"It would have been the most stupid and self-destructive thing we could possibly have done": Why the man who signed Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones failed in his repeated bids to sign Fugazi, not even for 10 million dollars

(Image credit: Naki/ Redferns /Getty Images)

At the dawn of the '90s, Fugazi were arguably the biggest independent rock band in the world. The Washington DC post-hardcore band's full-length debut album Repeater, released on Dischord, the record label vocalist/guitarist Ian MacKaye co-founded in 1980, sold around 250,000 copies in its first year on sale, huge numbers at the time for an underground  band. But change was coming.

In the closing days of December 1990, MacKaye received a visitor at Dischord House in Arlington, Virginia, a local drummer he'd actually considered as a potential bandmate when forming Fugazi four years earlier. After leaving DC hardcore veterans Scream and joining Nirvana, Dave Grohl had moved out west to Washington state, but was back on the east coast to visit family and friends for Christmas. When the drummer mentioned to MacKaye that he had a cassette of rough mixes that his new band were working upon, Fugazi's co-frontman asked if he could hear it. When he pressed 'play' on tape deck in the stereo in his office, MacKaye heard Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time, and was impressed.

"I said, Wow, this is a fucking good song, this is going to be really popular, " he told this writer. "I remember saying to Dave, Wow, that's going to be a hit, but I didn't mean it like a hit in the Top 10, just a hit within our filthy mass of punks."

Nine months later, when Smells Like Teen Spirit was released as first single from NIrvana's second album - and major label debut - Nevermind, its impact wasn't just confined to that "filthy mass of punks". In fact, the song would be the key factor in Nevermind going on to sell more than 30 million copies worldwide. In the wake of this phenomenal and entirely unanticipated success, 'alternative' rock moved into the mainstream, and A&R reps from every major label were tasked with scouring the world's independent records label in search of 'the new Nirvana'. Two bands - Shudder To Think and Jawbox - walked away from Dischord to sign major label deals, and inevitably, approaches were made to the label's most high-profile artist too.

Fugazi never took a single meeting, but Ian MacKaye does recall a conversation with an Atlantic Records representative during which he stated, tongue-in-cheek, that the band would want a guaranteed five million dollars and an assurance of complete creative control over their music before they would consider signing to the label. "is that your final offer?" asked the nice lady from Atlantic.

"No," MacKaye replied, then paused. "Make it ten million dollars."

"It was never a consideration," MacKaye told me for a MOJO magazine article on his band. "Control was what we most dearly valued, and we knew that once we got into that, it'd be compromised. Once you're an object of investment, people will do everything they can to maximise their returns. When you think about it, that term, 'The Year That Punk Broke', has an ironic double meaning: in some ways, 1991 was the year that broke punk."

Atlantic, however, were determined to land the band, who were forever held up as the most incorruptible artists in alternative rock, not least by well-known fans such as Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. In September 1993, when the DC quartet played a show at the Roseland in New York, Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun, the industry legend who signed Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, visited their dressing room in a bid to persuade them to give the label a chance to prove their commitment to the band.

"Last time I did this was when I offered The Rolling Stones their own record label and $10 million," the executive told the four musicians.  They were not swayed.

"He was a nice man, and we talked to him about DC, but there was nothing he could offer us," recalled co-vocalist/guitarist Guy Picciotto. "It would have been the most stupid and self-destructive thing we could possibly have done."

"I would never trade what we had for what Nirvana had in a million years," drummer Brendan Canty told me, back at Dischord House. "They had too much fucking misery in their lives. We got that there was a big trade-off in all that business, it was just a freak show. And it ultimately killed them.

"They got in bed with the devil and I think the industry was pleased as punch the way it all turned out. Now they have a dead icon to work with."

"Dealing with everyone else’s success was a headache for us, a real nightmare," added Ian MacKaye. "It fucked with our thing and just gave us more work to do.

"The way the music industry works, they seek the fertile ground and then they rape the ground and then they move on. They don’t take care of the soil at all, they don’t care: it’s just about maximising profits, get in, get out. So once they left, having taken everything they could take, the detritus had to be cleaned up.

"I remember one day Joe [Lally, Fugazi bassist] and I were walking down the street and we met a guy we knew who was in a band who had been signed [to a major deal]. We said, Hey, how you been doing? And he said, ‘We’re getting screwed by our label.’ When we walked away Joe said to me, ‘We’re going to be hearing a lot of that.’ And we did. It was a very dark time in many ways for music."

Fugazi never left Dischord. The band have been on hiatus since 2002.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.