I had several choices available to me as I contemplated my exploration of Fugazi, a band that was very important to me in my formative years. Repeater, In On the Kill Taker and Red Medicine were the obvious choices, but I decided to begin at the end. Fugazi’s musical development was astonishing, and characterizes the band as much as their artistic integrity, unflinching commitment to social justice and stunning guitar interplay. Beginning with the last stop on the journey seemed a more interesting approach than following the chronology, but I have to say there was more behind the decision than coming up with a clever way to go about it. No Fugazi album has more personal meaning for me than The Argument, in large part because of the serendipitous timing of its release.
The Argument arrived at a time when all of America was united by fear and hatred. The album hit the alternative airwaves a little over a month after 9/11 and only a week after the United States invaded Afghanistan. The country was already feeling fragile, having experienced the collapse of the bubble that fueled a period of unabashed greed characterized by massive speculation in dot.com lunacy and the traditional American huckster’s stand-by, real estate. I was just starting my third of college when the planes hit the towers, and over the next few weeks I watched with astonishment how my previously liberal and tolerant classmates allowed themselves to be consumed by the fear and loathing generated by Bush, Cheney and the BREAKING NEWS flashes from CNN. During this period of intense anxiety, The Argument came out, and I walked down to the record store in the village to get a copy. I took it back to the apartment I was sharing with a girlfriend and listened to it in private, on my headphones. What I heard astonished me even more than the patriotically racist outbursts of my peers.
In the midst of the murderous fervor of revenge driving American foreign policy and the collective psyche, here was a penetrating exposé of the insanity of war and violence. In a culture full of people desperately trying to protect their personal financial portfolios from bursting bubbles, here was a powerful reminder of the self-and-socially destructive nature of untamed capitalism. In a culture where “every man for himself” is considered a worthy motto, here was a set of songs arguing that dismissing those who can’t get a break as hopeless, parasitic losers is the most self-and-socially destructive act of all. Seeing that it was impossible to share these insights with my wild-eyed classmates, I kept The Argument to myself, pulling on my headphones whenever the ugliness that surrounded me seemed more threatening than usual.
If The Argument was just a political manifesto, I doubt if I would have clung to it as tightly as I did. The music itself is amazing, a range of dark and edgy soundscapes characterized by strong motifs and tightly woven interplay. The sound is light years away from the strictly hardcore sounds of Repeater, and a good many Fugazi fans did not care for the new direction that began with Red Medicine and reached its peak with The Argument. I always admire artists who follow their instincts without regard for fan approval, particularly when their musical instincts are supported by intentionality and solid aesthetic judgment. Work for The Argument began two years before its release, as the band took the time to build the foundation and pull all the pieces together into what emerged as a brilliantly designed package.
The Argument begins with an attention-grabbing introduction that mingles airwave chatter, what sounds like a fighter jet taking off in the background, and a mournful cello; a screech from the cello cues Brendan Canty to begin the drum skip that leads us to “Cashout.” The drums are joined by the sound of distorted electric guitar establishing the main motif on the left channel, soon joined by undistorted guitar on the right; the weaving of guitars continues throughout the song, providing tonal contrast and dramatic punctuation. The opening verses are still and reflective, supporting Ian McKaye’s matter-of-fact vocal approach as he quietly recounts the oft-repeated story line of greed-motivated tenant eviction. Midway through the song there is a furious explosion of electric guitar matched by Ian’s growling, angry vocal; the electric guitar motif returns to create a bridge back to the stillness, then the band kicks it into gear for the ending. The music is perfect for the storyline: the quieter verses expressing the disgustingly procedural process of throwing people out of their homes and the louder sections expressing the righteous anger at officially sanctioned tactics of dehumanization.
This song hits home because I grew up amidst the real estate madness of San Francisco, which became a complete loony bin during the dot.com boom. As the rich moved in and jacked up prices, many lower and middle-income people had no choice but to flee; artists and musicians flocked to West Oakland and the few remaining areas that had yet to experience the latest version of the gold rush. Ellis Act evictions—based on a law that allows landlords to evict tenants in order to “go out of business”—peaked in 1998, as landlords decided to cash in and sell to developers who then turned apartments into overpriced condos. This was a big issue in my family, because my father owned seven houses in San Francisco—houses that he had bought, fixed up and turned into rentals (three single-family homes and four homes divided into apartments). My father’s primary motivation in getting into the housing business had nothing to do with speculation; he was motivated by the artistic challenge of making ugly houses beautiful and livable, and by his desire to give back to the community where he grew up. When interviewing prospective tenants, he talked to them about his philosophy, and how it was important for them to feel as if the place was theirs and to view the home with the same amount of pride that he took when restoring it. His socialistic belief that compensation should be based on need led him to set rents that covered expenses, often significantly below the market price, and in almost thirty years as a landlord, he never evicted a single tenant. He did get shafted a couple of times, but never wavered on his intention. During the dot.com insanity he was approached by all forms of slimy developers urging him to cash in on the rocketing prices. He turned them down every time. When he and my mother decided to retire, they could have sold all the houses at market and become instant multi-millionaires, but instead they spent two years figuring out ways to either sell the properties to the tenants or selling only to buyers who would agree to maintain the status quo for at least five years.
Fugazi’s approach to this continuing crisis is blessedly simple: call out the bullshit for what it is.
on the morning of the first eviction
they carried out the wishes of the landlord and his son
furniture’s out on the sidewalk next to the family
that little piggie went to market, so they’re kicking out everyone . . .
the elected are such willing partners
look who’s buying all the tickets to the game
development wants, development gets
development wants this neighborhood gone so the city just wants the same
“Full Disclosure” opens with a high-speed distorted guitar picking, soon accompanied by counterpoint distortion, rolling drums and thick, filling bass. Guy Picciotto then launches into a series of guttural screams of the phrase, “I want out!”—x 1000, according to the lyrics in the liner notes. Meanwhile the guitars are weaving a wild and wicked pattern over a static chord, creating a soundscape of terrible tension that is both mesmerizing and frightening at the same time. The tension continues to build when Guy breaks free from the mantra to cue the next stage of the song, so that when they finally change chords and shift into the melodic chorus, the effect is positively orgasmic. The background oohs and harmonies over the repeated phrase “full disclosure” are as close to power pop as these guys can get, but the almost sweet vocals are balanced by the continuing harshness of the background. After a very tasty guitar solo, both guitars kick into the high-speed picking, this time with even more urgency, like a siren that is out of control. The shift placing the sounds in deep background is deftly executed, and all you can do at the end of this song is say, “fucking fantastic” and reach for a cigarette. I don’t need to tell my long-time readers how passionately I felt that “I want out” message towards the end of my life in America.
The McKaye-Picciotto guitar duets are as good as it gets, and while you can chalk that up to the fact that both are enormously talented guitarists, that’s far too simple an explanation just how fucking good they sound. Lead guitarists are often insufferable hams, eager to show off their technique and wow all the wannabes in the audience who haven’t yet mastered the F-chord. McKaye and Picciotto not only collaborated successfully but they arranged their parts with precision and intent, never overplaying their hand. There are lots of spaces in “Epic Problem” that feature only a single guitar, and when they go into either duet mode or call-and-response, it’s done with the sole purpose of creating a specific soundscape true to the moment of the song. The opening passage features muffled picking in one channel and dissonant riffs in the other, creating the feeling of disconnection that reflects the psyche of the narrator (the guy with the epic problem). After the two herky-jerky opening verses, full of the stops and stutters of the clueless mind, we are treated to a lengthy instrumental passage that begins with a power-chord stop time passage and fabulous bashing from Brendan Carty followed by a not-long-enough passage where the two guitars blend intricate harmonies at blazing speed. The bash comes to an abrupt stop when we enter the self-reflective section of the song, where our 21st century nowhere man identifies his problem while rationalizing his inability to do anything about it:
i’ve got this epic problem
this epic problem’s not a problem for me
and inside i know i’m broken
but i’m working as far as you can see
and outside it’s all production
it’s all illusion set scenery
i’ve got this epic problem
this epic problem’s not a problem for me
The world is phony so it’s okay for me to be phony; my excuse is supported by the fact that I’m just as fucked up as the rest.
The arrangements on The Argument are uniformly outstanding, with clear production values and an intuitive sense of integrating the right sound at the right moment. “Life and Limb” is a good example; the song starts out in tune-up mode, the drums kick in and the arrangement remains starkly minimalist through the opening verse: vocal, drums and simple but eerie guitar pattern. A breathy “oh” and a layered vocal intensifying the “Don’t you feel it now” line is the only variation until a seamless transition brings in a chorus of harmony, faint low-end guitar, the full sound of Joe Lally’s bass and Bridget Cross’ response vocals. We return to the minimalism for a bit before Joe Lally’s brief bass solo pairs with Guy’s “viva viva” lines before it all reconnects with the fuller arrangement of the chorus. This phase ends on an unexpected chord change prior to resolution, followed by a full stop. On cue, bass, drums, rhythm guitar and nimbly picked lead guitar come together for an extended solo, and right in the middle, for no other reason than it happened to be the perfect thing to do at the time, we hear a pair of quick handclaps. Little touches like that make me shiver in ecstasy: my Count Basie Theory is real! I love the chorus fade and the clarity of Brendan Canty’s cymbals at the very end. The skills demanded on this song are so radically different from the skills required on Repeater that you have to marvel at the expansion of Fugazi’s thinking and musical ability.
Joe Lally’s “Kill” opens with guitar flashes echoing in and out over a superbly clear bass pattern. Joe’s vocal has the flat tone of descriptive prose, more than appropriate for a narrative recited from the perspective of a soldier numbed by the insane violence he is asked to commit on behalf of his country:
laying in this cold field
waiting for the call
feeling right here in this uniform
i think i got them all
academic or street education
obtain degree in annihilation
Ian McKaye’s haunting counterpoint lines, “I’m not a citizen, I’m not a citizen” are chilling indeed, as they raise the question of the meaning of citizenship in a society that trumpets democracy but denies democratic rights to anyone who works for a living, whether you’re in the military or toiling for a business. How does following orders that contradict both conscience and human dignity square with the concept of freedom? Even more chilling are the points of suspended time in the song where Joe plays a single, repeated bass note like the thud of an indifferent heartbeat. Like the soldier in the song, we can all become numb to the continuing madness around us.
“Strangelight” opens with a lovely guitar-piano duet that transforms into a darker guitar duet comparable to the bleak external and internal conditions of modern humanity. Three lines describe a withering environment (“the sun’s a strange light/nothing grows right anymore/scars on every stalk”) followed by two lines reflecting the inner decay of the human spirit (“whose mouth should i use to talk/the force that marks the routine”). This pattern of mirroring external reality with internal continues with consumerism (“now it’s hard to punch the clock/on a site where production’s stopped/i’m just a warehouse filled with junk”) and rampant development (“beige concrete goes on for miles/hiding cities under it/fill my mouth with non-mouth spit”). The dissonance and darkness of the background shifts to an ironically sexy guitar-heavy section marked by the repeated cry for companionship to relieve the tension (“come on over get your shoes on put your feet on baby come on over”). Pounded piano chords add to the swirling guitar mix to reinforce the feeling of alienation. “Strangelight” is a dark song, but a very effective one.
“Oh” is an anti-globalism, anti-greed anthem with pungent wordplay (“lapse of luxury”) and more pointed commentary about the financial bubble (“cruising towards a bruising crash/thread held anvil’s gonna break”). The music is slow bash and Guy’s vocal reeks with a bitter sense of the absurd. “Ex-Spectator” opens with an extended drum riff that finally expands to include distorted power chords and runs that support Ian McKaye’s strong vocal; the rhythm accelerates for the chorus and returns to the original pattern where the fragments of meaning start to come together in a series of questions that get to the core issue of individual responsibility for the general mess:
here’s some questions that the writer sent
can an observer be a participant?
have i seen too much?
does it count if it doesn’t touch?
We’ve perfected “out of sight, out of mind” to an art form; and when Ian sings, “i’m an ex-spectator/never let my, never let my, never let my/vision get in the way of/me,” the complexity of human perception and motivation becomes apparent. We choose to be blind if being blind allows us to ignore inconveniences that get in the way of our limited vision of life—a life that exists in a universe where we’ve placed ourselves at the center.
“Fuck your fucked directives,” is the line that opens “Nightshop,” a delightfully twisted version of “Take This Job and Shove It” driven by expansive guitar sounds and sudden time shifts. The forever haunting fade lines, “who works for who/who you working for?” ring true for me, for whenever you think you’re in control of your destiny, folks, think again. You can be a wage slave, a management drone, a top executive or own your own business and if you have any sense of self-reflection at all, you’ll find that you can’t come up with a real answer to the question, “Who you working for?” Everyone is limited by a combination of imaginations weakened by our mass production educational system and by the opportunities defined by the economy—and the economy is something that you have to fit into, whatever your calling. In this world, no one’s going to pay you for being you. That idea—that someone would pay you for being you—may sound like a silly idea, but what if we changed our educational and economic systems to base them on individual strengths and interests rather than manic consumption? Might the end result be more capable, less atrophied human beings?
Fugazi always gave you a lot to think about.
This brilliant final album ends with “The Argument,” featuring Ian McKaye’s intensely sane and logical reasoning for a full commitment to non-violence and the end of war. The track opens with the same kind of radio airplay that opened the album, disappearing into a moderate, steady beat and clean arrangement that give maximum emphasis to the piercing lyrics. Ian MacKaye has a way of translating what seems to be a radical, unthinkable idea into plain common sense, using disarming phrases like “but i can’t help thinking” and “so here’s what’s striking me” before he makes his point. Even though it’s likely that all he’ll get in return is an argument or “folderol,” he makes his point in stark, memorable language that shines a bright, bright light on our assumptions that mass murder under the self-canceling guise of moral war against “them” is the inevitable way of the world:
when they start falling
executions will commence
sides will not matter now
matter makes no sense
how did a difference become a disease?
i’m sure you have reasons
a rational defense
weapons and motives
but i can’t help thinking
it’s still all disease
here comes the argument/here comes the argument/here comes the argument
it’s all about strikes now
so here’s what’s striking me
that some punk could argue moral a b c’s
when people are catching what bombers release
i’m on a mission to never agree
At this point, the music becomes slightly ethereal for a few measures before a metallic guitar plays a brief motif that explodes into the full band supporting the double-sword lines, “here comes the argument/here comes the argument/here comes the argument/here it comes.” The song ends suddenly as if the conversation has ended abruptly—either because it’s pointless or because all that needs to be said has been said.
Reconnecting with The Argument has been a cleansing experience, reconnecting me to beliefs that I have had to compromise over the years. I have a year to go until my employment contract runs out and I can choose a different path, but in that year, my partner and I are going to figure out how we can avoid living lives as drones, working only to make money in a world structured to discount idealistic motivations. The Argument is not only a musically fascinating and poetically strong piece of work, but an intensely inspirational work that almost forces you to try to imagine a world where human beings actually matter . . . and maybe do something about it.
Way, way back in the mid-70’s when the rock world began to split into sub-genres like hard rock, progressive rock, glam rock, heavy metal and the like, two common characteristics united the lot. The music was often seriously overproduced to amp up the drama and the songs tended to be on the long side. While some of the music of the era justified the complexity of production, a lot of it didn’t, and the endless drawn-out jams favored at the time had to be getting tiresome. Yes, rock had come a long way since Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent, but in doing so it had lost touch with its core. Similar to what happened to jazz when Bebop came to the fore, Rock was no longer dance music, which may explain why desperate, latent butt-shakers of the era turned to that abomination known as disco. While disco allowed people to strut their stuff on the dance floor, it adopted a style of slick production that would render it a lifeless and temporary fix at best for people who really wanted to let loose.
Then along came a bunch of guys who named themselves Ramones. Two-minute songs played at high-speed with high intensity. A no-frills just-drive-the-fucker-home rhythm section. A singer with limited range unlikely to try and wow the crowd with histrionics. No weird time signatures or complex chord patterns. Keep it simple, keep it moving, kick some ass. Get back to the primal urges, strip the lyrics of any traces of pomposity, add a playful sense of humor and create strong hooks so people can sing or shout along while they shake their energy-starved bodies.
While their arrival did not prevent Saturday Night Fever, the Ramones would re-establish the beachhead for jukebox-style rock ‘n’ roll that would form the structural basis of punk and its variations, and make it possible for other get-back-to-the basics styles like power pop. There was never any threat that the Ramones would develop beyond their core: it’s impossible to imagine a Ramones equivalent of Sgt. Pepper. What their long career proved was that basic rock ‘n’ roll has eternal life, because when it’s played right and tight, it taps the endless reserves of sexual energy within the human species.
I feel so damned good when I listen to the Ramones. I feel alive and happy. They make me move and they make me laugh. No matter what kind of bullshit I deal with during the workday, I can put on an album like Rocket to Russia and say, “That shit doesn’t matter. Let’s have some fun!”
“Cretin Hop” kicks things off big time. I love the silliness of the premise, and god damn I love the way these guys commit to hard-ass driving rock ‘n’ roll. The message that even cretins need to hop is sublimely ridiculous and strangely liberating: just go with it and have a good time! When they get to the call-out “1-2-3-4, cretins want to hop some more/4-5-6-7, all good cretins go to heaven,” shout along with them and I guarantee you that all your troubles will vanish into thin air. There is an ironic subtext here, but we’ll save that discussion for the end of the review . . . right now I want to rock!
If for some reason “Cretin Hop” doesn’t do it for you, “Rockaway Beach” certainly will. I’ve never been with anyone who doesn’t start involuntarily singing “rock, rock, Rockaway Beach” when it comes up on the stereo or the radio. The theme of “this scene is a drag, let’s get out of here” is a classic rock theme that the Ramones cleverly update with the lines, “The bus ride is too slow/They blast out the disco on the radio.” You don’t need any fills or frills with a song like this, it runs on its own energy and the Ramones were smart enough to just let that energy carry the music across the finish line. Two minutes of absolute bliss!
“Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” is as close to a ballad as you’ll get with these guys, and the detour away from standard chord structure with the dominant D to F# pattern is fairly complex for the Ramones. Although I tend to prefer the high-speed flights, Joey Ramone’s vocal really holds this song together with its intense commitment. You never have to wait long for the Ramones to ramp up the speed, though, and “Locket of Love” delivers with Joey’s fabulous sense of phrasing and straightforward but very effective harmonies sweetening a song about sweet revenge. “I Don’t Care” is more of a groove song with very simple lyrics expressing the classic reaction to rejection: denial. I love the way this song gets my ass moving in a circular grind: kudos to the rhythm section of Dee Dee and Tommy for warming me up for the inevitable afters.
If Eddie Cochran had been alive in 1977, he could have easily written “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” as the groove is “Summertime Blues” with a touch of methamphetamine. The lyrics in the single verse refer to previous rock fads (surf and a-go-go rock) that no longer scratch the itch the way this new manifestation of rock energy does with its rougher, rawer distorted sound. The words establish the link to the core and the sound establishes the new direction:
Well the kids are all hopped up and ready to go (they’re ready to go now)
They got their surfboards and they’re going to the Discotheque Au-Go-Go
But she just couldn’t stay
She had to break away
Well New York City really has it all
Sheena is a punk rocker . . .
The barrage of dysfunctional family images dominates the high-speed “We’re a Happy Family,” the only track on the album where I think they add too much to the arrangement with the chattering voices in the fade. It’s followed by the wild ride of “Teenage Lobotomy,” describing a world where brainlessness is guaranteed to get you the girls and likely to lead to a Ph.D; it’s a song designed for body slamming and the delicious release that comes from shouting “Lobotomy!” with Joey.
Next up is the best cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” I’ve ever heard; shit, it’s even better than the original, where the fire was diminished by the bossa nova fad of the time. The arrangement is simple, pedal to the metal rock ‘n’ roll and captures the kinetic excitement of letting your body shake and shimmer. When done right, dancing is really a form of shadow-fucking where eye contact communicates desire better than anything anyone can say in words, and the Ramones’ performance here makes me want to get up and shadow-fuck right now!
The pounding rhythm that drives of “I Wanna Be Well” come next, echoing the rhythm of a child’s tantrum in the chorus. I think they cover the theme of pursued obliviousness better in “I Wanna Be Sedated,” my favorite Ramones song. They shake up the instrumentation with less distortion and ride cymbal on “I Can’t Give You Anything,” resurrecting the classic rock theme of the boy who doesn’t have the cash reserves to make the girl happy. For me, those songs are just the warmups for “Ramona,” with its sexy groove and minimalistic harmonies supporting a first-class vocal performance from Joey Ramone. The Ramones then take on the novelty song, “Surfin’ Bird,” a hit for a group called The Trashmen who capitalized on the surf craze by putting “surfin'” in the title of a song that has nothing to do with surfing. Americans are so easily manipulated! It’s pure gibberish and the original was loaded with irritating sound effects and clichés, but I’ll be damned if the Ramones don’t make this sucker work.
Rocket to Russia ends with the upbeat number, “Why Is It Always This Way.” The harmonies, the happy-go-lucky rhythm and the grind-it-out guitar from Johnny Ramone give the impression that this is a “we’re having a good day” kind of rock song, but the lyrics tell a different story:
Last time I saw her alive
She was wavin’, wavin’ bye bye
She was contemplating suicide
Now she’s lying in a bottle of Formaldehyde
The Ramones loved to fuck with conventions and expectations, and their lyrics often contradict the feel of the music they’re playing. You can take these lyrics one of two ways: a.) There’s nothing we can do about this shit, so let’s rock or b.) We live in a society that is so anesthetized that human tragedy and waste no longer affect us. If there’s a dominant theme on Rocket to Russia, it’s brainlessness: cretins, lobotomies, drugs to ease the pain. In one sense, that’s not a bad thing when you’re playing core rock ‘n’ roll: you don’t want to think, you want to feel it inside and move your fanny! In another sense, the feel you get from the songs is often satiric and ironic, so it’s equally possible that the Ramones were exposing the punk scene for its cultural and artistic limitations in celebrating the moronic to excess. In a paper written for the UC Berkeley Undergraduate Journal, a gentleman by the name of Alex Taitague poses some fascinating hypotheses about the Ramones’ lyrics and punk in the context of culture.
My take is that punk is stripped-down music, not dumbed-down music, and that of all the genres in existence today, punk tends to be the most ironic, humorous and socially conscious. While the Ramones may not have the lyrical depth of Fugazi, $wingin’ Utter$ or The Evens, their songs definitely have more depth than meet the eye.
And even if they didn’t, it’s nice to give your brain a rest every now and then and just get your ass moving to kick ass rock ‘n’ roll, an art form that the Ramones mastered with surprising discipline and boundless energy. Rocket to Russia is the perfect cure for the spirit-draining effects of our increasingly regimented world.