The Anniversary

Red Medicine Turns 20

“Target,” the most straightforwardly rocking song on Fugazi’s album Red Medicine opens with Guy Picciotto coming to an epiphany: “It’s cold outside and my hands are dry / Skin is cracked and I realize / That I hate the sound of guitars / A thousand grudging young millionaires.” As he’s singing this, of course, there are guitars erupting all around him — his own and Ian MacKaye’s, tautly bouncing off each other and building to the storm that’ll come later in the song. But there’s a larger point there: Things are getting ridiculous, and we’re not having any of it. Depending on whether you look at 13 Songs as an album, Fugazi were either four or five albums deep into their run on Red Medicine. And they’d seen things change. The thousand grudging young millionaires who Picciotto mentions were all doubtless tremendous Fugazi fans; practically everyone who took part in the ’90s alt-rock boom was. Fugazi made clangorous, challenging music, but they were popular, selling hundreds of thousands of records every time they dropped one and selling out every show they played practically as soon as it was announced. This latter bit was actually a tremendous pain in the ass: Pre-internet, by the time you heard about a Fugazi show, it was usually sold out. Because of their principled stances — only playing all-ages shows, never charging more than $6 for a ticket — they could only play certain venues, and those venues were never large enough. Those stances, as well as the band’s refusal to negotiate with major labels or even speak with corporate publications, marked Fugazi as the ascetic soul of ’90s alt-rock, a sort of living generational conscience. Those grudging young millionaires probably felt constant guilt-pangs because they weren’t doing things the way Fugazi was. But by 1995, when Fugazi released Red Medicine, the alt-rock boom was getting out of control. The newer stars — bands like Bush or Silverchair — had never had any connection to the indie-punk underground. Major labels were snatching up and signing bands that they’d never have any idea what to do with, including a couple (Shudder To Think and Jawbox) from Dischord, the label that MacKaye had co-founded with his old Minor Threat bandmate Jeff Nelson. Fugazi would always talk about how their choices were their own; they weren’t trying to tell other bands what to do. But more than anything else they ever recorded, “Target” was a gauntlet thrown.

“Target” was also a rare example of Fugazi beating those major-label grunge bands at their own game. It wasn’t a grunge song, or even a punk one; it was too flinty and angular for that. But it was grand and boulder-sized, and if you played it loud enough while driving fast, you felt like you could keep motoring straight into the sun. Fugazi made their share of anthems — “Waiting Room,” “Merchandise,” “Cashout.” But anthems were never the point of Fugazi, and they didn’t arrive that often. “Target” is an anthem, and it shows up on Red Medicine at exactly the point where an anthem needs to show up. Picciotto calls out those he sees “marketing the use of the word ‘generation.'” But as always with Fugazi, things stay a little elliptical. The fists-up moment comes when he howls, “If you wanna seize the sound, you don’t need a reservation!” I’ve been wondering what that line means for 20 years, at least in the context of the rest of the song, and I still have no idea.

“Target” stands out the way it does partly because it comes three quarters of the way through such a deeply, committedly strange album. We tend to remember Fugazi for the stands they took and for the way they acted as tirely paragons of punk-rock integrity. But they don’t get enough credit for being a playful, adventurous band — four musicians completely locked in with one another and pushing each other as far as they could go. Before Red Medicine, it had been possible to call them, more or less, a punk band. But by the time they got to Red Medicine, that label just didn’t seem to apply anymore. They were too all over the place. “Combination Lock,” with its elastic push-pull, felt like the band’s version of one of the playful funk instrumentals that Fugazi admirers the Beastie Boys were making at the time. “Version” was a straight-up dub experiment, with echoing melodica bursts and haunted trumpet squawks. “Birthday Pony” had nearly a minute of deranged piano noodling and evil laughter before its glorious riff came storming in. A very different strain of punk rock was starting to blow up commercially by the time Red Medicine came along, with bands like Green Day and the Offspring ascending to arena status from out of nowhere. If you were just starting to get into this kind of punk rock and then you bought the latest album from what you’d been told was punk’s most respected band, you would’ve probably been left just dizzily confused. I can say for damn sure that this happened to me. Red Medicine wasn’t even my first Fugazi album, but it did give my my first “What is going on with this band?” reaction. I’d bought it on vinyl from the D.C. punk record store Smash even though I didn’t have a turntable of my own, mostly because this seemed like a cool thing to do. (If memory serves, I bought Avail’s 4AM Friday on cassette the same day. That was a good day.) I’d hunch over the liner notes in the big easy chair next to my parents’ record player, trying to figure this record out, like it was a puzzle or something.

But Red Medicine wasn’t a puzzle; it just needed a little time to click. Fugazi weren’t being weird for the sake of it. They were finding new things to do with musical chemistry they’d built up, and most of those things worked. Red Medicine is messy, but it still stands as one of the band’s strongest albums. (I’d rank it just behind Repeater, The Argument, and 13 Songs if 13 Songs counts.) The weirder, dubbier excursions only deepened the band’s command of tension-and-release dynamics, and something like the rushing riff of opener “Do You Like Me” kicked harder because it came after a bunch of odd tape-loop noises. And while Fugazi always seemed to work like a leaderless organism, Red Medicine still stands out because it feels more like Picciotto’s album than MacKaye’s. Picciotto sings lead on six Red Medicine songs, compared to MacKaye’s four. MacKaye always seemed more likely to sing the lead on the adrenal ragers, while Picciotto handled the more oblique grooves. But that’s a vast generalization, and the MacKaye-sung album closer “Long Distance Runner” might be the most counterintuitive song on the whole album. Still, the contrast between MacKaye and Picciotto was one of the best things Fugazi had going for themselves musically, and Red Medicine was an album that nudged that balance slightly.

I don’t know if Red Medicine was an influential album so much as an example of a band taking sounds floating around in the ether and doing them exceptionally well. After all, Fugazi were far from the first punk band to toy around with funk and dub and noise, even if they were one of the best to do it. But Red Medicine was an album that carried a different kind of influence, a personal influence. I can’t be the only kid who was falling in love with the rigid California skate-punk of the day and then heard whole new worlds of possibility in this album. There are more of us, I’m sure. You didn’t have to have your head exploded by Red Medicine for Red Medicine to matter. But it helps.