Minor Threat - Biography

In 1990, every song that Minor Threat ever recorded was released on one disc that cost twelve dollars. Funny that an entire catalog can be boiled down to one disc while what the band amassed culturally can hardly be put into words. In a career that lasted only three years, one album, and three EPs (one released posthumously), this most iconic of hardcore punk bands unwittingly started a movement called “straight edge,” founded their own record label, and spearheaded the DC hardcore scene. Fronted by the passionate anti-rock star Ian MacKaye, who preferred Twinkies and soda pop to pills and liquor, Minor Threat released 26 songs that were as loud and as hard as their friends in Black Flag, yet boasted a tunefulness that most of their peers couldn’t match. Tunefulness that combined well with chaotic, visceral energy.

MacKaye met Jeff Nelson while they were both attending Wilson High School in Washington, DC. Already fans of punk music—in particular, the impossibly speedy tempos of fellow DC hardcore pioneers, Bad Brains—they delved deeper into an already established love and curiosity of the brand. Why not? As long as they played fast and aggressive, MacKaye and Nelson figured, they could get away with being rudimentary musicians. Along with high school pals Geordie Grindle (guitar) and Mark Sullivan (vocals), they at first formed The Slinkees. This incarnation lasted but one show, as Sullivan left to college. Nathan Strejcek came aboard as his replacement, and they renamed themselves The Teen Idles.

The band played everywhere they could, even landing an opening slot with their icons, Bad Brains. Doing a bit of reconnaissance, they gigged in both New York and California, to see what the punk climate was elsewhere. Audiences in both cities were stricken by their speed and precision. The Teen Idles amicably broke up after a show at DC’s 9:30 Club in November 1980. Very soon after that performance, MacKaye and Nelson were sure of one thing—Ian would be the singer with the next band they started. That band they would call Minor Threat. 

The duo drafted Lyle Preslar, and along with him came his friend, Brian Baker. The two new recruits were both guitarists, and so it was decided that Baker would transition to bass. Minor Threat was incredibly productive from the get-go. Only a month and 11 days after dismantling The Teen Idles, Minor Threat played their first gig, opening for Bad Brains. Their lightning-quick tempos in already short songs flew by in a total blur, so much so that it was easy to miss how well these musicians complemented one another. MacKaye’s shouted, angry vocals had as much crunch and bite as Preslar’s Les Paul, while Nelson provided an unrelentingly fast rhythmic backdrop with which Baker had no trouble keeping up.

MacKaye and Nelson formed a label called Dischord and issued The Teen Idles EP, Minor Disturbance, as a seven-inch. Soon enough, the duo were sending copies to fanzines and pressing records by their friends’ bands as well. Though they were swamped, they now had a way to release Minor Threat’s material, and had a chance at financing themselves. And so they began recording at Inner Ear, a small studio in Virginia.

The Minor Threat EP came out on Dischord in May of 1981. Of the eight songs on the record, not one of them is longer than a minute-and-a-half in length, and all of them contain MacKaye’s lyrical bent of sharing a dialogue with an unnamed second entity. Throughout the recordings, he is shouting accusations at “you,” asking “you” to reevaluate your life, and letting “you” know that, unlike “you,” he does not need drugs or alcohol to cope with his life. MacKaye avoided lamenting typical punk subjects like government and politics, instead choosing to grapple with what he was experiencing firsthand: friends (and some enemies) who represented something that he plainly disagreed with. Getting drunk and stupid was reprehensible to MacKaye, as well as allowing religion to take your life over. With “Straight Edge,” 45 seconds worth of adrenaline-rushed madness tied together with MacKaye’s unintelligible barking, the lyricist made his stance against drugs. He claimed to have an edge over any user, being that he was in a clear, sober state. The music was more than a backing, it was proof—nothing that fast could be played if anyone in the band was high.

In August of 1981, Minor Threat set off on a tour that was supposed to go all the way to the West Coast, to San Diego. Gigging with guys who were immature and young, the tour made it only through Ohio, Chicago, Wisconsin and Windsor before being given up.

That same month, Minor Threat recorded a new EP at Inner Ear, the four-song In My Eyes (1981 Dischord). Because of the title track and especially “Out of Step (With the World),” which contained the controversial line “Don’t smoke/don’t drink/don’t fuck,” the so-called “straight edge movement” was in full swing, and yet Minor Threat had become a polarizing entity. People either took MacKaye’s words to heart and drew Xs on their hands as a sign of assent, or felt completely put off by his unreasonable set of rules. In fact, the lyric was misunderstood, as there is an implied “I” that was supposed to precede “don’t smoke/don’t drink/don’t fuck,” but MacKaye could not fit it in once he sang it. An “I” was placed parenthetically before the line on the lyric sheet, but that mattered little, as other bands soon adopted his policies and tied them in with their own aesthetic.

In the holiday season of 1981, Minor Threat played what they thought would be their last show. Preslar was enrolled at Northwestern University and wanted to make college his main concentration. Baker joined a band called Government Issue while MacKaye and Nelson again stuck together, forming a new band. But as Minor Threat lay dormant, the In My Eyes EP was becoming a critical success. On the advice of Bad Brains vocalist H.R., MacKaye decided to reform the band. It was an easy task, as Baker was unhappy in his new band and Preslar had already dropped out of college. The band made their official return in spring of 1982, and they were surprised to encounter criticism from their once loyal DC fans. Apparently, there was an unspoken law within the DC hardcore scene that once a band breaks up, reforming was a morally flawed decision.

Taking the criticism in stride, Minor Threat was soon ready to record a full-length album. Baker had just moved to the guitar, vowing that he would quit if he had to keep playing bass. And so it went that Minor Threat would have two guitarists, bringing in new bassist Steve Hansgen. Out of Step (Dischord) came out in 1983 and sold 3,500 copies in its first week out. Though great for the band, the rapid sales proved problematic for the Dischord label, as MacKaye and Nelson were unable to finance the pressings of more copies. Luckily, John Loder of Southern Studios stepped in and offered to distribute the Dischord catalog through his label, which was based in London. This not only gave the label overseas distribution, but also freed up the tired hands of MacKaye and Nelson that had been busily sealing all those records for the past couple of years.

That spring, Minor Threat hit the road again, this time doing a full tour, which was successful. Afterward, the guitarists were back to working menial jobs while MacKaye and Nelson continued helming Dischord. Some disillusionment set in during the summer of 1983, when the hardcore punk scene was becoming much more of a scene than a way of life or artistic movement. As it morphed into a trend, Minor Threat shows were becoming more violent, with members of the crowd plowing into the band, knocking guitars out of tune and prompting the bandmates to fight back. Hansgen’s treatment of these offenders bothered MacKaye, but before he could fire him Baker reclaimed the bass position. Hansgen’s membership with Minor Threat did not even last one year.

When it came time to write new material, MacKaye found himself at odds with the rest of the band, who wanted to gravitate toward a more mainstream sound. The four of them were given over to petty arguments during rehearsals, and sometimes MacKaye would refuse to even attend. It came to pass that Nelson informed MacKaye of the band’s break-up by posting a note on his door. The group recorded a final single, “Salad Days,” a song about stubbornly clinging to something that is no longer worth the commitment. The single was released one year later. MacKaye eventually went on to form Fugazi, and he and Nelson continued to operate the Dischord label.  

Minor Threat’s Complete Discography (1990) is a must-have for punk music fans. It’s essential listening not only because Minor Threat’s songs represent a time of authenticity in punk rock, when the DIY approach was more rewarding than commercial, major label success. One shouldn’t purchase it only for the sake of admiring its chief creator, a man who staunchly stood for something that few else would or could. Minor Threat songs are worth hearing simply because they are good. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Minor Threat’s catalog has stood the test of time. The music still cuts as deep as that of any of today’s bands posing as hardcore punks. And the earnestness, the desperation, the anger of the songs are all still there, as plain as ever.

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