20 Years of Dischord
U.S. Release: October 15, 2002
Nation of Ulysses
Q and Not U
Shudder to Think
Ian MacKaye might insist that the 20th anniversary of Dischord records is no big deal. He can rail against nostalgia and refuse to smile for pictures. He can swear up and down that Dischord is “work,” and therefore not “fun.”
Whatever. The reality is that Dischord’s 20th is a big deal. Furthermore, the well thought-out 20 Years of Dischord is a great deal of fun, as it features 50 songs by every band who was ever on the label, a disc of unreleased tracks and a 138-page booklet detailing the history of the label and its roster. The fact that Dischord was one of the first independent labels, that they’ve achieved tremendous success without wavering from their initial mission statement, that the label address is still Ian’s parents home, and that they still sell their CDs for $10 are all very big fucking deals.
Today we revel in a world full of great music brought to us by labels such as Merge, Thrill Jockey, Sub Pop and Matador. We are spoiled silly because 20 years ago two punks—Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson—figured out how to record, press, print and distribute a seven-inch from a bunch of high-schoolers, the Teen Idles. Since then, we’ve seen indie-rock explode into the mainstream thanks to Nirvana. We have seen indie labels partner with, as well as sell portions of, their companies to majors. We have also seen majors disguise them selves as indies in order to help sell to younger audiences. Dischord made all of that a reality. From its inception through the end of the millennium, Dischord has reigned supreme. The label has championed straight-edge, helped pioneer hardcore, added emo as a genre and given us Fugazi, a musical entity like no other.
Legend has it that Dischord’s success is solely the result of a Protestant work ethic and unyielding devotion to ideals and morals. While this may be mostly true for those working at the label, the same cannot be said of the millions who have bought their albums. (For the record I am not insinuating anything about those who’ve purchased Dischord products, I’m merely suggesting that we’re not all models of virtue.) When Dischord first released the Teen Idles seven-inch, they were ahead of their time. At least a year before SST, Touch & Go or Alternative Tentacles would start up, Dischord became one of the first American labels to produce and distribute hardcore and punk records. In a master stroke—armed with vision as well as devotion—MacKaye and Nelson decided that they would pool all the money earned from the seven inch, and anything left over after covering cost would go towards putting out more albums. At the time, if you weren’t in one of the larger punk bands like the Ramones or even Bad Brains your best bet for getting your music out was through the fertile tape-trading scene. While there were bands sprouting up across the country, none had any outlet through which to document and distribute their work. Bands from the D.C. area had a way around that. Instead of hoping to visit some towns on tour, and leave a few tapes behind, D.C. bands could sell actual records. Kids could also order Dischord releases through the mail, promising that bands like the Untouchables, Youth Brigade and Void would stay relevant after they broke up.
Putting out records did more than just give the D.C. area bands a leg up on competition; it built a relationship with the fans who could listen to the records at home, memorize the lyric sheets and stare at the pictures. It was no longer as important for the younger kids to have “been there.” While they may have not seen the bands, they could listen to them, dissect them, and even put out their own songs. It is no coincidence that as hardcore grew throughout the mid-‘80s the early Dischord sound was the most frequently reproduced one.
Having an extensive back catalog may have also eased the transition from thrash to emo that the D.C. scene underwent during its famed “Revolution Summer.” Buoyed by hardcore stalwarts like Scream as well as upstarts Dag Nasty and Marginal Man, Dischord could stay afloat while Gray Matter, Rites of Spring, Embrace and Soulside went about turning hardcore on its head. Interestingly, as popular as emo is today, it was the harder bands from that period that are the most cherished. Rites of Spring, as melodic as they were, retained much of the aggressiveness of the early bands. And although MacKaye’s airing his frustration at the scene and himself may have been ground breaking in its honesty and introspection, his band Embrace still boiled over with frustration. Gray Matter and Three are often overlooked, while the hardcore collective Beefeater haven’t even had their albums reissued as CDs (making them the only band from that period not to have that honor.) By staying devout to documentation, D.C. bands followed a natural progression from their early releases. Because the names were the same, fans did not have to contend with feelings of being betrayed by a label no longer catering to them.
In addition to changing the way Dischord would be thought of, the “Revolution Summer” helped open the door for increasingly less hardcore sounding bands. Dischord soon signed Shudder To Think, Lungfish, Fidelity Jones, Nation of Ulysses, Holy Rollers and Jawbox. For the first time MacKaye and Nelson were trusting bands who weren’t part of the old D.C. guard. As Nirvana was taking over MTV and Pavement infiltrated the airwaves, Dischord thrived. Nation of Ulysses would be immortalized with their R&B-by-way-of-Black-Panthers revolution. Lungfish became the first non-D.C. band on the roster and Shudder To Think made an opera like falsetto chic. Often overlooked were The High Back Chairs, Nelson’s pop band. At first MacKaye did not want to put the record out claiming it was too pop, and that it would not be well received. However Nelson won out, paving the way for later bands like Trusty. Of course it would not be Dischord without some ex-members, and J. Robbins of Government Issue filled that role with Jawbox, whose rhythmic attack garnered a devoted following.
The label continued to flourish through the mid-‘90s. Although Jawbox and Shudder To Think would eventually sign to major labels, groups like Hoover and Smart Went Crazy filled the gap. The Make-Up, rising out of the ashes of Nation of Ulysses, sparked a cult following that nearly rivaled Fugazi’s. However, as the millennium drew to a close, Dischord seemed to be losing momentum. Both the Make-Up and Hoover released their final albums on K and Slowdime records, respectively. The Crownhate Ruin never seemed to live up to their lofty, Drive Like Jehu comparisons and the Warmers came and went without anyone noticing. There were records from Bluetip and Faraquet, but both failed to inspire. Meanwhile DeSoto Records, started by ex-Jawbox bassist Kim Colletta was releasing brilliant albums by Burning Airlines, Beauty Pill and Dismemberment Plan. Of course a lot of this was obscured by Fugazi who continue to improve as well as the labels extensive back catalog. DeSoto, like most D.C.-area labels, is distributed through Dischord, which besides adding a community element, has helped cover up Dischord’s recent doldrums.
Dischord’s sudden lack of talent stems from the same factors that led to its success. In the beginning the short shelf life of punk bands aided Dischord’s growth. With bands constantly breaking up and reforming, MacKaye and Nelson had a huge selection of styles to choose from. Bands in the area could also take chances and experiment knowing that there would always be Dischord to support them.
When that was combined with the insular nature of the scene, the bands could feed off of each other establishing a sound that was recognizable yet varied. Now, the scene seems to be suffering from a lack of new blood. Dischord has cataloged the work of artists from their teens through their thirties. Now, it seems as if those same artists are entering the post-rock part of their lives. Most of the people who were screaming at a wall 10 years ago are now married with families and careers. In that time Dischord has never really received an infusion of young blood. Those problems are coupled by Dischord’s inherent refusal to expand. While labels like Matador and Sub Pop have reached out to Spain, Scotland and Japan to bolster their roster, Dischord cannot do that. Furthermore, while those labels have expanded their sound to include everything from techno to hip-hop, it’s hard to imagine Dischord following suit. The brightest hope comes in the form of Q and Not U, who fittingly enough have the last song on 20 Years of Dischord. Besides being the youngest band on the label, they’re fresh take on music is reminiscent of the bands that made Dischord famous. The label also still has Fugazi, who defy all natural laws and seem to get better with age. Dischord has succeeded by stubbornly remaining true to the things that have always worked for them, and just as its hard to imagine a world without Dischord, it’s also hard to imagine that formula suddenly failing.
And so, 20 Years of Dischord is a magnificent testament and celebration of Dischord’s first two decades. The box set is made up of three CDs and the booklet is beautifully laid out. The first two CDs are each comprised of 50 tracks while the third CD is made up entirely of unreleased tracks. The entire set can be broken down into four periods: The Early Years, The Revolution Summer years, The Post-Emo years, and the Current Sounds. Instead of getting old and irrelevant, the bands kept evolving, and as they did the music they created expanded in breadth of vision as well as importance. In another sing of hometown pride, almost every song has been recorded in Don Zientra’s studio, with a majority of the tracks being produced by Ian MacKaye.
The Early Years are pretty much tracks one through 13, featuring songs from Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Faith, The Untouchables, Void, Government Issue, Scream and others. While the period is famous for giving birth to the straight-edge ideology, what stands out is the variety of styles represented here. While most tend to blend all the bands in under the Minor Threat umbrella, the bands here dabble in everything from Oi to dub to thrash to feedback-drenched sonic sprawl. Minor Threat’s “Screaming at a Wall” is a classic and should be stapled to the head of every high school kid in America. Just as great are Scream’s “Fight/American Justice” (a song that manages to out-Clash the Clash) and Government Issue’s anti-anthem “Rock N’ Roll Bullshit.” The bands from this period adhered to fast-and-loud policy of most punk bands, but were not resigned to following in anyone else’s shoes. This variety may have been what saved the D.C. community from stagnation, as too many hardcore scenes crumbled due to the redundancy of its bands. (For a better understanding of scene stagnation listen to any New York Hardcore band circa the Youth of Today, Gorilla Biscuits, Bold years.)
The Revolution Summer starts with track 14, Skewbald’s “Sorry/Change For the Same.” Skewbald was MacKaye and Jeff Nelson’s post-Minor Threat project and the first that showed them moving away from the traditional hardcore sound. Around 1985, the D.C. band members sought to leave the mosh pits without sacrificing their ideals and politics. That shift brought about a new sound dubbed “emo” for its less aggressive take on punk music. Although their songs were now three minutes long and a bit more melodic it would be folly to assume that the D.C. scene had lost its teeth. Listen to the venom with which Guy Picciotto spits the lyrics to Rites of Springs’ “Drink Deep” for proof. The two Jeff Turner fronted outfits Gray Matter and Three both featured a more laid back sound without abandoning the politics of the moment. Meanwhile anyone looking for the adrenalin that only hardcore can provide, check out Beefeater channeling the spirit of Bad Brains or Dag Nastys’ prototypical approach. We also get a track from Fire Party, D.C.‘s first all-female band. The entire spirit behind Dischord is best said with Embrace’s “Money”, on which Ian MacKaye declares “I can say I truly don’t give a fuck about your money.”
Disc Two ushers in the Post-Emo years with one of the greatest songs ever recorded, “Blueprint” by Fugazi. Wound tighter than a bear trap, with a bass line more ominous than a charging boar, “Blueprint” is the kind of song that gives listeners chills. And, when Guy sings “I’m not playing with you / I’m not playing with you / I clean forgot how to play”, it’s epic. The creation of Fugazi, along with the demise of most of the Revolution Summer bands would mark another period of entropy for the label. Rites of Spring, Three and Gray Matter had torn a hole through the hardcore sound and now other bands were eager to follow them. Bands began to branch out musically, and as more and more styles began to pop up, Dischord’s roster became a haven for the indie rock community. Bands like Lungfish (who, were actually from Maryland, and with Void were the only non-D.C. bands on Dischord), Fidelity Jones, the Holy Rollers and Hoover were all bands who helped push the Dischord sound further and further away from hardcore. There are also songs by the High Back Chairs, Autoclave (another all-woman band), Trusty (who moved to D.C. to be on Dischord), Smart Went Crazy (Dischord’s first band to feature a cello), and Severin (where ex-Iron Cross guitarist Mark Haggerty traded his oi-chops for some pop grooves).
The mid-‘90s also gave birth to two of Dischord’s most beloved bands, Jawbox and Nation of Ulysses. Jawbox were fronted by ex-Government Issue bassist J. Robbins and infused their punk upbringings with a healthy dose of Gang of Four dynamics, a dab of Wire influenced riffs, and a smidgen of jazz. Nation of Ulysses was the creation of the incomparable and brilliant, Ian Svenonius. Their debut album, 13-Point Program to Destroy America, led a revolution of gyrating hips. After their demise, Svenonius upped the ante with The Make Up who updated the Nation’s attack with a more R&B approach. This period is also marked by the first time major labels were able to successfully pry acts away form the Dischord stable. Jawbox and Shudder to Think both jumped ship, only to break up shortly after never realizing fame in supposedly greener pastures. In the booklet that accompanies this Box Set, Ian refers to this period as the most successful in Dischord history; a statement that’s pretty hard to argue, as that period would help shape the sound of modern indie rock.
Finally the last three songs, are somewhat indicative of where Dischord is now. Although, Bluetip just broke up and Faraquet is in limbo, the promise exhibited by Q and Not U, shows that the future is still bright. Although, those three bands have come 18 years after their predecessors they all display the panted D.C. sound—mostly they sound nothing like each other.
Finally, we get to Disc Three, the vault of unreleased tracks, possibly the motivation for most people buying this. It won’t let you down, even if only to hear Ian MacKaye sing along to Government Issue’s “Asshole” or the Dischord theme song “Rozzlyn Ranger” by the D.C. all-star band the Rozzlyn Rangers. The live version of Minor Threat’s “Straight Edge” is a bit of a throwaway as almost anyone interested has heard some live version of the song, but the track by Void “Black, Jewish and Poor” and “Authority (take 1 and 2)” more than make up for it. For Fugazi diehards there’s “The Word” and “Burning” both live staples. There are also tracks by Dag Nasty, Maginal Man, Faith, Circus Lupus, Shudder To Think, Slant 6 and Scream. As an added treat there are six live video clips from Teen Idles, Untouchables, S.O.A., Faith, Void, and Deadline. For a D.C.-phile who was too young to be there it’s as close as I’m ever going to get.
Since it’s inception in 1980 Dischord has released 133 of the best albums by some of the most interesting and diverse bands ever. While the names of the bands and the styles of music may have changed little else has. The CDs are still cheap, most bands still record in Don Zietra’s studio, their advertisements all feature the brilliant black and white photography, and most of the band members have stayed. Even the mailing address, 3819 Beecher Street, Ian’s parents’ house has not changed. Because of their uncompromising devotion to producing nothing but quality, they’ve developed an intimacy with their fans that is unmatched by any label around. Two things that have changed are that Ian now owns the house that Dischord is in, (the same one on the cover of the Minor Threat Salad Days single) and that he and Jeff are twenty years older. When people talk of Dischord it is with the same fondness that is usually reserved for childhood friends. On the front of the booklet that accompanies this release is a picture of MacKaye and Nelson when the label began. The office they’re working in looks like it had just been hit by a hurricane which managed to disloge every record and paper not in a drawer. On the back is the same picture, MacKaye and Nelson look older, they’re actually smiling and the office is neater—but that’s about it in terms of change. To think it was all started by two punks trying to put a scene on the map.