We had a theme this evening, or more accurately we were granted freedom from a specific constraint, having been told that if we wished we could bring a compilation and play ‘free and easy’ with the selection of tracks to bring it down under the permitted time limit. As it transpired this was a ruse to allow Tom to play us some really great Ethiopian jazz. I decided to twist the rules in another direction by playing the constituent parts of a compilation album, ’13 Songs’, which I don’t own.
‘7 Songs’ and ‘Margin Walker’ were combined and released as the ’13 Songs’ album in 1989, just a few months after their initial release and prior to the DC band’s first album proper, ‘Repeater’. Much of what is remarkable about what Canty, Lally, MacKaye and Picciotto achieved as Fugazi happened after these first two EPs. Their 6 studio albums are consistently inventive, thrilling, artful and passionate, proving that you didn’t have to hang out in free jazz NYC basements with John Zorn to turn your punk into art.
But, and it’s one of the best buts of the last 25 years of underground rock music, if they had disbanded after recording just these two EPs we’d still be talking about them today. They form a succinctly brilliant collection of songs. After Minor Threat and Embrace, Ian MacKaye’s stated intention was for his new band to sound “like the Stooges playing reggae”. It’s a nice quote and, whilst there’s no direct correlation with Fugazi’s sound, they certainly managed to capture the burning intensity of Iggy and the Stooges and also to put a big, beefy if not exactly dubby bass guitar front and centre.
‘Waiting Room’, which kicks ‘7 Songs’ off, is about as good as it gets for me. Unimpeachably brilliant, driven and driving it’s also, for the floppy-haired student of the late 80s, a dance floor slayer. Guy Picciotto joined the band late and, as second vocalist, his role was conceived as the equivalent of the foil to a lead rapper and you can hear how carefully his vocals slot around Ian MacKaye’s artful lunkhead hollering, chalk and cheese but perfectly complementary. That the rest of the EP can sustain itself after this most iconic opener is testament to its strength. Post hardcore, or whatever we want to call it, never sounded as tight and economical and Fugazi were never as locked in to their intense groove.
The 6 songs of ‘Margin Walker’ are, if anything, even better. The palette opens up, with Picciotto now playing second guitar, lashing expressive noise on top of the rhythm section’s deadly efficiency. It’s here that the variety and exploratory space begins to breathe through Fugazi’s sound. They never looked back.
Having said previously that I would try to stop talking and writing incoherently about the disparity between the reality and some spuriously imagined public perception of a band, I can’t let that angle go without comment as we’re dealing with Fugazi. The gap is as wide as they come in this case.
They carried a reputation as the foremost political punk act of the nineties, but this was gained not by shooting their mouths off to the press, nor by filling their songs with slogans and agitprop. With a number of notable exceptions (‘Burning Too’, ‘Smallpox Champion’, ‘Cashout’ etc) their songs were rarely directly political. Instead they sang passionately about personal commitment and it was this, rather than some simple revolution, that they were seeking to achieve. In striving to be true to what they believed they took control of the production of their own records, ran their own label, insisted on $5 all-ages shows and $10 albums. Good on them. Why the hell wouldn’t you, unless to make more money for yourselves.
They became, unintentionally I imagine, a beacon band for army-jacketed straight-edgers, a movement MacKaye had unwittingly become a figurehead for thanks to a single Minor Threat song, and to this day they carry a sometimes toxic reputation for over-earnestness, hostility, sanctimony and exceptionalism which is almost entirely a judgement on their more zealous fans rather than the members of the band. I interviewed Ian MacKaye in 1995, as it happens. He was generous, non-judgemental and funny and one of the warmest musicians I ever spent a couple of hours with. And his band were one of the best I ever heard.
Nick listened: I’ve been binging on Fugazi since Rob played them at DRC, ploughing again and again through 13 Songs, Repeater, Red Medicine and The Argument, my favourite records by them – the only ones I don’t own are Steady Diet of Nothing and Instrument (Soundtrack) – and not really listening to much else. They’re a fabulous band, an all-time great guitar quartet, arguably the platonic essence of the band-as-gang, out to change the world together spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. I only got into them with The Argument, working backwards from there, but managed to catch them live before their current, decade-long hiatus. They were, thankfully, scintillating.
It’s a crying shame that Fugazi’s attitude and ethos gets talked about far more, as a rule, than their exceptional, exciting, tight, taut, telepathic music. A lot of this talk is po-faced to the point of appearing misanthropic, and it can feel incredibly gate-keeperish; for years, to me, they were a weird, cultish, vaguely scary name that I didn’t understand or feel that I had mandate to investigate. It also, albeit unwittingly, seems to breed a particularly devoted, sour-faced type of music fan, anti-corporate, anti-capitalism, anti-fun, and imbued with a fervent belief in the piety of their fandom and accompanying lifestyle. I like playing devil’s advocate with Fugazi fans, pitching Ian MacKaye as an entrepreneur par excellence, who nailed devotional brand loyalty from a target-market which actively sought not to be a target market at all. Thatcher would have approved of his innate small-business acumen…
But much, much more than that, I like listening to Fugazi’s music; the anthemic choruses, the breakneck tempos, the excitational riffs, the powerful emphasis on rhythmic subtlety and flexibility, the endless sense of discovery that they managed to achieve despite, ostensibly, mining a relatively narrow sound template and aesthetic (guitars, drums, shouting); they’re incredibly fun and thrilling to listen to.
Waiting Room is an amazing song, an astonishingly fully-formed start to a career, and though the rest of 13 Songs (as I know it) isn’t quite as fabulous as that opening salvo, it holds up pretty damn well, as does the rest of their career. Ignore the pugnacious politics and pontificating; it’s all garnish, and allows people who’ve never really listened to Fugazi’s music to have some kind of pseudo-authoritative take on them as an entity. The most important thing about any band, any musician, any artist, is the music / art that they create. I couldn’t really give a damn about their ethos. Their records are brilliant.
Tom Listened: I always meant to catch up with Fugazi. Now that I have I realise what I fool I have been all these years, missing out on what seems (on a first listen to 13 songs) to be some of the best guitar driven music of the last two, three, four…..hell, maybe all the decades since Mr Hailey suggested we first rocked around the clock. Tight, dynamic, inspirational with just enough colour to entice you back, I can see just why Fugazi are so lauded and only last night I was trawling through Amazon’s current vinyl stock, considering which album to get. This might be expensive….
As an afterthought, I played some youtube footage to Kit, my 7 year old son. His words were, ‘it’s rubbish and the singer’s rubbish…literally’. The youth of today!
Graham listened: A real treat for the uninitiated (i.e. me). Tight, tense, driven songs which inspire and demand attention.