Icon: Fugazi

Joe Gross

By Joe Gross

on 07.27.11 in Icons

“Beautiful, funny people. Generous to and respectful of the people they work with. Inspirational in a lot of ways. Maybe the best band.” – Steve Albini on Fugazi

From their first public performances in 1987 to the start of their indefinite hiatus in 2002, Fugazi kept every promise they ever made. The D.C. supergroup – Dischord Records co-founder and Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye on guitar and vocals, singer/guitarist Guy Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty, both late of Rites of Spring/One Last Wish/Happy Go Licky, and newcomer bassist Joe Lally, who eventually also sang – made their inclusive rules and stuck by them, virtually rethinking D.I.Y. punk from the bottom up, sonically and business-wise. It was all there: low door prices to get into all-ages shows and countless benefit gigs. They didn’t bother with T-shirts and played in non-bars whenever possible. As much as any band of their era, Fugazi embodied Seth Tobocman’s critical dictum: “You don’t have to fuck people over to survive.”

That they were also perhaps the most powerful live band of their generation is almost gravy. MacKaye always emphasized that the records were the menu and the shows the meal – while almost uniformly excellent, none of the records quite approached the band’s live power. Fugazi had scores of imitators and even more worshippers, but their fluidity, their power and their ethics remain unmatched.

In Chronological Order

Not an album but a double EP comprised of 1988's self-titled debut and the following year's Margin Walker. That the two work so well together - Fugazi with underrated hometown producer Ted Nicely; the second with the much more traditional John Loder - is a testament to the band's then-singular blend: impressionist lyrical topicality signaling a new punk politics, a way with mutant reggae vibes and a whole lot of the Stooges' "Funhouse."

Taken from their first record, "Waiting Room" was the smash "hit" that set the tone for their early work: an indelible bass line, rhythmic chug, Ian's bellow and Guy's otherworldy, almost androgynous moan. "Bulldog Front" and "Bad Mouth" seem to address traditionalist punk scenesters; "Give Me the Cure" raged at AIDS; "Suggestion" showed shifting perspectives on a rape; and the live staple "Glue Man" meditated on addiction. A dazzling debut.

The title track of Margin Walker is pure fury: Loder's production makes for much stricter, more traditionally rock rhythms. "And the Same" redefines activism, environmentalism and the prison-industrial complex are screamed at elsewhere. "We speak the way we breathe," Ian intoned in "Promises," even while the music promises truth to power. All 13 songs are a revolution of the mind.

If 13 Songs was a soup of dubbed-out Stooges songs, Repeater boiled it all down to screeches and thuds, welding shards of feedback, bass thrum and tom rolls - a sound as stark as the album's blue-and-white cover, and as dynamic as the interior photos. Lyrical impressionism mixes with guilt and rage. At one end: "What a difference/ a little difference would make." At the other: "We are all bigots/so filled with hatred /we release our poisons." The title track bellows at D.C.'s crack crisis; "Merchandise" reminds you of what they don't sell on tour. "Provisional" from Margin Walker gets a two-guitar reboot as "Reprovisional," hinting at power that was once only implied. "Shut the Door," a compassionate, furious look at a heroin overdose, is almost haiku-like in its simplicity and all the more powerful for it.

The CD pressing of Repeater was appended to include the 3 Songs 7-inch. "Joe #1" is a thudding instrumental, "Break-In" an older song about assault, but "Song #1" is a almost a post-hardcore manifesto: "Fighting for a haircut?/ Then grow your hair/ Crying for the music?/ I doubt you really care/ Looking for an answer?/ You can find it anywhere/ It's nothing."

Dig the new breed.

A divisive record, Steady Diet is seen as either a fan favorite or Fugazi's least-loved LP. Attempting to produce themselves, the quartet created a weirdly flat, bone-dry recording, an on-off binary between open silence and shattering noise. A few tracks are among the band's very best — "Reclamation" became a punk pro-choice anthem (MacKaye's "CARRY MY BODY" scream is a knife wound), "Runaway Return" articulates the inner turmoil of the upper-middle class punk, while "Latin Roots" unpacks an awkward romantic moment. And MacKaye has become one of his generation's best sloganeers: "America's just a word but I use it" and "Things have settled down but silence/ is a dangerous sound" are personal favorites. But a few don't quite work — there's a reason you rarely heard "Polish" or the instrumental "Steady Diet" live. "Long Division" mourns a fractured...scene? Relationship? Movement? Something. "We lay in pieces, cracked to survive..."

Kill Taker arrived as the rise of alternative rock no longer seemed like a fluke, but a historical inevitability. Wisely re-teaming with Nicely after an abortive session with Steve Albini, Killtaker was the closest the band would come to its live sound if not their on-stage fluidity. In contrast to the silent moments on Steady Diet, this is incredibly dense rock music, packed with a passion and rage as muscular as it was heartfelt, filled with sound and fury, signifying as much as possible. The furious opener "Facet Squared" finds MacKaye writing some of his most perfect punk maxims ("Cool's eternal, but it's always dated," "We draw lines, stand behind them/ That's why flags are SUCH UGLY THINGS") for a complicated time while Picciotto shouted out Native Americans ("Smallpox Champion") and his favorite filmmaker (the fearsomely emotional, independent "Cassavetes"). "Great Cop" (as in "you'd make a great cop, you PIG!!") yells at journalists, "Rend It" is pure melodrama, "Sweet and Low" is an instrumental lullaby, and "Instrument" tries to get the balance right, a question MacKaye would return to again and again. For all emo took from the album, that style never did catch up to Kill Taker's refined, hellacious power.

Now confident behind the boards, Red Medicine is the first broad expansion of their musical palette. The hard strumming on "Do You Like Me?" almost sounds like furious, heavy...indie pop. (After all, Fugazi had a long fruitful relationship with the Olympia, Washington, scene that's home to K and Kill Rock Stars.) Guy explores creepy, subtly slinky rhythms on his cuts, while piano, MacKaye's first instrument, shows up on the intro to the anthemic "Birthday Pony." (MacKaye sure does get to the heart of starting a band: "I needed something to do/ So I split into two.") The instrumental is their funkiest, while a quote from Tenor Saw ("ring the alaaaam...") becomes a chorus. They also get a little cranky about alt-rock. On his first vocal performance, Lally decries "Generation fuck you" on the epic noise fest "By You," while Guy realizes elsewhere, "I hate the sound of guitars/ a thousand grudging young millionaires." Does it seem like small beer to be throwing at, say, Green Day's head or did they have a legitimate beef with the major labels co-opting the underground? It's both of course.

In some ways, End Hits is a cruelly slept-on masterpiece, an ode to the emotional entropy inherent in long-term punkhood. Musically, it's a continuation of Red Medicine's innovations - obtuse structures and spiky, almost teetering rhythms abound. The music has traded fury for a quieter intensity.

The album's also a good reminder that Fugazi songs are a bit like the cast of Doonesbury. They've been around so long and confronted so many issues that when something comes up, they have a song that applies, a song that likely hasn't aged a day. The porous borders of the pro-immigration "Place Position" date from the mid '90s and will be relevant roughly forever. "Five Corporations" assaults gentrification's creepy-crawl; "Forman's Dog" addresses the exploitation inherent in disaster and crime reportage. The destabilized revolution stays underground and away from prying eyes in "No Surprise." ("No CIA/ No NSA/ Can map our veins," whispers Guy Picciotto.) "With glue and string we try to stay together/ Despite the pain" murmurs MacKaye in "Pink Frosty," a quietly rumbling song as moving as any he's written, proof positive that a sustained, articulate punk rock can exist after the first couple of gray hairs. Long distance runners, indeed.

This is the pseudo soundtrack to the documentary of the same name made by the band with long-time ally Jem Cohen, who has made films with R.E.M. and the late Vic Chesnutt. There's nothing hugely revelatory, but it's a cool snapshot of the band's working process. Only "Rend It" appears as a Guy-with-acoustic-guitar demo. Most of the record is the sound of songs coming together link by link and yard by yard, assembled, jammed on, pulled apart and futzed with. It's fun to hear Guy's clarinet sub in for his trebly guitar on "Lusty Scripps," "I'm So Tired" is a genuine piano ballad and the demo for "Guildford Fall" will remind old fans that song started out as (and was perfectly good as) a muscular instrumental. This one should come after a firm digestion of all the others, but see the movie.

Recorded in the first quarter of 2001 and released in October of that year, The Argument was Fugazi's final album before going on indefinite hiatus in late 2002. It's regarded by many as their best; it's certainly the band's most musically diverse. As much as they would ever be, the songs seem more than the menu for live-show meal. Background vocals, sweeping cello from Amy Domingues, acoustic guitar and Jerry Busher on second drums all play prominent, dramatic roles. "Break" rips apart gentrification, while "Strangelight" is a bizarrely sensual love song (uh, maybe).

They can still explode when they want to - Guy's "Iwantout IwantoutIwantout!!" and Ian's "STOPSTOPSTOPSTOP" are as sweaty as anything from Margin Walker. The anger is there, often as direct as ever, but fuller musical textures are the rule rather than the exception. As for being psychic, well, it was downright chilling to hear "some punk could argue moral ABCs/ when people are catching what bombers release" that winter. Then again, they would say 'twas ever thus.

Nicely bookending their career was the Furniture EP. The B-sides are fine, but the keeper is the stellar A, a song that dates from their very earliest shows given new, vibrant life. Few bands have ever said "Yeah? BULLSHIT!" as clearly.