Musical Fugazi: Politics, Post Punk, and Reevaluating D.C.’s Most Famous Rock Band 25 Years Later

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Last December, amidst one of D.C.’s colder and more snow-filled winters, a symbol of the city’s musical past appeared above one of its most travelled corridors. Over the I-495 Beltway on the CSX railroad bridge between Georgia and Connecticut Avenues, someone had spray painted six glorious uneven letters: “Fugazi.” The band had not played a note in over a decade yet here it stood a rough-hewn testament to their one-time presence. “I find it odd that someone painted ‘Fugazi’ on a railroad bridge in 2014,” wrote John Kelly in the Washington Post, “It’s like painting ‘Clapton is God’ on a London brick wall today. The moment has passed.”[1]

To Kelly’s credit, he quickly pointed out that a dozen years after the band went into indefinite hiatus, “the graffiti is like throwing the switch on the Bat Light: Come back.” Indeed, April 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of the band’s first proper studio release, Repeater, a post punk masterpiece masquerading as esoteric indie rock. Sure, the masterful 13 Songs might have come first, but it’s more a compilation of two previous EPs rather than the unified production of the 1990 release. Though it has been hailed as a classic it seems odd that in our current culture of hyping 10, 15, and 20 year anniversaries of mediocre comedies of the 1980s and 1990s, the interwebs and elsewhere seemed devoid of any sort of celebration or hagiography of the band. Fitting, one could argue, for an outfit that openly eschewed corporate rock structures and commercialism. That said, no one should ever sleep on Fugazi’s capitalist impulses and acumen; unbelievably, the four piece sold over two million copies of Repeater worldwide, and three million people have bought 13 Songs over the years. This is to say nothing of Steady Diet of Nothing (1991), In on the Killtaker (1993), Red Medicine (1995, twenty years old this June), End Hits (1998), and The Argument (2001). Consider the fact that bands like The Hold Steady, who themselves have acknowledged Fugazi’s influence, receive endless amounts of internet love yet have sold a fraction of the albums.

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“If you don’t say anything then people put it on you … they say what you are,” Ian MacKaye told Jem Cohen and others on the 1998 film about the band Instrument. “But go too far in the other direction and they say you’re manipulating it.” Perhaps more than any other band of its day, Fugazi realized the power of the media and the kind of money that was going to flood the “alternative rock” scene. “[I]t is the double-shot of ‘Merchandise’ and ‘Blueprint,’ both critiques of commodification and cooptation of art that sends the strongest message,” noted Stereogum a couple of years back. “Philosophically speaking, this pair of songs is perhaps Fugazi’s boldest and most important seven minutes on record. It doesn’t hurt that they’re also two of the band’s catchiest, most enduring tunes.”

During the early 1990s alt music gold rush, rumors about Fugazi’s puritanism ran rampant: they had refused tens of millions of dollars from major labels and refused to participate in Lollapalooza. “I have a lot of contempt for the record industry,” MacKaye told German television in 1990. “To exist independent of the mainstream is political itself, in my opinion.”

Politically, the lyrics could be elliptical and abstract, but more often than not a narrative existed even if in the most postmodernist of ways. However, whatever one thinks of Fugazi’s lyrics, the band stood keenly aware that music, no matter how momentous was just music. “For 30 years we’ve had protest music … it matters more what you do than say,” Guy Picciotto noted in a charmingly odd, but insightful 1988 interview with a junior high fan for Eastern Middle School in Washington D.C. Fugazi played countless numbers of benefit shows for non-profit organizations, free clinics, and the like while also donating money to prison reform, homeless shelters, and AIDS clinics.  Keep in mind we are all products of our environment. Influenced by L.A.’s film industry and the iconic community of Compton, Kendrick Lamar put forth an audio cinematic masterpiece with “good kid … m.A.A.d city” in 2013. To expect Fugazi to divorce itself from the business of the nation’s capital, politics, seems naive at best.

When the same adolescent interviewer asked what Fugazi meant by lyrics like “America is just a word,” MacKaye pivoted, noting that the word represents an idea, “what it means is up to each person to figure out for themselves.” Heady stuff for any hormone addled teen, but make no mistake, for some of us, as young, dumb and inexperienced as we might have been, Fugazi seemed to be whispering truth in our ears that others bands could simply not comprehend. This writer picked up Repeater the summer before starting H.S. and needless to say nothing would never be the same again. Countless others could say the same. “”Seeing Fugazi was life changing for me,” Bikini Kill leader and riot grrl icon Kathleen Hanna reminisced. “The bleak landscape I was trodding through (BF- before Fugazi) suddenly turned into color, and dare I say it, they made me feel hopeful.”

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How outsiders or casual observers viewed this left the band as much bemused as frustrated. In Instrumental, drummer Brendan Canty relates a story from his sister. She had been dating a guy who realized who her brother was and then asked if it were true that the band lived in a group home without heat as an expression of their ethos and solidarity. The band, of course, thought it ridiculous, though they also looked at each other and admitted that they were recording Red Medicine in MacKaye’s grandparents home in Connecticut while subsisting on rice and water (an obvious exaggeration but also not far from the truth); not exactly the recording style of Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion sessions or that depicted in the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster.

 Not that any of this impressed all of their fans. In the same documentary, one concert goer calls out the band for being pretentious and self righteous, particularly for not letting the audience slam dance. To paraphrase, “[MacKaye] thinks he’s a rock star.” Others lamented the band’s turn to a more arty sound, repeating the ubiquitous, “I like their early stuff better” mantra several times. As Hanna once observed, being Fugazi was never going to be a walk in the park: “It can’t be easy to be the canvas every American punk boy projects himself onto.”

Over the past decade, critics and fans of the band have gone to great lengths to downplay Fugazi’s politics. The word “fun” now gets tossed around with abandon, a sort of reclamation project attempting to obscure the impression that four piece consisted of four teetotalling scolds who abhorred slam dancing and drugs and lacked a sense of humor. “Its reputation for puritanism belies how much cathartic energy and fun pulses through Fugazi’s work,” noted Pop Matters writer Corey Beasley in 2011. As Beasley and Stereogum’s James Jackson Toth point out, the band could also be incredibly funny, as revealed in Instrument when Guy Picciotio rambles on about his absurd plan to assassinate George Burns on his 100th birthday or when he dresses down some overly zealous slam dancing fans for their machismo by revealing to the crowd that they were eating ice cream by the Good Humor truck before the show. “You ice cream eating motherfuckers,” he pronounces.

The movement by fans and critics to obscure the band’s politics in favor of its music, arguing too often the former distracts listeners at the expense of the latter is well intentioned, but it also serves to distort the group’s importance. No doubt, Fugazi’s music whether attached to a political agenda or not, remains some of the best post punk of a generation, hands down. However, amidst a conservative revolution, one should not form a sort of historical erasure by pretending Fugazi didn’t also carry with it a political agenda. Punk legends the Clash and the Sex Pistols too put forth dissent filled albums critical of 1970s era society and are rightfully hyped for it.

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Personally, this writer has always found debates about their politics confusing. Lots of Fugazi’s musical contemporaries could be deemed political. Before Metallica turned into a metaphorical 1970s rock outfit, their 1980s albums seethed with political messages. Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and Justice for All undoubtedly existed as political commentary on war, capital punishment, drug abuse, and state power. The heshers didn’t make music videos either until they lost their virginity with the undoubtedly political “One.” Public Enemy drove home its message of civil rights and Black pride with a healthy dose of open dissent. Pearl Jam appeared knee deep in political protest. In fact, their quixotic attempt to undermine Ticketmaster always seemed Fugazian, to say the least. The same could be said of more traditional rockists. Bruce Springsteen inserts himself into political campaigns on the regular, so has Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, but no one questions their discography. Today, fans remember Rage Against the Machine for songs like “Killing in the Name of”, “Know Your Enemy” and “Bombtrack” but no one downplays the group’s obvious political agenda. Moreover, some country musicians tout conservative politics on the frequent and no one wrings their hands. Even “The Nuge,” a ToM and a non-ironic favorite of MacKaye, has long popped off on gun control, Obama, and other right wing issues, but no one doubts his rock & roll bonafides and he was in Damn Yankees! Besides, what exactly counts as politics? Slayer’s offered more than a few rejoinders in their day, though determining exactly which side of the aisle they stand on is akin to reading tea leaves. One could go on, yet the point is that Fugazi gets made an example of over and over, time and time again, as too political and pedantic. As a result, in recent years, fans and critics have tried to diminish their political message in order to highlight their admittedly excellent music.

Why does Fugazi receive so much criticism for their political stances? Perhaps it had to do with the kind of politics they advocated and how their anti-corporate sensibilities made other artists squirm. In regard to the former, from the outset, the band promoted women’s rights (they were big supporters of the Riot Grrl movement, even when criticized at times by erstwhile leader of the movement Kathleen Hanna years later), protested misogyny (see the song “Suggestion”) and refuted homophobia in an early era awash in mansplaining, macho posturing, and gay bashing. In Instrument, Cohen films several ticket lines and parking lots before shows capturing the general demographics of Fugazi’s fan base, which unsurprisingly consisted of many young women which for the kind of music they played was not typical at the time. As to their refusal to play the major label game, this writer always thought other bands resented them for it, which says a lot more about Fugazi’s counterparts than themselves. In a November 1999 interview for Spin magazine, Blink 182 praised the band for its music and its dedication to five dollar shows but then noted that their band couldn’t or wouldn’t follow suit at that point in their career arc. Fugazi’s politics weren’t symbolic; they were attainable for bands and fans alike, but they challenged one to really think and take action. Rage once played a set at Lollapalooza in which they put duct tape over their mouths and let their instruments drone on, symbolic yes, but did anything real get done? As a fan I can stand there and pat myself on the back for supporting their righteous indignation over censorship, but it doesn’t require much of me. Tracks like “Killing in the Name of,” one could argue, as good as they are represent protest fantasy: who among is will really kill for their political leanings? Obviously, no one should, but it makes one feel righteous to listen to it, even if you go home to a rich suburb after the show, aglow in indignation.

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Class too might have played a role in perceptions of the band’s politics. MacKaye’s mythic band Minor Threat also had a political edge, but its members developed a keen awareness of their own economic backgrounds as middle and upper middle class children of D.C.’s privileged elite. Minor Threat drummer Jeff Nelson noted the band had avoided screeds about oppression because of their own class position. “I think it would have been false bravado and swaggering if we had been much more vicious and more bitching about ‘the system’ oppressing us,” he told one writer years later.[2] MacKaye himself is a sixth generation Washingtonian steeped in its history and activism. Co-singer and guitarist Picciotto graduated from the tony Georgetown Day School and earned a B.A. in English from Georgetown University. So yeah, working class kids done good, Fugazi is/was not.

To this end, one can clearly see how the backgrounds of its members might rub some observers the wrong way. “Rightly or wrongly, I thought the majority of D.C. punks were upper middle class – who else but a rich kid would rip up a perfectly good jacket to stick safety pins in it,” pointed out Kelly. “That offended me.” The whole scene seemed insular, he reflected, which to some extent in those years it was.  When Kelly remembers a “glowering” Teen Idles, a MacKaye led pre-cursor to Minor Threat he wasn’t recalling events incorrectly.

After a West Coast tour to Los Angeles and San Francisco where they encountered the aggression of California punk and the efforts of law enforcement to squash the scene, MacKaye acknowledges the Idles came back with an ax to grind: “There’d been fights before we got to LA but when we came back we went crazy and started fighting all the time.”[3] Moreover, the look they created, the chains and spurs that Kelly noted, MacKaye explained was an effort to create an “imprint”, to be “part of a gang”, to “identify as a tribe.” He meant it to be inclusive but looking back, “anytime you’re that focused on trying to create something it’s intimidating to people on the outside. Later on people said, ‘You guys were such dicks …’”[4]

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Perceptions of the band as viewed through the prism of the Teen Idles and later Minor Threat would haunt Fugazi throughout its tenure. Staying at squats to keep costs down, the band frequently encountered resistance from those who took issue with their perceived straight edge platform. “[S]omebody in a group house brings you there to sleep and the other members in the group house hate you for Minor Threat or whatever reason,” recalled Canty. “Or they write things on your bananas … Your banana says, ‘You guys are assholes,’” bassist Joe Lally asserted. Yet according to Lally and other band members, Fugazi wasn’t “flying any flags. We weren’t saying anything.”[5]

Admittedly, Fugazi did sometimes throw shade on others. For example, in the late 1980s they fell out with Chicago based bands like Big Black and Naked Raygun. MacKaye described the Chicago scene as “guys who smoke cigars and eat ribs … I think they just were not into punk rock … they grew up on it and then they were growing out of it.” Not hard to see how some might interpret this as a sort of top down litmus test of suitable authenticity. Moreover, the band refused interviews with Spin, Details and the like, in part due to the magazines having alcohol and tobacco advertising. Rolling Stone especially came in for criticism. “I can’t see … what in god’s name they have to do with rock & roll. I can see there’s a point to getting good ideas into Rolling Stone,” Picciotto told Azerrad, “but when you’re sandwiched between a thousand bad ideas, I don’t think it translates.”[6] One could argue the indie punk rock zines they did talk to, noble as they may have been, simply wouldn’t reach kids in Nebraska who might be just as invested in Fugazi’s sound and perhaps politics, but simply had no access outside of said mainstream magazines.

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All that said, Fugazi politics really weren’t all that overbearing so much as ahead of their time, and their first album reflects this. “Repeater is practically a concept album about the notion that one can effect social change by carefully considering the things one buys,” writes Azerrad, “and Fugazi extended that idea well beyond the material sense.”[7] Today, the idea of consumer activism is not only accepted, but even promoted by corporations themselves as a selling point for their products. Think of fair trade coffee, environmentally safe products, or even Tom’s Shoes. Fugazi’s asceticism even operates as a shield for other groups. Mainstream acts like Pearl Jam and Blink 182 profess admiration and love for Fugazi, notes Azerrad, as a penance for their own guilt.[8]

Beyond Politics

“Perhaps the most distressing thing about the tiresome, endless talk of the band’s controversial politics is that such talk often eclipses Fugazi’s actual music,” noted James Jackson Toth in 2012. “Fugazi is, first and foremost, a great rock ‘n’ roll band in the traditional sense, as much as a band in wool beanies and cargo shorts can be considered traditional.” The fact is that Fugazi’s music swung, sure it blistered too, but it had soul and groove. “Fugazi were my boy band for my teen years,” Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag guitarist, Portlandia star, and general Renaissance woman Carrie Brownstein told Rolling Stone last week. “I missed the first wave of hardcore, but the aggression of their music really matched my own angst and frustration. I just wanted to thrash around to ‘Margin Walker’ the way that earlier I would have jumped around to New Kids on the Block or Duran Duran or something.” That’s right, Fugazi—the Duran Duran of punk rock.

Repeater combines reggae, punk, classic rock like Queen and Nugent, the “call and response hollering” of heyday era Run –D.M.C. and takes some cues from Public Enemy, notably in the “repeating guitar squeal on the title track” which according to Azerrad they drew from “Rebel Without a Pause.” The album opens with one of its longer tracks “Turnover,” which previews the groove oriented bass and drum sound duo of Lally and Canty, who are simply indomitable throughout the record. It also features the abrasive but soaring guitars of Picciotto and Mackaye that seem omnipresent over Repeater’s entire 35 or so minutes. “Turnover” spills over directly into the title track, defined as much by Canty’s insane drumming as the distorted, claustrophobic vocals.

More laudatory ink has been spilled in the name of the album’s most famous tracks, “Merchandise” and “Blueprint,” than blood in the Protestant Reformation. In regard to the latter, the song’s message about commodification, while important, always took a back seat to an earlier lyric: “What a difference, what a difference, a little difference can make.” On the pulsating “Styrofoam”, MacKaye indicts everyone (including himself) for our tendency toward prejudice: “We are all bigots/so filled with hatred/we release our poison like styrofoam.” Has anyone managed to wrap up a denunciation of racism, bigotry, commercialism, and environmental advocacy so succinctly and effortlessly all to a driving beat? “The guy has a kind of impossible charm and also the ability to say what he means so precisely in one phrase,” noted fellow punk rock icon Hanna.

“Sieve Fisted Find” feels like the start of a track meet or a frenetic basketball game, but one that keeps slipping through the fingers: “Here comes another problem all wrapped up in solution/It’s ugly as it’s strapped on/And twice as hard to get behind.” Picciotto pleads “Let me get my hands on it,” and you know that the problem could be world hunger or just finding a job you love.

My freshman year at college, I read the lyrics of “Reprovisional” carved into my cafeteria tray: “Somewhere in these private hearts, conflicting histories tear us apart/And we hope we don’t get what we deserve/Hide behind the targets in front of all the people we serve.” It made the hair on my neck stand as the song’s lean, driving guitar reaching the crescendo near the last 20 or 30 seconds, rumbled forward in my head.

“I cut my nails to the quick/But still I was caught with my hand in the till/ Red handed,” Picciotto sings over a quiet, jangly, metallic guitar lead on “Two Beats Off,” which then breaks into a bouncy loose rhythm as he sings later, “Privilege sanctions everything.” The heavy, quiet, heavy pattern on “Shut the Door” could be seen as the proto-alternative riff of the 1990s with requisite questioning that usually follows. “I burn a fire to stay cool/I burn myself/I am the fuel/I never meant to be cruel/Have you ever been cruel?”

I could blather on about Repeater, talk circles around most people regarding In on the Killtaker, and really most other Fugazi albums with the possible exception of Steady Diet of Nothing, which I enjoyed the least of all their studio releases. It’s often said, Fugazi never put out a bad album and that’s basically true. Fans debate their order of importance, but for the most part, everyone agrees that band’s quality remains undeniable. As its first unified effort, one can credit 1990’s Repeater as the band’s formal start.

I only ever saw Fugazi once, my senior year of college with my buddy/roommate Russ at Chicago’s Congress Theater. Steve Albini’s Shellac opened. Fugazi played their typical impassioned set. I’ve always returned to Fugazi for a pick me up. The combination of incredible music and political challenge repeatedly inspired me and continues to do so. I know everyone means well when they try to draw attention away from the band’s politics toward the music exclusively. It’s completely justifiable, but for some of us, the two things can’t really be separated. For some of us (and I stress “some”), the idea that music can’t be entertaining and political is toxic. As Against Me! lead singer Laura Jane Grace—no stranger to “political music” herself—recently told Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis, “To quote Ian Mackaye, ‘Your emotions are nothing but politics.’”

For a look at another band that mixed eclectic sounds and politics, take a peak at our retrospective on California’s The Minutemen.

[1] John Kelley, “Fugazi, a standout from D.C.’s musical past, pops up in unexpected place,” Washington Post, December 28, 2014,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/fugazi-a-standout-from-dcs-musical-past-pops-up-in-an-unexpected-place/2014/12/28/055f260c-8eae-11e4-a900-9960214d4cd7_story.html?wprss=rss_local

[2] Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes the American Indie Underground, 1981 – 1991, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2001), pg. 134.

[3] Steve Blush, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, (Los Angeles: Feral House, 2001), 136.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes the American Indie Underground, 1981 – 1991, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2001), pg. 398.

[6] Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes the American Indie Underground, 1981 – 1991, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2001), pg. 407.

[7] Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes the American Indie Underground, 1981 – 1991, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2001), pg. 402.

[8] Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes the American Indie Underground, 1981 – 1991, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2001), pg 409.

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