A New Generation of Punk at Dischord Records In the late 1970s, teens in the nation's capital were building their own punk scene — and many of those bands recorded for an independent record label called Dischord. That pioneering label is still alive today, and just as vital to a new music scene.
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A New Generation of Punk at Dischord Records

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A New Generation of Punk at Dischord Records

A New Generation of Punk at Dischord Records

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick with a pop quiz for the culture club. Here it is: Name the world capitals of punk rock music. OK, there's London, yes; New York, yes; Los Angeles and Washington, DC? Yes. In the late 1970s, teen-age Washingtonians were building their own punk scene.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer #1: ...(Unintelligible).

CHADWICK: Many of the earliest DC punk bands found a home at an independent record label called Dischord. Twenty-five years ago, Ian MacKaye helped start the company as a teen-ager, and today Dischord has a catalog featuring more than 50 bands who have shaped punk in the nation's capital and beyond. Here's NPR's Christopher Johnson, DC native and Dischord fan.

(Soundbite of squeaking; door opening)

Mr. IAN MacKAYE (Dischord Records): This is Dischord House. It's an East Coast style bungalow.


Ian MacKaye's house sits anonymously on a well-shaded suburban block in Virginia, and like dozens of other houses in the area, Ian's is surrounded by thick trees and dense vegetation that make the whole neighborhood feel sturdy and quiet; just the right place, Ian thought, for his punk rock band, Minor Threat, to make music.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer #2: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. MacKAYE: This is the house that I moved into in 1981, along with four other guys. We all got out of high school and needed a place to live, and we had thought, all right, we need, first thing, a detached house 'cause we're going to play music in the basement; a cheap house, because we were totally broke; a safe house, because we'd have musical equipment in the house. And we couldn't afford to get robbed.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer #3: ...(Unintelligible).

JOHNSON: Before they moved to Virginia, Ian and drummer Jeff Nelson were running their record label, Dischord, from the MacKaye family home in Washington. The two high school friends started Dischord with the money that their band, Teen Idols, earned playing shows.

Mr. MacKAYE: We kept all the money we ever made. We kept it in a cigar box. We had about 6 or $700. And that money, when the band decided to break up, we could have just made cassettes for each other, you know, had cassettes of our tape, but we decided to take that money and make a record. The music was important. It was important to us.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer #4: ...(Unintelligible).

Group: (Singing) Just go, just go, gotta go, gotta go!

JOHNSON: In 1980, Dischord put out its first record, a posthumous Teen Idol 45 called "Minor Disturbance." Ian and Jeff cut, folded and glued by hand a thousand jackets for that recording. They got help from their friends, other DC area punks that joined the Dischord label. Each group turned its earnings right back into the company. That money helped the next Dischord band make its record.

Mr. MacKAYE: Early on in Dischord, if you look on the labels, we had a slogan, `Putting DC on the map,' and our original mission was to document the DC punk scene, but that time, like our conception of the DC punk scene was very limited because it was just a few of us.

JOHNSON: That soon changed. Dischord expanded during the early '80s as punk rock got popular in the city. The new scene was exciting, but also dangerous. DC punks were being physically attacked for their bold, unorthodox appearances. They learned to fight back, and then they started to fight each other at concerts. The violence chased some music fans away, but Ian MacKaye and a few other punks decided to defend their scene.

Mr. MacKAYE: We felt like, all right, everyone, get busy. Don't just give up. Form a band, make art, and we set an arbitrary time frame for everyone to get engaged. It was the summer of 1985 and we called it the revolution summer.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer #5: ...(Unintelligible) and there was no one there to...

JOHNSON: Rites of Spring, Gray Matter, Beefeater and other Dischord bands gave frenzied, emotional performances that inspired DC's veteran punks to recommit to the music. What the groups were doing on stage and on their albums attracted younger punks, like Ian Svenonius.

Mr. IAN SVENONIUS (Nation of Ulysses): Number one, it was kind of all all-or-nothing ethic of playing. The bands just played with total intensity and a sense that, you know, you should put it all out there, but that was a DC tradition, almost like a small-town tradition. It was always like that.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer #6: Yeah!

JOHNSON: It's a tradition that Ian Svenonius and his band, the Nation of Ulysses, helped carry into the 1990s. Their debut album, "Thirteen-Point Program to Destroy America," blended unflinching city pride with an ecstatic punk performance that epitomized the Dischord sound.

(Soundbite of song)

NATION OF ULYSSES: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

JOHNSON: Another long-standing tradition at Dischord has been political activism. Groups like Ian MacKaye's own disbanded Fugazi have routinely written songs and joined protests against homelessness, world poverty and various US military actions across the globe.

Mr. MARK JENKINS (Free-lance Writer): Well, I sometimes refer to Dischord as public interest punk.

JOHNSON: Mark Jenkins is a free-lance writer who has reported on Washington-area music since the late 1970s. Jenkins says Dischord Records reflects something unique about DC's international draw as a seat of world politics.

Mr. JENKINS: There's another culture here of people who come to Washington or live in Washington because they want to do good, and I think Dischord is very much part of that sensibility as opposed to labels and other cities where it reflects just the kind of music that people like.

Mr. MacKAYE: This is the basement.

(Soundbite of things being moved around)

Mr. MacKAYE: I'll tell you now that so many punk bands practice right here, including...

JOHNSON: Ian MacKaye insists Dischord Records is not a label of the past, but a company that continues to put out relevant music today. Still, the Dischord House is filled with DC punk history.

Mr. MacKAYE: But you can see right here, for instance, like that bass amp right there, that's the Teen Idols' bass amp. That's the Minor Threat bass amp. That's the Fugazi guitars.

JOHNSON: Old instruments, reels and reels of 20-year-old master tapes, a wall lined with fan letters--walking through the Dischord House is like touring a museum. Ian says he's serving DC's punk community by preserving its music and artifacts. One day, he hopes to make it all available to the public. But the Dischord label is a modern business. The office has moved out of Dischord House to a bigger space across the street right under the 7-Eleven. Dischord co-owner Jeff Nelson has left the daily operations to Ian and a small full-time staff. And Ian still holds the label to the straightforward communalism that first defined it.

Mr. MacKAYE: We don't use contracts. We don't use lawyers. We don't have any of that kind of arrangement. So the people we work with, really, they have to be able to roll with us. They have to understand that they are not working for us and we are not working for them. We are partners. They make the music; we make the records.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer #7: I gotta (unintelligible) some change in my own life...

JOHNSON: Christopher Johnson, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer #7: And ...(unintelligible) color ...(unintelligible) are blue ...(unintelligible) and I'll be true...

CHADWICK: There's more about Dischord Records, including pictures and music from the label's last 25 years, at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer #7: ...(Unintelligible) left to find. (unintelligible) I said would you like some help? No, that's OK, I'd rather be by myself ...(unintelligible).

CHADWICK: And there's more to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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