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D.C. wasn’t always a playground for the rich. In the ’80s, when city streets still bore the scars of the ’68 riots, vast swaths of D.C. were plagued by violent crime, which was rising in the wake of the crack epidemic. This chaos provided fertile ground for a homegrown punk scene: Local hardcore favorites Bad Brains and Minor Threat both released influential records in the early ’80s. But it wasn’t until Fugazi played its first show in September 1987 that the punk scene spawned what’s arguably the most important, and certainly the most popular, rock act to call D.C. home.
Formed by ex-members of revered bands Minor Threat and Rites of Spring, Fugazi was always bound to be a strong local draw. But the band’s fans ended up spanning the globe, and according to a recent interview with guitarist/vocalist Ian MacKaye, who runs Dischord Records, the D.C. quartet has sold “over 2 or 3 million records” in all formats. A 1988 video of Fugazi performing the hard-chugging anthem “Waiting Room” at the Wilson Center has been viewed on YouTube three million times.
In the video, it seems as if everyone in the at-capacity crowd is singing along. How did they know the lyrics? Months before Fugazi released its self-titled debut in November 1988, the band had ventured to Arlington’s Inner Ear Studio to lay down 11 new songs, a session that was distributed for free on limited-edition cassette. Recorded in January 1988 and released on vinyl and CD this Nov. 18, First Demo marks the first proper (and long overdue) release of Fugazi’s earliest sessions, including a primitive take on “Waiting Room,” the version that no doubt fueled more than a few sing-alongs in 1988. Missing is the dubby bass intro and the dance-floor urgency of the version from the band’s later self-titled EP. But, even in nascent form, the “Waiting Room” heard on First Demo is a fascinating glimpse at a post-hardcore band eager to stretch the genre’s boundaries.
According to Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, MacKaye wanted Fugazi to sound “like the Stooges with reggae.” Nowhere is this mix of Detroit proto-punk and Jamaican dance music more explicit than on First Demo. Like “Waiting Room,” the echo-laden “Furniture” is performed at a laidback pace, its loping tempo well-suited to the song’s reggae sensibilities. The band—which also featured bassist Joe Lally, drummer Brendan Canty, and vocalist Guy Picciotto—takes a similar, bass-up-front approach to “And the Same” and “Joe #1,” rubbery songs that reimagined punk’s relationship with the rhythm section. At its best, First Demo puts a nice spotlight on Lally and Canty, the real heroes of Fugazi’s futuristic sound. At its worst, this mixed bag of an album reveals a young band leaning too much on guitar. (See: “In Defense of Humans,” a hardcore throwback marked by MacKaye’s anxious chord work.)
One notable exception is “Merchandise,” an anti-materialist anthem that’s way more Stooges than reggae. The rhythm section is still a potent part of the equation, but it’s MacKaye’s roaring power chords and dynamic vocals that dominate the performance. “Merchandise keeps us in line/Common sense says it’s by design,” he sings on the second verse. Fugazi, a band that often played benefits for local charities, would come to write many songs with overt political messages. Yet few are as evergreen as “Merchandise”—especially in a city where the income-inequality gap is one of the widest in the country.
While D.C. has figured out how to make its streets safer since First Demo was recorded, this city, with its proliferation of $14 cocktails and luxury condos, is still an inhospitable place for many. When tempted to celebrate what D.C. has become, Washingtonians old and new would do well to remember the still-resonating message of “Merchandise”: “You are not what you own.”