Although they took their name from a Vietnam War era slang word for ‘a messed up situation’, Washington DC’s Fugazi made sure their adherence to punk’s DIY ethos was unshaken.
Their disdain for the music industry meant they had to forge their own way of doing things. They released their music independently through frontman Ian MacKaye’s Dischord label, largely refused to do music interviews with print media that advertised cigarettes or alcohol and kept their gig and CD prices as low as possible.
Despite the undeniable energy they generated as a band, they detested slam dancing and often chastised fans for doing so at gigs. And the ‘straight edge’ lifestyle MacKaye had pioneered meant Fugazi were often accused of being self-righteous and puritanical. So it was important for this band to live up to everything they railed against in their songs.
They were more than just their politics and views on society. They were also an incredible live band who toured tirelessly. Fugazi played over 1000 shows, 800 of these diligently recorded and archived on their website. These gigs document a band that valued their audience, but also capture a super taut musical unit who were artful in how they channeled their aggression.
They came from the hardcore scene, but drew on other influences such as dub and reggae. They weren’t afraid to slow things down, as is evident on many tracks on Repeater. The interplay between bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Carty was a special part of the tightly woven Fugazi sound.
Likewise, there’s a distinct interaction between MacKaye and Guy Picciotto. Their voices collide in nervy and excitable ways with Picciotto’s voice acting as a counterbalance to Ian Mackaye’s shouty workman-like call. It makes sense that the inspiration for this came from hype man Flavor Flav’s role in Public Enemy.
Their reputation as being more interested in integrity and maintaining their principals rather than sales and success ensured a loyal and wide fanbase. And the messages in the songs say it all. They are enjoyable to shout along to but also fire a stinging barb, honing in on where the personal and political intersect.
Lyrics like 'Styrofoam''s, "I burn a fire to stay cool/I burn myself, I am the fuel", 'Blueprint'’s “Never mind what’s been selling, it’s what you’re buying” and 'Merchandise'’s “You are not what you own” point to a common responsibility in each decision and every action.
In the spirit of Fugazi’s abilities to synthesize a cross section of ideas and make them such immediate and catchy calls to action, I’ve gathered some quotes from the band that serve as succinct insights into the band’s modus operandi.
On not trusting major labels:
When you don’t want to be a part of something, you do it yourself…to exist independent of the mainstream, it’s a political feat in my opinion.
On being a political band:
If a band’s going to act politically, then they’ll have to be more in line with what they actually do as a band as opposed to what they ‘say’ they do.
On the meaning of punk:
It’s always about undercutting people’s expectations and throwing a spanner in the works or whatever. If anything starts getting static, I start getting uncomfortable… for me it’s a life thing and if it’s going to be a life thing then it has to always constantly be moving forward.
On straight edge:
It’s really the product of just thinking about living. Like, if you think about it, why would you wanna poison yourself? Why would you wanna not be present? What would be the purpose of that?
And this kinda just sums up everything that Fugazi represents.
Your emotions are nothing but politics.
It might come across as over moralising and pretentious but you can’t argue with a band whose message and approach has remained uncompromisingly true to their punk ideals.
The fact that they’ve delivered it with such conviction, dexterity and inventiveness is what has made this Washington DC band so legendary and the subject of such mythologising. Repeater was the launching point of an influential run of releases from a band that deserve their respected standing in punk’s continuing evolution.