Nothing but a Number: A Live History of Fugazi’s Song “Repeater”
"Playing music is like handwriting," says Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye. "If you play a song over and over, it starts to evolve."
For my feature this week on Fugazi's new online archive of live shows, I discussed some of the subtle changes you can hear in live version of the song "Repeater." Since then, I spoke to some of the people involved with the song about its inception and development. According to MacKaye, it all started with drugs. During the late '80s in D.C., “Crack came in, and then guns—there was a serious bloodletting, a big spike in gun homicides,” says MacKaye. “It was such a repetition. In the papers, they started to take a count. People would become numbers....it was a repeating situation.” The frustration spawned the searing song that would become a hallmark of the band’s live show. Lyrically, MacKaye takes on the persona of a dealer. Chad Clark, who worked on the 2005 remaster of the album of the same name, notes, “People love this line, ‘You say I need a job. I’ve got my own business. You know what I do? None of your fucking business.’ It’s actually an authentic reading of that character—that’s exactly what he would say. The capturing of that voice is such a profound accomplishment.”
LISTEN: "Repeater," Frederick, MD, Weinberg Center, 2/16/90
The song goes on to address the detached response of someone reading the papers. “With every death, there are people who had lives,” says MacKaye. “There are people around them being forever changed, and the tendency we have as a culture to stand back and blur our eyes, I saw that being exercised in a really intense way in our city.”
While the song is no doubt a heavy post-punk anthem, Clark notes that the musical elements were actually influenced by the hip-hop coming out at the time. “The musical style of the song was inspired by Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad,” he says. ”All those squalling bursts of guitar are kind of impressionistic versions of samples.“
LISTEN: "Repeater," Copenhagen, DK, Umdomhuset, 7/4/92
Guitarist Guy Picciotto confirms the band was seriously interested in what Chuck D. and his crew were doing. “‘Rebel Without a Pause’ would be specifically one song that we all looked to,” says Picciotto. “The main ascending, whistle-y sample on that one was so nuts. It’s hard to remember now how hardcore that song sounded when it came out, but it really was shocking and so bad ass.”
Imitating those climbing bursts of noise, Picciotto developed an unusual technique. “It’s a sound that came out of playing a Rickenbacker, which has a really long gap between the back of the bridge and the thing that holds the strings at the base of the guitar,” he explains. “If you play back there instead of over the pick ups like a normal human being and find the right notes on the fretboard, some weird dissonant harmonics shoot out.” Of course, it’s not all dissonance. “There’s this really simple clean arpeggio that’s so simple at the heart of the chorus. It’s so light, it’s like a Smiths song,” says Clark.
That contrasting chaos and melodic simplicity reinforce the lyrical themes of gun violence and detachment butting against real human loss of life. It’s a duality that makes for a powerhouse of a tune. “I was trying to write the D.C. anthem,” says MacKaye.
LISTEN: "Repeater," Mechanicsburg, PA, Decibels, 8/19/93
It’s hard to pinpoint the very first live performance of the song. The earliest recording of the song in the archive appears in February of 1990, but the song likely debuted before that. Searching his memory, MacKaye recalls, "Greed magazine—Kurt Sayenga used to edit it and he did graphics on some of the early records we did—he hosted a ‘Greed Night.’ I have a recollection of us playing the entire Repeater album instrumentally. While I kept rather copious notes of the tour dates, I just didn’t write some stuff down. I don’t know when it was, and it was unannounced so there are no fliers."
From that night the track went on to become a major crowd favorite, a definite show highlight for many audience members. Clark says, “All Fugazi songs to some extent sound like alarms—they have a charge, which is why they’re famous and why we love them—but here, it’s got this instant reset button effect on the show. I just remember it as such a blast of cold water and frantic energy.”
LISTEN: "Repeater," Dayton, OH, Dayton Fest/Brookwood Island, 8/21/93
Every night wasn’t as intense, because so much depended on the moment. The makeup of the crowd, the feel of the room, the personal situations of the band members all contributed to the particular execution of the song each night. "Sometimes it would flatten out and feel like we weren’t playing it correctly,” says MacKaye. “And then it would snap back.” Picciotto’s guitar sound was heavily dependent on the physical interactions between his guitar and his amp, so the space could seriously affect the song. “Sometimes it would depend on the room–it depends on feedback, and rooms have different acoustic properties. Some have soundproofing, so when we played that song, you'd get a skeletal feeling, like you can’t find the heart of the song,” says MacKaye.
There are moments throughout the archive, where the song indeed feels like it pulls back, like the guitars aren’t quite as screeching and Brendan Canty doesn’t hit his crash cymbals with as much ferocity, but often in those moments, the strength of the actual songwriting shows through. Joe Lally’s bassline stays remarkably consistent from show to show, and the locked-tight, Bomb Squad-enamored rhythm section comes to the forefront.
LISTEN: "Repeater," Adelaide, AU, Adelaide University, 11/12/96
As the band progressed over its 15 years, the meaning and vibe of the song would mutate. “Obviously as we got farther away from those particular years, that specific [crack epidemic] situation wasn’t on my mind as much,” says MacKaye. “But I actually think it’s a condition that’s a permanent condition for society. If you look at our military situation, there’s a constant count of American dead.” When situations changed for the band, the song would transform bit-by-bit. "If I’m playing that song to someone in Washington, D.C., in 1990, it’s probably different than in Brazil in 1994," says MacKaye. In this 1999 performance in Milan, the guitars scream less and chug more while Canty focuses on more tom work than usual.
LISTEN: "Repeater," Milan, IT, Leon Cavallo, 10/2/99
At the end of their live career, Fugazi were still at the top of their game. With a deep and complex catalog at their disposal, they still managed to bring nuance and dynamics to their older work. This 2002 performance of “Repeater” in Leeds, U.K., showcases the kind of subtle strangeness that the band made their name on without losing the urgency of the song's core.
LISTEN: "Repeater," Leeds, UK, Metropolitan University, 10/31/02
"For me to really lean into my music, I have to feel it, I have to believe it," says MacKaye. "It’s just my nature to think about my world, the city I’m living in, and write about it."