Fugazi, Live at the White House, 1991

Mark Jenkins on a show the likes of which we’ll likely never see again: A hardcore band’s protest concert in front of the White House.

For Washington in the 1990s, Fugazi was a natural resource. The band rarely played regular gigs, preferring benefits and free shows. If the quartet was in town, it reliably plugged in for political rallies like the 1991 one in front of the White House as the first Gulf War loomed. Although the band never had any explicit anti-Reagan or anti-Bush numbers, it could fill a set with bristling songs about AIDS, consumerism, sexual harassment or the murderous crack trade – to name only a few of singer-guitarists Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto’s lyrical interests.

Fugazi was born from a late ’70s D.C. teenage punk uprising whose principal social concern was that timeless adolescent plaint: Get out of my way! The high-school-age musicians challenged the existing bands, whose models were mostly from cool-to-the-touch New York, with a style derived from spitting-mad London. The first few waves of younger bands, which coalesced around the Dischord label, mostly burned hot and quick. It was not unusual for a Dischord act to release its first record after it had already broken up.

When they formed Fugazi, MacKaye (already of Teen Idles, Minor Threat and Embrace) and Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty (of Rites of Spring and Happy Go Licky) settled in for a longer campaign. Joined by bassist Joe Lally, the musicians developed a style that combined loping passages with explosive crescendos. The music was both more flexible and more sustainable than the unrelenting attack of hardcore (sometimes spelled “harDCore” in Washington). It also allowed for moments of respite in a genre that had become known for frenzied, heedless slam-dancing and crowd-surfing.

Fugazi hasn’t played a show since 2002, but if the band were to set up its equipment again, it wouldn’t be at the White House.

The sign over the makeshift stage seen in the video says, “There will be 2 wars.” That wasn’t a visionary forecast that Bush Daddy’s invasion of Iraq would be followed a decade later by Bush Baby’s. It was a promise that the American people would resist the Gulf War. As MacKaye also remarks from the stage, “They’re going to have to fight one over here, too!”

Didn’t happen. Today, as Iraq falls to the “insurgents” US troops supposedly defeated, things are unhealthily quiet in front of the White House. In fact, the area has been in virtual lockdown since Sept. 11, 2001, and the situation has only become more suffocating since Barack Obama moved in. Fugazi hasn’t played a show since 2002, but if the band were to set up its equipment again, it wouldn’t be at the White House. That war’s been lost.

This feature is part of a week of articles guest curated by 3024 label boss Martyn.

“I grew up buying Fugazi records and Minor Threat records, and went to see Fugazi play live four times (the recordings are on the Dischord site, I was at the first four of these). I never imagined to ever live anywhere close to the epicenter of this movement. I really wanted to include something about Washington DC and its music scene, and I was really intrigued by that quite famous video of Fugazi playing in front of the White House in 1991, as a protest against the first Gulf War.”

To check out more of the features that Martyn picked out, check out his guest curator hub page.

By Mark Jenkins on June 13, 2014

On a different note