In the relatively short history of punk music, there are few bands that are more cataloged and mythologized than Fugazi. It’s nearly impossible to tell the story of the genre and its evolution without detailing the band’s monumental contributions, specifically the way they broke the mold and re-defined the way hardcore could present itself. While mind-benders like “Cashout” and “Instrument” are testaments to Fugazi’s innovation, however, they never shied away from making true blue punk ass-kickers. Out of the many, I will always point to “Public Witness Program” as the pinnacle of Fugazi tracks that could make you run through a brick wall then turn around and go for seconds.
“Public Witness Program” is one of the standouts from the band’s third record, In On The Kill Taker, released in 1993 on Ian Mackaye’s label Dischord Records. While the band had already staked their claim as punk legends in the DC underground, this record was essentially their “breakthrough” record, famously leading to the Rolling Stone knighting Fugazi as “the only band that matters” in their review of the album. Although you wouldn’t tell by listening to “Public Witness Program”, this album solidified the band as punk’s resident mad scientists, doing whatever they wanted how they wanted, tradition be damned.
Their many expeditions into the experimental actually make “Public Witness Program”’s classic punk frenzy even more noteworthy and exceptional in comparison. One of the greatest aspects of this song is how effectively Fugazi make the punk blueprint into something that is undoubtedly their own. Their vision for the genre was one of boundary pushing and upheaval, and they accomplish this even while adhering to something that more resembles Ian Mackaye and Guy Picciotto’s past rather than their future.
The scene is familiar: a snare fill sets off a blistering instrumental tailor-made for a Picciotto that is practically foaming at the mouth. For the only verse of the song, the band is all palm-mutes and momentum behind Picciotto’s lead. Reflecting the lyrics about paid informants and omnipotent surveillance, the music is also anxious and paranoid, giving the sense that this shaky foundation could blow at any minute. Then, when the chorus comes, it does.
Mackaye takes the role of our public witness, and his booming and comparatively composed vocals join with a riff that reeks of espionage and high stakes. For Fugazi, every moment of every single song is urgent, but “Public Witness Program” in particular furiously eggs you on, as if there is nothing more pressing than what you’re currently hearing. And in that moment after the first chorus ends, you’d have to have an iron will to not believe it.
Then the situation changes, or at least the way the band approaches it. In lieu of the typical second verse, the band breaks pattern and breaks down. Picciotto gives off a back-breaking bellow as a signal, one of the single most killer moments in the band’s discography, and the lead guitar returns to weave provocatively between the driving drums and bass. The rhythm then suddenly but briefly changes and asks you to dance instead, as disembodied claps begin to punctuate a new toe-tapping drum beat. Unable to stay in one place for too long, the song brings us back to the chorus for one last go around before ending abruptly on Picciotto’s final cry of “Public witness seen it all.”
Despite the amount of twists and turns that are packed into this track, it only clocks in at a couple seconds over two minutes. This feels more like a necessity than an artistic choice really, like this amount of dynamic energy could only be sustained for a certain amount of time before bursting at the seams. Almost as a reprieve, the song after “Public Witness Program” on the album is “Returning the Screw”, which is a methodical and intense Mackaye-led song that doesn’t even attempt to match this song’s speed and fire. But in this lies the essence of Fugazi’s greatness: they could really do it all. They could be one of the most forward thinking bands in the business, but they could also do the familiar in ways you never thought possible.
It’s not particularly extraordinary in and of itself for a punk band to make a punk song, but it certainly is worth appreciating a song that rips this hard. To make a song like this takes an impeccable understanding not only of how to channel energy into music, but how to then make your listener feel that energy as if they were experiencing it themselves. Even now, bands struggle to match Fugazi’s seemingly effortless talent of walking in between so many different worlds of music while retaining their core identity the entire time. As their influence continues to be felt decades on, songs like “Public Witness Program” prove that no one can do fire and fury like Fugazi.