The glossy cover of the 20 Years of Dischord box set's 134-page insert presents the highly influential independent label's ethos clearly: "PUTTING DC ON THE MAP." Not that Washington, D.C. needs any help, but the tongue-in-cheek slogan represents very nearly the truth of the early Capitol Hill punk scene.
While most of us were still a glimmer in our mother's eyes and a burning sensation in our daddy's crotch, Ian Mackaye and Jeff Nelson were busy developing the basis for a legacy. Beginning, as so many good rock 'n' roll stories do, without a clue, Dischord Records was initially the method a group of friends found to document what they saw as a cultural movement. Sort of like when my friends and I took Polaroids of ourselves smashing glass in a Wal-Mart parking lot, only with a different soundtrack. Add to this scrapbook-yearning a sense of entrepreneurial morality, and you have the seeds for the early hardcore scene, as catalogued by snot-nosed punks slightly jealous of the New York and London bands that both preceded and influenced their movement.
Of course, the quality of the packaging, and the precedent established by any independent label lasting so long while maintaining such a quality roster of bands, might lead one to believe that this is an organization of stalwart professionals. But one must not be duped. The earliest bands among the Dischord stable were kids. They would do crazy things like travel to NYC, dressed in the skinhead and spiky leather clothing that marked the early days of hardcore, just so they could witness first-hand Fear's debut on "Saturday Night Live." Also, while they certainly had to work hard at releasing their early LPs, they managed to do so with a type of rebellious attention to detail that often marred cover sleeves with a "S.W.A.K." (sealed with a kiss), or the more flatulent "S.W.A.F." (a promise, not a threat).
There is more than mere history at work here though. The compilation stands on its musical merit disconnected from chronological endorsement. The first and second discs include a selection by each of the 50 bands whose recordings Dischord has released. That's a lot of bands, and the range of the music shows how Dischord grew from initially documenting the hardcore scene into a label with a diverse and varied roster. Tracks such as "Get Up and Go" by Minor Threat and S.O.A.'s "Public Defender" typify the early lo-fi "recorded-in-the-garage-waking-up-the-neighborhood" sound, while Scream's "Fight/American Justice" and Rites of Spring's "Drink Deep" exhibit the initial segue from jock-rocking to the type of emoting that teen girls across the nation would listen to while getting their first tattoo or piercing.
While song length is hardly an indicator of songwriting maturity, it is still interesting to note that nearly every song is under three minutes on the first disc (with the first 10 songs all around a minute in length). Only on the second disc do songs four to five minutes long begin to appear. Lungfish's "Friend to Friend in Endtime" and Circus Lupus' "Pop Man" would likely have been unacceptable to the early fans of the label, with their musical and lyrical experimentation making them sound more like top-40 hits in a perfect world than what one would expect from a Dischord band.
In fact, one would imagine later-era songs, such as the Make Up's "Up They Live by Night," with its gospel yeah-yeah sound, or Faraquet's "Cut Self Not," quite firmly in the math-rock camp, getting trounced upon by hardcore fans. Of note is the trend of disc separation into pre- and post-Fugazi recordings. The first album is devoted mostly to the side projects and origins of that phenomenal band, while the second disc documents Fugazi's influence on other Dischord bands. This is not intended to belittle the influence of other pioneering bands such as Scream, Government Issue, and Faith, or their influence on later Dischord followers such as Jawbox, Smart Went Crazy, or Q and Not U.
More important to the avid Dischord fan than the anthology of released tracks is the third disc, which contains unreleased gems: an interview with the beginning Dischord office crew, and six live clips of early performances by the Teen Idles, S.O.A., and Void, among others. These tracks show a slightly different side of the Dischord bands, either covering each other's songs overzealously or adding other elements such as dub and R&B.
Among the 23 unreleased songs is a live cut of Minor Threat's "Straight Edge" anthem, and live takes by Dag Nasty, Fugazi, and Circus Lupus. Few tracks encapsulate youthful rebellion better than the Youth Brigade's "I Object." The recording is as raw as you might imagine the result of a combo of teenage spirit and a small recording budget would be, yet the intensity of the sound and the adept speed of the amateur musicians leave one awestruck at how anyone could improve on Woody Guthrie's concept of the guitar as a weapon of the revolution.
The one-off self-titled track by the Rozzlyn Rangers undoubtedly sums up the entire intent of the collection and the label providing a rare glimpse into a closely knit group of friends who can do it all and still maintain a strong sense of humor and modesty. Overall, the discs are rewarding, both for the musical content and in the perspective given to a label thought to be without much humor or panache. One hopes that the Dischord's next 20 years are as exciting, and musically fulfilling.