In the modern-day, few bands from the greater Washington, D.C. area are more beloved than the Bad Brains. Having set the template for an entirely new form of punk music during the turn of the 1980s, the group were louder, faster, more aggressive, and more technically skilled than most punk bands could ever dream of being. Everyone from Ian MacKaye to Henry Rollins to Dave Grohl took important lessons from their local heroes.
But the city that they grew up in didn’t always love them back. Hardcore punk was a contentious genre, and the pioneers, Bad Brains had to take the brunt of the pushback. During their initial come up, Bad Brains were victims of an unofficial ban from D.C. clubs thanks to their raucous shows and their enthusiastic (and occasionally overeager) audiences. To club owners, who viewed this new souped-up version of punk being played by Black men and attracting wildly energetic patrons with comparative disdain, the shows were frequently teetering on the edge of violence and destruction.
Of course, the great irony is that there was nothing nihilistic or anarchic about the Bad Brains. In fact, their philosophy was centred around P.M.A. (positive mental attitude) and Rastafarian beliefs, which mainly aligned with nonviolence. The fact that their audiences largely couldn’t tell the difference, even during their mellow reggae numbers, wasn’t a reflection on the band. But club owners decided that Bad Brains were the only ones they could regulate, so an unofficial blacklist began.
One of the problems was that there were few, if any, clubs that knew how to handle punk rock. Legendary D.C. spaces like The Black Cat and the original 9:30 Club weren’t around when Bad Brains were first playing at the end of the ’70s. Hardcore punk bands learned to use DIY spaces like recreation centres and basements, but Bad Brains were trying to make a name themselves with performances at spaces like the Hard Art Gallery, which were sympathetic to new bands but unequipped to handle the wild release of Bad Brains shows.
The stories that lead to the Bad Brains being “banned” aren’t quite as radical as they might seem: some fights, some broken toilets, and some smashed inventory behind bars were the extent of the audience’s reactions. Hardly the “violence and destruction” that was quickly becoming synonymous with their performances. Is there a chance that the Bad Brains were banned due to racial prejudice? The evidence is only circumstantial, but tellingly, opening acts like The Teen Idles and The Untouchables were never subject to any kind of similar ban.
By 1980, the Bad Brains officially decided to relocate to New York City, where the last remnants of the original wave of punk rock were now being fused with the second wave of hardcore. Bad Brains set up shop at the legendary CBGB club and gained a dedicated fanbase thanks to their mix of unmatched speed and genuinely effective reggae. The band would make trips back to D.C. as their initial blacklisting slowly began to fade, and their imprint on upstart venues like the 9:30 Club became essential for keeping the punk rock tradition of D.C. alive, even as its greatest band moved up north.
Today, the ban on Bad Brains seems like a ludicrous overreaction, but in a strange bit of irony, it just may have been worth all the strife. That’s because the Bad Brains channelled all their defiant ethos and P.M.A. into a song that directly addressed their blacklisting: ‘Banned in D.C.’, which appeared on their iconic eponymous debut studio album in 1982.