As chance would have it I stumbled across Joe Gross’s book in the 333sound series on Fugazi’s 1993 album In on the Kill Taker. I even got a note from one of the Dischord Records folks, namely Aaron, thanking me for the purchase, which is always nice. Thank you, Aaron!
The book is both a look at Fugazi’s remarkable career as the defining independent punk band of the 1990s, especially against the backdrop of these being the years that punk broke. There were many things I enjoyed about the book, Joe Gross is obviously a fan and the book is book a love letter and a chronicling of just how impressive Fugazi’s 15 year run was. I also loved that much of his recent source material is taken from Tumblr blogs, it was kind of like reading a book-length blog post, and I mean that with all due respect. It seems the most appropriate way to capture the DIY spirit that Fugazi, and their broader distribution network of Dischord Records have represented for over 30+ years—talk about a punk rock institution with an ethos. One of the best quotes from the book comes from Steve Albini, who produced the first, abandoned pass at In on the Kill Taker, from a GQ interview in which he reflects on the impact of Sonic Youth’s signing with Geffen Records in 1990:
Sonic Youth chose to abandon it [the independent music scene] in order to become a modestly successful mainstream band– as opposed to being a quite successful independent band that could have used their resources and influence to extend that end of the culture. They chose to join the mainstream culture and become a foot soldier for that culture’s encroachment into my neck of the woods by acting as scouts. I thought it was crass and I thought it reflected poorly on them. I still consider them friends and their music has its own integrity, but that kind of behavior– I can’t say that I think it’s not embarrassing for them. I think they should be embarrassed about it.
As Joe Gross points out, Sonic Youth would broker the deal between Geffen and Nirvana, and the rest is kind of 90s music history, the currency around the punk/post-punk scene is at its peak for much of the decade and Fugazi’s In on the Kill Taker comes in 1993, what might arguably be a high water mark year for the grunge craze with the release of In Utero and PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, both produced, interestingly enough, by Albini. Fugazi’s previous album, Steady Diet of Nothing, received lukewarm reviews being criticized for not capturing the legendary energy of their live performances—in many ways the album for many seemed like an afterthought (though I personally love it). So, in shot, the pressure was on with Kill Taker, and Fugazi did not disappoint—it is a masterpiece of the punk ethos—the band is branching out into new territory, the avant garde elements of their music (which defines their later albums) shines through, and they are even homaging titans of independent art like John Cassavettes and Gena Rowlands—in arguably the best song on an album filled with gems. But read Joe Gross’s take, he van actually talk about music intelligently, unlike me. But for many it is a turning point, a moment where Fugazi doubles down on who they are and what their music is all about, and you gotta love that. In 1993 they play two shows in NYC at Roseland Ballroom that Gross refers to (I think I saw them on the same tour at the Palladium in LA) and they were particularly amazing for an already stellar live act), but as the story goes after one of these shows Atlantic Records music mogul Ahmet Ertegün met with the band backstage in an attempt to sign them offering as much as $10 million. Joe Gross talks about the episode, but does not mention a dollar figure. The figure comes from album’s Wikipedia page. It’s a big number, and I am not sure if it’s real, but you have to believe they offered them something significant, and Fugazi said no. And with that, the turning point in their career, the showdown with Satan in the desert, a high point for those of us who want to believe that not everyone will sellout when enough cash is put on the table.
They kept control of their music, they controlled the vertical and horizontal of their distribution and press, and they kept a sense of the integrity of “that end of culture” Albini refers to in the above quote. So, Fugazi has the distinct honor of being the first band to have its second Reclaim Hosting server named after them (they already had another we named after them which housed several virtual machines for Domain of One’s Own schools) because 2018 is our double down year on independence in educational technology! Cha-cha-cha-cha-cha-cha-cha-champions!
“If you ask me now what punk is, I would say it’s the free space. It’s a spot where new ideas can be presented without the requirement of profit, which is what largely steers most sorts of creative offerings in our culture.” — Ian MacKaye