Iconic D.C. punk bands such as Bad Brains and Minor Threat disbanded decades ago, and there’s a Starbucks where DC Space used to be, but the District hasn’t completely lost sight of its hardcore heritage. Yet.
Even 21st-century teeny-boppers can visually experience the influential music scene of yesteryear, thanks to Cynthia Connolly’s self-published tome, Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes From the DC Punk Underground (79–85). The celebrated local-rock-history book, which has reportedly sold more than 13,000 copies, is now back in print and available for purchase.
However, aficionados of the old scene are advised to snag a copy soon. Both Connolly, 41, and her financial backers at local indie label Dischord Records indicate that—unlike the era’s musical legacy—the book’s commercial shelf life isn’t everlasting.
“At the moment,” says Connolly, “I feel like this could be the last printing.”
In the aftermath of the D.C. rock scene’s pivotal “Revolution Summer” of 1985, the printing industry has experienced its own renaissance. The advent of desktop publishing has ushered in a sort of golden age for the DIY crowd. Yet the technological progress also comes at a price for the punks. Printing new copies of an old-fashioned manufactured book like Banned in DC is increasingly tricky and expensive, Connolly says. Maybe too tricky and expensive.
First released in 1988, Banned in DC includes 176 pages of contributed punk portraits, crowd shots, concert fliers, and scenester commentaries, for which Connolly and collaborators Sharon Cheslow and Leslie Clague pounded much pavement. Gathering all that material again from its numerous sources—many now scattered about the country—would prove far tougher today than it did in the District’s closely knit music scene of the early ’80s.
Of course, Connolly still has negatives of the book’s original layout. But “eventually,” she points out, “the negatives wear out.” And the film isn’t the only fleeting thing; so too are the old-school machines once used to print from those negatives. The few printers who’ve hung on to these outdated contraptions often charge a hefty fee just to dust ’em off and get ’em running again, Connolly says.
“The only option is to scan these large negatives now and make them digital, at a large expense, with some degradation of the images and the way the book looks,” she says. “I’m not sure if it’s really worth it,” Connolly adds. “The digital files will be old or passé by the time I reprint [the book].”
Far be it from the hardcore era’s standard bearers to sit by idly while snapshots of mid-air stage divers dangle at the edge of oblivion. “We felt like it was a shame to let it go without a final push,” says Dischord spokesperson Alec Bourgeois.
Late last year, the record company fronted the money for a sixth edition of about 2,000 copies, half of which are available through Dischord directly. But even the never-say-die label can’t commit to bankrolling future editions. “[U]nfortunately,” according to Dischord’s Web site, “this will likely be the last edition of the book.”
If so, this final retail campaign may signal a sort of return to roots for Banned, as the noted DIY book could eventually be relegated to the more DIY-oriented used-and-rare-items marketplace. “I think it’s a bad idea to let it go out of print,” says a salesperson—who identified himself as Dale Nixon (presumably reference to the stage name oft-used by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn)—at Smash! record store in Georgetown, which regularly stocks and sells the book, “because, just like old records, the price is gonna skyrocket and people are gonna pay more for it through eBay and stuff.”
If, that is, they pay for it at all. “That’s, like, one of the things that constantly gets stolen,” says Steve Niles, former bassist for the mid-’80s and early-’90s group Gray Matter, who’s pictured numerous times among its pages. “I loan it to people, and I’ve had, like, so many editions, I can’t keep up.”
Niles, like other vets of the old scene, is adamant about the book’s personal significance. “My high-school yearbook doesn’t mean shit to me,” he says. “But [Banned] really does.” And the appeal of its subject matter certainly isn’t limited to participants in the scene. Or even people who were alive at that time. “I still see kids walking around in Minor Threat T-shirts, and I’m like, ‘No way!’” adds Niles, now a comic-book writer in California.
Some suggest that Connolly and other historians deserve some credit for that widespread popularity. “The punk scene in D.C. was influential outside of that area in part because it was so well-documented,” says Allan Horrocks, co-owner of Aquarius Records in San Francisco, which hosted an exhibition of Banned in DC photos back in 1998. “Even if you’re not from D.C., the book still would bring back memories of whatever your local punk scene was like in the ’80s.”
Considering those flashback-inducing effects, not everyone is certain of the book’s impending demise. “I have a feeling it will find itself back on the shelves,” says former State of Alert and Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins, who lauds the book for the “sense of innocence” it captured at a time “before things kind of tore wide open.” “It’s too good a document to go away for too long,” he says. —Chris Shott