A Thousand Teens Bloom

Photo © Glen Friedman

I LIKE AVRIL LAVIGNE, THE FOO FIGHTERS AND Jimmy Eat World as much as the next guy. I love punk rock! Yet something was lost in translation as the scrappy punk I grew up on took center stage in American rock. Where once there were accidents and innocence, now there are a thousand tracks of compressed guitar, tempos that burst forth with the precision of a moon launch.

The initial reason for punk was, in part, to provide teenagers license to bottle passion and turn it into song. Contemporary punk is passionate, but it's also as considered as any style. Yeah, the kids who make it are sorting out their shit, but inevitably they've been marinated in our culture's ubiquitous mix of "punk" rebellion and snot attitude. Bart Simpson and the Strokes' lead singer, Julian Casablanca, are separated by 10 years and a buzz cut.

By contrast, Washington, D.C.'s Dischord Records and the old punks who run it -- Jeff Nelson and Ian MacKaye -- have kept to their passionate ideals. The label is 22 years old, but it's just gotten around to celebrating its 20th anniversary, with a boxed set named 20 Years of Dischord and clearly billed as "3 CDs * 73 Songs (21 unreleased) * 134 page book." As the dry title indicates, these guys always were documentarians at heart.

Dischord began in 1980 when a group of teenagers in a Washington, D.C., band called the Teen Idles pooled $600 to put out a 7-inch. The music was so-so British pub punk, but the ideology was fascinating. The record's cover pictured bassist Ian MacKaye's brother Alec with X's on his hands, a mark made on under-18s so they could check out concerts without bartenders serving them drinks. Unlike most punks, Ian MacKaye thought drinking and drugging was a waste of time -- these X's were a mark of pride. MacKaye's next group, Minor Threat, wrote a song about abstinence called "Straight Edge" in 1981, and a still-extant movement sprang up around it.

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Dischord Records held true to every other ideal evinced on that first release. They only document punk created in Washington, D.C. They are always willing to capture musicians at their earliest stage of development. And Dischord has focused on the activities of a small family of artists, literally (the MacKaye brothers were joined by Bros. Janney, Canty and Farrell) and metaphorically (plotting the connections among the 50 bands in this set would challenge Rock Family Tree author Pete Frame). While straight edge was inherited by skinheads, Dischord continued to embrace austere ideological stances: Down with conspicuous consumption! No time for decadence!

The music of the label has suffered from all the discipline and inbreeding -- there's an airless quality to some of it. Yet by documenting self-taught musicians in seclusion, Dischord has consistently caught the sound of the unskilled stumbling toward grace. On disc one, songs inspired by the shitty years of teendom bloom into beautiful flowers. Early hardcore, epitomized by Minor Threat, does for the ears what skateboarding into a concrete sidewalk does to the body. Void's commitment to the teen ideals of angst and individuality is even more pronounced; each member seems to play a different song simultaneously. Future Fugazi member Guy Picciotto develops the art of emo punk in a sequence of bands including One Last Wish, Happy Go Licky and Rites of Spring. The contribution of the last-mentioned group consists of rolling bass lines, expansive guitars and ringing choruses that sell you on sweet youth: "Drink deep/It's just a taste/and it might not come this way again/I believe in moments/transparent moments/moments in grace when you've got to state your fate."

THE END OF DISC ONE BRINGS US TO 1990, AND a question: How do you deal with hardcore passions as an adult? D.C. hardcore imposed martial law on passion. At its worst, this led to the punk you'd hear from a drill sergeant -- guitars and tempos so exact you want to give the players sloppy kisses to make them loosen up. But it allowed the musicians to distend youthful passion into ecstatic new forms. Fugazi's "Blueprint" opens disc two with a crescendo that plateaus into three minutes of tightly wound guitars. On "Friend to Friend in Endtime," Lungfish's guitarist Asa Osborne masters spiraling feedback, while vocalist Daniel Higgs is as unhinged as an escaped mental patient yet balanced as a monk in full lotus.

Dischord has always focused on a host of "I"s -- the inventive, the inarticulate, the innocent, the inchoate -- and sometimes you wonder where the "me" comes in. Instead of ending with a song that looks to the future of the label, disc three winds up with a 1981 interview snippet of a bunch of Dischord kids announcing their names and ages. One wonders if the nostalgia of 20 Years of Dischord is for the sake of the audience, or for the benefit of those putting it out?

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