Is there such a thing as a perfect rock band? The Beatles would seem to fit that bill, and you won’t get much of an argument from me. But on a smaller scale, Fugazi did a good job of flirting with perfection themselves. Over the course of 15 years and seven records, everything the DC post-hardcore outfit put out was positively top shelf. You can search high and low for another band that coupled such consistent excellence with unflinching integrity, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one.
Fugazi’s story has sadly long been written, but there’s still room to color in certain parts of the band’s rich history. 13 Songs, released in 1989, threw together tracks from their first two EPs, and it’s about as spot-on a debut as you’re likely to see. From Joe Lalley’s groovy dub bass line that kicks off “Waiting Room” to closing track “Promises”, it was the work of a band that seemingly hit the ground running for church basements, community centers, and VFW halls. Now, some 12 years after the band announced their indefinite hiatus, an unassuming but important new wrinkle has been thrown into the Fugazi legacy. As it turns out, 13 Songs might have been an unusually confident musical statement for a band just coming together, but it wasn’t the ground zero snapshot that many thought it was.
As its name implies, First Demo is a collection of the band’s first recordings, featuring many songs that would go on to make up a good portion of 13 Songs and the band’s first proper full-length, Repeater, in 1990. These songs first circulated in the most indie way possible: by way of a cassette tape that was given out to fans for free at Fugazi’s earliest shows. Those tapes have been making the rounds for years, but only now has Dischord Records popped open the lid and given them a proper release. This makes sense, especially considering the exhaustive work the band has put into cataloging its live and studio recordings over the years. To that end, First Demo certainly has its role to play in filling in the band’s unabridged history, namely as a document of a now legendary band in its infancy.
Recorded in January 1988, First Demo is a must for longtime fans. It’s a trip to listen to some of the band’s best songs presented as they first conceived them. Most tracks hew petty close to their final versions, but the small deviations and flourishes help breathe new life into the time-tested compositions. “Merchandise”, the band’s famous anti-commerce screed, comes complete with a slightly reworked intro featuring a piano, while Ian MacKaye adds a few extra words to the hard-hitting art-over-commerce message (“A dollar earned is a dollar spent,” he spits. Message received).
Elsewhere, there are tunes that up the ante on the band’s cathartic aggression (“Break-In”), others that wouldn’t see the light of day until the end of the band’s run (“Furniture”), and a never-before-released cut from the demo session (a generous mix of technicality and force on “Turn Off Your Guns” should temporarily satisfy fans’ craving for new Fugazi). Even the warts and imperfections have a certain measure of merit. Listening to Fugazi slip up and restart on “Badmouth” humanizes a band that has rarely been shy of technically perfect over the years.
Knowing how far Fugazi would take their music in the years ahead, it’s a blast to listen to a handful of the band’s hallmark songs with fresh ears. First Demo is a remarkably cocksure case study of a landmark act planting its earliest musical seeds. But what about those looking to dig into Fugazi for the first time? Fortunately, there’s a place for them too. A demo might sound like an ill-fitting place to start building a relationship with a band, but don’t let that word scare you away. The songs here are a little rough, sure, but they sound great. Longtime Fugazi producer Don Zientara clearly had the band in fighting shape from day one; you might as well start from scratch. The rest of their catalog will be waiting.
Essential tracks: “Merchandise”, “Break In”, and “Turn Off Your Guns”