Exploring DC's Go-Go and Punk Music Scenes
Despite not being a major music hub like Los Angeles or New York City, DC’s music scene has created its own styles, trends, and sounds for decades. Famous musicians and bands alike have found a home in DC, blending multiple genres on one track. However, few musical movements have swept the city like go-go and punk rock, and only one has the honor of being named DC’s official music. Throughout the late 20th century, both of these movements captured the essence of what it meant to live in the nation’s capital, from political lyricism to the lively nightlife scene. At a time when the city was still recovering from the riots of 1968, population loss, and economic disinvestment, music served as one avenue for people to come together again.
Beginning in the 1970s with Chuck Brown (1936-2012) and The Soul Searcher’s creation of the genre at The Maverick Room in Edgewood, go-go quickly captured DC’s attention with its ability to engage the audience directly with the musicians in call and response. Go-Go’s popularity in DC also stemmed from its laid-back nature; bands would host concerts in formal settings, but would also play in people’s backyards, public parks, and wherever else people could dance and socialize. The genre hit its critical peak when EU’s track, “Da Butt”, charted nationally following its inclusion in Spike Lee’s 1988 film, “School Daze”. Despite its decline in popularity nationally, go-go continued to thrive in the city with those that started it. The clubs and concert halls that go-go artists frequented were popular because of the diversity that they fostered, as well as the community atmosphere they created.
While DC did not create punk rock music, its quick success with young people in DC created a firestorm of new bands, trends, and world-renowned venues. Punk music and those that listened to it found a surprising sense of community in the white-collar, government-run city that echoed in the lyrics and chaos of the music. Because of the chaos, however, many venues refused to let punk bands play out of fear of property damage or destruction. This rejection didn’t stop punks from finding places to perform, though. Bands found performance spaces in a number of locations, whether they were formal concert venues or not.
Today, both genres are looked at positively and many locals have good memories of their times participating in or listening to the music. That was not always the case. As DC’s go-go scene continued to thrive, media attention and local government officials felt that go-go clubs and venues fostered a dangerous environment. Many clubs faced heavy scrutiny for a number of reasons, including physical violence inside and around them, licensing and permitting violations, among other issues. While officials and media attributed the problems to go-go clubs specifically, owners and club-goers argued that the clubs did not create danger, but that the areas they existed in faced systemic issues that were not addressed. Additionally, the fact that many clubs were in predominantly African American neighborhoods made many feel that their clubs were being targeted more harshly than others.
In the punk rock movement, internal issues stemmed from other subcultures using the genre as a means to promote hate speech, violence, and substance abuse that many did not identify with. As punk music gained more attention for its intensity – in both the music and its crowds – more people began to use it as an outlet for hatred and violence. Additionally, many felt that as the genre grew, more people who did not understand the political messaging of the music changed the scene. The overt ideology and principles of punk music began in order to address social issues both locally and nationally, but the punk movement continued to lose its core community to “outsiders.”
More recently, in the 2010s, a movement to protect go-go music came about after a local business was met with complaints on playing the music to attract customers. The activism resulted in a reignited interest in preserving go-go music. The resurgence of protecting go-go showed how much the music meant to Washingtonians. A local movement, #DontMuteDC, documented the history of negative stigma around go-go during the 1980s and 1990s, but also its influence on other musicians and music styles. The activism’s persistence aided in the DC Council and Mayor’s decision to designate go-go as DC’s official music – and preservation continues today.
At the height of its popularity, in the early 1980s, punk music also gained attention with the establishment of the Straight Edge, Barred in DC, and harDCore movements. These punk movements brought attention to increasing protests against drug and alcohol addiction; punk bands and music being banned throughout the city; and the musical tone of the genre within the city, respectively. A new generation of DC punk bands have also revitalized interest in the movement and its ideology, sparking curiosity in its origins once again.
The ebbs and flows of go-go and punk can be seen today in both the physical and cultural spaces they occupy. Some clubs, concert venues, and other spaces remain for people to visit. Books, documentary films, oral histories, websites, and interviews have been created to remember and recognize the history of the genres. Finally, the people who participated in these musical movements continue to share their stories of DC’s music scene.
The Go-Go and Punk Music of DC tour highlights some of go-go and punk’s many gathering spaces, but, as previously mentioned, many of the places where the music thrived were informal and locations constantly changed. Many of the clubs and venues that bands used have been repurposed, renovated, or demolished. Despite the loss of many venues, this tour attempts to recognize these places not only as venues, but also as social and cultural meeting places that people created communities in.
Also of note is the difference in documentation of these places, people, and music. While punk bands created official recordings of their songs with local record labels like Dischord Records, go-go music relied heavily on the live performances of their music and interaction with the audience. Recorded performances often occurred at a concert, followed by sales of the cassette tapes at local stores. Scholarship, such as Natalie Richardson’s book, “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City,” also recognizes the role that gentrification and urban renewal played in the closure of go-go clubs. Punk and go-go venues closed because of redevelopment in downtown Washington and predominantly African American neighborhoods. This has made it more difficult to locate former clubs and sites of significance.
However, protests from city officials against go-go, specifically, made these clubs subject to harsher oversight. City officials and the Metropolitan Police Department took actions to bar go-go music at clubs and venues, with the police department even creating a bi-weekly “go-go report” that precincts would distribute to the force in order to know when and where go-go bands were performing. This report was seen by some as an important safety measure, considering many believed that go-go attracted violence to neighborhoods, while others saw the report as targeted oversight and surveillance of go-go clubs, fans, and bands. Punk music was also banned in clubs and venues, and on local radio stations. However, these targeted restrictions were much more dependent on each owner or DJ’s taste, rather than rooted in city policy.
With the culmination of these factors, the documentation and recognition of go-go and punk music within DC has sparked numerous efforts to preserve their legacies. Fans, musicians, scholars, and activists alike continue to take on projects meant to honor their history and educate new generations. Many of the physical locations associated with go-go music and punk may no longer exist (or have been significantly altered), but they will not be forgotten because of these dedicated efforts.
Below is a list of the resources used to inform the stories told on this tour, but many more exist; this tour and the following resources on the history of go-go and punk in the District are not exhaustive. Research on these topics is on-going.
Please note that this tour is not listed in geographical order; these sites are placed in a narrative-based order. Because of this, this tour can be completed in a number of ways depending on personal preference or accessibility to each site.
Natalie Hopkinson, Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.
Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins, Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. Akashic Books, 2009.
Kip Lornell and Charles Stephenson, Jr., The Beat: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
James Schneider, Paul Bishow, and Sam Levine, dir. Punk the Capital: Building A Sound Movement. 2019; Washington, D.C.: PTC International. YouTube.
Nina Jennings, “‘It Can Never Die’: How Punk Has Rocked D.C.” The Hoya (Georgetown University), 30 March 2022. https://thehoya.com/it-can-never-die-how-punk-has-rocked-d-c/
Fritz Hahn, “Go-go is making headlines again. Now it’s time for a history lesson.” Washington Post (Washington, DC), 17 June 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/music/go-go-is-making-headlines-again-now-its-time-for-a-history-lesson/2020/06/16/86e5d756-af92-11ea-8f56-63f38c990077_story.html
Sarah Godfrey, “The History of Go-Go: A 6-Step Guide to the Essentials,” Washingtonian, 30 October 2019. https://www.washingtonian.com/2019/10/30/history-go-go-6-step-guide-the-essentials/#1-Essential-Recordings