There is a very good documentary film now out on DVD that looks at what it was about in an initially insular setting, the local scene in Washington, DC during the period of 1980 to 1990. The DVD is called Salad Days (MVD Visual 5848D).
Interviews by key participants join with a good deal of live clips of the various bands involved. And somehow there emerges a kind of consensus about it all.
Punk was a look, an attitude, a way to express non-conformity in the Washington DC of the '80s. Being first and foremost a town whose business was government, Washington per se essentially shut down and 5 or 6 o'clock every weekday, leaving the city nearly empty but then more or less wide open to the alternative punk culture that situated itself in the cracks of power, so to speak.
From the beginning those who dressed and played the punk role were subject to violent harassment mostly from rednecks who were offended by it all. So punk came out of violence from the beginning. The music was angry, the mosh pit, skinheads and overall atmosphere was latent or overtly violent in DC, you gather. That violence was mostly politically to the right in terms of those who would beat up the punks, but also embodied such things via the skinheads.
But then there was an aspect of punk that was socially activist, too. Also there was the sheer emotional aspect of frustration and rage that came out in the music and the scene. The film zeroes in on these themes nicely.
Musically it made the most out of brash garage crudities and how they could be fashioned into a bad-is-good and bad-turns-out-to-be-good approach, depending on the outfit involved. And of course it did change everything in the rock world, bringing back the immediacy of the original music with varying degrees of artistry, to say the least. But the film gets you into the spectrum as far as the DC scene went.
Perhaps other than the musical legacy of how to fashion an ultra-garage extreme, it was a DIY movement that allowed initially small groups of musicians and their fans to create playing situations, make records and create fanzines on a tiny budget that spread the word about the scene and kept it alive. Nirvana was the ultimate mainstream result but as the film details, there were many high (and low points) on the DC scene especially that in the end made bands like Nirvana possible and widely popular.
The various shades of musical anarchy are well mapped out for DC in this film. As is the the clash between those who lived and/or advocated a drug and alcohol drenched existence versus the "straight edge" group who were militantly opposed to getting high.
In the end you get a well considered look at a diversely blooming creativity of the era, tempered by destructive and counterproductive forces that both resisted and infiltrated the scene.
And that's what seems especially interesting to me about this film--that it reveals the whole period in all its contradictions and confusions. Punk adherents and those outside the fray can learn a good deal from seeing and experiencing the film. Very recommended.