Ex-members of formative DC punk acts Minor Threat and Rites of Spring came together to form Fugazi in 1987, in the thick of the Reagan era and a national homelessness crisis with D.C. at ground zero. That year, over 500 D.C. children under the age of 15 were arrested by undercover cops on drug related charges. In 1988, the chart topping track was George Michael’s “Faith,” Skinny Puppy performed “Addiction” at the 9:30 Club, and D.C.’s murder count reached its highest on record. In 1989, with the crack epidemic in full swing, a new national drug policy director vowed to make D.C. a “test case” for the Bush administration’s war on drugs, and President H.W. Bush gave a nationally televised speech in which he displayed a bag of crack allegedly purchased across the street from the White House (the logistics of that drug deal are uncomfortable to imagine, to say the least). In 1990, the mayor of D.C. was convicted of smoking crack in a hotel.
Minor Threat’s 1981 track “Straight Edge,” at 45 seconds long, unwittingly defined an ethic for a generation of young people within a society that failed its poor, its veterans, its mentally ill, and its youth. Kids were being marketed sex and substances by a system that couldn’t provide sufficient support to AIDS and drug victims, and the punk/new wave movement gave underage kids a clearheaded, energetic community that articulately expressed rage against inequality and prejudice.
MacKaye and Jeff Nelson launched the Dischord label in 1980 with a simple aim to “document a certain community of musicians in Washington D.C.” Dischord released Fugazi’s First Demo in late 2014. The album was recorded at Inner Ear Studios in 1988 and includes four never-before-released tracks. Lightly reverbed vocals and tightknit guitar parts in “Badmouth” build anticipation, relieved by heavy bass, an expansive hook and a descending scale midsong whose grandeur conjures Soundgarden. Fugazi, after all, wanted to distance itself from the hardcore category and it shows that they let their experimental side off the leash on First Demo. “Turn Off Your Guns” has a skank-ready Devo vibe and spotlights one of the recurring elements of the album: bars of superfast crunch guitar punctuated by silences. A guttural sound, like a tub draining, opens “Waiting Room,” with a heavily dubbed MacKaye coming in too early on the vocals. In the first track and throughout, we hear a couple of the funnest elements of Fugazi’s signature style: filling one beat with three on guitar, one guitar note with a triplet on drums. “Waiting Room” starts as a sarcastic song about being patient and quickly gives itself away as an ode to frustration with stasis and a call to move.
The album does an interesting job of expressing this tension, with classic hardcore speed and lyrics about getting up and moving, and just as many others about feeling confined and powerless (“furniture has no say in life/it was made to be used by people/how many times have you felt like a bookcase/sitting in a living room gathering dust”). Deep dubbing and strange sound effects woven throughout feel like spotting a skull in the La Brea Tar Pits, a graveyard for the trapped, but sound more like a rescue mission than a funeral.
The meaning that Fugazi has had for so many can’t really be overstated. First Demo expresses the disillusionment, communal energy, and innovation of D.C. youth in the late ‘80s, and spotlights the creative prowess that set Fugazi apart from other groups in its scene. It sounds like unclouded, sober energy with a dose of the reggae sensibility that protest goes down sweetest when it’s fun.