Ian MacKaye’s status as reluctant punk godfather was well established before Fugazi played a note. Between fronting seminal DC punk band Minor Threat (whose “Straight Edge” became a misunderstood anthem for an entire movement of sexually repressed hardcore kids) and co-founding legendary DIY label Dischord, MacKaye’s ability to “walk the walk” has made him a legend very much in spite of himself. His enduring legacy in the lineage of punk is as an emblem of autonomy and integrity. MacKaye practically invented the license to say “told you so” to legions of sellouts, hustlers and baby-dick rock stars. If one were to erect a Mount Rushmore of punk, MacKaye would surely be one of the chiseled faces not named Rotten or Ramone.
After the breakup of Minor Threat, MacKaye featured in several short-lived bands before forming Fugazi in D.C. in 1987. Taking their name from black-humored Vietnam slang for a soldier casualty (Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In), the band began in earnest as a trio, with MacKaye recruiting bassist Joe Lally and ex-Dag Nasty drummer Colin Sears. Sears soon returned to his former band, and in his place MacKaye eventually gained two band members in drummer Brendan Canty and background vocalist Guy Picciotto, both late of proto-emo band Rites Of Spring. Initially, Picciotto’s role in the band was nebulous, and he might have ended up a novelty member a la Avail’s cheerleader Beau Beau Butler or Pavement’s decidedly non-musical Bob Nastanovich, but Picciotto’s role as hype man was mercifully short-lived. Following an early European tour, Picciotto began playing guitar and sharing lead vocals, immediately asserting himself as a distinctive and integral part of Fugazi in the process.
From the beginning, the band’s anthemic noir-core stood in direct opposition to many of their peers, who still favored the hard/loud/fast ethos over group dynamics and musical proficiency. Fugazi, by contrast, came on like The Feelies with an attitude problem and a reggae fetish. Musically tight, sonically adventurous, and curiously artsy, the band would make a career out of challenging punk’s rigid parameters.
Early critics of the band mostly complained that Fugazi’s music was merely auxiliary support for the band’s habit of making politics into policy — not since Crass had a band so quickly gained a reputation for being self-righteous and po-faced. Fugazi openly scolded stage divers, kept ticket and record prices as low as possible, repeatedly turned down multi-million dollar deals, and refused to produce any merchandise that couldn’t be played in a CD player or on a turntable. To this day, an officially licensed Fugazi T-shirt does not exist, though bootleg shirts emblazoned with the words “This Is Not A Fugazi T-Shirt” quickly became as ubiquitous in punk circles as the “Andre The Giant Has A Posse” meme.
But to call Fugazi an overly serious band is to ignore MacKaye notoriously calling out an unruly audience member for being an “ice cream-eating motherfucker,” or the scene in Jem Cohen’s documentary on the band, Instrument, in which Picciotto reveals his elaborate plan to murder nonagenarian comedy legend George Burns. MacKaye is also an outspokenly rabid, seemingly unironic fan of gun-toting, poon-obsessed caveman Ted Nugent, a man who, spiritually speaking, isn’t so much the flipside of a coin as he is an entirely different currency altogether.
Perhaps the most distressing thing about the tiresome, endless talk of the band’s controversial politics is that such talk often eclipses Fugazi’s actual music. Fugazi is, first and foremost, a great rock ’n’ roll band in the traditional sense, as much as a band in wool beanies and cargo shorts can be considered traditional. Note the elusive Jagger/Richards dynamic, with MacKaye’s outspoken accessibility contrasting classically with Picciotto’s laconic, serpentine cool. While MacKaye’s songs are perhaps better known, many fanatics feel that Picciotto’s songs provide the best glimpse into Fugazi’s true essence (see also: Thurston/Lee). With his distinctive onstage dancing and wiry contortionist frame, Picciotto manages to strike a perfect balance between class clown and troubled existentialist. For all of MacKaye’s bellowing and ridiculing of the mainstream, it’s Picciotto you’d probably not want to approach in a crowd. This is a band of dynamic performers, reared as much on Zeppelin as Howard Zinn, and to actually witness a Fugazi concert is to render any piddling discussion of their politics moot.
Of all the bands easily taken for granted, Fugazi may be the easiest. Though you can detect traces of the band’s sound in almost every smart, blues-eschewing guitar band of the past 25 years, no one sounds exactly like Fugazi. On hiatus since 2003, the band recently announced plans to release some 800 live recordings via CD and digital download, 224 of which have been released to date. The suggested cost per show is $5. Recent remasters of the Fugazi catalog correct any thinness that might have been apparent on the original pressings and serve as a reminder of the band’s timelessness.
Fans may argue the merits of each Fugazi album, but most agree that theirs is a discography virtually devoid of clunkers. This makes “worst” is a relative term, one I don’t relish using in this context, as I am not eager to find my name on any indie rock hit lists. I ask that you bear this in mind as you read on. The Countdown starts here; The Argument (har har) starts in the comments.