Quintessential, critical, groundbreaking, iconic: any or all of these words would easily describe the definitive Washington, D.C., hardcore punk band, Minor Threat. Though the band has been inactive since 1983, 2020 marks the 40-year anniversary of the band’s origin.
Minor Threat were formed in 1980 by vocalist Ian MacKaye and drummer Jeff Nelson after the pair’s former band, The Teen Idles, had broken up. The pair recruited bassist Brian Baker and guitarist Lyle Preslar to complete the lineup.
MacKaye, who’s first punk show was seeing The Cramps, found many things to love about punk rock music and the, “Scene full of freaks, weirdos, and some of the most creative people ever”… but began to see the flipside, with negatives outweighing the positives. The era of counterculture and mass drug abuse he witnessed offered a first-hand account of excess and personal corruption.
“I think of music as a currency, something that people can connect through, and punk music was definitively a statement of something. When you got into punk, you were saying, ‘I secede from the nation, from the mass media. I want to be the other.’ So, you self-identify as somebody in opposition. You self-identify as a countercultural person, somebody who wants to question the world, question society, and by identifying with that music, you find other fellow travelers,” says vocalist Ian MacKaye.
Hardcore in the ’80s carved out its own space by taking the core of punk rock and applying it in ways that didn’t cater to anything. Shoving aside the pomp-shock and fashion of punk rock predecessors, hardcore was about a non-materialistic mindset while being smart enough to have something to say. Critics of hardcore music have opinionated that musicianship and technique is traded for volume, aggression, and power-chords … but to maintain the ferocity of a hardcore song, let alone a full set, is a very specific skill.
Audience participation was, and remains, a vital part of hardcore shows. Fans would storm the front of the stage to engage in call-and-response scream-a-alongs. MacKaye and company maintained a balancing act of music-matching vocals as internal struggles and personal issues could be unleashed in visually a violent outburst, but in reality was more akin to positive music therapy.
Songs like, “In My Eyes: You tell me that nothing matters/ You’re just fucking scared/ You tell me that I’m better/ You just hate yourself/ You tell me that you like her/ You just wish you did/ You tell me that I make no difference/ At least I’m fuckin’ trying … What the fuck have you done?” Straightforward and honest like, “Screaming at a Wall: You built that wall up around you/ And now you can’t see out/ And you can’t hear my words/ No matter how loud I shout … It’s like screaming at a wall.“
Minor Threat’s first show has been noted as a night many would choose to travel back in time to attend. The band played their first performance in December 1980 to 50 people in a basement with all-local D.C. bands and friends, Bad Brains, The Untouchables, Black Market Baby, and S.O.A. With every performance, the group grew in regional popularity and not long after began touring the East Coast and Midwest.
The terms mean nothing, but the words mean everything. MacKaye values musical innovation as much as he loves various artistic creation. He’d already founded the Dischord record label with the intent of putting out his group’s records through the label immediately following graduation, in 1980.
When the band couldn’t get show in their hometown because they weren’t of age, the band used DIY ethos to book their own shows in basements or rented spaces. “We were self-selected. We were a commune in our own right. We were all connected.” All shows had to be all-ages, and all shows had to be five bucks.
Minor Threat were simple, to-the-point, single-riff charging patterns defining the early sound with short-but-effective and powerful songs. Shredding guitar tones and four-on-the-floor, break-neck pace hardcore music played friendly rival to ferocious vocals, but the band was able to expanded a wider sound in a seemingly small box.
Early inklings of post-hardcore are heard in the song “It Follows,” where Ian MacKaye rides the chug-chug down-stroke riff for maximum tension building and purposefully uneven delivery. The band combined elements of all available influence and aggression to create one of the most honest forms of expression to date.
The time between the release of the band’s second seven-inch EP and what would be the Out of Step full-length record saw the band briefly split when guitarist Lyle Preslar moved to Illinois to attend college at Northwestern University. In March 1982, at the urging of Bad Brains’ vocalist, H.R., Preslar left college to reform Minor Threat. The reunited band featured an expanded lineup Steve Hansgen joined as the band’s bassist and Baker switched to second guitar.
Minor Threat created, and subsequently defined, the accidental phenomenon of the straight-edge punk movement of the early ’80s. Their message and concerts helped spawn a punk lifestyle based on the group’s intense, clean-living ideology of rejecting drugs and alcohol, espoused anti-establishment politics, and led a call for self-awareness. The movement has spawned generations of bands with splintering layers of sub-genre and hundreds of bands, artists, and athletes alike.
Ironically the band never intended to forge a movement nor define a set of rules at all. Not long after their popularity grew, the band began to feel their original message had been so skewed, they felt it necessary to name their first proper album after a re-recording of a previously issued song.
The new version of “Out of Step” starts off similar to the earlier version, but notably different was a frustrated MacKaye who breaks into spoken word. Exasperatedly proclaiming that the song isn’t a rule book, but rather his own philosophy. “Don’t smoke/ Don’t drink/ Don’t fuck/ At least I can fucking think/ I can’t keep up/ Can’t keep up/ Can’t keep up/ I’m out of step with the world.” A message continuously argued and redefined today.
Upon the 1983 release, the Out Of Step album became popular within the underground, and Minor Threat were becoming alternative stars, which did not sit well with MacKaye. His level of humility is infamous among both fans and peers. He’s never one to shy away from someone whose life he has positively affected, but prefers being able to go downtown and get groceries without being rock-og-nized.
There were ever-present tensions from the start between the band mates, no matter how well they got along. Friends will fight and with conflicting personalities and ideologies running out of room to coexist, by the end of 83′, MacKaye broke up the band.
MacKaye and Nelson continued to run Dischord, which thrived well into the ’90s. The duo would also go onto form band Egg Hunt, before MacKaye would form another groundbreaking band, Fugazi, who’ve sadly been on indefinite hiatus since 2003.
These days, MacKaye can be found in much low-key group The Evens with his wife Amy Farina on drums. Brian Baker went onto play in an array or well-known bands such as Bad Religion and Dag Nasty, among others.
In 2018, MacKaye with Farina and Joe Lally, from Fugazi, debuted a new band, Coriky. It was announced in February that they would release their first album on March 27; however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the album was pushed back to May 29.
Having existed for only four years, the band’s catalogue consists of just under 30 songs but is a prime example of quality over quantity. Over the course of three years, Minor Threat released two EPs, one album, and several singles.
In March 1984, six months after the band broke up, the EPs Minor Threat and In My Eyes were compiled together and re-released as the Minor Threat compilation album which has become a rite of passage for some and a life necessity for others.
In late November 2018, Brian Baker posted an updated Salad Days era photo with the caption “Senior Threat.” Fans went nuts with speculation and wishful thinking, but Baker was quit to dispel any hope, “This is a non-story. Jeff insists that we always take a porch shot for posterity when the four of us are at Dischord. This is just the first one we’ve had taken since I’ve had an Instagram account.”
Regardless of rank, Minor Threat and their records rightfully continue to end up on countless fan and musician ‘top favorite’ lists 40 years after their monumentally important incarnation.
Find out more and buy records at Dischord.