Why Fugazi are still the best punk band in the world—an Op-Ed

November 20, 2014
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Hearing Fugazi’s 1987 demo session in its entirety for the first time last week as the proper release titled First Demo made my brain fire off in several directions. Like many fans, I had a previously owned a 386th generation copy, but next to the Instrument soundtrack, it was my least listened-to Fugazi recording. That’s not a slight (as it’s akin to saying Michael Jordan’s ’96/’97 NBA title was his “least memorable”), but rather the highest praise for a band that redefined punk at a time when the movement needed some new adjectives. In spinning the thick record, I immediately understood why the band eschewed recording for a bit and focused on playing live. It made sense for First Demo to be a posthumous release in 2014, instead of a formal introduction to a world of punks with sky-high expectations for a D.C. supergroup in 1987. They weren’t there yet, but they were already somewhere important.

What gets lost in discussing Fugazi is that they were an extremely tight live unit, who jammed in a way that wasn’t ego-driven and their songcraft is of the best in American guitar-based music. This has become a talking point in my circle of friends, where it’s almost impossible to get everyone to agree on any band—let alone an independent one—that has six LPs that are unanimously regarded as great. Solo artists are a bit easier, as they aren’t married to a backing band, but finding a core group of musicians whose output is as definitive and forward thinking is tough as hell. Now limit the discussion to bands that maintained one lineup during their entire discography. See, it’s not easy.

Other than waging a Sonic Youth vs. Fugazi debate (SY seems to be the go-to argument instigator), the next time you stop at a bar, party or live music event, this notion is actually a big deal. Why? Since Fugazi’s indefinite hiatus in 2002, music is being experienced in an entirely different way, which affects how we process songs and albums recorded prior to the full assimilation of digital music in culture. Even old ears hear differently than when they were forced to focus on a tangible object like a cassette that housed music. We rapidly click through album streams, seeing if anything grabs our ears in 10 seconds or less. Everyone’s suffering from ADHD, not just one demographic or age group.

Fugazi aren’t a YouTube band, a singles band, a live band, or even a CD band. Their songs follow a logical a-side/b-side cadence, meant to be heard in deliberate succession. You can’t force anyone discovering the band now to listen to them as they initially intended and new adopters probably won’t ever get to see them live. To borrow a term from Bret Easton Ellis, that splits the world into two camps: Empire Fugazi Fans and Fugazi - First Demo coverPost-Empire Fugazi Fans. I’ll be more direct: old people who saw them and millennials who didn’t, and don’t really care that they didn’t sell T-shirts or hated stage diving. If you’re of the generation who passed dubs of the Fugazi demo around, loved how their five-dollar-door shows fit your teenage minimum-wage budget, and may or may not have been scolded by Mr. MacKaye for moshing, you remember Fugazi as an entire entity—an almost political party. Fugazi laughed when the major labels scoured the underbelly of the underground for any band with a loud-soft formula that could emulate Nirvana’s success. Instead, they kept their allegiance to Dischord and most likely made more money.

This also gave them control of their band. Control and restrictions were as important to Fugazi and their songwriting, as much as drugs and 20-minute noodlefests were essential to the Grateful Dead. But the Dead, Fugazi and even Phish all understood the importance of their fanbase and the live setting, and that’s why they’re beloved and being on major labels is irrelevant. They created their own cults.

Being born in the ’70s, my live music education began in arenas with KISS, Iron Maiden, Metallica and later Jane’s Addiction and Guns ’N Roses. Having seen plenty of punk bands who struggled to get through one song in my early teens, witnessing Fugazi for the first time, three years into their career, seemed as professional and big as any arena band, but with a conscious quiver of songs that sounded as important as any I had heard in my then-young life. My generation knows Fugazi, the anti-branded entity. A band who purposely made their first EP appear generic to avoid hardcore punk clichés. But that band hasn’t existed for over a decade, and those who discover the band now know them on the strength of their actual songs. That’s the damn point of recording music, isn’t it?

Fugazi’s studio recordings begin in 1987 with First Demo, recorded shortly after Guy Picciotto joined the band as a second vocalist, later to play guitar, as well. Fugazi hadn’t coalesced yet, but the elements were there. Rhythm driven, political and personal prose, with an alertness of punk that poked you in the forehead, crafted with both an intensity and dynamics unfamiliar to the genre. Yes, there were elements of dub-reggae, often attributed to their love for the Ruts, but Fugazi weren’t “reggatta de blanc.” They were the anti-Police and hated cops, too. They were the Clash minus the bad mohawks in the ’80s and Cut The Crap. They are Fugazi. In the documentary We Jam Econo: The Story Of The Minutemen, Ian MacKaye professed his love for the Minutemen’s first EP, Paranoid Time, released in 1980 on SST Records. That’s a great pit stop to make in understanding the band’s sound. Once you get past the band skanking onstage during the intro, the live version of “Joe McCarthy’s Ghost” is a precursor to the territory Fugazi would explore throughout their career.

Both sang about the political, not always in a global sense, but how it rubbed up against them in their communities. Their music is anchored by complex, yet, steady bass work, played against very skronky, treble-driven guitars, as shouted vocals punched in and out of the verses and choruses. That was the basis, but Fugazi’s sound and songwriting expanded on each album as they grew tighter, giving them more space for noise or quiet. Picciotto added a sexy, sinister element to the band. His pained mantras played well against MacKaye’s authoritative vocals and marching, muted guitar rhythms. The actual sounds of their voices are a classic play of strong and vulnerable, order and chaos, Lennon’s raspy scream vs. McCartney’s thoughtful swoon.

On the demo, “Break-In,” “Turn Off Your Guns” and “In Defense of Humans” strum along at somewhat punky paces, but they are nothing like the sped-up Beach Boys-cum-Ramones three-chord anthems associated with punk. The guitars pick rapidly, often palm muted, but not in a speed-metal fashion. They often keep a curious pace for punk, rarely playing 4/4 fast or conventional, yet their songs prod along or crawl, sounding dire and ramshackle. It’s heavy, without any metal or over-abuse of distortion/effects pedals at all. When Fugazi are the most cacophonous, it’s intentional, like four actors expertly directed in a dramatic scene from a film, not a group of impatient, angry teenagers fighting their instruments to communicate.

Don’t let any music journalist fool you, even when the band explores slower tempos that could be classified as “funky,” they don’t sound a thing like Gang Of Four or any post-punk band who borrowed from them. You aren’t going to get “down on the disco floor,” with Fugazi. You will however, protest the first Gulf War in the cold in front of the White House, as they did in January of 1991. Unlike U2 who famously dressed up in cold weather gear for their dramatic “New Year’s Day” video, Fugazi were actually fucking cold—and very angry. U2’s politics get lost in their marketing, while Fugazi barely took out ads, for Christ's sake.


And there we go, talking about their politics again, but it wouldn’t have been as compelling if they didn’t have the songs and charisma to lead a large group of people in front of our nation’s capital in dissent. And it’s “Merchandise,” which wasn’t released until 1990 on the band’s first LP Repeater and appears on the 1987 demo, which they play as the first vocal number at this protest, leading a crowed in a refrain of “You are not what you own.” A catchy refrain that seems to have lost meaning in 2014.

First Demo includes several tracks that didn’t immediately appear on their self-titled EP in 1988, proving that they waited to release material until it was right. When they finally released “Furniture” (also on First Demo) on an EP of the same name as a companion to their last LP The Argument, it was right. When they scrapped the Steve Albini sessions for In On The Kill Taker, it was right. If we take anything away from First Demo about Fugazi’s songwriting, it’s that the version of “Waiting Room,” the band’s de facto “hit song,” is far inferior to the one that opens their debut EP. It’s so goddamn right, swapping them out could have a butterfly effect on not just recorded music, but the entire world as we know it. Sure, they both open up their respective recordings, but if Fugazi played “Waiting Room” at the dirge pace as it appears on First Demo, we probably would have still engaged in several unjust wars and have dealt with the Kardashians. But there probably would be a hell of a lot less amateur bands aping their sound. They’d also be without their theme song, the song your co-worker recognizes. The good thing would be that the Red Hot Chili Peppers and a bobble-headed Arcade Fire might not have desecrated such a great song live, but it’s hard to imagine their first 12-inch starting any other way.

One of the ’90s’ most prominent bands to earn the journalist-invented tag (aren’t they all invented by us?) “post-hardcore” was Quicksand, a band that has some Fugazi in their DNA, by way of NYC.  Quicksand’s frontman and primary songwriter Walter Schreifels cites them not only because they were an inspiration, but because he had been following MacKaye’s music since first hearing Minor Threat, right around the time that band broke up for good. “While I love and admire their entire recorded catalog,” Schreifels begins, “I think everything that's great about Fugazi is spelled out within the first verse and chorus of ‘Waiting Room.’ Within the first 15 seconds of the song, you knew you didn't need to compare it to Minor Threat anymore. [That song] was an event that changed the meaning of everything that came before it.”

“Waiting Room” was Fugazi’s start, but not necessarily a blueprint or a formula. As the band continued to document their journey, they wrote short and sweet songs (“Long Division”) and anxiously miasmic romps (“Full Disclosure”), even adding a third vocalist—sullen bassist Joe Lally—to drive a few pensive tracks. Fugazi had a construct, but added and subtracted accordingly, never wary of being too heady or too direct. “Great Cop” was as angry as any Minor Threat track, but it played nice with the saccharine instrumental “Sweet And Low” on the same album. Their last (not final; remember they’re on hiatus) album, 2001’s The Argument, found Fugazi as vital, relevant and tuneful than ever. And then that was it: The screen went blank, without build-up or forewarning, as quiet as that album’s title track.

This is how you should experience Fugazi now. Don’t overthink their music like the ending of Lost or study them like a graduate course in a dead language. Absorb their work as the band had intended: documents that detail a place and time, yet transcend the calendar. The end is never neat and tidy; Fugazi could reappear tomorrow. Leaving quietly with a question mark seems like the perfect non-ending to one of the biggest stories in independent music. Alt

Op-Ed contributed by Twitter icon @anthonypops

Written by Anthony Pappalardo