Fugazi rose out of the hardcore scene of eighties-era Washington D.C. As hardcore punk was winding down, Ian MacKaye’s group, Minor Threat, dispersed.
After experimenting with a handful of different groups, MacKaye put together his own lineup. The members included Brendan Canty on drums, Joey Lally on bass, and Guy Picciotto for backup vocals and, later, guitar.
Picciotto and Canty knew each other from playing together in the band Rites of Spring. For a name, the band decided on a Vietnam-era related acronym that, according to Rolling Stone, stands for “F**ked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In.” Thus, in 1987, Fugazi was created.
After two EPs, the self-titled Fugazi and Margin Walker, the band released what would be their first full-length studio album. Produced by Ted Nicely, who was in the process of becoming a chef at the time, the album came out in April 1990. It was called Repeater. The title was intended to be both a nod to the Beatles’ Revolver and a comment on the patterns and repetition of life.
The music’s persistent, energetic rhythms reflect this, particularly the titular track. “Repeater,” like many of the songs on the album, is intricate in a way that avoids delicacy. The urgent drums are punctuated by distorted guitar wails and a chorus that is yelled out, “123 repeater / repeater / 1…2..3… repeater.” It’s a short song, no more than three minutes long, but it moves all over the place, from a guitar lick beneath the chorus at the 0:45 mark that is downright pretty, to a double-tracked, spoken intermission a minute later.
The album did not rocket up the charts immediately after its release. Dedicated touring and word of mouth drew attention to it. A few songs that appeared on the album were already familiar to fans from earlier tours, including the sweeping opening track, “Turnover,” and the catchy, heavily-syncopated “Merchandise.”
The album was put out on Ian MacKaye’s own label, Dischord. MacKaye co-founded the D.C.-based label with Jeff Nelson, a member of his first band, The Slinkees. Dischord Records reflects the “do-it-yourself” punk ethic, closely tied with MacKaye’s straight-edge ideology. Subsequently, Repeater did not have the benefit of widespread promotion, and the album was produced and sold directly through Dischord. Though approached by major labels, Fugazi stayed with Dischord. It paid off. The album went on to sell more than 2 million copies worldwide.
While Repeater enjoyed a positive reception from music critics and an ever-increasing fan base, the band pushed ahead with an extensive touring schedule. Of that period in time, singer/guitarist Guy Picciotto says, “we were just touring so much that the records were just… I refer to them sometimes as pitstops because we’d just be cruising so hard touring and then we’d run in and do these records pretty quickly.”
The next album, Steady Diet of Nothing, would came out almost exactly one year later, with a great deal of anticipation. Subsequent albums, most notably In On the Kill Taker, would bring the band to the indisputable forefront of the alt/punk rock genre and garner critical acclaim. Fugazi laid the groundwork for the popularizing of the alternative rock genre that Cobain and others would soon perfect.