What's to be said about Minor Threat that hasn't already been said? Although they weren't the first hardcore punk band, they would become the model for hundreds of bands that came after them would follow. They were fronted by Ian MacKaye, a man who espoused a strict D.I.Y. philosophy free of rock and roll clichés that had sunk many early punk acts. And unlike many others who claimed to have the same ideals, Ian practiced what he preached (and continues to do so today). The band's brief discography is one of the most intense collections of music ever committed to vinyl (or, these days, plastic).
Minor Threat was formed in 1980 by vocalist Ian MacKaye and drummer Jeff Nelson, two friends from high school who had made up the rhythm section of the Teen Idles, one of the first hardcore punk bands from Washington DC. MacKaye, the son of a religious editor for a DC-area newspaper, was a fiercely independent spirit who was dedicated to the idea of a completely underground music scene. He was also fiercely opposed to the consumption of drugs and alcohol, although it was an idea that he lived himself and did not believe in forcing upon others. As part of their dedication to an underground and independent music system, MacKaye and Nelson had started Dischord Records using money the Teen Idles had saved during their existence (the Teen Idles posthumous 7" was the label's first release and former Idles vocalist Nathan Strejeck helped MacKaye and Nelson run the label for a brief period).
Nelson and MacKaye first recruited Lyle Preslar to join their band. Lyle had sung for a band called the Extorts (also known as Vile Lyle and the Extorts) for the group's only show but was better known as a guitar player. Lyle suggested 15 year-old Brian Baker as bassist. There are conflicting stories about Brian's entry into the band. Preslar attended the same high school as Baker but they were not friends, and MacKaye knew of him as a bratty kid who was also a talented musician (as a 12 year-old living in Michigan, Brian had once actually jammed on stage with guitar legend Carlos Santana). Baker has said that he believes that he was asked to join the band because he was the only person left in the scene that wasn't in a band and played a string instrument. MacKaye, however, has said that Baker begged to be in the band. Whatever the story, the line up was now set and the group began practicing and playing out. Immediately, the music was impressively tight, much more so than many of their peers, bands like S.O.A., Government Issue, and Youth Brigade, who were starting out around the same time. Like many of the early hardcore bands on the east coast, they were influenced by British punk, but they had also come under the spell of the Bad Brains, who, like Minor Threat, were from DC. The Bad Brains influence not only resulted in tighter musicianship but also a much faster tempo than the early DC punk bands had. MacKaye, the group's lyricist and main songwriter, articulated an anger and aggression that was matched by few in those days. The combination of aggression and impressive musicianship made Minor Threat stand out.
￼In early 1981, Minor Threat released their first record, a self-titled 8-song 7" EP on Dischord. The record was impressive from beginning to end, but the song that would leave the most lasting impression was the fourth track, entitled "Straight Edge", a song that rallied against using substance abuse as a crutch. Although it was not MacKaye's intention, the song would give rise to a movement of the same name, and the straight edge tag dogs Minor Threat to this day. Many have come to view Minor Threat as one the greatest straight edge bands ever, but it doesn't seem that it was the band's intention to be considered a "straight edge band" (although many would and still do see them that way), but rather as a hardcore band with some straight edge songs. Although all the members would claim to be straight edge at the time, their definition was much looser that what would come to be accepted by straight edge followers. MacKaye was the only member of Minor Threat who was ardently opposed to drug and alcohol use. Baker claims he didn't use drugs or alcohol at that time because he too busy playing in a band most kids experimented with such substances. Preslar and Nelson considered themselves straight edge but occasionally drank (Nelson also occasionally smoked pot), but as drinking was not a big part of their lives they, too, believe that they were in line with straight edge philosophy.
The group followed up with the equally powerful In My Eyes 7" EP later the same year. Of the four songs on the record, two would prove to be the most controversial of Minor Threat's career. The first, "Out of Step", caused a blow out argument between Nelson and MacKaye. The song's lyrics, "Don't smoke/don't drink/don't fuck/At least I can fucking think" were in reference to MacKaye's opposition to alcohol, drugs, and casual sex. Jeff wanted to include an "I" in parenthesis on the lyric sheet but Ian was initially opposed, feeling the "I" was implied. To Nelson (and many others), however, the lyrics came off as preachy. An argument between Nelson and MacKaye about the song was caught on tape by engineer Don Zientara and would appear on a later Minor Threat record.
The other song that would probably be the most controversial in Minor Threat's career was "Guilty Of Being White". The song was actually about MacKaye's experiences in his high school where white kids were the minority and were often targeted for the sins of their race, real or imagined, by black kids. Many people who saw the title, as well as the bald-headed MacKaye, assumed it was racist. There is some debate, even among Minor Threat, as to whether the song really is racist, although Ian still states that he believes it is not. Even if MacKaye's intentions were good, many, even close allies, have come to view the song as rather "bone headed". Years later, speed metal act Slayer would cover the song and change the lyrics from "white" to "right" (this, despite the fact that Slayer vocalist Tom Araya is a Hispanic who was born in Chile), a move that both Ian MacKaye and Brian Baker have expressed their extreme displeasure with.
One important aspect of Minor Threat's ideology is that it revolved entirely around personal issues. Minor Threat, like many of their harDCore compatriots, avoided political issues. It seems odd that their movement would stay away from such topics, considering that the scene was located in the nation's capital, but that's how it was. Many acts, including Minor Threat, would go so far as to mock those who would get political. It was only years after Minor Threat's demise that both Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, like the DC scene itself, would become heavily involved in politics.
￼Ian and the DC scene had made a name for themselves for more than just their music. The DC scene was made of kids were overwhelmingly from middle and upper class families. The scene earned a reputation for being snobby, especially to people from other towns and scenes. New York City was an especially well known target of the DC kids. Ian, and long with friends like Henry Garfield (from S.O.A.), Sab Grey (from Iron Cross) and Mark Sullivan (the singer of the Slinkees, Ian's first band), became known for heading to New York to shows and causing trouble. Witnesses have talked about shows where DC kids showed up and just started fighting, not even listening to the music. Despite the proclivity towards fighting, most of the violence was rarely very serious. Ian and crew thought of themselves as "defending the scene" and Ian admits that his goal was more to "bruise the ego" than do serious damage. Henry, long after he dropped the Garfield and assumed his famous last name, claimed he loved getting into fights and Ian recalls more than a few instances that he had to pull Henry off some poor guy he was kicking the crap out of. But Henry's love of violence aside, the DC kids resented being considered a bunch of tough guy muscle heads, a nickname a rock critic gave them after they made their appearance at a Black Flag gig in NYC. There are stories were kids came down from towns like Boston, ready to prove how tough they were only to find the DC kids goofing around at shows. Still, the "muscle head" tag was there, and in response to it, Dischord named their all-DC compilation Flex Your Head.
In the summer of '81, Minor Threat attempted their first tour with local group Youth Brigade. However, Youth Brigade guitarist Tom Clinton neglected to inform his mother that he was borrowing her van and when she demanded the van's return the tour was cancelled. This convinced Lyle Preslar that he was better off pursuing college than a band that was probably not going anywhere. That fall, he moved to Evanston, IL, and began attending Northwestern University. With Preslar's departure, Minor Threat decided to call it quits.
Jeff Nelson and Ian MacKaye immediately attempted to start a new band with former Untouchables guitarist and housemate Eddie Janney and friend John Falls (MacKaye also traveled to England to roadie for Black Flag). MacKaye called the new band Skewbald but Jeff called it Grand Union, a disagreement that was never settled. At Northwestern, Lyle made acquaintances with fellow student Steve Albini but the two proved musically incompatible. He also made inquiries into joining the Effigies, according to Steve Albini interview conducted years later, but nothing became of it. Brain Baker, who was not invited to join Jeff and Ian's new group, joined Government Issue as guitarist. Unlike his former band mates, Brian would be the only Minor Threat member to play out. Skewbald/Grand Union never moved beyond practices, although they did make a recording that surfaced years later on a 7" (before the official release of the music, many thought the songs to be lost Minor Threat recordings).
Following Minor Threat's split, Dischord released the Flex Your Head compilation. It featured defunct acts Minor Threat, the Teen Idles, S.O.A., and the Untouchables along with many up and comers like Government Issue, Void, Iron Cross, Artificial Peace, Deadline, and Red C, among others. The record (Dischord's first 12") proved to be extremely popular and sold out quick. The Dead Kennedy's label, Alternative Tentacles, helped to distribute later pressings of the record. The compilation boosted DC's reputation as the nation's premier scene. Bands like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys also sang the praises of DC. The success of Flex Your Head made lots of hardcore fans more conscious of what was happening in the nation's capital.
Lyle quickly tired of school and dropped out after a semester. Seeing that Minor Threat was having an impact outside of DC, all the members of Minor Threat had soon begun to feel that breaking up was a mistake. The decision to reform made perfect sense to them. Lyle returned home in the spring of '82 and group began practicing again and soon toured.
Life on the road was not easy for Minor Threat. The group either encountered militant straight edge groups who fanatical devotion to the movement was off putting to Minor Threat, or they were confronted by anti-straight edge groups who felt they had to prove something to MacKaye. Even friendly bands like Dead Kennedys and Black Flag poked fun at Minor Threat's seemingly puritanical ways. Girls also frequently targeted MacKaye for his anti-casual sex stance, which many misinterpreted as complete abstinence, and he was the frequent target of failed seduction attempts. This led to untrue rumors that some of the members of the band were gay. Perhaps most pathetic were gangs out to prove their local scene was better than DC's by trying to actually beat up MacKaye and company.
Back home in DC, things weren't really much better. Many in the scene questioned Minor Threat's decision to reform, even Ian's brother, Alec, who was singing for popular local act the Faith. Others questioned Minor Threat's decision to tour, seeing it as a careerist or rock star move and blow to their punk rock credibility. The band's extreme popularity only made matters worse, especially at shows that Minor Threat performed but did not headline. Often, much of the crowd would leave following Minor Threat's performance, leading to the charge that they were "stealing" shows. The local backlash would ultimately inspire the song "Cashing In".
By the fall of '82, Brian became adamant that he play guitar, too, and brought in a local kid named Steve Hansgen to play bass. Ian was unsure of this development but Hansgen blew through a try out with ease, singing along as he played, and clearing the doubts from MacKaye's mind. Despite Ian's initial doubts about having two guitarists in the band, the move to a dual guitar attack was becoming common throughout hardcore. Locally, the Faith were adding a second guitar player and new band Marginal Man (formed from the ashes of Artificial Peace) also boasted two guitarists. Nationally, acts like Black Flag and SSD would also be filling out their line-ups with another guitarist.
￼In 1983, Minor Threat released the Out Of Step 12". It was another batch of powerful tunes. However, things were not good in the group. All, particularly Ian, were bothered by the local criticism. Even worse was the infighting. It was well known locally that the members were frequently at odds with each other, even in the beginning. Both Baker and Preslar had grown tired of fans jumping on stage and bumping into them, knocking their instruments out of tune. Hansgen, its said, quickly joined sides with Baker and Preslar. The fact that Brian hadn't taken to guitar with as much dedication as he'd originally claimed left Hansgen, the new guy and outsider, on shaky ground with Ian. MacKaye ultimately demanded that Baker remove Steve from the band and return to his old position as bassist, or the band would break up. Hansgen was soon gone.
But Steve Hansgen was hardly Minor Threat's only internal problem. Members were frequently given to arguing. Compounding their problems were two major facts. First, Jeff, Brian, and Lyle were beginning to favor pop rock over hardcore punk. All three were taken with U2's War album and desired to move in a more accessible, pop direction. The second fact was that no one in the band was as adamantly D.I.Y. as Ian, not even long time friend Jeff Nelson, and Ian's staunch D.I.Y. and punk ethics were causing financial problems for the band. The band made little money off of the shows they played because Ian demanded low door prices (he would often have the band's take at a show cut so door prices would be kept down, a move he made without consulting the group) and no one made money off of the records because they were sold at a low price. Although the records made no money, Dischord had become a full-time operation for Jeff and Ian. Besides the Minor Threat and Teen Idles records, Dischord had issued releases by Government Issue, S.O.A., Scream, as well as a Faith/Void split. The DC scene's reputation had spread and these records were become increasingly popular. Still, Minor Threat brought in the most money, enabling the label's owners to quit their day jobs to focus on the label, a fact Baker and Preslar, who couldn't quit their jobs, resented.
With all this tension, it comes as no surprise that 1983 was the end for Minor Threat. In DC, many of the original bands were coming to an end, and the new ones that were sprouting up did not aspire to the ethics of the Dischord crowd, the group that made up many of the early acts that Minor Threat considered contemporaries. Hardcore itself was getting into a rut by that time, as well. Nationally, many bands called it quits, and those didn't either started re-producing the same music over and over or took a step towards metal. Those with more careerist aspirations made the move towards pop and commercial accessibility, often in new acts. Not only did the scene hit a stalemate, musically, but shows were also becoming increasingly violent. While Ian admits to his share of fights in the early days, he believed that much of his fighting was justified, as he felt he was protecting the scene those outsiders who sought to ruin it. Now, fighting was happening inside the scene between rival factions. This infighting was not only disappointing, but caused him to question his own actions, as well. Overtime, Ian would increasingly move towards pacifism. Inspired by all this, Ian wrote a song called "Last Song", a song the group performed live only once, at their final show.
By this time, though, Ian wasn't even attending band practices. Baker, Preslar, and Nelson were writing new music that MacKaye felt he couldn't sing to. Baker has since stated that he felt that new music wasn't too different from what they had done previously, but Nelson, while agreeing with Baker, conceded that some of the new pieces sounded "too much like U2". Nelson attempted to reconcile the group but Brian and Lyle brought a list of demands that included a riser for the stage, more say in Minor Threat's business dealings, and considering the possibility of signing to another record label, even a major one. MacKaye rejected the demands and group called it quits. Nelson managed to convince an unwilling MacKaye to go into the studio one final time to record "Last Song", which would be re-titled "Salad Days". Ian initial agreed as long as the song was never released. However, Jeff did eventually persuade Ian to allow Dischord to release the song on what would become the Salad Days 7", but the record wouldn't see the light of day until 1985.
￼Like the first time Minor Threat broke up, the members had a difficult time getting new acts off the ground. Lyle and Brian briefly performed in a short-lived pop act called the 400 before joining the Meatmen. Ian reappeared in 1985 in a local act called Embrace who released one posthumous LP. Jeff Nelson wouldn't reappear until 1986 with the one-off project Egg Hunt (with Ian). Nelson's next band was called Three, formed with ex-members for Gray Matter. Brian Baker would be the first ex-Minor Threat member to hit it big nationally. After a short period with the Meatmen, Brian formed Dag Nasty in 1985, whose debut would be hugely influential, but his career choices following the formation of Dag Nasty drew much criticism. He eventually joined Bad Religion in 1995. Lyle Preslar continued to play with Meatmen for a number of years until he left performing to work for Caroline Records and, later, Razor and Tie Records. Jeff Nelson performed in acts like Senator Flux and the High Back Chairs before officially retiring from performing in 1992. He formed his own record label, Adult Swim, in the late '80's to release music that Dischord, which Jeff and Ian still run, would not release. Ian hit it big in the late '80's with Fugazi, who still exist and prove that one can stick to their punk rock ideals and still be successful.
Dischord compiled all of Minor Threat's records onto one CD, which is not only one of Dischord's best sellers to date, but also is one of the few hardcore CDs that can truly be considered essential to any collection. Also, the band has been featured in three recent books concerning punk rock or independent music, Dance of Days by Mark Anderson and Mark Jenkins, a history of punk rock in Washington DC, American Hardcore by Steven Blush, a history of the early '80's hardcore scene as told by folks who were there, and Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad, which takes a look noted independent rock acts like Minor Threat, Black Flag the Minutemen, Mission Of Burma, Fugazi, and others.