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The European tour had been punishing, and the London recording sessions would be miserable.
It was December 1988 and Fugazi, fresh from its first across-the-pond trek and hoping to channel its tight, tense live act into its second EP, had holed up in Southern Studios, the famous punk laboratory in North London’s Wood Green. But the space’s constraints meant the band had to multitrack, with each member recording his parts separately. “Ian [MacKaye] would work on his guitar or his vocals, and the rest of us would just walk around the Wood Green High Road like zombies,” says guitarist/vocalist Guy Picciotto. “Then I would track my vocals, and Ian would take my spot in the zombie parade. It wasn’t the high point watermark of band esprit de corps, to put it mildly.”
The process may have been tortuous, but it produced Margin Walker, which in 1989 would be combined with the band’s first, self-titled EP into a compilation CD—and which has proved, 25 years later, to be one of the most vital documents of D.C. punk and post-hardcore. Released in September or October 1989 on Dischord Records (the historical record is fuzzy; even the label isn’t sure of the exact release date), 13 Songs remains the best-selling of the band’s eight full-length albums. Having sold more than 750,000 copies, 13 Songs is the label’s second-best selling album, behind Minor Threat’s Complete Discography.
The quarter-century anniversary of 13 Songs comes at a moment of greater-than-usual nostalgia for Fugazi and the hardcore scene that begot it. On Nov. 18, Dischord is releasing the band’s earliest recorded material, First Demo—the first studio Fugazi release since the band went on hiatus early last decade. This year’s Salad Days: The Birth of Punk in the Nation’s Capital, a documentary film covering D.C.’s punk scene in the ’80s (and one of several new or in-progress docs about D.C. punk, including an episode of the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways series for HBO), should make viewers long for Fugazi sets at the Wilson Center and Fort Reno. And since 2011, Dischord has uploaded more than 800 Fugazi shows to its Fugazi Live Series, an online compendium of the band’s legendary concerts. “I love Fugazi, but I’m also tired of talking about Fugazi,” says Katie Alice Greer, the singer of D.C. post-punk instigators Priests. “I think those guys feel the same way.” She’s not wrong: Ian MacKaye politely but firmly declined an interview for this article, citing the large number of history projects in which he’s participated recently.
But ever since MacKaye, Picciotto, Joe Lally, and Brendan Canty began playing together in 1987, the quartet has been a mammoth presence in the city’s sonic landscape, even in absentia. For many punk and hardcore fans, the “D.C. sound” still means the “Dischord sound,” and the “Dischord sound” still means Fugazi. The band’s very first releases dramatically expanded the parameters of punk. They continued to push against stylistic and conceptual boundaries with each subsequent album, embracing experimentation and evolution, using stage and studio to explore the possibilities of the guitar-based four-piece. That all started with 13 Songs. One of the most enduring and celebrated LPs of its era, the collection captured the energy and spirit of Washington’s late ’80s post-punk scene, and helped bring that scene to national attention.
“Everything about them seemed to me more vital, more direct, more informed,” says Zach Barocas, drummer for Dischord labelmates Jawbox. “They were, for a few years, my benchmark for both live and recorded performance, for behavior, for social/cultural consciousness.” Fugazi represented a design for living, a way to prevail in a world haunted by commercialism and self-interest. And the band packed shows and sold records while doing it, becoming an example for musicians in D.C. and other cities far from the music industry’s traditional centers of influence.
“I think the success of the records and the band in general inspired local musicians to actually work harder at developing a national audience rather than just playing local shows, which is pretty much how the scene was from 1983 to 1989,” says Nick Pellicciotto, drummer for Edsel and New Wet Kojak, and Fugazi’s touring sound engineer for much of the ’90s. “Also, I think a lot of locals were kind of floored by how many records Fugazi sold.”
To Fugazi, 13 Songs wasn’t meant to be an opening salvo. Instead, it was supposed to do what every Dischord release does: document a moment, or, in its case, two. The group didn’t know it was building the entry point that would induct the next several generations of D.C. punks.
Here, in the words of the people who lived it and learned from it, is the story of Fugazi’s early development, the recording of the EPs that made up 13 Songs material, and the impacts and impressions these songs have made over the past 25 years.
Washington, D.C.’s late-’80s punk-rock scene was in flux. The salad days of hardcore pioneers like Minor Threat, Void, Bad Brains, and the Faith had ended. The Revolution Summer of 1985, lauded as a musical and ideological reset for those discouraged by rising violence and cynicism, resulted in some promising stylistic shifts, emphasizing melody and emotion over aggression and power. But the best bands—Embrace, One Last Wish, Rites of Spring, Happy Go Licky—kept breaking up after a few recordings and a handful of shows.
“There were lots of rumors about the band, and I’m not 100 percent sure the band actually knew that they would be a long-running, ongoing force,” says Jim Spellman of Velocity Girl and High-Back Chairs. “Ian hadn’t really played guitar in a band before Fugazi, and I think Brendan was still playing in Happy Go Licky, and there were rumors that Brendan was just filling in, and maybe Colin Sears [from Dag Nasty] was going to play drums or something. No one really knew. It seemed like a ‘project’ as much as a band. And the thing Ian had done right before Fugazi was Egg Hunt. One single. All very mysterious. So you didn’t know if this would be the same thing. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to hear, ‘Fugazi broke up. Joe went to college.’”
“Bands are just like polyamorous relationships, so the dynamics are all interdependent. Even changing one person can make it a totally different experience,” says Picciotto, who had played in Rites of Spring, One Last Wish, and Happy Go Licky with Canty (who didn’t respond to an interview request for this article) before joining Fugazi. “Rites of Spring and Happy Go Licky were formed from the ground up together, and the flow was really natural because we were all super-close friends and we all contributed to the writing and the concepts equally from the start. The one thing, though, was those bands were really combustible, and for whatever reason, were not built for touring. We just never made it to that level of full-on workload.”
In 1986, MacKaye, a veteran of Minor Threat, Embrace, and Egg Hunt and the co-founder of Dischord, approached Lally about forming a new band. Lally had toured as a roadie with Dischord act Beefeater, but had little experience being in a band and had been playing bass for just a few years. “I didn’t pick up the bass until I was about 18,” Lally says. “Listening to music was a very intense thing for me. In the late ’70s, I was hearing it from a late night WHFS show. At 10 or 11, somebody would come on and play some harder punk stuff. And then there was this kind of reggae DJ who played, like, a dub show afterwards. So that was pretty eye-opening to me.”
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MacKaye and Lally began playing together in late 1986, and Fugazi played their first show in September 1987 in the basement of the Wilson Center at 15th and Irving streets NW. That lengthy period of rehearsal and development laid the foundation for the band’s dynamism and kinetic energy. “I don’t think we came around to the idea of recording something until we’d gone out and played it,” Lally says. “It’s very matter of fact, because in those days why would you record a record before you knew what you were playing? Or what you liked? Or what people liked? You made things work first, and you thought about it.”
“The way Fugazi formed was sort of episodic,” Picciotto says. “You had a first stage of Ian and Joe working together for a long time. Then there was Brendan joining, though for a while he was in both Happy Go Licky and Fugazi. Then there was this sort of free-form thing where people would get on stage with the band and do something random, like play trumpet or keyboards or percussion or dance around. My initial involvement was something like that, though maybe a rung up the ladder in that I never stopped being on stage with them in some form from the second show onward, even if it was sort of a undefined Flavor Flav-type thing.”
In June 1988, Fugazi went to Inner Ear, working with Don Zientara and Ted Niceley to record its official debut, the seven-song Fugazi EP. “We actually had already recorded a demo at Inner Ear [in January 1988],” says Picciotto, an 11-song tape that Fugazi handed out at shows. Those tracks would never make it to a regular EP or full-length; one, “In Defense of Humans,” appeared on 1989’s State of the Union compilation.
“The demo played up the dub elements a lot more than the two EPs that would make up 13 Songs,” says Spellman. “After that demo era was over, I thought the ‘punk meets dub’ stuff was jive. Fugazi always had a blue-eyed funk element, but they quickly became a very big-sounding rock band, in the best sense of the word. Loud/quiet guitars, big choruses, and totally in command of their craft.”
Before recording the Fugazi EP, Ted Nicely had played bass in power-pop outfit the Razz with Tommy Keene, produced Keene’s 1981 album Strange Alliance, and played on Keene’s 1986 breakout Songs From the Film. Niceley—who would go on to produce albums by Shudder to Think, Jawbox, Tripping Daisy, Girls Against Boys, and others—also knew the band members from working at the Rockville record store Yesterday and Today.
“I kept on hearing about Rites of Spring, and unfortunately they kind of got swallowed up by the genuine frenzy and excitement that they and their following generated before I got to see them,” Niceley says. “Embrace, I think, seemed to me a bit early, not fully developed. I saw Happy Go Licky from the very first gig, and it was clear they were happening…The early stage of Fugazi with Ian, Brendan, and Joe Lally was clearly going down the right path. I think I saw a gig where Guy sat in, and it was obvious it was going into a whole other dimension.”
Niceley recognized that a singular aspect of Fugazi’s approach was the interplay between MacKaye and Picciotto. The two vocalists maintained distinct lyric personalities, with MacKaye occupying the lower of the two octave ranges, and Picciotto’s higher-pitched delivery reverberating like a klaxon-like call to arms.
“I knew my main objective was going to be get superior vocal performances out of both Ian and Guy, and I think that was something that was uppermost in their minds. Not to take anything away from the general feel, but to really hit the subtleties as well as the ferocity. The music had both sides, I think everyone felt the vocals had to achieve the same level of finesse…They worked their asses off, very rehearsed while keeping things open to chance.”
“I personally loved Ted’s production on the Tommy Keene Places That Are Gone EP [from 1984], and I just loved him as a person and had learned so much about music from him at Yesterday and Today, so I was psyched to have him come in and give us a hand,” Picciotto says. “It should be remembered that both the Fugazi EP and [1990 full-length] Repeater were recorded in a tiny suburban basement, in a low-ceilinged rec room with a control room next to the boiler. That those records sound the way they do is a testament to Don’s engineering, Ted’s production, and the band having its sound together.”
By the time they recorded Fugazi, the band had played more than 40 shows all over the U.S., which they used to sharpen their material and strengthen their musical dialogue. But capturing the live energy to tape could be a challenge.
“We did our best to interpret those songs for the studio,” Lally says of the first EP. “But it was hard visualizing ourselves as a studio band…. The band was just a live animal, and it was hard to make sense for the studio.”
“The mixes kind of have this first Gang of Four era reverbs and stuff, The Ruts,” says Niceley. “But that’s where they were coming from, I think, and it was a damned cool record! I was very happy, and they seemed very happy.”
As a statement of purpose, Fugazi is a triumph. It’s hard to imagine a stronger side 1/track 1 than “Waiting Room”: Lally’s iconic bass line, MacKaye’s pulsing rhythm chords, and Canty’s insanely in-the-pocket drumming make Fugazi’s official opening salvo an instant classic.
Says music writer Lance Davis, founder of the Adios Lounge website: “Joe Lally’s intro to ‘Waiting Room’ is the greatest opening bass line in rock music history, and it’s not even close. It makes Geezer Butler on ‘N.I.B.’ sound like he’s having a stroke.”
The indictment of false bravado and unearned pride in “Bulldog Front” prowls through the speakers, while the catchy “Bad Mouth” urges listeners to push forward and recognize that holding on too tightly to the past can be a trap.
“I always liked ‘Bulldog Front’ the most, that tense minimal opening launching into a chaotic chorus, without really changing musically much,” says Marc Masters, author of No Wave and a critic for Pitchfork and other publications. “It was all about momentum, all tension and release. The quiet/loud thing was big in the ’80s and ’90s, but I feel like ‘Bulldog Front’ does it in a very different way: the quiet parts are not mellow at all, they’re just as tense as the loud parts.”
“I think one of the things I learned from Fugazi is how great bands use space,” says Lance Davis. “Sure, full-bore 3-chord punk songs can be awesome, but it takes a band with a lot of self-assurance and command of their craft to have guitars drop out and let the rhythm section carry the song. Just listen to the opening of ‘Burning.’”
The stark sexual politics of “Suggestion,” the desperate narrative of “Give Me the Cure,” the bleak character study of “Glue Man” (inspired by a Jem Cohen short film) all make Fugazi a thought-provoking, harrowing listen.
“I think seeing them perform with women for ‘Suggestion’ was a jarring/enlightening thing for a kid that wasn’t necessarily privy to the more enlightened big-city approach to gender politics,” says Henry Owings, founder of Chunklet, the beloved indie-rock ’zine. “Keep in mind, riot grrrl was a couple years away, but for the most part, you definitely got the sense that Fugazi wasn’t going to play by the dum-dum punk boy mindset of ‘Girls to the back, men to the front.’”
“It’s such intelligent music,” says Jenny Toomey, co-founder of the Simple Machines record label and a member of Tsunami. “The lyrics are so smart, and thoughtful, and balanced, and not just lecturey. They’re so three-dimensional. Like ‘Glue Man’: It’s a simple, raw portrait, but the vocals have this kind of despair, and the sliding guitar has this fixed repetition, a sort of ‘stuck in a maze’ quality to it. The textures of the song really raise up the image.”
“Fugazi were one of the few bands that could do funky, danceable songs about rape, AIDS, and addiction,” says Jim Spellman. “It’s a gift. Difficult thoughts and ideas and conversations made accessible through music. I think it’s the whole point of the band, in some ways.”
If there were any doubts about Fugazi’s cohesion or presence as a band, the first EP put them to rest immediately. “Fugazi started as Ian and Joe’s thing, with songs worked out, a name, etc.,” says Picciotto. “I was coming into that from outside, so I think it took a while for us to build up the inner band ESP and a full band mindset. But once we started touring that got sorted out really quickly. The band was made up of four people who were total mules—really dedicated to working on the road, and that work is what formed us and created the identity.”
After recording Fugazi, the band embarked on a brief East Coast tour before heading overseas in October 1988 for Fugazi’s first European dates. It was a grueling trek, 39 shows between October 14 and December 16, in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Yugoslavia, Italy, France, England, Ireland, and Wales.
“The circumstances changed after the first EP substantially,” says Niceley. “They had just got back from a ball-busting European tour, at the end of which they recorded the Margin Walker EP with John Loder. I understood it was quite a different experience from Fugazi’s first EP.”
Sound engineer John Loder founded Southern Studios in his London row house in 1974. Numerous punk and post-punk bands—including Crass, Sonic Youth, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Bauhaus, and Shellac—recorded there, and the associated Southern Records label handled European distribution for Dischord. (Loder died in 2005.)
“We thought it would be smart to go straight into the studio right after a long tour of Europe,” says Picciotto, “because we figured we’d be tight and on form. But it ended up being a misstep, because we were completely fucking exhausted, sick, and burnt out by the time that tour was done. Also, because Loder didn’t have the space for a proper drum room at his studio, we were forced to track the drums separately in a different larger studio, and then all the rest of the tracks were overdubbed later at John’s studio. For a band that relies on live interplay between all the instruments, that was a disastrous move.”
“[Loder] was so intent on fixing Brendan’s timing that he started splicing tape, and he just fucking cut up everything until he had Brendan’s drums just where he wanted them,” says Lally. “And of course I played with Brendan, because that’s my job.
“So after he got done cutting up Brendan’s drums, he was like, ‘Christ, you’re right with him. So now you have to redo the bass.’ It was the worst recording experience I’ve ever had, because I just sat there and rerecorded every fucking thing again, just standing there with the headphones on. You couldn’t feel less involved. Then the guitars went down, then the vocals went down. He handed Brendan a bag of, like, extra time. Brendan’s little snippets of tape that he had taken out. Just being a total smartass.”
“To Loder’s great credit, he somehow managed to pull something out of that session and he buffed it into something we could use,” says Picciotto. “The man was just the sweetest natured guy, totally polite and soft-spoken, and he really knew his shit behind a board. He was a great, loyal friend to the band throughout our existence…
“But still—we always worked best when the band was all fully engaged in a recording and when we did it on our home turf. That obviously wasn’t happening on that session.”
While Margin Walker sounds more polished than Fugazi, it doesn’t lack in intensity or intelligence. The title track’s stunray guitar and elastic bass lines are the ideal backdrop for MacKaye’s and Picciotto’s traded lyrical barbs. “And the Same” combines slashing chords and shouted invective into a scathing diatribe against racism and retrograde thinking. “Promises” is an insightful meditation on trust, betrayal, and the acceptance of disappointment.
“I was always impressed and excited by the way Fugazi could sound pointed and political without being overly specific or cliché,” says Marc Masters. “That seems simple, but I think it’s kind of a rare feat in politically charged music to have words that are open and universal without them being vague or meaningless.”
Says Henry Owings, “From a production standpoint, 13 Songs is not remotely dated. In fact, it’s spectacular. It’s like listening to Funhouse [by the Stooges]. Fresh. No real studio tricks. A superior early glimpse of a band that was just getting their feet wet for the crazy ’90s that were just around the corner.
During the Margin Walker sessions, Picciotto became increasingly eager to play guitar in the band. Once he added his Rickenbacker to the mix on Repeater, Fugazi’s sound expanded considerably, with Picciotto’s trebly attack playing off of MacKaye’s Gibson SG growl to create one of post-punk’s most distinctive sonic partnerships.
“I had always played guitar in every band I’d been in, from Insurrection on,” says Picciotto, “and while I loved the freedom and chaos of not having to play an instrument and just be a singer, I also wanted to have more of a stake in the sound. We may have discussed it prior to the [1988 European tour], but we hashed it out more definitively in some gross locker room/shower area backstage at one of the last UK gigs, and the idea was that when we got home, we would try adding a second guitar and see how that went.”
“Guy coming into the band was going to raise some issues,” says Lally, “because it was just hard to separate Guy from his guitar. And it only lasted so long.”
According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, in 1983 global CD sales totaled 6 million units, with vinyl LP sales totaling 850 million. By 1989, CD sales had risen to 600 million, outpacing falling LP sales by 200 million units. The CD era had arrived, and Dischord opted to combine Fugazi and Margin Walker—previously only available on vinyl and cassette—into one bargain-priced $10 CD compilation.
“13 Songs was never released as an LP on vinyl,” says Picciotto. “It was only made as a sop to the CD format, which none of us liked that much at the time. But since you could fit more material on CDs, we felt that as an economic bonus to the consumer we should consolidate all the material because it would cost less than having to buy two CDs of the individual EPs.”
“As somebody who was routinely broke, the idea of buying a CD that had a bonus EP or extra tracks was always appealing,” Owings says. “So I won’t lie, CDs were a great thing back then. I’ve never bickered about the fidelity of vinyl vs. CD, because that clouds the discussion, which is ‘What what about the music?,’ a much more critical question than how you listen to something. 13 Songs was pretty brilliant as a twofer.”
“I loved how the cover and title were so nondescript,” Masters says. “There was something bold about that at the time. I don’t remember a lot of other records being that plain and blunt, style-wise.”
“The blank red artwork on the cover is a sign that we didn’t really give it much thought,” Picciotto says. “Now that red artwork seems sort of consciously minimal, but really we just wanted to make it super generic: a red sleeve with the super generic title 13 Songs, because that is what it was. Like a cut-rate store brand.”
As CDs became the dominant format in the ’90s, vinyl and cassettes became increasingly hard to find. Even if you wanted to hear 13 Songs in its original iteration, you would be hard pressed to find the EPs in stores. “I think someone said something about EPs, but those things were only legend as far as being able to actually hold them in your hands,” says Randy Reynolds, Austin, Texas–based musician and producer of the PBS program Hardly Sound. “CDs were the format of the day in my formative years, so 13 Songs was the best way to get to Fugazi. And it was readily available pretty much wherever.”
However, the CD format alters the listening experience, eliminating the Side A/Side B dichotomy of vinyl, so that “Burning” flows right into “Give Me the Cure, “Glue Man” flows right into “Margin Walker,” and “Burning Too” flows right into “Provisional,” without pause, promoting a false sense of cohesion between two separate sets of songs.
“The fact that you can consume it all in one sitting is very, very different,” says Lally. “That whole aspect of vinyl is very interesting. Because you separate them into EPs, and then you separate them into four sides. It’s like you’re getting three songs at a time, which is kind of crazy, but it’s such a different experience to do it that way.”
“Putting two separate sessions back to back still strikes me as odd,” Picciotto says, “both as a sequence and as a sonic experiences…It does save people money and it does make use of the format’s special storage capacity, so I support it on that level, but it totally messes up the proper shape of the vinyl releases, which in my mind are the more legitimate ones.
“I know some people have listened to 13 Songs this way for ages and it feels like the ‘proper’ album, and that’s totally cool. But the separate EPs is what I think of when I think of those records. To be honest, I always forget about 13 Songs as a thing.”
Twenty-five years is a long time, and yet Fugazi’s earliest material continues to inspire new generations of D.C. musicians. Nostalgia-trap or no, 13 Songs remains an unavoidable part of the D.C. rock conversation.
“In 2000, I went to Smash in Georgetown and picked up 13 Songs on CD,” says Chris Moore, drummer for hardcore group Coke Bust and a leading promoter of the D.C. hardcore scene. “I was 14 years old, and even though I was already listening to punk, this didn’t sound anything like the punk I was listening to. I was skeptical at first. I expected it to sound like Minor Threat. It seemed fearless, gutsy, and emotional, like they weren’t afraid to write music that didn’t sound ‘typically punk’ to me. It really changed the way I thought about how punk should sound.”
Priests’ Greer weighs the pros and cons of playing in a post-Fugazi Washington, saying, “Fugazi is like a musical bomb that was dropped on D.C. Every band that comes after has to answer for how they relate to Fugazi. I would be mad about it, and sometimes I am, but they’re a huge inspiration to me. They were acutely aware of their resources and abilities and how to use those things. With most bands the goal seems to be fame and fortune, but Fugazi was always wondering how things could be different.”
“I think the shadow of Fugazi and Dischord is a double-edged sword,” says Masters. “It leaves a lot to live up to in an intimidating way, and their fame outside of D.C. is hard for anyone to match. At the same time, if you had to choose a rep for your city, I can’t think of a much better one than what Fugazi and Dischord stand for, and the way they treat people and handle their business.”
“I’m not sure when I last listened to 13 Songs,” says Barocas. “They’re fixed to a very specific time in my life, and though I don’t regret much from back then, I prefer to not spend too much time there, either. In any case, I have no doubt that how these records sound to me now is of far less importance than how they sound to young men or women who are hearing them for the first time. These records have, as far as I know, never failed to inspire their listeners to start bands. It’s that kind of music.”