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Members include Brendan Canty (born March 9, 1966, in Teaneck, NJ) drums; Joe Lally (born December 3, 1963, in Rockville, MD), bass; Ian MacKaye (born April 16, 1962, in Washington, DC), guitar, vocals; and Joe Picciotto (born September 17, 1965, in Washington, DC), guitar, vocals. Addresses: Record company--Dischord Records, 3819 Beecher St. NW, Washington, DC 20007-1802.
The Washington, D.C.-based band Fugazi has managed to thrive as a creative unit and as a business organization despite an utter refusal to participate in the mainstream music industry. It is for this reason, they insist, that they've been able to make their volatile, politically charged music without compromise. "While a lot of new music seems manufactured, empty, and devoid of any social consciousness," wrote Spin's Daniel Fidler, "Fugazi is an essential change." And though listeners have had mixed reactions to the group's teachings, Fugazi has steadily increased its fan base while working diligently to keep album and ticket prices down. Through relentless touring they have become, in the eyes of critics like Rolling Stone's Michael Azerrad, "perhaps America's best live band."
Singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye--often regarded as the band's leader despite Fugazi's insistence that it is a democracy--occupied a pivotal place in D.C.-area punk rock when that form exploded in the early 1980s. Along with Jeff Nelson, he performed with the band Teen Idles in high school; "We had a tape of songs, and we had saved up some money from shows," MacKaye recalled to Option. "So we said, 'Let's put out a record. No one else is going to do it for us.'" This decision led to the formation of Dischord Records, which independent music fans--and some envious record industry figures-- would later come to regard as a pillar of integrity and non-corporate viability. MacKaye graduated from high school in 1980 and moved into a house in suburban Virginia; this domicile became Dischord House, the fledgling label's nerve center. "We didn't set out to be a record label," the singer explained in a Melody Maker interview. "Dischord was set up to document our community, the generation of musicians that came up in Washington with us." MacKaye also played with such bands as the Slinkees and Embrace.
MacKaye and Nelson formed the hardcore band Minor Threat, which became one of the most influential punk rock outfits of the decade. Yet some of MacKaye's message slipped by many of his more literal-minded fans; long after Minor Threat's day was done, the song "Straight Edge" would haunt the singer. Written as an attack on complacency and substance abuse, it became a manifesto for a group of kids for whom clean living served as a religion. Much to his chagrin, MacKaye received credit for a movement that turned the non-conformist message of his song into a new, stoic conformity, demonstrating an authority that he never would have imagined.
In 1987 he cofounded Fugazi with singer-guitarist and songwriter Guy Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty, formerly of the band Rites of Spring, which had rebelled against the negativity and violence that overtook punk. Bassist Joe Lally was a heavy-metal-obsessed fan for whom punk was a revelation; performances by bands like Rites of Spring and San Francisco's Dead Kennedys helped him find his path. "Seeing the shows made me think about what I was doing with my time, being stoned all the time--being bored, depressed ... whatever," he confided to Option's Taehee Kim.
The new band's name came from Vietnam War "slang for a f--ed up situation," as Melody Maker noted; the challenge the musicians faced was simply life in America and its capacity to crush the human spirit, not to mention the country's role in exploitation abroad. The group's debut EP appeared in 1988 and was followed by 1989's Margin Walker. Fugazi's sound thrived on dissonance and tension, much like England's post-punk political rockers Gang of Four.
As Ann Powers of the Village Voice opined, "Punk chronology pulses through its songs like a bloodline. [The work of the] Sex Pistols and early PiL, Mission of Burma" and other innovative groups is evident in their style. "But each influence neutralizes the other, with none dominating, so that Fugazi sounds unlike any other band. Its songs are the new language emerging from a Babel that renders all previous differences mute." Spin's Fidler similarly explained, "The band has taken the raw elements of rock, hardcore, funk, heavy metal, and reggae and mixed them together with a radical punk twist." In their songs and in their day to day existence, Fugazi, in the words of Los Angeles Reader columnist David Shirley, "have struggled not only to understand how power works in our everyday lives, but to change it."
Fugazi's real power came through most clearly in its performances, which featured what Nisid Najari of the Village Voice called a "communal, revivalist atmosphere." Kim noted that "Fugazi's live shows are what really capture the essence of this band--shows that are capable of restoring your faith in the energy and potency of punk rock even a decade after its decline." The band performs at numerous benefits and has a policy of playing exclusively at clubs that charge five dollars or less for admission and admit clubgoers of all ages. As MacKaye told Spin, the policy gives the band freedom from high-priced pressure: "For five bucks we could suck. Because we are human and we do suck sometimes." A Rolling Stone review of their performance at the Ritz in New York City remarked, "In concert as well as in theory, Fugazi exists to demolish complacency by confounding expectations, so its unpredictable, stop-and-go arrangements are a musical metaphor"; the group's performance, reviewer Azerrad wrote, turned the crowd into "a swarming mass of arms and legs."
Despite the ferocity of Fugazi's music, however, the band--MacKaye particularly--has constantly admonished its audiences not to abuse one another with the ritual of slamdancing or "moshing." "We play loud, electric guitar music, and you'd hope that that doesn't mean you have to act like an asshole," Picciotto groused to Option's Kim. Yet, as Powers asserted, this issue embodies the paradox of the band. "Fugazi chides its fans for going wild," she pointed out, "all the while driving them there."
Seeing Fugazi sell 100,000 copies of their album without benefit of major label promotion or distribution drove many record executives wild; the band was continually besieged by offers from industry giants. Of course, if the band were to sign such a pact, it would mean the end of printing a $9.00 price directly on their CDs to avoid retail gouging. "There are some major labels who are suddenly enamored of us because our name is on a list in some trade publication," MacKaye remarked to Spin's Fidler. "Those people I don't really have much time for because they really don't have time for me. We're just not interested. There's nothing the labels can offer us that would be worth the loss of control over our own music."
Likewise, the band has been circumspect about doing interviews in mainstream music magazines; Picciotto scolded Spin for its liquor and cigarette ads, leaving Fidler to cobble together his article from quotes the band gave while explaining why they had collectively declined a formal interview, as well as a few from Kim's Option piece. Fugazi has, however, done many interviews for independent "fanzines," in part, as Picciotto explained, "to support underground music."
The group continued to sell well with albums like 1991's Steady Diet of Nothing, which Melody Maker dubbed "a hard album, a punishing album," adding, "Fugazi trap the embittered, directionless fury of punk inside their own full metal straitjacket." Of 1993's In on the Kill Taker, Matt Diehl of Rolling Stone declared, "As Fugazi grow more diverse, their music only becomes more powerful"; the album, Diehl claimed, functions "as a virtual encyclopedia of punk-derived musical styles." Spin reviewer Charles Aaron, however, found Kill Taker the band's "most rigid, predictable album yet" and rearded the political anthems contained therein with derision.
To be sure, though, Fugazi has not pursued its uncompromising direction in order to please music critics. As Picciotto told Melody Maker's Joe Dilworth, "We're responsible for the presentation and others are responsible for the interpretation. I hope that people listen to Fugazi and have some kind of understanding of what we're doing, but it comes down to a question of respecting your audience, of letting them figure things out for themselves, rather than ramming it down their throats."
For MacKaye--who, like his bandmates, has on occasion maintained that Fugazi would last only as long as the music stayed fresh--the process of making music has always been about freedom and expression. "There's something incredibly wonderful about having your own thing," he insisted to Kim. "But I'll tell you one thing-- if this band was selling [only] 5,000 copies, and we were happy playing, we'd still be together. We'd still be working day jobs and just doing what we want."
by Simon Glickman
MacKaye was member of groups Teen Idles, late 1970s, Slinkees and Embrace, early 1980s, and Minor Threat, mid-1980s; Picciotto and Canty were members of group Rites of Spring. Fugazi formed in Washington, DC, 1987; released debut EP, Fugazi, on MacKaye's Dischord Records, 1988; founded parent company Fugazi, Inc., 1990.
- Selective Works
- On Dischord Records Fugazi, 1988.
- Margin Walker, 1989.
- Repeater, 1990.
- 3 Songs (vinyl 7"), 1991.
- Steady Diet of Nothing, 1991.
- (Contributors) "In Defense of Humans," State of the Union, 1991.
- In on the Kill Taker, 1993.
- Los Angeles Reader, September 24, 1993.
- Melody Maker, December 2, 1989; September 7, 1991; October 12, 1991.
- Option, November 1991.
- Rolling Stone, June 25, 1992; September 30, 1993; November 25, 1993.
- Spin, September 1991; September 1993.
- Village Voice, September 12, 1989; October 5, 1993.
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