Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Rise of Punk

What Motown is to Detroit, what Country is to Nashville, what the Blues are to Chicago, what Jazz is to New Orleans, and what Hip Hop is Atlanta; Punk Rock is to Washington, DC. It’s difficult to imagine this city of suits and pearl necklaces as having any kind of punk scene, let alone imagine it being located in the preppy neighborhood of Georgetown. Yet, it was there in Georgetown, and later on around Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan, that Punk Rock gained traction and became a musical genre in the 1970s and 80s.

Founded by a professor in the astronomy department in the 60s, Georgetown’s radio station WGTB primarily played light rock. However, by the 70s the oldest Jesuit university in the country’s radio station had become a haven for radical thought, featuring programs on Maoism and feminism. The station drew heavy criticism from political leaders, including the likes of Spiro Agnew, who believed that the station aired Third World propaganda. WGTB continued on in their radical ways, eventually attracting local garage bands to play in DC. The District’s first punk band was Overkill, based out of Catholic University. Other successful bands later emerged out DC, notably: The Slickee Boys, Government Issue, Bad Brains, and Fugazi. (At Right: Concert Flyer for the Slickee Boys)

Every good rock band needs a good scene, and DC had plenty that sprung up out of garages and old buildings. Among them was the Atlantis Club—sort of the CBGB of Washington. Rock bands yearned for an opportunity to play at the same locale as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers and the Ramones. Bad Brains so wanted an opportunity at the Atlantis Club that they even wrote a song called “Jammin’ at the Atlantis Club.” Unfortunately, the Atlantis Club shut down in 1979 before Bad Brains got a chance to headline there. The owner of the club claimed that at every show the fans would destroy the building, ripping the wiring, tearing down directories. He did not mention that the building frequently violated fire codes and liquor laws. When the club reopened a year later under new ownership, it would be called Club 9:30 for it’s location at 930 F Street, NW.

With the hottest club in town shut down, punks turned elsewhere for a music venue. Enter Madams Organ up in Adams Morgan. A yippie commune founded by students from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Madams Organ joined the music scene by hosting a pro-legalization of marijuana benefit concert every July Fourth on the National Mall. As yippies became increasingly interested in punk, they began holding more and more shows at their row house on 18th Street, mainly in order to raise money for the monthly electric bill. The house was smelly, battered, with light fixtures inside of tin cans. Naturally, it was instantly popular.

While punk gripped the city, DC was also gentrifying. In 1978, WGTB was shut down by university president Father Healy (although how a station advocating abortion counseling at a Jesuit institution had so much staying power is a mystery). Rent increased for the Madams Organ building, and no fundraiser or benefit show managed to save it. The last concerts were held in April 1980. Despite the hardship, punk remained strong in DC throughout the 80s, if only a little less prevalent.

Both the 930 Club and Madams Organ are still in existence today. 930 Club can be found at 9th and V Streets, NW. It is still one of the most popular venues in the city. A newer Madams Organ is in Adam Morgan on the 2400 block of 18th Street. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.

To learn more about Punk Rock in DC, there’s an interesting (and free!) city tour guide at the Capitol of Punk website ( There’s even a video podcast!

Sources: Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins, Dance of Days (New York: Soft Skull Press, 2001).

Neil Augenstein, “Places That Are Gone,” (WTOP Radio Online: 2007)

Picture Source: Slickee Boy’s Concert Flyer,

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