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Minor Threat - Out of Step (1983)
A hardcore punk band based out of Washington DC, Minor Threat released three EPs and this album before splitting in 1983. Their politics can be seen as a response to Reaganomics and the spread of cocaine through American cities. The music has aged well for its time, owing to high production standards, and the record commands respect from critics and musicians alike. It exerted significant influence on the post-punk landscape, and there's a good chapter on the band and their social context in "Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991" by Michael Azerrad.
Stand out tracks include "Betray", "Look Back & Laugh", and "Out of Step." The band advocated a clean living style, renounced drinking and drug taking, and coined the phrase "straight edge" as a youth movement. Early concerns about social messages take a backseat here to lyrics about friendship. The music is played at very high speed and the band is extremely tight. Singer Ian MacKaye has a raucous voice that gets the message across to those that want to hear it but scares the be-Jesus out of those that don't. He later founded the band Fugazi.
Track 1 - Betray
The lyrics to Betray are about how age can change priorities and friends when you're young aren't necessarily for life. It also works as a break-up song. There's an element of contemplation, an open mindedness that people move on and change, and that it's possible not to see someone any more but to leave things on relatively good terms, but also resentment at the possibility of being taken for a fool or used. The rationale for thinking that no one is necessarily to blame is only an unwillingness to admit being in the wrong, and figuring the other person probably feels this way too. So in that respect maybe it's an admission of stubbornness rather than a genuine exploration of feelings. Options are considered, from cutting the person off entirely, to compromising personal values and seeing things their way. In the end, neither extreme wins out. The resolution is to live life normally, to see the other person around, but not to get involved with them much any more. The friendship they had is over, and it's upsetting, but sometimes that happens.
There is a suspicion that the words describe how the singer felt about some of his band mates. Minor Threat split up not long after this record was released, and there are reports of crowds feeling the lyrics were directed on stage at the drummer. Which suggests it's harder to be as collected and accepting as the song implies it's better to be. The music captures this tension, between rational thought, and vitriolic emotion, and it's fitting that this should have been played out in the actual performance.
Track 2 - It Follows
The words observe any scene that sets out to distinguish itself from the herd can become mired by nonsense once it gets too popular, if the fans end up being the people whose behaviour the scene was critical of in the first place. But also there's the metaphor that you can't run away from your past, it stays with you. Punks with the best intentions are people like the rest of them, and human behaviour transcends image, or cultural moments. There's no escape from your self. If you related to the world around you one way in the past, there's a good chance you might again. Trying to set your self apart is like chasing your own shadow.
Track 3 - Think Again
The verses move through several states of mind. First exclaiming that you've got it wrong and everybody else must be right after all, though surely there's an element of sarcasm to this. There's an understanding that disagreement is destructive, but no real insight into what's caused the difference in view. Then lashing out that you can't reason with adults who act like children, that ignorance can be a kind of default position and no amount of intelligence is enough to win an argument because some people never listen. Next the view that some people make out that they're above everything, have seen it all, know better, and you can't reason with them either. Finally, a statement of defiance - against people who throw tantrums, or act smug, or speak from experience they don't have, or believe too much in gossip - telling them to think again before coming at him with an argument.
Track 4 - Look Back and Laugh
This song is about hoping one day he'll feel better about a friend who he doesn't see any more because an opportunity came along and their lives went in different directions. There's a sense of knowing his feelings are unreasonable and more trouble than they're worth. He wants everything to work out for his friend but still feels hurt. Perhaps one day they will be able to look back and laugh. What can we do except try to hold on, or move on?
Track 5 - Sob Story
This song is a reprimand to people who suffer a setback then act like they've had the worst luck in the world and won't snap out of it. It's a challenge to stop moaning how unfair life is and instead do something about it. The irony is there's a fair amount of naval gazing going on throughout this whole album. The spiky rubber baseline has plenty of punch though, the vocal is a crisp raw grumble, and the guitars shimmer.
Track 6 - No Reason
A song about the silence that can fall on a friendship or a relationship when pride gets in the way and people act like strangers, and the frustration of not knowing what caused the rift or what to do about it. The bass is prominent from the intro and the guitars crescendo over a pulsing drum beat. "Haven't we met before?" the voice exclaims, plangently.
Track 7 - Little Friend
The words sound like they're describing the onset of anxiety or depression or hostility, a little friend eating away your innards. The music is intense and restless with short tight riffs falling fast and smart use of dramatic pauses. The second half of the song resembles a primer for writing a Nirvana track.
Track 8 - Out of Step
Expounds the message not to smoke, drink, or sleep around. These things may appear to help you think more clearly when you're stressed, but such release can leave you feeling out of step with the world. The music is spiralling into confusion as the vocal imposes order and then the bass line gets it together and by the end the drums are pounding quick and clear headed and the track abruptly finishes.
Track 9- Cashing In
This was a "hidden" song on the original vinyl release. I don't seem to have it, so I can't say what it sounds like! The lyrics are a nice little poem in which the singer introduces himself and spells out his ethos for being in a band, basically by satirising what they'd do if they were cynically in it for the money.
As a collection of tunes there's much more to admire than any of the grunge or nu-metal imitators (Offspring, Limp Biscuit) from the 1990s. Throughout, the bass is particularly lively and playful, and there's also an astute awareness of metal song structures in places. Green Day probably owe a big debt to the punchy tunefulness of records such as this, and are the biggest of the bands to take a watered down version of this sound into mainstream pop, although Minor Threat submerge any sense of vocal melody much more deeply in the mix than Billie Joe Armstrong's outfit.
It's unfair though to judge influence based on lesser offerings from inferior bands that followed. Musically, Minor Threat belong in the pre-history lineage of acts such as The Pixies and Nirvana, with Ian MacKaye offering potent ideas to the likes of Francis Black and Kurt Cobain to embellish, rather than a mere template for others to copy. "Look Back and Laugh" in particular would work great as a Pixies song.
The songs are typically short, averaging somewhere around the two minute mark, so the whole record comes in at a shade under 22 minutes. The density of allusions to other bands' styles - future, past and present - ensures the record stays original and interesting even as the tone remains consistent from song to song. For a punk record there's a rare musicality and so although the playing is fast and layered and noisy the sound is always clean and controlled.