The lowdown on Fugazi
Fugazi are a Washington DC band, formed in 1987 and officially still extant, although they have been ‘on hiatus’ since 2002. The four members are Ian MacKaye (vocals and guitar), previously of hardcore legends Minor Threat, Joe Lally (bass), Brendan Canty (drums) and Guy Picciotto (initially only backing vocals in a hype man role, the Flavor Flav to MacKaye’s Chuck D, but subsequently second guitarist and co-lead vocalist). Their music is rooted in punk, but moves outwards to encompass much more. There’s a strong dub reggae influence from their earliest recordings, not least in their use of space – they took a traditionally dense and claustrophobic sound and found the space that was hiding in it all along. The guitar style is unusual. There’s no real differentiation between lead and rhythm, rather both guitarists occupy different parts of the sound spectrum, with Picciotto’s needling treble interlocking with MacKaye’s chunkier riffs. The real musical stars of Fugazi are the rhythm section. Lally and Canty are just superb, with sensational interplay, drive and groove. They deserve to be spoken of in the same breath as Entwistle and Moon or Jones and Bonham. As their career progressed, the records became more experimental, embracing elements of funk, jazz and post-rock.
If they had only left us their records, Fugazi would still be a band for the ages, but their business practices were also highly influential on underground rock in the 90s and beyond. They were fiercely DIY, recording and releasing all their records themselves on MacKaye’s own Dischord label. They chose not to sell any merchandise – if you’ve ever seen a Fugazi T-shirt, it’s a bootleg – and kept concert ticket prices as low as possible. None of this seems to have hurt them. Repeater has sold more than two million copies across the world, and their final tour saw them selling out three nights at the Forum in London. They were a very political band (I’m going to find the YouTube clip of them performing outside the White House for the comments), but not particularly preachy or sanctimonious. Their lyrics are often elliptical and allusive, and when the politics are clear, it’s often on a personal level, as in ‘Suggestion’ from the first EP, where MacKaye sings from the point of view of a woman suffering everyday sexual harassment.
It’s the music that’s key, though. Crass were similarly radical in approach, for instance, but I’m not going to seriously suggest we should be listening to them in 2017. Fugazi were thrilling and visceral. They made you think and they made you dance, and they made some of the very best rock music ever recorded.
The best place to start:
I’d have to pick Repeater, from 1990. It’s their first full length LP, and all the elements I’ve raved about above are present and correct. The opening four tracks are presented as one piece of music with no gaps, and it’s as good a twelve minutes of rock n roll as you will ever hear.
The absolutely essential masterpiece(s):
The compilation ’13 Songs’ combines the self titled and Margin Walker EPs, from 1988 and 1989 respectively. It’s notable for including ‘Waiting Room’, which has an absolute monster of a bassline. If you’ve only heard one Fugazi song, I’d bet good money it was this one. 1993’s ‘In On The Killtaker’ hits the sweet spot between early aggression and later experimentation. It’s probably my own favourite of all their records. Their last (to date!) album, ‘The Argument’ from 2002 was a fine and noble way to go out, a restaking of claims after a muted reaction to it’s predecessor ‘End Hits’.
Recommended if you like….
I suppose their antecedents would be people like Gang Of Four, but their real legacy is in their influence. If you’ve ever enjoyed any vaguely alternative American rock music from the last twenty years, chances are those musicians listened to Fugazi
Advanced listening/watching/reading etc.
‘Steady Diet Of Nothing’ from 1991 was the follow up to ‘Repeater’. It’s in the same vein as that record, a bit denser and darker perhaps, but still excellent. ‘Red Medicine’ (1996) and ‘End Hits’ (1997) are the later, more experimental records, where Fugazi incorporated psychedelia, musique concrete and other forms into their work.
There’s also a band sanctioned documentary, directed by Jem Cohen, called ‘Instrument’ that is well worth a watch, if only for the incredible footage of Guy and the basketball hoop.
In addition, Dischord now maintain a site (the Fugazi Live Series) where you can download recordings of almost every show the band ever played, for a suggested cost of $5 per show. I have the first and last shows I attended (Nottingham 1992 and Exeter 2002) and they are excellent.
Where others fear to tread….for completists only:
The soundtrack to Instrument was released as a standalone album. It’s scraps from the cutting room floor, jams and noodles. It sounds more like Slint than it does Fugazi. It’s a curiosity, but it should be at the back of the queue when you’re lining up albums to listen to.
There are a couple of 7″ releases that are worth finding. The ‘3 Songs’ EP was out a few months before ‘Repeater’, and is bundled onto the CD release of that record. ‘Furniture’ is an old song that was dug up and released on vinyl alongside the final album in 2002. In 2014, Dischord put out an archival release of the first Fugazi demo cassette to mark the completion of the Live Series.