To the absolute beginner whose only experience of hearing Fugazi is ‘Waiting Room’ in the first hour of any rock club worth its entrance fee, it’s easy to have a picture in your head of four gnarly dudes rallying against the system and managing just the slightest clutch of listenable tunes in the process. After all, that’s what punk is, right? Fighting back against what’s pop with songs that challenge, which ripple with confrontation and flex with righteous rhetoric. Middle fingers first, pleasantries sometime after the night is over.
Except, no, that’s not the case with this classic DC crew, as ‘First Demo’ makes tremendously apparent. Fugazi always understood pop. It’s there in ‘Waiting Room’; it’s present in the wicked grooves of ‘Furniture’ and the call-and-response dynamics of ‘Badmouth’. These aren’t songs that arrive full of obtuse attractions – they’re as immediately memorable as any daytime radio jam. And these are just demos. Which goes to show that when a song’s good, it doesn’t matter how much it rattles, as it’s still going to connect.
The stories of these songs are many and varied – ‘Waiting Room’, of course, has proven the band’s most enduring and recognisable effort, opening their debut eponymous EP of 1988. ‘Furniture’, meanwhile, didn’t see a proper release until Fugazi’s hiatus-preceding EP of 2001, to which it lends its name. Scrappier, sweatier occasions like ‘Turn Off Your Guns’ and (the previously pretty rare) ‘In Defense Of Humans’ employ their monikers as mission statements, but Fugazi only rarely missed the demand to move muscles in their desire to articulate manifestos. That’s clear right across these 11 tracks: whatever the inspiration, messages are always carried on accessible waves of energetic, wholesome hardcore.
While the final forms of these songs came out officially across several years, ‘First Demo’ is a concise document in itself, every song dating from the same 1988 sessions at Don Zientara’s Inner Ear Studios. As such, this has an album-proper feel, despite its rough edges, that most offcuts collections lack. It’s all stuck together with the same glue, the young men at its centre turning up, plugging in and letting loose like tomorrow might not hold a future. Guy Picciotto is yet to fully find his voice, the band’s lanky guitarist a mostly instrumental presence, so Ian MacKaye leads the line almost entirely. And he does so here as he would for the next 15 years: full-blooded and veins-bulged.
As a what-it-says-on-the-sleeve listen, ‘First Demo’ is a comprehensive 10 from 10, no expectation unrealised or a wrong note in the right place. But as these songs aren’t the finished articles, obviously it’s imperfect – in the opinion of the artists, as much as anyone else. Imperfect, but still as absolutely bloody essential as the best of Fugazi always was. If you only know ‘Waiting Room’, get an education already. This is as good a starting point as any.
Words: Mike Diver
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