The Over/Under: Fugazi

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I was a teenage Fugazi fan. It should’ve been the easiest thing in the world: all-ages shows, all the time. Five-dollar tickets and $8 CDs so even minimum-wage lackeys like myself didn’t feel put out. Straight edge? Not really a problem when you’re under 21 and look closer to 12. But it wasn’t easy. Who could keep up with the politics, the mosh-pit etiquette, the anti-consumerism? What red-blooded American rock fan doesn’t want to buy the T-shirt? The Washington, D.C., band’s anti-merchandise stance unwittingly made fools of every clueless learner’s-permit holder with a Fugazi bumper sticker on his Honda Civic. How were we supposed to let everyone else in the high-school parking lot know how cool we were? The watchmen of politically correct American hardcore sat in judgment from the Dischord house. Now it’s our turn. Here are the five most overrated and five most underrated Fugazi songs.

:: The Five Most Overrated Fugazi Songs
1. “Give Me The Cure” (1988)
Not to be an asshole from the get-go, but this is one of the worst songs about HIV/AIDS ever. Vocally, Guy Picciotto wrings his towel a little too dry, heaving out a narrative about a sick man coming to grips with death. But given Fugazi’s straight-edge (anti-drugs, anti-drinking, anti-promiscuous sex) underpinnings, there’s an air of accusation when he sings, “Gimme the shot, gimme the pill, gimme the cure,” as if the narrator’s desperation is a shameful grab at life’s bonus round. That’s a misreading, of course, but it’s a valid one. “Give Me The Cure” first appeared on the 1988 debut Fugazi EP, whose cover depicts Picciotto doing a handstand with a microphone in hand—looks like crazy fun! This song is not crazy fun. It’s from a different era, when HIV/AIDS rightfully scared the shit out of everyone in America. So to be clear, this isn’t an overrated song because of its subject, it’s just an overwrought one without any good guitar riffs.

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2. “Bulldog Front” (1988)
Also from the Fugazi EP (but let’s face it, 99 percent of us just heard it on 1989 compilation 13 Songs), “Bulldog Front” is another Guy-sung track. Maybe it’s because my personal path to Fugazi originated at Minor Threat (co-frontman Ian MacKaye’s former band) rather than Rites Of Springs (Picciotto’s former band), but Picciotto didn’t fare well on Fugazi’s early EPs. He made up for it later, as the band got more artsy. Getting behind an anti-macho anthem like “Bulldog Front” is easy; loving the fey way that Picciotto declares “We’ll throw down” is another matter altogether.

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3. “Repeater” (1990)
The title track of Fugazi’s 1990 masterpiece is just a little too lazy around the edges: too much reliance on swirling guitar feedback, MacKaye’s megaphone-vocal effect and a non-chorus of “one-two-three … repeater!” The theme of personal politics and individualism is right-on, but Superchunk did this better the same year with “Slack Motherfucker.”

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4. “Song No. 1” (1990)
A song about nothing—the chorus is “It’s nothing”—also manages to confuse the fanbase as to MacKaye’s gospel here. Is it a tirade against the finger-pointing punk scene? A defense of childhood friend Henry Rollins’ long hair? It’s a song about nothing, sung like it’s the most important thing in the world.

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5. “Great Cop” (1993)
Apparently there was some hubbub about barcodes surrounding the release of 1993’s In On The Killtaker. Dischord’s resistance to using barcodes on its CD covers now seems quaint given the crippled state of music retail, and Killtaker ultimately got a barcode on its shrinkwrap rather than the CD jacket itself; I don’t recall fretting about any of this when I bought it at a Sam Goody in a San Antonio mall. Something worth fretting about for superfans, however, is the possible existence of the Killtaker demos recorded with Steve Albini. Rumored to be available online are the scrapped sessions Fugazi conducted with Albini before hightailing it back to the familiar confines of Ted Niceley’s studio. Have fun Googling. As for “Great Cop,” well, MacKaye derisively shouts “You’d make a great cop” in this little kiss-off song. Thing is, that’s kind of a compliment. Great cops are difficult to come by. More substantively, “Great Cop”—a welcome burst of punk relief sandwiched between the tense “Cassavetes” and “Walken’s Syndrome”—is not the album’s best barn burner. “Public Witness Program” is.

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:: The Five Most Underrated Fugazi Songs
1. “Joe No. 1” (1990)
It’s a terrible cliché to hail the rhythm section as underrated, but bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty have always provided ample cover when Guy and Ian leave their asses flapping out in the wind. Sometimes it’s a brilliant drum intro (as with “Cassavetes” from Killtaker), sometimes it’s a palate-cleansing instrumental such as Repeater’s “Joe No. 1.” True to its title, Lally gets the spotlight here, banging out a bass line that’s doubled by pounded piano keys and played around with, cat-and-string-like, by Canty.

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2. “Runaway Return” (1991)
Steady Diet Of Nothing was Fugazi’s first turn into more avant-garde rock territory, with songs such as the ponderous “Long Division” and the knifing “Latin Roots.” Picciotto found his perfect dynamic balance with “Runaway Return,” an impressionistic song about a Holden Caulfield-esque son returning to the upper-class family nest with all his psychoses intact. The quiet part from 2:38 to 3:13 gives you just enough time to find something phony, set it on fire, then watch it burn for a while. It’s what catharsis sounds like.

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3. “Bed For The Scraping” (1995)
It seems like a lot of people stepped off the bus after Killtaker, unready or unwilling to stomach another song about Native American genocide (“Smallpox Champion”) or noodly no-wave exercises (“23 Beats Off”). Don’t miss 1995’s Red Medicine, though, and standout track “Bed For The Scraping.” You hear that guitar that sounds like a factory whistle at 5 o’clock? Who else does that?

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4. “Full Disclosure” (2001)
I was just reading about crazy ants, and “Full Disclosure” is probably what it sounds like when you and your dog get attacked by crazy ants in your backyard. Late-period Fugazi (the band’s been on hiatus since 2001) seems intent on making you uncomfortable, and this track from The Argument is no exception. But after a while, you want to live in it. You want to live with the crazy ants.

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5. “Number 5” (2001)
This song is underrated mainly because it’s a pretty good non-album track, appearing on 2001’s Furniture + 2 EP. Fugazi didn’t really do singles or b-sides, so it’s fairly significant to hear something that’s off the LP path. (If you really believe that logic, I have an Egg Hunt seven-inch I’d like to sell you.) It’s an instrumental that sounds like a high-speed car chase with fellow D.C. scenesters Girls Against Boys.

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—Matthew Fritch

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11 Comments

  1. Posted September 15, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    have to strongly disagree with Repeater being on the overrated list and Long Distance Runner not being on the underrated list.

    For me, Repeater challenged the very the notion “guitar playing” and how a catchy as hell song could could be created from the dissonance of feedback and clean guitar arpeggios. Plus, as I once overheard in a parking lot before a Fugazi show in Atlanta many years ago, “That sh*t’s psychedelic!”

    As for Long Distance Runner, it’s just a great song with some cool guitar sounds and a great dynamic range. A personal favorite of mine for driving with the windows down.

  2. Jason
    Posted September 15, 2009 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Sad, very sad, that ‘Forensic Scene’ was left off the underrated list.

  3. JDM
    Posted September 15, 2009 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    this is a very difficult list to create. agree or disagree, good jorb

  4. Posted September 15, 2009 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Am I to understand that the rest of the catalog then would be rated in the correct fashion?

    Here is an personal story:

    Shut the Door is the first Fugazi song that I ever heard. It was playing in the Princeton Record exchange (I was 14 and humbled myself to ask the very aloof and very attractive young female clerk with the who/what the f it was) and then I subsequently started devouring the catalog, the early projects, the bands that were tangentially related. Maybe I am being romantic because it was my first, but maybe it is kind of underrated? Yes? No?

  5. PTK
    Posted September 17, 2009 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Is there really an overrated Fugazi song? Seriously, it’s not like this band got any airplay or much print attention anyway. I don’t think I agree with overrated but certainly concur with underrated. Fugazi were/are one of the most creative and exciting bands of their time. No bad albums or songs; just a band experimenting with sound through a punk rock ethos. And what a sound it was; it changed my perception of recorded rock n roll.

  6. Dingo
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    Give Me the Cure isn’t about AIDS. What gave you that idea? The song’s about drug addiction.

    Anyway, all Fugazi songs are grossly underrated.

  7. Dingo
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    I take that back. Greed is possibly the dumbest fucking song Fugazi or anyone else ever recorded. Actually, a lot of Ian’s lyrics are pretty asinine–at least the ones from early on. I’ve always thought he wasn’t quite as bright as Guy. But at least he was smart enough to be influenced by Guy.

  8. Dingo
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 3:43 am | Permalink

    Fuck. I was wrong. It is about AIDS:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0yf7bdD7t0

  9. Posted September 20, 2009 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    I don’t think Fugazi should be subject to this kind of journalistic quantifying. Only one or two songs in their entire catalog that I tend to pass over.

  10. dusan
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    geez… haha.
    I’ll stick to my personal interpretation of Give me the cure rather than to official one..

    I thought it was about somebody who really feels as dying, like feeling emotionally dead, and not doing anything to change it.. and I know lots of people who live that way, but somehow still feel secure and kinda ok because they can watch something on TV to pass the time, play video games or smoke pot, or whatever is the easy and temporary way out of feeling emotionally dead. of course, that ‘way out’ isn’t really a way out, it’s just a quick, temporary ‘solution’.. and after some time, they see what this kind of ‘cure’ has ‘done to their world’… hope the point is understandable.. 🙂
    cheers from eastern europe..

  11. Taffy McKittrick
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    holy moley, fugazi has landed on your puerile list. i’m betting they don’t put much stock in what the you thought of give me the cure or repeater. Don’t you think that you’d be better served considering bands that have been actually overrated? Fugazi? are you serious? What metrics are you using to deem the above 5 songs ‘overrated’? Do you mean what you used to think in college were really rad and now that you feel you can successfully deconstruct something by talking about swirling guitars and thin production you don’t find it as rad? And did you use the word ‘shameful’ in reference to fugazi? holy crapola! of all the bs indie-rock inauthentic cheese crap bouncing around out there and you call fugazi shameful? I’m speechless. Off to cancel my Magnet subscription