It’s been ten years since we last heard from peerless punk legends Fugazi. The Washington, DC, group released its final album, The Argument on October 21st, 2001; a year later, Fugazi announced its indefinite hiatus from making new music and touring. Though the band would be the last to say so, its dissolution marked the end of an era—not only in punk rock, but in the world of rock music, period. Of course, touches of the band’s sound still show up in many of this year’s most celebrated independent acts: the politicized funk of tUnE-yArDs, the barked vocals and taste for anthemics of WU LYF, the floor-tom, power-chord rush of Wild Flag. But there will never be another band quite like Fugazi.
Formed in late 1987, Fugazi came from a storied punk lineage. Ian MacKaye, of hardcore heroes Minor Threat and emocore pioneers Embrace, recruited bassist Joe Lally and (after a brief stint with Colin Sears of Dag Nasty) drummer Brendan Canty for a new, dub-influenced group. Canty had previously played in the short-lived, fast-burning Rites of Spring, a band led by caterwauling vocalist Guy Picciotto. Picciotto soon found a place in this new ensemble, Fugazi, as a backing vocalist. A year later, wanting to be more directly involved in songwriting, Picciotto joined MacKaye as a guitarist, solidifying Fugazi’s line-up.
Fugazi’s first two albums, 1989’s 13 Songs (comprised of the Fugazi and Margin Walker EPs) and 1990’s Repeater remain the band’s most widely successful and consistently praised work. 13 Songs, for instance, has sold over three million copies—all without radio singles, music videos, or any of the tools of corporate publicity that help musicians reach that stratospheric level of success. Yes, any discussion of Fugazi has to mention—and often, unfortunately, focuses on—the band’s politics. Relentlessly independent and forward-thinking, Fugazi eschewed all manners of the music-as-big-business attitude of the industry at large: it refused to make or sell band merchandise and, whenever possible, insisted on charging no more than $5 for a ticket to its shows. In addition, and despite its efforts, the group never shed close association to the alcohol and drug free straight-edge movement, spawned by MacKaye’s prior work in Minor Threat (see: “Straight Edge” and “Out of Step”).
In other words, the anti-commercial, iconoclastic Fugazi was anathema to the music scene of its day—and is even more so to our media-saturated world today. The band brought nearly as many sneers as it did applause for its serious-minded, uncompromising vision. However, its reputation for puritanism belies how much cathartic energy and fun pulses through Fugazi’s work (for instance, if you need a further proof of the band’s wit, check out this master cut of 40 minutes of Fugazi stage banter). Beyond the timeless, dub-soaked, post-hardcore singalongs of 13 Songs and Repeater, Fugazi pushed itself to expand its musical palate on each successive record: the icy, distant Steady Diet of Nothing (1991); the raw, blistering In on the Kill Taker (1993); the eclectic, restless Red Medicine (1995), perhaps the band’s finest album; the trippy, loud-soft End Hits (1998); and the band’s tightly-wound, barnburner of a swansong, The Argument. Fugazi’s ethics and the symbolism of its DIY attitude remain crucially important both to its legacy and to what bands and audiences can learn from the group in the 21st century, but its music is the real test of Fugazi’s worth. Fortunately for us, the band’s discography sounds as immediate and affecting today as it did when these albums were first released. So, if you never caught one of Fugazi’s legendary live shows, do the next best thing with us: explore the band’s classic songs with this list of its ten best. Leave your own list in the comments section—it wouldn’t feel right to celebrate Fugazi without some audience participation.
Red Medicine (1995)
In 1995, the word “punk” was on the lips of every marketing director and magazine editor in the music business. Green Day’s Dookie (1994), the Bay Area band’s major-label debut, achieved a level of market and media saturation few artists dare to dream about, propelled by MTV and alternative rock radio. Like-minded groups, such as the Offspring and Rancid, rode the same wave of newfound attention, all fueled by the “punk” buzzword. Enter Guy Picciotto. While Billie Joe Armstrong and Co. were busy trying to decide which shade of blue hair dye best said “rebellion” to suburban teens, Picciotto and Fugazi were recording Red Medicine, Fugazi’s most musically-daring—and, to this critic’s ears, most successful—album in its career. “Target” accomplishes a coup only Fugazi could undertake: it matches the moment’s pop-punk media darlings hook-for-hook, while simultaneously excoriating their comparatively empty, corporate-approved faux rebelliousness. “I realize”, Picciotto wails, “That I hate the sound of guitars / A thousand grudging young millionaires…” His and MacKaye’s guitars slowly turn a beguilingly catchy melody into a dissonant, thrilling squall. By the time Picciotto swears at the song’s end, “So open, so young, so target / I can smell your heart— / You’re a target!”, he’s accomplished another twist: he disdains corporate rock and its legion of young followers, but he feels sorry for them, too. Fugazi was no stranger to offers of blank checks from major labels; it knew what young audiences were up against.
End Hits (1998)
End Hits (1998) typically joins Steady Diet of Nothing (1991) at the bottom of the lists of critics’ most esteemed Fugazi records: it’s a fairly quiet, strange album, taking Fugazi’s long-held fascination with dub to the limits of some listeners’ patience. Still, this is a Fugazi record we’re talking about—even its weaker moments shine. “No Surprise” perhaps best represents the sound of End Hits, with Ian MacKaye’s muted scream at the song’s outset summing things up. The song burns slowly, its guitars winding tight riffs but keeping the volume down and the tension up. In fact, the bridge of the song sees all the instruments cut out entirely for nearly half a minute, with Canty’s floor tom butting in intermittently and then backing out again. When the band returns, it’s in the service of a slightly psychedelic solo and an opportunity for Picciotto to turn on the sex appeal. When he purrs, “Critique and sell me, baby,” it’s a come-on for the radical set. After all, “No Surprise” is a love song for a lover as independently-minded as Picciotto and his band: “No CIA / No NSA / No satellite / Could map our veins.” Punks need romance, too.
Instrument, Jem Cohen’s 1999 documentary about the band, features a scene of Fugazi playing “Shut the Door” live. In the clip, Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto flail around on their separate sides of the stage before locking into a strange, mesmerizing sort of dance during the song’s quiet, tense bridge. MacKaye and Picciotto’s staggeringly physical performances helped make Fugazi’s live shows the stuff of legend, but the Instrument clip subtly reveals an equal strength behind the success of “Shut the Door”—and the band, as a whole. Joe Lally, Fugazi’s pensive and preternaturally talented bassist, occupies his usual place onstage during the song, tucked toward the back near Brendan Canty’s drum kit. While MacKaye and Picciotto draw the crowd’s attention and Canty improvises on the drums, Lally keeps things steady and grounded in his delectable bass groove. “Shut the Door” functions on loud-soft, whisper-roar dynamics, guitars bursting in and out of life like jungle cats on the prowl. But its Lally’s simple, dub-laced groove that gives the track its heart. His intuitive understanding of the hypnotic powers of a rhythm section pulls his listener toward him, so closely that your pulse might as well synch up with the song. Look at the faces of the crowd in that Instrument clip: they’re completely under the spell, lost in the music.
In on the Kill Taker (1993)
The genocide inflicted by the nascent United States government on Native Americans: not your typical singalong material. But there you are, chanting, “Cha-cha-cha-cha-champion!” with your fist in the air. That’s what punk rock at its best can d—take an abstract concept and translate it into a burst of cathartic, energizing music. In on the Kill Taker is Fugazi’s most overtly aggressive record, and “Smallpox Champion” seethes with bilious rage. The champion in question is the “U S of A”, and Guy Picciotto gives a short history lesson in America’s bloody exploitations. “Give natives some blankets,” he snarls, “Warm like the grave”. The guitars and bass here are all down-stroked pummeling, with Brendan Canty adding heft by abusing his toms. Picciotto’s screed never sounds like mere sloganeering, displaying his ability to write politicized lyrics without merely preaching: “Bury your heart / U S of A / History rears up / To spit in your face / You saw what you wanted / You took what you saw / We know how you got it / Your method equals wipe out, wipe out, wipe out.” In that final singalong, “cha-cha-cha” moment, Fugazi turns the memory of atrocity into an impassioned promise to fight against future injustices, with Picciotto singing, “Memory serves us / To serve you yet / Memory serves us / To never let you wipe out.” “Smallpox Champion” is what protest music is all about, burying a melody in someone’s mind along with a message.