Shopping For Records: “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone,” Fugazi's First Demo & Rollins Band's Life Time

Fugazi
First Demo
Dischord Records
Released: 11.18.14

Rollins Band
Life Time
2.13.61/Dischord Records
Reissued: 11.18.14

Between The Monkees and hair metal, you could find the 10 year-old me reconciling my want of connection to my father's generation and record collection while attempting to find my own way in the modernity of 1987. This was the year I saw my second concert, Def Leppard at The Spectrum. It was school night and I was a small child caught up in a floating miasma of Aqua Net, pheromone and secondhand smoke. I remember being draped in an oversized concert t-shirt while waiting in line to use the bathroom and being asked if I was snorting lines by some curly-haired Leppard head with an elastic headband. I also remember being convinced that guitarist Phil Collen had waved to me before the band exited the stage and feeling elated, special almost. I told everyone at school the following day, my exhausted and overwhelmed frame ready to fall over on my desk despite being thrilled at my good fortune. So, at this point in time, I was somewhere in the middle of "(I'm Not Your) Steppin’ Stone" and "Pour Some Sugar On Me," my tastes being slowly defined.

That same year, Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins, who had both dabbled in Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart’s "(I'm Not Your) Steppin’ Stone" as a sport of reinterpretation a la Minor Threat and S.O.A., were in the midst of redefining themselves. Hardcore had, for better or worse, been outgrown. While "Revolution Summer" had occurred in Washington D.C. two years prior, ushering in a new breed of D.C. band like Rites Of Spring, Gray Matter, Soulside, Beefeater and MacKaye's own Embrace, all of which would took hardcore to a less maniacal, more socially conscious and melodic version of its former self, Black Flag had undergone a rapid evolution, working in jazz rhythms and Sabbath-inspired tones, crossing over into genres that seemed to betray much of what hardcore's audiences were convinced was too outside its constrictive bounds of what was and wasn’t acceptable. By 1987, Black Flag was gone and the punk scene in D.C. had moved on. In response, and out of necessity, Fugazi and Rollins Band were formed. 

Harkening back to the days when “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” was something I listened to with much regularity, I’d begun learning to dub songs off of the radio and television with my Sony tape recorder, crafting mixes in the hopes that incidental noises and DJs wouldn’t interrupt or defeat the only true level of track integrity I could achieve at the time. I’d play them back, listening for any flaws (which were many), sort of excited by the possibilities of creating my own personal Top 20 any time and any way I’d wanted. Tapes would occupy much of my time in the following years, essential to my ever-increasing want of new music, which, as I got older, became crucial to my identity, especially once I’d heard punk rock and been caught up in the Alt-mania of the early 90s.

Enter Fugazi.

Enter Rollins Band.

While the idea of “punk rock” was what ultimately informed much of what qualified as “alternative music,” I didn’t necessarily understand what that meant. To me, punk rock was a genre, not necessarily an idea, as “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” was a 60s pop song, not a point of common interest within an underground subgenre. Songs weren’t ideas yet; language was only evidenced through lyricism. Between Fugazi and Rollins Band, you had two very prominent figures merge into a new decade they didn’t necessarily belong to, connected to this transition despite the risks of being relics of a bygone and short-lived period in American music. Often, punk’s resurgence into the collective consciousness of mid-90s youth is attributed to Green Day’s milestone release, Dookie. But, this heightened period of certifiable cash-in following Dookie’s release only caused the genre to regress into some melodic, lightweight parody of itself, confining it to the status of genre. For the members of Fugazi and Rollins Band, it was understood that hardcore was dead, meant to live on as a creatively-vibrant, era-significant and community-emboldened movement that had produced the alter of "D.I.Y.," that if mainstream industry would dictate taste, that if money talked, that if an underground was to flourish amid mediocrity-laden, video-bred, commodified plastic, that those who aspire to be "other than" needed to make it happen. The music evolved, but the mantra remained: "Do It Yourself."

To that point, Fugazi’s recently unearthed and released First Demo had been originally heard by cassette traders. Recorded in 1988, the pre-Internet dissemination of this demo’d material was made possible through live shows, enabling fans who’d procured copies of these free demos to reproduce and distribute Fugazi’s music freely. Before the 7 Songs or Margin Walker EPs had been released, two albums that had begun to define early 90s alt-ethos before it manifested, fans had heard "Waiting Room" and "And The Same." Fugazi had a rep before the band even had a proper album, thanks to this network.

While many of the tracks that comprise First Demo are loose and flawed, early musical considerations made but not yet refined, there was evidently something people heard in Fugazi’s rough draft that was worth investigating. False starts (“Badmouth”), rhythmic miscalculation (“Waiting Room”), audible direction (“Furniture”) and abrupt cuts (“Joe #1”) notwithstanding, the contents of First Demo reflect largely Fugazi’s signature sound, a funk-laden rock energy flush with tension and emotional depth, value that went beyond the overdrawn well of loud-n-fast. The First Demo version of “Merchandise,” later to be heard on the band’s 1990 full-length debut, Repeater, is one of the demo’s stronger inclusions, left-handed piano notes accenting its layer-expansive intro which add a playful dimension the true version doesn’t have. The force is still there, though. The non-album track “The Word,” which can be found in the 20 Years Of Dischord box set, boasts one of the demo’s best hooks, the volume ascendency enlivening. Another point of interest is “Turn Off Your Guns,” which wasn’t included in the original demo, and “In Defense of Humans,” which was featured in a later compilation called, State of the Union.

 

That novelty sound of a raw demo was something you could almost replicate with overdubbed cassettes, as if by copying an official release you could unlock its true, unadulterated nature, exchanging a producer’s filtration for something closer to bootlegged sound. I owned Fugazi’s Repeater as an A-side on a cassette for a while before I purchased a copy, becoming well acquainted with the one bad pause in its track sequence and the occasional bumps or fluctuations in guitar tone you would hear as the spool advanced. Similarly, when I dubbed Life Time by Rollins Band, I’d missed a split second of the opening flurry of drum breaks and screaming so “Burned Beyond Recognition” always began incorrectly. But, somehow screwing that up made the song more abrupt at its start and more unsettling, like it’d escaped or something.

“(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” as it exists in retrospect, is an aggressive and confrontational track, its declaration a promise made out of self-respect. When I was a child hearing this song, I latched onto its catchy melody and the hook was easy enough to decipher and repeat. It’s simple, yet honest and I think, even at 9, 10, or however old I was when I first heard it, I could distill where its mood came from, which wasn’t from a place of bubblegum, kisses and walks in the park, but from later, when all of those things lose their charm. Hearing Minor Threat and, much later, S.O.A. reinterpret the song’s essence and infuse it with anti-hippie bloodlust for the purposes of turning it into more of a call-to-arms, sure the track took on more dimension. Suddenly a song could become a versatile medium through which one could, through execution, convey a NEW story, one its authors hadn’t originally conceived. Suddenly, “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” is “Rise Above,” it’s “Minor Threat.” It’s anthemic and now a part of a new creative uprising. It has new life. Who demonstrated this better than the architects of early hip-hop? But, I digress.

Ian MacKaye produced the first true Rollins Band album, Life Time, which was originally released in 1987 via Texas Hotel Records, the same year MacKaye founded Fugazi. Rollins, who’d made the boldest statement through his acquisition of bassist Andrew Weiss and drummer Sim Cain, both of whom formed the rhythm section for Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn’s instrumental project, Gone, had already made an album with guitarist Chris Haskett called Hot Animal Machine that was comparably decent, but not a complete departure from what Rollins had done before. With the addition of the Weiss/Cain combo, however, and newfound purpose for Haskett’s licks and Rollins’ vocal distress, the possible goal to outgun Black Flag, to compartmentalize the past and carry on with more than was had, was most assuredly attainable.

Life Time turned my world upside down when I’d heard it, its continual and shattering intensity carried by rock music so beautifully in-tune and furiously connected to its persona it seemed impossible to comprehend. Those final acts on each side of the album, the shrieking outros that would follow songs like “Wreck-Age” and “Turned Out,” were mesmerizing and sick. It was sonic disarray like I’d never encountered, even in the hardest metal I’d heard at the time. And it was harder than Black Flag: Even the band’s loudest and most primal line-up would not have withstood the deranged agony and self-disgust that drove “Gun in Mouth Blues.” They could’ve tried, but they most certainly would’ve failed.

 

Life Time was reissued on vinyl through a partnership of Rollins’ 2.13.61 label and Dischord Records at about the same time First Demo was released. As products of two of the more important musical figures in my life, serendipitously tied to one of the biggest songs to lead me to this still-continuing journey of musical appreciation and understanding, it took me a while to come up with the words I needed to discuss these albums. I’m still not sure I did the best job. In 1987, I wouldn’t have thought I’d still be talking about a song like “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” It is after all just a song. But, some things don’t get put away. Sometimes, these things you find in life are brushed off, put back in the pile and reconsidered. Even if they aren’t new, having new releases from Fugazi and Rollins Band earned me an opportunity to think about them differently, from a place of assessment as opposed to experience. And while one might seem the more rewarding, it’s good to address what means so much in the abstract, happy to state that things are good, that music is still the best and that what you knew years ago, was absolutely the truth. At least, it was the truth as you saw it. And, honestly, what more do you need?

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead
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