Fugazi formed in 1987 with former Minor Threat singer Ian MacKaye on vocals and guitar, Brendan Canty from Rites Of Spring on drums and the relatively unknown Joe Lally on bass. Guy Picciotto (also ex Rites of Spring) joined shortly afterwards on vocals and guitar.
The word ‘Fugazi’ is a slang term from the Vietnam War, literally meaning ‘fucked up, got ambushed, zipped in’. MacKaye chose the word as it represented “a fucked up situation, which is kind of how I view the world.”
Fugazi had a wider lyrical range than the members’ previous bands, singing about political and social issues such as war, abortion and commercialism, as well as taking on board the personal issues and perspectives of the band members. Unlike the previous bands that Fugazi’s members had been a part of, who were either a local phenomena at the time (Rites of Spring, Embrace), or became legendary after they split up (Minor Threat), Fugazi’s appeal began to stretch outside of Washington D.C., and even outside of America.
Underground Media Reception
With the Dischord label well established and respected by 1987, Fugazi were in a position to spread their message and music far and wide. The fanzines of the underground punk scene were (for the most part) positive about the new sound of the band, which incorporated dub and reggae into the new hardcore sound formulated by Embrace and Rites of Spring.
However, the initially positive reaction was marked by a backlash. The band refused to define themselves in purely political terms, leading some to label them apolitical. Fugazi became a victim of their own success. Some bands resented Fugazi’s low pricing policies for shows and records, as it made other bands look like they were overcharging. This led to unfair stereotypes about the band being published in underground publications, with one fanzine editor suggesting that Fugazi “live like monks” and “live in communal houses. Real people don’t live like that”. Punk ‘purists’ attacked the band for being too commercial, suggesting that they should change their name or play smaller venues a number of times rather than play shows at large clubs.
Fugazi and Grunge
In the early 1990s the ‘grunge’ movement began, leading to a higher profile for many American alternative bands. Nirvana were perhaps the most well known of these bands. Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain was known to be a fan of Fugazi, and had written the bands name on his shoes at one point. Although the D.C. scene had already attracted some mainstream attention, this sparked new interest in the band, which led to Fugazi being approached by the mainstream music press. They refused to be interviewed by Rolling Stone and their ilk, but the magazines printed reviews of their live shows, exposing them to a new audience. Fugazi still prefer to do interviews with independent publications such as fanzines, but have been known to provide interviews with alternative music magazines, such as Kerrang! in the U.K.
Fugazi have now been together for over 20 years (including various forms of hiatus). Any band that survives that long is likely to have some mythology surrounding them.
During this time, Minor Threat have become ‘legendary’. They are often cited as the epitome of hardcore. Gina Arnold states that “Minor Threat’s sound has never been improved on; it is still the Beatles of hardcore, the be-all and end-all of that era”. Evidence suggests that Arnold is not alone in her opinion. The band split in 1983, but continue to outsell most of the bands on Dischord Records.
The sounds created by Embrace and Rites of Spring influenced the ‘emo’ genre. Neither Embrace nor Rites of Spring played shows outside of Washington D.C., yet their influence can be found across America and Europe. Both acts sold more records after they split up than when they were together.
Fugazi are now widely respected in both the underground punk scene and in the wider alternative music scene. In the UK, Kerrang! and New Musical Express herald Fugazi tours as must-see events, enthusing about the band’s integrity and ethics as much as their powerful music. Gina Arnold is particularly enthusiastic, describing Fugazi (in her excellent book "On The Road To Nirvana") as “like the burning bush in the Bible. Everything about them – their music, their philosophy – is so fierce that you can’t help thinking that if you touch them you’ll get burned. But instead, if you have faith, you just catch fire alongside them”.