Minor Threat's Out Of Step: the bitter, brilliant eulogy for youthful idealism which defined hardcore punk as a force for good

The cover art of Minor Threat's Out Of Step
(Image credit: Dischord Records)

It’s not often you can pinpoint exact moments when the world shifts on its axis, but in punk rock terms, February 3, 1979, stakes a pretty strong claim. That’s when New York provocateurs The Cramps shimmied into Washington D.C.’s Hall Of Nations, to play a notoriously anarchic all-ages show in aid of Georgetown University’s student radio station, WGTB.

A planned parenthood ad was the final straw for a Jesuit administration forever at odds with the station's broadcasting of left-leaning anti-war sentiments, support of gay rights, and cutting-edge playlists. Three days before the show, University President Timothy Healy finally pulled the station off air and sold the transmitter for $1, switching its frequency to the University of the District of Columbia. 

Despite a 20,000-strong petition and a sizeable demonstration on the day of the gig, the benefit would prove futile. WGTB was unceremoniously consigned to the history books, accessible only on campus, and with its demise the student body’s window into an emerging world operating at the radical fringes of new alternative music was shuttered. That night, however, D.C.’s past collided with its future. A 17-year-old Ian MacKaye snuck in through a window of the over-capacity show to witness what his childhood friend Henry Garfield (who later became Black Flag frontman, Henry Rollins) terms no less than “a great moment in world history,” which now lives on in scratchy bootleg legend.

"By the time I saw The Cramps, I’d been listening to punk rock and I understood punk rock," MacKaye told Louder's Paul Brannigan in 2011, sitting in a Georgetown cafe within spitting distance of the former Hall Of Nations. "But when I actually saw The Cramps it was just wild. The place was way over-packed, to the point where people were crawling in through the windows to get in. The Chumps and the Urban Verbs, two D.C. bands, played first and they were very different from one another, so I was already seeing that punk could mean different things to different people. The crowd was such a mixture too, challenging every aspect of convention in life, with fashion, and sexual politics and politics.

"And then when The Cramps played it was just incredible. Their presentation was very visual and they were great players and totally uncompromising in their vision... it was like ‘We’re all freaks, fuck you!’ And then Lux threw up onstage and it was just ‘Whaaaaaat?’ And then chaos just ensued. The tables that people were standing on collapsed, and then chairs started going throw the windows, and everything just got wrecked. As an introduction to live punk rock shows, it was pretty memorable.”

As Lux Interior chucked his guts up on the stage, the intimidating figures of Bad Brains were busy hustling and handing out flyers for an upcoming show of their own, boldly promising the “world’s fastest” punk rock of a most “devastating” nature. They weren’t kidding either. 

On that same night, the seeds of Minor Threat were first sown, too. A brief period in The Slinkees and a learning curve experience as the rhythm section of the Teen Idles came first. But by December 1980, Ian MacKaye and school friend Jeff Nelson (a fellow WGTB show attendee) were truly ready to make their mark on the world.

Using the $600 they made from gigging, the two enterprising pals founded Dischord Records to release the 1,000 hand-pressed copies of Teen Idles' Minor Disturbance EP, documenting their time in the band. Inspired by the DIY spirit of Los Angeles label Dangerhouse, Dischord was conceived purely as a means of capturing emerging musical talents in the local scene. In time, it would become globally renowned for its influence and impact. 

Dischord’s tenth release would prove to be Minor Threat’s only full-length. But with Out Of Step they grabbed the baton passed on February 3, 1979, and showed the world they weren’t just happy to run with it; they could do it faster than anyone.

After a brief hiatus to accommodate guitarist Lyle Preslar’s semester of college, the band reunited to record in Don Zientara’s Inner Ear Studios basement in Arlington, Virginia. Adding extra bite to Preslar’s signature attack, Brian Baker switched from bass to second guitar. Steve Hansgen duly stepped in to fill the void, and dextrously held his own in the maelstrom of Jeff Nelson’s clattering rhythms. At the centre of it all, the firebrand delivery of MacKaye spewed invective at syllables-be-damned speed.

The blast of friendship-gone-sour fury of Betray wasted no time in setting a vicious tone for the 21 minutes that followed. Similar sentiments abound on Look Back And Laugh, as inner band frictions relentlessly bleed into the material. There’s lashing outward, too: at the diminishing returns of contemporaries, the wider world, and commercialism, peppered across the record’s 9 songs (the caustic, scene-baiting parting shot of Cashing In went uncredited on the initial pressing), but it’s on the titular penultimate track where Minor Threat leave the most lasting impressions. ‘I don’t smoke/I don’t drink/I don’t fuck/At least I can fucking think’ MacKaye rages, pointedly adding an explicitly audible first person to this update of the In My Eyes EP original, a tweak forced upon the singer by Nelson which so enraged MacKaye that he kicked a hole in the drummer's bedroom door following an argument about it.

A new, spoken-word breakdown on the song makes clear that these are ‘no set of rules’, but a personal philosophy. Despite Cynthia Connolly’s powerfully iconic cover art driving the underlying theme home – depicting one cartoon black sheep running in the opposite direction to the herd – many listeners chose not to think for themselves. 

For a record, and a band, so fired up by the freedom and ideas punk engendered, the rigid puritanical interpretation of their message would be something of an albatross. Missing (or ignoring) the point entirely, some adopted MacKaye’s strident lyrics as a manifesto. In tandem with the earlier song of the same name, Minor Threat inadvertently gave rise to straight edge dogmatism, a source of some consternation over the years.

“Some people who have abused it, have allowed their fundamentalism to interfere with the real message,” MacKaye later reflected. “People should be allowed to live their lives the way they want to. I certainly never intended to start a movement.”

In the years since, whole scenes sprouted as a result. Lives were changed. Countless copyists came in their wake, too. Even if some of the net results were unintentional, the purity of ideas that inspired the songs remain no less powerful. Straight edge may be the shorthand legacy, but on Out Of Step, Minor Threat define hardcore as a force for good. It’s the antithesis of tired rock’n’roll tropes that prize self-destruction as a means of enlightenment. To rebel in 1983 was to keep your mind clear and your body free of the poisons that cloud judgement and dull inspiration.

“I was never kidding around about ideas, and I stand behind all of my lyrics,” Ian MacKaye told The Washington Post in 1999. 

A few years later, in conversation with Jeff Nelson for Spin, he doubled down. 

“I don’t dismiss the music that I was involved with,” he insisted. “I don’t think it was a joke, I don’t think it was funny or a phase. I don’t think it was just something I was doing back then. To me, it was who I am. It connects all the way through. I don’t distance myself from any of it.”

He’s lost none of his conviction in the years since either. Sure, Minor Threat fell apart shortly after, such was the severity of their in-fighting. But they were just kids. When the hardcore scene became plagued by meatheads only in it for violence and vandalism, MacKaye’s response was to retreat and form the seminal Embrace, one of the ‘Revolution Summer’ acts (alongside Rites Of Spring) credited with starting a fresh, more nuanced take. In Fugazi, his longest running band, the delivery changed again, but the spirit has always stayed true. Honesty and authenticity have been there from the start, and that’s what set Minor Threat apart.

Nelson has an equally positive take on why the sparks ignited on Out Of Step have engulfed the hardcore scene in flames for decades. 

“Most people in the world have still never heard of us [but] I think Ian’s vehemence and lyrics had, and have, a huge part to do with why we’ve grown in stature,” he reckoned. “We’ve gotten so much bigger since we’ve broke up than we ever were. I’ll never get it. But it’s very strange indeed. It’s very flattering, it’s kind of weird, and it’s kind of amazing that it’s still considered relevant and essential.”

In the years since setting up Dischord and blazing an all-too-brief trail with Minor Threat, Nelson and MacKaye have been involved with records that have cumulatively shifted several million copies. “I don’t equate success with numbers,” MacKaye unsurprisingly asserts. He may have a point.

On the walls of Dischord House there’s a framed poster of the WGTB benefit show where it all kickstarted. It’s a reminder of how powerful ideas can be. It’s a testament to freedom of expression and how far those ideas can travel. So long as the direction of travel is forward. 

Formerly the Senior Editor of Rock Sound magazine and Senior Associate Editor at Kerrang!, Northern Ireland-born David McLaughlin is an award-winning writer and journalist with almost two decades of print and digital experience across regional and national media.