Although these two songs are not that similar, Fugazi and Mogwai are a lot more alike than they ought to be. I pay pretty close attention to both of these bands; I would consider myself to be a fan of both, and I have never heard of any of the members of either band ever discussing the other band. Maybe they have, but they seem to live in totally different worlds. Mogwai are a bunch of Scottish louts who drink secret pints and probably get into bar fights and call people “pansies.” They’ve been known to endorse actual consumer products in their liner notes. In rock ’n’ roll aesthetics, we are dealing with different beasts. But musically these bands have an awful lot in common: if you took Fugazi and slowed it down and took out most of the vocals and added extraneous sound fills and pre-recorded clips of John Madden, that would basically be Mogwai.
Anyway, the first time I saw Mogwai perform “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” live in concert, I got the exact same feeling that I got everytime Fugazi broke into “Arpeggiator”: I got an idiotic grin on my face and a dancin’-fool twitch in my legs. What I am proposing to compare right now are two of the goofiest, bounciest, happiest songs ever composed by ultra-serious high-minded heavy rock bands. Both “Arpeggiator” and “2 Rights” are unexpected treats coming from screeching guitar bands. It’s as if “Shiny Happy People” had been written by Slayer, and that is exactly what I want to hear when I listen to music.
By the way, quite a lot of what I have to say about these songs is tied into their live performances, and though nothing can really reproduce the feeling of a Fugazi or Mogwai show, both bands are friendly to live bootlegging and many live samples can be found at places like here and the live music archive.
“Arpeggiator” · Fugazi · End Hits, 1998
I’ve been mentally comparing these two songs for years now, but it’s important to note that (a) “Arpeggiator” came first, (b) “Arpeggiator” is much more of a traditional “song”, and (c) “Arpeggiator” is far, far superior to “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong.” After listening to them back-to-back a few times, I am a bit stunned by how much better the Fugazi song is. It is throwing me off a bit, and it means I can’t really take these two songs and face them off, blow by blow, Celebrity Death Match–style, because Mogwai would get totally annihilated. I think the similarities between the two songs stem from a different source than the music, and I will get back to that later on. First, though, I will take the opportunity to address the always-interesting Fugazi Conundrum.
The Fugazi Conundrum can be summed up, basically, as “What the fuck? No band can be that good, that successful, that effective, without compromising some principles along the way.” There is, in fact, something disturbing about the fact that Fugazi even exists. It reminds me of how astrophysicists believe in “dark matter,” even though they don’t know anything about it, because if it doesn’t exist, then all their assumptions and work have been completely wrong, and this is an alternative too horrible to contemplate. We have been trained to believe that Fugazi is some kind of bizarre exception to all the known rules of rock physics, because the alternative is to believe that our whole rock-worldview is based on completely flawed premises. All those best-of and desert-island-discs lists — pointless! Those patches on your messenger bag and your iTunes subscription and your fondness for the Surreal World — pathetically immature. No need to rage against the machine — the machine was just a figment of your imagination! It’s like Fugazi somehow manage to live outside the Matrix1, and if you think about it too hard, it totally fucks with your head, unsettles you, creeps you out. Nobody really wants to go down that fuckin’ rabbit hole.
Fugazi / photo by Luke Strosnider
Of course, Fugazi are only creepy on a philosophical and existential level. On a personal level, they seem like totally nice guys (from the limited interactions I’ve ever had with them), and on a musical level, they just rock. I think most critics are a little too disturbed by the band’s metaphysical implications to ever really give them a fair shake as a normal band2, which is what they actually are, as you can see if you ever go to their shows.
There is a popular brand of Fugazi criticism which faults them for being boring (they must never have been to a live performance), or shrill and pedantic (they clearly are not referencing “Arpeggiator”), or humorless (they must not get Ian MacKaye’s weird sense of humor, but it is there all the time. He is actually one of the more amusing rock frontmen I have ever seen. The humorless one is actually Guy, but since he is also a lot more artsy and sometimes rolls his Rs, the critics give him a pass. Guy seems like a great person, too, but at every Fugazi show I’ve been to, it’s mostly Guy who rails against the injustices of the world, while Ian makes witty comments about hats).
Anyway, my point is that, for all their odd cosmic importance, Fugazi really is just a group of normal guys playing rock music, and they are very very good at it.
So, back to the song at hand. And goddamn — what a song! I don’t remember when I first heard “Arpeggiator”; I imagine that I heard it live in concert before I ever heard it on End Hits, but it is the album version that first got into my head. I think that the critics were not all that impressed with the song; after all, it is mostly just a stupid arpeggio repeated over and over. We are not dealing in high-concept here. But for fans, it was a moment of vindication. Fugazi had released instrumental tracks before, but nothing with the frenzied energy of “Arpeggiator”.
And the thing is, “Arpeggiator” sounds just as powerful and meaningful as all the best lyrics that the band has ever managed to come up with, and it speaks to me with more intensity than any of their on-stage commentary or the Positive Force exhortations before the shows. It builds, it peaks, it has that classic Fugazi rhythmic propulsion and it even has a little bit of humor. It is possibly the perfect Fugazi song because it fits the band and its personality; it takes something ridiculously simple (an arpeggio) and then invests it with astronomical amounts of energy and that quintessential Fugazi quality: passion.
Because it’s passion that makes Fugazi such an incredible band. For all their admirable political stances, for all their stalwart independence, Fugazi really are all about the awesome power of four guys proving that, together, they can accomplish anything. Unlike almost anybody else, they really believe in punk rock. They have proved over the years that if you believe in something and dedicate yourself to it, if you make a real commitment to something you care about, if you work relentlessly at it, then you can make it succeed.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see Fugazi perform again, since they’re no longer an active band. But it’s okay. It’s sort of like founding a religion: you start out small, you only get crucified once, and in the future it’s up to others to spread the news. I’ve heard the message, I’ve seen the light. I guess now it’s up to me to do my own arpeggiating.
“2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” · Mogwai · Rock Action, 2001
Unlike Fugazi, Mogwai have never stood rock on its head. In fact, they seem a lot less devoted to “rock” as a concept, let alone “punk.” They appear more interested in including and embracing any sort of music that is pretty, assuming that your definition of “pretty” includes noisy distorted guitar feedback so strong that you can physically feel the sound waves pulsing through your sternum.
I’ve seen a lot of swirling distortion bands, noise-rock bands, experimental droning aggressive bands, and I’ve never experienced noise like a Mogwai concert. I don’t know anything about physics, but I swear that when you go to see Mogwai, the sound becomes so insanely loud and powerful that it becomes solid and tangible. It feels like I’ve left those shows with bruises; I imagine that the MI6 has been scoping out Mogwai shows, trying to figure out a military application for this mysterious, primal power.
But for all their gruff exteriors and extreme noisiness, Mogwai are as cuddly as their namesake, and “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” is a perfect example of their best work. Like many Mogwai songs, it starts out with a simple, repeated guitar part, then slowly buries that melody under a mountain of sound effects, feedback, and added instrumentation, until you can’t tell any longer whether the original part is still playing or not. On record, this song is fantastic, throwing in sampled voices, horns, strings, and banjo before the slow, drawn-out denouement. (It’s no surprise that Dave Fridmann produced this, and you can recognize Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals) among the backup vocalists without needing to consult the liner notes, but I was also surprised that the Remote Viewer was involved, as I’m just getting interested in them now.)
However great the studio version is, it can hardly compare to the impact of this song when played live in concert. On record, “2 Rights” is gorgeous; on stage it is cathartic, overwhelming you with sheer simplicity, sweeping cymbals, the build-up, swelling, and release. Without intelligible lyrics, it remains abstract, suggesting the beginning, middle, and end of some great epic or opera, but never really revealing anything. By the end, you’re left with the satisfaction of having completed a long, life-changing journey, and ready to get back to more conventional noise rock.
Unlike “Arpeggiator,” “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” doesn’t inspire me to save the world, but it does function extremely well as a slap-in-the-face reminder of all the beauty to be found in this world. Fugazi convince me never to be content with a mundane existence, and Mogwai show me that it’s always worth looking for sublimity in unexpected places. Both of those hints make me want to start bouncing up and down.
1. Obviously I’m referring to the movie and not the hit making production team.
2. The same kind of thing happens to Liz Phair, where all the critics talk about her use of profanity or else her “frank” depictions of sexuality. They get so distracted by her vocabulary that they never get around to mentioning the raw emotions, harrowing honesty, or effortlessly great song structures of her early work. Oh and didn’t she work with The Matrix on her last album?