what the community was trying to do: “The scene you dream of should be the scene you create!”

That’s the spirit Davis hopes “Persistent Vision” will engender.

“The hope is that you go out and do things,” he said, “that it will inspire you to create new art or create new scholarship or increase the understanding of this community quite remarkable. This has always been at the heart of punk.

About Michael Terry

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