Formation and early years
Prior to forming Minor Threat in 1980, vocalist Ian MacKaye and drummer Jeff Nelson had played bass and drums respectively in the Teen Idles while attending Wilson High School. During their two-year career within the flourishing Washington D.C. hardcore punk scene, the Teen Idles had gained a following of around one hundred fans (a sizable amount at the time), and were seen as only second within the scene to the contemporary Bad Brains. MacKaye and Nelson were strong believers in the DIY mentality and an independent, underground music scene. After the breakup of the Teen Idles, they used the money earned through the band to create Dischord Records, an independent record label that would host the releases of the Teen Idles, Minor Threat, and numerous other D.C. punk bands.
Eager to start a new band after the Teen Idles, MacKaye and Nelson recruited guitarist Lyle Preslar and bassist Brian Baker. They played their first performance in December 1980 to fifty people in a basement, opening for Bad Brains, The Untouchables, Black Market Baby and S.O.A., all D.C. bands.
The band's first 7" EPs, Minor Threat and In My Eyes, were released in 1981. The group became popular regionally and toured the east coast and Midwest.
"Straight Edge," a song from the band's first EP, helped to inspire the straight edge movement. The lyrics of the song relay MacKaye's first-person perspective of his personal choice of abstinence from alcohol and other drugs, a novel ideology for rock musicians which initially found a small but dedicated following. Other prominent groups that subsequently advocated the straight edge stance include SS Decontrol and 7 Seconds. Although the original song was not written as a manifesto or a "set of rules," many later bands inspired by this idea used it as such, and over the years since its release, the song and the term "straight edge" became the zeitgeist for an entire subculture, and indeed the basis for a paradigm shift that has persisted and grown consistently throughout the world. The term comes as the point of the story -- he doesn't want to do drugs or drink, so therefore the writer has an edge over those who do -- a straight edge.
"Out of Step", A Minor Threat song from their second EP, further demonstrates the said belief: "Don't smoke/Don't drink/Don't fuck/At least I can fucking think/I can't keep up/I'm out of step with the world." The "I" in the lyrics was usually only implied, mainly because it did not quite fit the rhythm of the song. Some of the other members of Minor Threat, Jeff Nelson in particular, took exception to what they saw as MacKaye's imperious attitude on the song. The song was later re-recorded, and the updated version of the song on the 1983 album Out of Step, which is slower so the first-person use of "I" would be clearer, included a bridge where MacKaye explains his personal beliefs, explaining that his ideals, which at the time were not yet known as what became a collective philosophy, or in fact, known as "straight edge," "is not a set of rules; I'm not telling you what to do. All I'm saying is there are three things, that are like so important to the whole world that I don't happen to find much importance in, whether it's fucking, or whether it's playing golf, because of that, I feel... I can't keep up... (full chorus)".
Minor Threat's song "Guilty of Being White" led to some accusations of racism, but MacKaye has strongly denied such intentions and said that some listeners misinterpreted his words. He claims that his experiences attending Wilson High School, whose student population was 70 percent black, inspired the song. There, many students bullied MacKaye and his friends. Thrash metal band Slayer later covered the song, with the last iteration of the lyric "guilty of being white" changed to "guilty of being right." In an interview, MacKaye stated that he was offended that some perceived racist overtones in the lyrics, saying, "To me, at the time and now, it seemed clear it's an anti-racist song. Of course, it didn't occur to me at the time I wrote it that anybody outside of my twenty or thirty friends who I was singing to would ever have to actually ponder the lyrics or even consider them."
In the time between the release of the band's second seven-inch EP and the Out of Step record, the band briefly split when guitarist Lyle Preslar moved to Illinois to attend college for a semester at Northwestern University. Preslar was a member of Big Black for a few tempestuous rehearsals. During that period, MacKaye and Nelson put together a studio-only project called Skewbald/Grand Union; in a reflection of the slowly increasing disagreements between the two musicians, they were unable to decide on one name. The group recorded three untitled songs, which would be released posthumously as Dischord's 50th release. During Minor Threat's inactive period, Brian Baker also briefly played guitar for Government Issue and appeared on the Make an Effort EP.
In March 1982, at the urging of Bad Brains' H.R., Preslar left college to reform Minor Threat. The reunited band featured an expanded lineup: Steve Hansgen joined as the band's bassist and Baker switched to second guitar.
When "Out of Step" was rerecorded for the LP Out of Step, MacKaye inserted a spoken section explaining, "This is not a set of rules..." An ideological door had already been opened, however, and by 1982, some straight-edge punks, such as followers of the band SS Decontrol, were swatting beers out of people's hands at clubs.
Poster promoting what would be Minor Threat's final show.
Minor Threat broke up in 1983. A contributing factor was disagreement over musical direction. MacKaye was allegedly skipping rehearsal sessions towards the end of the band's career, and he wrote the lyrics to the songs on the Salad Days EP in the studio. That was quite a contrast with the earlier recordings, as he had written and co-written the music for much of the band's early material. Minor Threat, which had returned to being a four-piece group with the departure of Hansgen, played its final show on September 23, 1983, at the Lansburgh Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., sharing the bill with go-go band Trouble Funk, and Austin, Texas punk funk act the Big Boys. In a meaningful way, Minor Threat ended their final set with "Last Song", a tune whose name was also the original title of the band's song "Salad Days".
Following the breakup, MacKaye stated that he did not "check out" on hardcore, but in fact hardcore "checked out." Explaining this, he stated that at a 1984 Minutemen show, a fan struck MacKaye's younger brother Alec in the face, and he punched the fan back, then realizing that the violence was "stupid," and that he saw his role in the stupidity. MacKaye claimed that immediately after this he decided to leave the hardcore scene.
In March 1984, six months after the band broke up, the EPs Minor Threat and In My Eyes were compiled together and re-released as the Minor Threat album.
MacKaye went on to found Embrace with former members of the Faith, Egg Hunt with Jeff Nelson, and later Fugazi and the Evens, as well as collaborating on Pailhead.
Baker went on to play in Junkyard, the Meatmen, Dag Nasty and Government Issue. He currently plays in Bad Religion.
Preslar was briefly a member of Glenn Danzig's Samhain, and his playing appears on a few songs on the band's first record. He joined The Meatmen in 1984, along with fellow Minor Threat member Brian Baker. He later ran Caroline Records, signing and working with (among others) Peter Gabriel, Ben Folds, Chemical Brothers, and Idaho, and ran marketing for Sire Records. He graduated from Rutgers University School of Law and lives in New Jersey.
Nelson played less-frantic alternative rock with Three and The High-Back Chairs before retiring from live performance. He runs his own label, Adult Swim Records, distributed by Dischord, and is a graphic artist and a political activist in Toledo, Ohio. The band's own Dischord Records released material by many bands from the Washington, D.C., area, such as Government Issue, Void, Scream, Fugazi, Artificial Peace, Rites of Spring, Gray Matter, and Dag Nasty, and has become a respected independent record label.
Hansgen formed Second Wind with Rich Moore, a former Minor Threat roadie and drummer for the Untouchables. He also worked with Tool in 1992 on the production of their first EP, Opiate.