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Five Songs Of Resistance: Guy Picciotto

Downtown Boys release their second album, “Cost of Living,” on August 11. It was produced by Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, Rites of Spring, and other projects.

Last year, Rolling Stone called Downtown Boys “America’s most exciting punk band,” and with help from Picciotto, their music has only grown more taught and visceral. Ahead of the group’s new release—one of 2017’s most potent protest records, here is a look at five moments from Picciotto’s vast body of work, five songs of resistance on which he has left a mark.

Rites of Spring, “Persistent Vision” [Songwriter, Guitarist, Vocalist]

Inspired by a Cramps show he saw as a kid in Washington D.C. in 1979, Picciotto played in punk bands throughout his teenage years with his school friend Brendan Canty. In the spring of 1984, when Picciotto was 19, the two formed Rites of Spring. The band released one 7-inch and one LP via Ian MacKaye’s Dischord Records. They were also part of 1985’s “Revolution Summer”—a social movement that actively worked against violence and sexism within the punk scene.

History books (and more recently, historical video content) have often placed Rites of Spring at the beginning of emo as a genre, citing them as groundbreakers in bringing emotional lyrics to punk, though the band has never really agreed with the term.  

“I’ve never recognized ’emo’ as a genre of music,” Picciotto said in a 2002 interview. “What, like the Bad Brains weren’t emotional? What – they were robots or something? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Although their music was not explicitly political, their dedication to bringing a new explicit emotional depth to punk was oppositional in and of itself. “I am the victim of a persistent vision / It tracks me down with it’s precision,” Picciotto sings on “Persistent Vision.” “And though I know you’re not in my eyes I can’t seem to clear you from my mind.”

Fugazi, “Bulldog Front” [Songwriter, Guitarist, Vocalist]

Bands like Rites of Spring and Embrace (fronted by Ian MacKaye) broke ground by contributing to a scene that suggested the inherent ethos of punk—to operate on your own terms, to live your politics—could exist without hardcore’s aggressive hypermasculinity. So, of course, those values were central to Fugazi when the group formed in 1986, along with other political motivations. Their entire catalog is essentially comprised of “songs of resistance.”

Fugazi formed originally as a trio of Ian MacKaye (guitar/vocals), Brendan Canty (drums) and Joe Lally (bass). Guy Picciotto would drop by practices, eventually joining as a backup singer. He performed at Fugazi’s second show and contributed to all recordings.

On the band’s first-ever recording, the Fugazi EP, “Bulldog Front” is the second track, an anthem against macho behavior. Picciotto takes lead vocals: “Ahistorical / you think this shit just dropped right out of the sky / My analysis: It’s time to harvest the crust from your eyes,” Picciotto sings, a wake-up call for the recalibration of attitudes. He calls out those who spend the majority of their carefulness on appearances.

“You want to figure it out / well throw down your bulldog front,” Picciotto continues, with MacKaye’s muscular deadpan interweaving and echoing those words.

Fugazi, “Blueprint” [Songwriter, Guitarist, Vocalist]

When Fugazi released its debut full-length in 1990, Repeater, they had already released the Fugazi EP; its follow-up, the Margin Walker EP; and a collection of both, 13 Songs. Repeater found Guy Picciotto continuing to share lead and backup vocal duties with Ian MacKaye, and playing guitar as well.

The album contained some of their most pointed political statements to date. “Blueprint” is one of the album’s best, a powerful song about consumerism and taking personal responsibility.

“Never mind what’s been selling / it’s what you’re buying and receiving undefiled,” Picciotto sings with heavy, mid-tempo snarls. “We’ll draw a blueprint / It must be easy / It’s just a matter / Of knowing when to say no or yes.”

That lines reminds me of a quote from Picciotto that appears in the punk history book Our Band Could Be Your Life: “The power of ‘no,’ man, that’s the biggest bat we’ve ever wielded. If it makes you uncomfortable, just fuckin’ say no. It’s made life so much easier for us…It just slashes through all that crap.”

The Gossip, “Standing in the Way of Control” [Producer]

Fugazi went on to release five more legendary and influential records filled with countless songs of resistance, concluding with 2001’s The Argument, which the band described as an “anti-war manifesto.”

In 2002, they went on an indefinite hiatus. Guy Picciotto went on to pursue years of collaborations with other artists, as well as a career in production for bands like Blonde Redhead, The Make-Up, and The Blood Brothers.

On his production discography is The Gossip’s 2006 record Standing in the Way of Control, which is considered to be their breakthrough album.

Speaking of the collaboration, Beth Ditto told Seattle Weekly in 2006: “[Picciotto’s] a great person, a driving force in the studio. He really has it together, and it was nice to [work with] someone who understands music in the same way and is willing to help your idea come to life. He was in Fugazi and that’s a big deal, it’s like punk-rock royalty, so he really understood recording the punk sound and ethic and aesthetic.”

Ditto wrote the song in response to the Federal Marriage Amendment, a proposed amendment, which aimed to prevent same-sex marriage in the United States. “Nobody in the States was that surprised or shocked by what Bush did, but it made everyone I know feel helpless and cheated,” Ditto added. “I wrote the chorus to try and encourage people not to give up. It’s a scary time for civil rights, but I really believe the only way to survive is to stick together and keep fighting.”

Downtown Boys, “A Wall” [Producer]

“How much is enough? And who makes that call? Fuck it,” starts “A Wall”, the first single from Cost of Living, Downtown Boys’ follow up to 2015’s Full Communism.

“A wall is a wall / a wall is just a wall / and nothing more,” sings Victoria Ruiz. Elsewhere in the song, there are lyrics inspired by Assata Shakur’s “I Believe In Living,” as well as an allusion to the song “Won’t Let It Go” by guitar Joey Defrancesco’s solo project La Neve.

The song has all of the explosive range, saxophone solos, and driving drums of their previous work, but here, they simultaneously sound more pointed, heavy, and ultimately more fully realized.

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Liz Pelly

Liz Pelly