Jawbox (Photo: Katherine Davis)

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Dischord Records.

Dischord Records 101

Washington, D.C. has been in the spotlight more than usual lately, and it has more to do with the recent midterm elections. The city’s music scene—in particular, the punk and hardcore scene that’s revolved for decades around the independent label Dischord Records—has been featured in the second episode of Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways, as well as a new documentary, Salad Days: The D.C. Punk Revolution, that premiered at DOC NYC Film Festival last week.

Advertisement

This week, Dischord’s most successful band, Fugazi, is seeing the release of First Demo, the first batch of songs the fledgling group recorded in 1988. And next month, Soul Side—a far smaller band from Dischord’s past, but one that spawned the ’90s noise-rock outfit Girls Against Boys—will be the latest of many Dischord acts to reunite in the wake of a fresh wave of interest in the label. (To bring it all full circle, the teenage band that Soul Side sprang from, Lünch Meat, released a split single in 1985 with a group called Mission Impossible—which featured a young Grohl, just before he joined the Dischord band Scream and then moved to Seattle to drum for Nirvana.)

What makes the music of Dischord so enduring? Besides being a label that’s released many vastly influential records, it’s become an identity (but never a brand) that signifies a steadfast ethic of community and independence. But it’s also become a narrative—and that story is driven by Ian MacKaye. One of the founders of Dischord, MacKaye remains the label’s figurehead, as well as a member of the two most popular bands in its history: Minor Threat and Fugazi. Minor Threat wasn’t MacKaye’s first band—that would be Teen Idles, formed in 1979 from a protean predecessor called The Slinkees, and Dischord was created in 1980 as a vehicle for the first Teen Idles single—but the group quickly became the nucleus of the Dischord roster, and by extension the whole D.C. hardcore scene, in the early ’80s.

Advertisement

Teen Idles

Minor Threat was inspired by everyone from U.K. punk groups like Wire and The Damned to homegrown hardcore pioneers such as Black Flag and D.C.’s own Bad Brains. But when Bad Brains moved to New York in 1979, it created a vacuum that Minor Threat filled. Not that Minor Threat wouldn’t have succeeded on its own; during its existence from 1980 to ’83, the band recorded three 7-inches and an album, 1983’s Out Of Step, that fused adolescent rage and breakneck hooks with MacKaye’s righteous bark. It was so righteous, in fact, that two Minor Threat songs from 1981, “Out Of Step” and “Straight Edge”—in which the singer vows to abstain from drugs, alcohol, and even sex in an attempt to resist the conformity and lack of control that come from such things—inspired an entire abstinent hardcore subculture called straightedge. MacKaye has since disavowed any connection with that subculture, but that entire issue pales when compared to the sheer power, anger, and not-so-hidden catchiness of Minor Threat’s songs.

Following Minor Threat’s breakup, MacKaye dabbled in various other side projects and short-lived bands throughout the ’80s, including Skewbald, Egg Hunt, Pailhead (a curious yet surprisingly good team-up with Ministry), and Embrace, whose lone, self-titled album from 1987 is an underappreciated treasure in his discography, despite having helped draw the blueprint for emo (another tag MacKaye has been less than enthusiastic about over the years). Regardless of what it was called, MacKaye’s music was getting more complex, expressive, and adventurous—and that culminated in Fugazi.

Advertisement

Established in ’87, at a time when American hardcore was floundering in an effort to find new ways to channel its energies, Fugazi took up the flag for a more socially conscious, politically engaged, and musically progressive kind of hardcore, which would come to be known as post-hardcore. Rather than being violent and confrontational in the manner of Minor Threat’s vein-bursting screeds, Fugazi was subtle, moody, and even funky, an influence picked up from D.C.’s go-go scene, as well as post-punk innovators like Gang Of Four.

Fugazi

Fugazi blazed trails in more ways than one. In the early ’90s, as America was going crazy for anything that smelled vaguely alternative (thanks in large part to a certain ex-Dischord musician’s current band, Nirvana), Fugazi became the benchmark for a true alternative, completely untainted by major-label auspices or corporate calculation. That black-and-white way of looking at the music scene didn’t keep Fugazi from selling hundreds of thousands of records, or from being courted by the majors (an overture the group never entertained). As with Minor Threat, the ideals behind Fugazi fed into the group’s music, but the music itself is what made the most impact.

Advertisement

On the eight EPs and full-length albums Fugazi released between 1988 and 2001, MacKaye and fellow singer-guitarist Guy Picciotto intertwined to create a single voice, alternately barking and seductive, that defined ’90s post-hardcore, if not the ’90s rock underground itself. Fugazi went on hiatus in 2003, and MacKaye launched a new duo with his wife, Amy Farina, called The Evens, which has released three strong, if low-key, albums since 2005. Hope is always being held out, though, that Fugazi will reconvene at some point, especially now that that the group’s output sounds as fresh and challenging as it ever did.

Intermediate Work

Dischord’s activity has come and gone in waves over the decade. Its first wave of releases in the early ’80s not only included MacKaye’s Teen Idles and Minor Threat, but an eruption of fiery, like-minded hardcore bands such as Government Issue, Untouchables (led by MacKaye’s younger brother, Alex MacKaye), and State Of Alert (featuring bullhorn-like frontman Henry Garfield, soon to move to Los Angeles to take up vocal duties for Black Flag under the name Henry Rollins). The Dischord bands of this era are captured on a pair of compilations, Flex Your Head and The Year In 7”s, two essential documents of early-’80s hardcore. Burning brightly, hotly, and quickly, only one of these groups, the stalwart Government Issue, lasted more than a year or two (and G.I. left Dischord for other labels by the mid-’80s). But that was long enough to put an indelible stamp on the subculture.

Advertisement

In particular, the band Void—which was based in Maryland; a number of Dischord bands were not from D.C. proper—has grown to legendary stature over the years, thanks to its scathing, chaotic intensity, as well as a metallic attack that presaged the thrash-hardcore crossover that would come later in the ’80s (which is especially evident on the group’s unreleased yet widely circulated 1983 album, Potion For Bad Dreams). Void’s 1982 split album with one of Alec MacKaye’s bands, The Faith (titled simply The Faith/Void) is not only one of Dischord’s greatest releases, but a testament to hardcore’s unhinged explosiveness.

The second Dischord wave came in 1985. MacKaye and others felt a need to devise an antidote to the rampant violence of the hardcore scene at the time, and the result was dubbed Revolution Summer: a concert campaign to be better, smarter, and more positive while retaining the urgency of Dischord’s early-’80s big bang. It may seem like a naïvely optimistic goal in retrospect, but it worked. MacKaye’s own Embrace was swept up in the sentiment, as were Beefeater, Gray Matter (which counted future horror writer Steve Niles among its ranks), and Dag Nasty (founded by former Minor Threat bassist-turned-guitarist Brian Baker, now a member of Bad Religion).

Advertisement

One band, however, towers above all others when it comes to the Revolution Summer era: Rites Of Spring. Led by Guy Picciotto (both he and drummer Brendan Canty would go on to form Fugazi with MacKaye), Rites Of Spring played only a handful of shows, and it only released one, eponymous album in 1985. That’s all it took to become iconic: Desperately emotive, savagely dynamic, yet more melodic than anything Dischord had released before, Rites Of Spring is still a zealously revered album, and that regard has grown the more it’s cited as the flashpoint at which emo came into being.

Remnants of Rites Of Spring continued in the bands One Last Wish and Happy Go Licky, but Dischord in the late ’80s hit a rocky patch in the aftermath of Revolution Summer. There were some stellar bands releasing records on the label during that time: Soul Side, Fire Party (Dischord’s first, but not last, all-female outfit), and Ignition (yet another Alex MacKaye band, as underrated as his others). Still, they lacked a clear, collective identity, and many of them sounded more murky than the bands of Dischord past.

Advertisement

Nation Of Ulysses

That changed around the start of the ’90s—and that had a lot to do with Nation Of Ulysses. By the time NOU’s incendiary debut album, 13-Point Program To Destroy America, came out, it wasn’t unusual for the members of Dischord bands to sport long hair and baggy clothes. Slightly younger than many of their labelmates (NOU’s drummer, James Canty, is the younger brother of Fugazi’s Brendan; he now plays in Ted Leo And The Pharmacists), the youthful firebrands of NOU sported mod suits, slicked-back hair, and impeccable precision. That sharpness came to an even finer point with lead singer Ian Svenonius, a writhing, seething maniac with a knack for penning situationist manifestos and coming on like a street-gang messiah.

A new wind blew through Dischord on the heels of Nation Of Ulysses’ rabble-rousing. Many of the bands of this wave, like Jawbox, Lungfish, and Shudder To Think, had existed in some form or another for a little while. But the albums they unleashed in the early ’90s—just as Fugazi was becoming a phenomenon on a far larger scale—gave Dischord a needed shot of vitality. Each of these groups borrowed small bits of Fugazi’s sculpted angularity, but beyond that, they couldn’t have been more different—that is, while still sounding coherently Dischordian. Jawbox was sinewy and dark; Lungfish was droning and poetic; Shudder To Think was arty and theatrical. Still, they helped complete the mosaic that was Dischord, a parallel universe that appeared, at least for a while, entirely unconcerned with the punk and alt-rock feeding frenzy that surrounded them.

Soon, bands such as Circus Lupus and Hoover were twisting that noise to their own purposes, filling out a genre which was now solidly identifiable as post-hardcore: trickily arranged, tightly played, well produced, and translating the strident tirades of hardcore into a more cryptic tongue. When Jawbox and Shudder To Think left Dischord for major labels in the mid-’90s, it felt like a defection—but more than that, it seemed impossible that any amount of marketing could make this music mainstream. Sure enough, both of those bands flopped on the majors, even though they put out their best albums (Shudder To Think’s Pony Express Record and Jawbox’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart, both from 1994) while playing in the big leagues.

Advertisement

Slant 6

As strong as Dischord’s early-’90s bullpen was, the label sorely needed something that harkened back to its raw, punk roots. Thankfully, Slant 6 came along. The all-woman trio’s first album, Soda Pop Rip Off, came out concurrently with the Riot Grrrl explosion, but it didn’t fit neatly into that movement any more than it fit neatly into Dischord. Instead, Slant 6 played bruising, slashing punk rock with simmering intelligence and a feral twist of the lips. Before long, members of the recently disbanded Nation Of Ulysses reformed as The Make-Up and followed Slant 6’s lead—infusing that punk spirit with sloppy garage rock, crudely sliced funk, and Svenonius’ cut-and-paste, postmodernist antics. Dischord’s last great band of the ’90s, Smart Went Crazy, took the opposite path: Clever, elaborate, and interwoven with cello, the group’s music felt downright plush.

The 21st century brought another injection of energy to Dischord, with various Smart Went Crazy spin-offs like Faraquet, Medications, and Beauty Pill running with the ball, but also largely due to a pair of young groups that made shockwaves in the early ’00s: Black Eyes and Q And Not U. They two were markedly distinct, but they bookend Dischord’s nebeulous aesthetic: Where Black Eyes was experimental, abrasive, and dissonant, Q And Not U was riddled with algebraic rhythms and spastic, nerdy melody. Both groups evolved during their short lifespans, but like so many Dischord bands, they ended before their time. It’s yet to be seen if some of the better outfits on Dischord over the past 10 years—Antelope, The Aquarium, and even Deathfix, a project featuring Fugazi’s Brendan Canty—will stand the test of time as much as their forebears.

Advanced Studies

Although Dischord was founded on egalitarianism—all-ages shows, low ticket prices, low record prices, and nothing remotely resembling a corporate business model—many bands on the label’s roster have been undervalued, ignored, or just plain forgotten. Alec MacKaye’s various groups haven’t been entirely left out of the equation, but when stacked against his brother’s accomplishments, they always seem to come in a distant second. Yet each of his four Dischord bands—Untouchables, The Faith, Ignition, The Warmers—has something unique and grippingly off-center about them, thanks in part to Alec’s slurred growl.

Advertisement

The Faith also unfairly suffers from negative comparisons to Void, thanks to the two bands’ lauded split LP, but The Faith’s 1983 release, Subject To Change, is a far better representation, a gem of an EP whose eight songs perch nervily between Dischord’s first-wave belligerence and the more thoughtful approach of the coming Revolution Summer (which is no surprise, considering The Faith’s Eddie Janney went on to play guitar in Rites Of Spring, and the entirety of The Faith, minus Alec, turned into Embrace with the addition of Ian). Even The Warmers, Alec’s ’90s outfit, played skeletal post-punk when most of its Dischord-mates were growing bigger and bolder.

Alec and Ian aren’t the only MacKaye siblings to have a hand in Dischord’s legacy. Their sister Amanda co-founded Sammich Records, one of the many labels to have released records jointly with Dischord (many of them owned and operated by Dischord musicians). Sammich’s first release was the Mission Impossible/Lünch Meat split, but in addition to inauspiciously launching Dave Grohl’s music career, Amanda used Sammich as a platform to help Soul Side and Shudder To Think get up and running before joining Dischord’s roster. But the most famous Sammich band is Swiz, the monstrously vicious, late-’80s outfit fronted by Dag Nasty’s original singer, Shawn Brown, who left that band before it recorded its debut, Can I Say. Swiz was never on Dischord proper, but it’s rightly remembered as one of the top groups if its time and place. Amanda, a musician herself, was most recently in Routineers, whose excellent, self-titled album was co-released in 2004 by Sammich and Dischord.

Advertisement

Swiz

Throughout its 34-year existence, various Dischord bands failed to rise to the top of the heap when it came to widespread attention, but they’re no less worthwhile because of it. From Marginal Man’s tuneful anthems to Scream’s eventual groove-rock propulsion to Gray Matter’s latent pop underpinnings, the label’s roster still has all kinds of nooks and crannies to explore or rediscover—a process that’s become easier not only because of the rise of streaming, but thanks to a comprehensive reissue campaign that Dischord has undertaken over the past few years. For a label that was created as an ad hoc solution to an age-old problem—What do we do when no one wants to release our music?—Dischord has come to emblemize not only longevity, but the virtue of independence in the music scene, even when such virtues have faded in and out of fashion.

The Essentials

1. Minor Threat, Complete Discography (1981-1985)
Every song Minor Threat ever recorded, squeezed into a single release, Complete Discography is a hand grenade of vintage hardcore.

Advertisement

2. The Faith/Void, The Faith/Void (1982)
Two of Dischord’s most feral bands have at each other in a gladiatorial clash of distortion, speed, and self-deconstructive don’t-give-a-fucks.

3. Rites Of Spring, Rites Of Spring (1985)
Whether Guy Picciotto and crew invented emo with Rites Of Spring’s sole album or not, it stands as a monument to ripping one’s heart out for the record.

4. Dag Nasty, Can I Say (1986)
Dave Smalley (later of All and Down By Law) was Dag Nasty’s second frontman, but his fierce performance on Can I Say set the standard for all melodic hardcore to come.

Advertisement

5. Soul Side, Trigger (1988)
If Soul Side had lasted, it might have wound up being second only to Fugazi; Trigger is proof of the band’s rhythmic intricacy and outspoken passion.

6. Fugazi, Repeater (1990)
Repeater is Fugazi’s debut full-length, and it pulls together all the band’s threads: dub undertones, post-punk jitteriness, and an almost prophetic authority.

7. Nation Of Ulysses, 13-Point Program To Destroy America (1991)
Nation Of Ulysses went from being a make-believe cult to a real one with 13-Point Program To Destroy America, the record that made Dischord dangerous again.

Advertisement

8. Jawbox, Novelty (1992)
Before taking the major-label leap, Jawbox delivered Novelty, its Dischord swansong—a post-hardcore classic that twists, rattles, and burns.

9. Shudder To Think, Get Your Goat (1992)
Shudder To Think made Get Your Goat a playground of strange angles, textures, and singer Craig Wedren’s falsetto-shrouded turns of phrase.

10. Lungfish, Talking Songs For Walking (1992)
Lungfish frontman Daniel Higgs is Dischord’s poet laureate, and his shamanic, mantra-like lyrics lie at the heart of Talking Songs For Walking’s towering mystique.

Advertisement

11. Slant 6, Soda Pop Rip Off (1993)
Like a cleansing dunk in an acid bath, Soda Pop Rip Off stripped the Dischord sound to the punk-rock bone—without downplaying its raw, heartfelt smarts.

12. Hoover, The Lurid Traversal Of Route 7 (1994)
An outlier on the Dischord roster, Hoover’s The Lurid Traversal Of Route 7 slithers and seethes like Fugazi possessed by demons.

13. The Make-Up, In Mass Mind (1998)
Ian Svenonius makes like a garage-funk Pied Piper on In Mass Mind, the deepest and most satisfying of The Make-Up’s albums.

Advertisement

14. Q And Not U, No Kill No Beep Beep (2000)
Q And Not U’s frenetic debut, No Kill No Beep Beep, isn’t as accomplished as its next two albums, but it marks the point at which Dischord was reborn for the 21st century.

15. Black Eyes, Cough (2004)
Cough, the final album by Black Eyes—Dischord’s bravest band—launched the group’s chanted, scattershot, nearly tribal abandon into some other dimension entirely.