Fugazi (foo-gah-zee) - 1. Military slang meaning 'Fucked up situation'. Made famous by Vietnam war stories.
Looking back on it, the punk rock scene of the 1990s was most definitely a fucked up situation. After Nirvana becoming a household word and with punk breaking in 1991, (according to Thurston Moore and Dave Markey, anyways) when kids all over the country were sporting Doc Martens, Manic Panic dyed hair and bad attitudes, things got hinky and punk rock became a Bizarro World. Major record labels were signing bands left and right. Legends (Butthole Surfers) and poseurs (Green Apple Quick Step, anyone?) alike got their day in the sun. Smaller labels like Sub Pop, Lookout, and Epitaph were also raking in the green, bands on their rosters either signed with the majors and their back catalogues were in high demand, or in the case of Epitaph, they simply became a major label.
And believe it or not, young rascals, there was once a time when punk rockers and independent music aficionados would wage war with each other over the pros and cons of signing with a major. Fanzines would dedicate whole issues to the subject. Maximum Rock N Rollmagazine was the tip of the spear of the Great Major Label Resistance of the Early 90s. Google Steve Albini’s manifesto “The Problem With Music” for a taste of how serious this war was. Battles were being fought at high schools. The jocks that kicked your ass one day for wearing a Bad Religion shirt along with your funny hair were now asking you about the Meat Puppets the next day in second period English. Lonely, nerdy mathletes started looking like Needles the Gutter Punk That Hangs Out Downtown. Beautiful buxom blonde cheerleaders that never gave you time of day were now longingly gazing at your blue liberty spikes. Bonds with your true, underground, punk purist friends were forged even stronger. Any band that signed with a major, or purloined their sound for mass audience approval were now the enemy and/or committing treason. We hated our “peer group” at school, and there was no way we were gonna dine at the same trough with them. We listened to bands with true ideals and an unwavering spirit.
Well, at least that’s what we convinced ourselves back then. The truth is, a lot of people from all sorts of disparate backgrounds were listening to Fugazi. Entry-level politically interested girls. Semi-cool dudes on the track team. Your friend’s older brother who was into working on his car 24-7. Girls who were into Bjork and wore Muppet backpacks listened to Fugazi. Skater dudes that sold bad pot listened to Fugazi. The same jocks that slammed you into lockers, some of them were listening to Fugazi.
We semi-consciously knew this and accepted it, because Fugazi was just that fucking awesome. They didn’t have much room not to be. The guys in Fugazi - Ian MacKaye, Joe Lally, Guy Picciotto, and Brendan Canty had already made their marks in the underground scene. MacKaye of course with the legendary, straightedge firebrands Minor Threat, Lally spent some time playing bass with Dag Nasty, and Canty and Picciotto had both been in Rites of Spring, a band that was too ahead of it’s time for their own good (Captain Beefheart meets Husker Du?). MacKaye also ran the Dischord record label, the long running label documenting Washington D.C.’s explosive and experimental punk music scene. Fugazi’s first self-titled EP, also known as 7 Songs,was the 30th release for the label, and like anybody celebrating their 30th birthday, it’s a symbolic marker for looking back, buckling down, and gearing towards the future.
1987’s 7 Songs is the blueprint for all further Fugazi releases. Not so much hardcore as its heavy, the tunes stagger back and forth between angular Gang of Four/The Fall time signatures, moody breakdowns, and searing vocals. MacKaye has an almost Kermit the Frog shout, while Picciotto’s vocals are raspy and urgently professed. The lyrics are either politically progressive or frighteningly introspective, usually all at once. The EP’s opener, “Waiting Room” is their most well known track, thanks (or no thanks) to everybody from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Atom and His Package to Alice Donut to high school marching bands covering it. It’s a perfect song, pulling back and lurching forth as it does it sounds downright anthemic.
Fugazi consistently released albums throughout the 90s, and while I stopped buying them circa 1995 (I thought the album that came out that year, Red Medicine, was a let-down, and my tastes were slowly changing anyways) I would still check them out live. Fugazi had a consistent and unwavering philosophy when it came to shows: 5 - 7 dollar door price, and more often than not, local bands were to open. Their shows were manic. MacKaye, never shy, would usually start off haranguing the crowd about their heckling of the opening band or his opposition to slam dancing, call a few people assholes, and would declare to anybody that wasn’t satisfied he would personally refund their 5 spot. Fugazi played 2+ hour shows, tight as a fucking sailors knot, the band and the crowd both drenched in ceremonial sweat.
1999 saw the release of Jem Cohen’s documentary on the band,Instrument. 10 years in the making, Instrument is an up close and personal look at Fugazi’s inner workings, tours and other candid moments caught on various stocks of film. Legendary live show moments are captured here. If you’ve ever seen the jaw-dropping photo of Picciotto stuffed upside down in a high school gym’s basketball hoop, you can watch the actual footage of the stunt. The band spent over 5 years editing with Cohen, and every moment is gold. The public access television scene is a personal favorite scene.
Fugazi went on hiatus in 2003, and like every other band worth their salt, the monetary offers for them to reform live have been pouring in. It’s a safe bet to place that’ll never happen, Fugazi’s integrity has always been their best feature. 2011 brought news that over 800 of their shows have been archived digitally, and are available for a “pay what you want” scale. Up to the very end, Fugazi’s embrace of the DIY ethic has never been called into question. True punks, they’ve never played by anybody else’s rules and have stuck to their guns through and through. Don’t expect them to play Coachella, don’t expect them to make an appearance at Lollapalooza. If they ever decide to reform, do expect them to play for cheap at an all ages accommodating venue near you. While I saw hordes of my favorite bands at the time hop on the horrendous Warped Tour and sell rebellion at a steep price, I saw Fugazi go the other way, their way, the right way.