Anthony Walker on the life and times of one of rock's all-time-greats – the furious, inventive post-hardcore of Fugazi.
The wide launch of the Fugazi Live Series archive last week brought a one of rock’s all-time greats back into the focus. Formed in Washington DC, Fugazi – a name taken from military slang used during the Vietnam War (Fucked Up, Got Ambused, Zipped In) – played their first shows in 1987 and continued recording regularly and touring relentlessly until an indefinite hiatus in 2003.
Fugazi are a band like no other, a singular, tightly woven four-piece combining a direct approach with constant innovation, working with and through the hardcore punk heritage that they upheld and respected. Alongside their musical accomplishments the group must also be recognised for their strict ethics and refusal to submit to the pressures of the music industry. Throughout a 15-year career, spanning 6 studio albums, 4 EPs and over a thousand live shows Fugazi stayed true and maintained a startling drive and level of commitment most bands can only hope to achieve.
Fugazi emerged out of the ashes of the DC hardcore punk scene in the late 80s and two bands in particular – the iconic and archetypal Minor Threat and the similarly short-lived Rites of Spring. Minor Threat’s frontman Ian MacKaye played hard and fast and in five years managed to craft a definitive hardcore sound and an ideology of self-sufficiency and stern but deeply personal ethics. MacKaye disbanded Minor Threat in 1983 following disagreements over musical direction, and released one album as front man of a new project Embrace before creating Fugazi.
Fugazi’s second guitarist and vocalist Guy Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty were both members of Rites of Spring – an influential band that, alongside MacKaye’s own Embrace, constituted a second wave of DC hardcore that often expanded into new lyrical and sonic territories. Rites of Spring combined the traditional punk attack with an ear for melody and passionate lyrical content and despite only releasing one album were representatives of a broader shift from hardcore punk to an offshoot termed post-hardcore.
The post-hardcore sound sought to keep punk’s original sense of urgency but encouraged a far more nuanced mode of expression than the traditional three-chord template allowed. Fugazi are an exemplar of this sensibility shift: keeping the pulp without the constricting rind by freeing up expression and playing with higher levels of technical virtuosity. The band eventually came together in the late 1980s and, with MacKaye, Picciotto, Canty and the accomplished local musician Joe Lally on bass, they began to tour and record.
Fugazi is the sound made by Brendan Canty, Joe Lally, Ian MacKaye & Guy Picciotto
Fugazi sound great and – aside from all the history and the politics – they are four people who play brilliantly together.
MacKaye and Picciotto are the group’s two guitarists and the pair formed a great relationship based on the dynamics between the former’s heavier riff-based approach and Picciotto’s higher, scratchier guitar-work. Picciotto looks for the spaces that MacKaye’s bottom-heavy riffs leave open and the two guitars often interlock to create the thick, abrasive and angular texture that characterises the Fugazi sound. The live performance of Shut the Door the anthemic closer to their first album, 1990s ‘Repeater’, is a fine example of this technique. The guitars intertwine beautifully at the beginning of the track and play off each other throughout, experimenting with noise and feedback before reforming and reverting back to the original structure of the song at the end.
Just as important as the guitarists, of course, is Brendan Canty and Joe Lally’s rhythm section. ‘Repeater’ and the EP ’3 Songs’, both released in the same year and often packaged together as a compilation, featured Brendan #1 and Joe #1 respectively and brought the steady pulse that fueled Fugazi’s unmistakable groove to the forefront. Another stand-out track is Version from the band’s fourth studio album, 1995s ‘Red Medicine’. The experimental track features a screeching clarinet but no guitars and the rich dub influence comes out clearest through Lally’s brooding bassline and Canty’s precise drumming.
Each of the band’s albums features at least one instrumental track that either showcases an individual member’s talents or is a collective jam. From a stripped-back rock line-up Fugazi continued to develop their sound by playing up to their strengths and increasingly utilising in-studio experimentation – finally introducing guest vocalists and additional musicians on their sixth and latest album ‘The Argument’. Strangelight from that album shows a band in control: supremely comfortable in the spaces made familiar and happy to explore new ones.
“Stupid fucking words/They tangle us in our desires”
As well as playing the guitars MacKaye and Picciotto were also the principal singers and song-writers in the band. A general split is often made between MacKaye’s more direct hardcore style and delivery and Picciotto’s abstract lyrics and whilst this does hold to an extent it is best to acknowledge the overlaps alongside the distinctions. Fugazi’s first full-length release ’13 Songs’, a compilation of their first two EPs, makes a good case for the idea of a split with MacKaye’s sing-a-long anthems like Bad Mouth nestled alongside the allusive Glue Man. However, even this early work shows that the relationship between the pair should be understood as a symbiosis and not an antagonism. MacKaye’s Suggestion is ostensibly a fire-brand feminist polemic but the complex play of voice and shift in narrator is handled expertly whilst Picciotto’s seething Give Me the Cure stands up to any hardcore track.
Fugazi were often explicitly political and repeatedly kicked against the pricks. Certain underlying themes repeatedly crop up in the band’s work and both MacKaye and Picciotto do not shy away from voicing their opinions on range of subjects including war, citizenship, Hollywood, of course the music industry and even made a direct comment on the state of the U.S. Supreme Court in Dear Justice Letter on their second album ‘Steady Diet of Nothing’.
The band were masters of the political song – colloquial but articulate and thankfully free of preachy overtones – and were wary of offering fully-formed ideas to their audience. MacKaye and Picciotto often wrote in an elliptic style and purposefully kept even their most pointed, barbed songs somewhat oblique. By the 2001 EP ‘Furniture’ the band had reached a stage when they could even write difficult songs about how difficult their songs were. MacKaye’s self-reflexivity in Furniture is a brilliant turn and Fugazi somehow always manage to work through the tensions between comment and prescription, attack and analysis.
Dischord Records and the Road
As great as Fugazi were as lyricists, the best expression of their ethics are found in their actions. Firstly, it is difficult to consider the band without Dischord Records, the label jointly set-up by Ian MacKaye himself in 1980 and that released all of Fugazi’s output as well as a wealth of music from local musicians including The Nation of Ulysses and French Toast. Dischord Records, like the band, is fiercely independent and has rejected all pressure to assimilate with the mainstream music industry. In the early 90s around the independent boom Fugazi experienced substantial commercial success but unlike some of their contemporaries were not lured by major label dollar and were committed to staying true to their DIY beginnings. The closer to 1991s ‘Steady Diet of Nothing’ KYEO appropriately warns the listener about an ever-present threat despite the calm on the surface and is an expression of a firm and unflinching stance in the face of the enemy.
The band also took a novel approach to playing live, reversing the traditional release-orientated method of the major labels and often using their albums to support their tours. Fugazi toured like their lives depended on it and went grueling stretches playing in as many places and as often as they could. The group strove to make sure that their performances were accessible and affordable by playing in as many different venues as possible and opening the doors to underage fans. This also helped to free Fugazi from the tired structure of the typical rock show and create defining moments like the fantastic performance of Waiting Room captured on home video.
Fugazi announced their hiatus in 2003 and, despite repeated rumours, are yet to schedule new releases or tours. The members are all still active with Canty continuing to play with variety of bands and Lally going on to release two solo albums. MacKaye is still co-owner of Dischord Records and has formed a new two-piece The Evens and Picciotto is mainly working as a record producer and occasionally playing live too.
The band are no longer active but the hopes for a reunion and the legacy they leave behind remain. Fugazi are often looked up to as a monolithic presence but whilst their unflinching style and sheer sound is certainly a defining attribute the group also reveal fissures and unexpected facets to their sound and style that keeps them dynamic and forward-thinking – punks in its broadest and best sense.