On June 21, 1985, a few dozen scruffily dressed kids declared “Revolution Summer” with a thunderous “punk percussion protest” at the apartheid-era South African Embassy. That night, the band Rites of Spring officially welcomed the new season with a sweat- and passion-drenched show at the 9:30 Club. Ridiculed by some at the time, 30 years later it has become clear these were “shots heard around the world.”
Consider this: Oklahoma’s Woody Guthrie Center is planning a two-day seminar on Revolution Summer in September. A Brazilian edition of “Dance of Days” — the D.C. punk history I co-authored whose title is taken from a Revolution Summer anthem — is about to be published. In Russia last month, Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot — a punk activist whose main inspiration, Riot Grrrl, can be traced back to the District in 1985 — was arrested again. In Indonesia, “More Than a Witness,” a recent documentary on the punk collective Positive Force DC — again, born in the summer of 1985 — is being translated into Bahasa. In Mexico, “emo” kids have faced assault for adopting a style that traces back to the District in 1985. The D.C. Council passed a ceremonial resolution honoring Revolution Summer and Positive Force.
Revolution Summer, whose energy and idealism still echo in far corners of the globe, was an idea hatched by D.C. punk Amy Pickering, who had grown dissatisfied with the punk scene’s growing violence, creative stasis and social and political apathy. She first disseminated the idea through cut-and-paste “ransom notes” sent anonymously to other like-minded punks.
The idea caught on and came to life in conversations, group houses, punk shows and protests. It was a rebellion against punk-as-usual and business-as-usual. This simultaneous challenge to the subculture and the wider world included new musical styles, an opposition to “slam-dancing” and skinhead gang violence, and a critique of the sexism of the scene. It embraced confrontational, creative protest, animal rights, vegetarianism and communal living.
The bands associated with that moment — Rites of Spring, Gray Matter, Embrace, Beefeater, Lunchmeat and Mission Impossible — burned brightly but flamed out quickly. But Fire Party, Soul Side, Ignition, Fidelity Jones, Kingface and Fugazi rose from the ashes, catalyzed by a wide-open, risk-taking spirit. Many trace the roots of the “emo” and “post-hardcore” genres to this era — and it was undeniably the spark that ignited the trajectory of Mission Impossible’s Dave Grohl, later of Scream, Nirvana and Foo Fighters.
Revolution Summer’s impact was hardly limited to music. Positive Force flourished and continues to do so today. Also, in 1991 when a small knot of girls and women in and around the bands Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and the Nation of Ulysses invented the feminist punk movement Riot Grrrl, they dubbed it “Revolution (Summer) Girl Style Now.” Riot Grrrl’s original haven, Positive Force House, rose from this energy, as did the Meese Is A Pig guerrilla poster campaign that drew the attention of the FBI. The link between animal rights and the anti-drug “straight-edge” idea would foster confrontational bands elsewhere — such as Youth of Today and Earth Crisis — and a new generation of environmental and animal activists. A few joined clandestine actions carried out by “eco-terrorist” groups such as the Earth Liberation Front or the Animal Liberation Front.
To be sure, Revolution Summer was hardly the only thread in the broad tapestry of local punk, but it was the most cutting-edge and consequential, leading the District to be regarded by 1991 as a “new youth mecca” to rival Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s. This could be seen as opening the way to the influx of what sociologist Richard Florida has deemed “the creative class.” Its energy also persists in grass-roots efforts to press gentrification to serve — not simply displace — long-term low-income residents.
Revolution Summer meant many different things to many different people. But the power of the idea lay in its openness, its sense of possibility and its willingness to challenge individual punks and the world. What it communicated then — as it does right now — is the utter urgency to stand, feel and create in each new, unfolding moment. In this, it defies commodification or categorization, forever overturning punk nostalgia to focus on the challenges of now.
In this sense, the relevance of this season has never ebbed. As was said by punks at the time, it is for always.