Here’s a glimpse of what Washington DC was like in the 1980s: Ronald Reagan was president, rent was still cheap, and a local punk rock scene was just starting to develop. One of punk’s pioneers was photographer and author Cynthia Connolly, a Los Angeles transplant living in the nation’s capital.
Connolly is the creator of Banned in DC, a book that compiles photos and interviews from the 1980s punk rock scene. Originally released in 1988, Banned in DC was reissued last year. Connolly’s involvement with punk in both Los Angeles and Washington D.C. lead her to create a book filled with her personal encounters with the punk community, making her one of the genre’s unsung heroes. We had the chance to speak with Connolly about growing up punk and what it was like being a woman in the middle of it all.
If you’re in Los Angeles and want to meet Cynthia Connolly, head to her discussion about Banned in DC, this Saturday, August 6, from 7pm to 8:30pm at Subliminal Projects, 1331 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, California, 90026.
How did you get into taking pictures of the DC punk scene? Was anyone else doing it at the time?
What was interesting about the DC punk scene is that there was only a handful of people [involved], so when you went to a show, you knew everybody. After 1981, the scene became more popular with Boston and New York kids coming down. The shows became more violent like the scene in Los Angeles. I took photos because everybody knew each other so you got a sense of the close knit community and we were all having a really good time. Although I wondered why I was taking photos, I knew we were just doing this for fun. Being from Los Angeles I had a different perspective, since most people in the scene were from DC. I wanted to take pictures because I thought [the scene] was going to change into something else.
Did it feel like you were documenting something important or were you just taking pictures because they were your friends?
I did feel like it was important, but I didn’t really take many photos for Banned in DC since I got my camera stolen in LA. At first, I wasn’t the best photographer and I was just figuring it out. I would ask myself, “How do I make this look good? There are only 15 people in this basement.” So I took a lot of photos of people hanging out, because the band always gets all of the attention.
What were some of the similarities and differences between the DC and LA punk scenes?
Rodney Bingenheimer had a radio show in LA. He was playing music from the 1960s, like girl bands and other bands from Los Angeles. It gave his show cultural significance because he was playing different types of music from different eras and introducing punks to new bands and genres. His DJing style really influenced me to be a part of the punk scene in Los Angeles. Listening to 1960s girl bands really pushed women to be involved in rock and later on punk. In DC there weren’t a lot of radio shows like that, it was much more of an underground thing. Most kids in the scene were underaged, so bars couldn’t have shows because no one would be drinking. LA is surrounded by the entertainment industry and DC was the center for politics, so people in LA were paying attention to the creative aspect of music even if it was punk, but in Washington DC, no one was paying attention to what was happening except us and our parents.
How did punk music and its culture contribute to feminism?
The surf scene was a big thing in Los Angeles, but I always felt like a spectator. I was influenced by the Russian avant-garde and I wanted to be a part of a community that was creating and acting on new ideas, which was something I felt like the surf scene didn’t have. So I started going to shows where I realized I could contribute to a scene and not just be a viewer. In LA, there were women playing in bands like the Alice Bag Band, the Go-Gos, and X, and that’s how I saw punk contributing to feminism. But it really showed me what I wanted to bring to a community, and eventually after moving to DC, I made a band. Then I asked my female friends to do a book with me.
Unlike today with Internet and social media, how important was word of mouth in terms of promoting the punk community?
The thing about social media now is that people can post a flyer and say they are at a show and not really be there. So word of mouth without social media is really like you are at the show, you’re engaging with people. Back when I used to sell Flipside zines at shows in DC, I would go to shows and talk to people. I would talk about why I moved to DC. I would engage with the crowd. It’s important to listen to the music by actually going to the shows. Promoting the shows on social media is cool, but it’s not the same as actually being there and contributing to a sense of community. Support your friends’ creative endeavors and they will be there for you too.
How did the reissue of the book come about?
The last time I printed the book was in 2006 by a local printer and the whole concept was that if the bands were local, then the printer was going to be local too. I wasn’t going to go to China to get it printed. The typesetting was digital, but the photographs were all analog on a basic layout on boards. The printer would then shoot the images on negatives which are used on plates to make the book. The negatives were 20 years old and were literally rotting away. I didn’t have the boards or negatives because I had returned them to the photographers, so there was no way to reissue the book. I had to make a bootleg digital of the book, so we scanned photos out of an original copy of the book. The effort of reprinting the book was worth it because people kept asking about it.
What bands from back then do younger people today ask you about the most?
Ian MacKaye suggested that with the reissue of the book, I should talk about why I made it. When I started to talk about it casually, I realized there were some really great stories to tell. Then someone suggested that I should hold talks about the book to discuss why I made it. During book discussions, I always try to get older people who were from DC to talk about their experiences, because I am not an expert. The book is made up of stories. Minor Threat and Bad Brains are the bands young people ask about the most because of their accessibility and impact.
Are there any bands from the scene that you think are underrated or don’t get the appreciation they deserve?
That’s tough because there weren’t really a ton of bands in the ’80s. Bands like Scream never got the credit they deserved. Also it’s a drag because there weren’t a lot of photos of Scream. Collecting photos back then was about meeting up and exchanging photos with photographers. Shudder to Think was another underrated band from the ’90s, but they still had a huge impact on the DC scene.
Who from the DC punk scene went on to have the greatest impact on the gloabl audience?
On July 16, 1981, Youth Brigade, Government Issue, and Minor Threat played at 9:30 Club, which was really interesting because it was the first punk show in DC. It was promoted through word of mouth and flyers. Kids from New York and Boston came down to see Minor Threat and G.I.m which was different than the entire audience being from DC. It was a very exciting and pivotal moment when I realized there was something more happening than just hanging out and going to a friend’s show. I felt a connection with other cities, something that didn’t happen before. For me, if your friends are creating a subculture or scene, the best thing you can do is to contribute and participate. Punk music and the whole DIY ethic has influenced so much of what we are today as Americans. The whole concept of buying local and contributing to farmers markets, to me, that concept goes back to the punk thing in the 1980s. The punk scene as a whole has deeply affected America culturally and economically.
Why did you title the book Banned in D.C.?
A lot of bars and clubs didn’t want us in their spaces. We had 15-year-olds booking shows and it occurred to me that no one was in charge here, people weren’t willing to work with us. So in some way we felt banned in our own city.
Feature image: Rites of Spring, copyright 1985, Cynthia Connolly.