In the late 1980s, when Henry Owings was a teenager living in York, Pa., he’d drive his mom’s gray Oldsmobile two hours to D.C. to see punk shows. Owings, a writer and designer who created the music magazine Chunklet in 1993, wouldn’t think twice about making the trek, even if he had class at 8:30 a.m. the next day — especially when it came to seeing Fugazi. “To somebody who was clearly on the outside looking in, I was just a fevered fan,” he says.

Seeing Fugazi live turned Owings into an early devotee. He became a fan of the D.C. punk band before it released a single recording or even solidified its lineup — singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye, bassist Joe Lally, drummer Brendan Canty and singer-guitarist Guy Picciotto. But before Fugazi released its self-titled debut EP in late 1988, it needed a way to establish its own identity in the shadow of its members’ revered past projects. Even in its early days, the group didn’t sound like Minor Threat, the riotous hardcore outfit MacKaye fronted in the early 1980s — although that didn’t stop some people from expecting more of the same. So to wipe out preconceived notions and start making a name for itself, the band turned to a time-tested, do-it-yourself solution: the demo cassette.

Now, 12 years since its last performance, Fugazi is one of the most recognizable names in punk history. The group’s vital, immeasurably magnetic material is as lauded as its ethics — Fugazi played affordable all-ages shows and turned down every major-label deal thrown its way, making its permanent home on MacKaye’s label, Dischord. The foursome became punk icons before quietly shifting into a hiatus in 2002, and the band’s legend has continued to grow in the years since.

Fugazi has been absent but not entirely quiet. In 2011, Dischord launched the Fugazi Live Series, a Web site offering downloads of hundreds of live recordings stretching back to the band’s first show, on Sept. 3, 1987. As Dischord finishes its first round of archival uploads — which consists of audio from nearly 900 shows — the label on Tuesday is releasing that first studio recording from 1988, under the title “First Demo.”

Recorded at Inner Ear studios in January 1988, these 11 songs were never formally available to purchase. But that doesn’t mean they went unheard. You just needed to know whom to ask.

Fugazi’s demo tape. (Courtesy of Corey Rusk/Courtesy of Corey Rusk)

Back in 1988, that meant anyone in Fugazi’s small but growing fan base, or even the band members themselves, who gave away cassettes of the demo at shows and encouraged people to pass them along. “I must have made 100 copies of it,” Owings says. “But I know I wasn’t alone.”

The right stuff

The group played 10 shows before recording its demo, but MacKaye and Lally had been working together with a handful of different drummers since the fall of ’86. MacKaye was still smarting from the demise of his previous band, Embrace — one of a handful of short-lived groups that made up the first wave of emo — and he wanted to make sure his new project would last.

“Ian was absolutely determined that he was not going to make the same mistakes this time around,” says Mark Andersen, co-founder of Positive Force D.C., an activist organization that would regularly host benefit concerts featuring Fugazi. “That’s what the song ‘Waiting Room’ is really about,” Anderson says, referring to the track that led the demo and would become perhaps the band’s signature song. “It’s his song about waiting for the right people and the right moment.”

Canty, who had played in the influential Rites of Spring as well as a group called Happy Go Licky, became the right drummer. Picciotto, who fronted Rites and was in the audience during Fugazi’s first show, found his right moment as Fugazi expanded — he first joined to sing backup and eventually took on the role of guitarist and co-vocalist.

Fugazi confidently landed on its sound during a year-long gestation.

“It was a departure from punk music at the time,” says Inner Ear owner Don Zientara, who recorded the demo. It’s clear the band figured out its mix of anthemic rock riffs, deep dub grooves and explosiveness on the demo. Staples from Fugazi’s first few official releases, such as “Song #1” and “Break-In,” resemble the later studio versions at their core, even though they’re never quite identical — for one thing, Picciotto didn’t play guitar on the demo and MacKaye handles most of the lead vocals. The pace of the early version of “Merchandise” is faster than what appears on 1990’s “Repeater,” but the vitriolic energy is there early on.

Bobby Sullivan, who fronted the dub-friendly Dischord outfit Soul Side, was impressed by that demo. “You have this band that just went so far with what they were doing and could’ve gone,” Sullivan says. “The sky really was the limit, and this was the foundation still.”

‘The fan channels’

The members of Fugazi weren’t quite happy with those first recordings. MacKaye said as much in an interview with the California punk zine Flip Side published in the summer of 1988. “We had a tape, but we weren’t really, really pleased with it or we would have had a record out,” he said. (Members of Fugazi declined to be interviewed about “First Demo” for this article.)

MacKaye had long had an interest in documenting his hometown punk scene and Dischord — which he founded with Jeff Nelson in 1980 to release the posthumous debut EP from their first band, Teen Idles — grew out of that desire. Fugazi’s demo is the only recording of the band in the studio during that time, and it had value as a document. Regardless of how the members felt about the demo back then, they made sure it got out.

“They had recorded these songs and made it clear, in implicit and explicit ways, that this was something that they wanted people to hear,” Andersen says. “And it just passed through the fan channels.”

Owings, who says he asked to get a copy from Dischord headquarters while placing a routine record order, helped circulate the demo through a loose, underground tape-trading network with the help of zines.

“Back in the good old days you would look at the back of MaximumRockNRoll or Flip Side and there were classified ads where people would say, ‘Wanting to trade tapes,’ and they would list bands,” he says.

Fugazi wasn’t the only group that encouraged fans to pass along its music through alternative channels — Metallica had done the same, and the jam-band scene is rife with examples — but it helped engender a sense of community among fans at the start.

“There’s something really beautiful about that generosity, that sense of belief in the audience,” Andersen says, “that someone wasn’t going to run off and try to make bootlegs or something and sell this to make money — it didn’t even enter anyone’s mind.”

Fans would add personal touches while dubbing cassettes for friends. “I would put the Fugazi demo on one side and maybe a live show of them on the other,” Owings says. The work that went into dubbing and sending the tape might help convert those who couldn’t see Fugazi. Owings helped spread it to locations the band — and word of the band — had yet to travel to, mailing copies as far as Europe.

Cassette demos had circulated in this way years before Fugazi. “Everything was about trading tape demos, because so many cool bands in different parts of the country didn’t even have records out, or made more demos than they did records,” says Corey Rusk, who helped turn Chicago-based Touch and Go into one of the most revered independent labels. By the late ’80s the underground infrastructure became much more established, which helped Fugazi’s music spread. “There were so many more independent labels and a touring circuit that was all easy to figure out,” Rusk says.

But it was still rare for a group to gain as big a following off a demo as Fugazi did in those early years. While anyone who wanted a copy of Fugazi’s music had to actually find the tape, it helped that the band was getting the word out firsthand, touring all the way to the West Coast shortly after the demo started circulating. “Even in the underground, bands went on tour with a record or something that they would be essentially flogging,” Andersen says. “Fugazi just didn’t do that.”

All the words

Even without a proper LP, the reputation of the band’s members preceded them. Kevin Frank, who fronts the post-punk group Haymarket Riot, decided to see Fugazi’s first Chicago show at Club Dreamerz in May 1988 after he saw a sloppily spelled flier posted in Wax Trax Records. “Being a 17-year-old skate punk at the time I was like, ‘Ah, ex-Minor Threat,’ ” Frank says. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”

Fugazi was determined to not be overshadowed by its members’ previous acts, and its live show easily converted Frank. A friend who went to the show with Frank wound up with a copy of the demo, a nine-track version.

“I got a copy,” Frank says. “Pretty much wore that tape out.”

Rusk also attended the Club Dreamerz show. A friend of MacKaye’s since their teen years, he got his copy straight from the source. “I do remember just instantly loving it and feeling like this is what the world of music needs right now,” Rusk says. Fugazi became one of Rusk’s favorite bands almost instantly, and he still has a copy of that demo — a TDK cassette and a white J-card with a handwritten track list stored in a clear case.

The cassette, “the preferred method of communicating ideas,” as Owings calls it, helped Fugazi quickly build an organic, fevered fan base. When the group headlined a benefit for the homeless at Wilson Center featuring Soul Side and Verbal Assault on Dec. 29, 1988, a thousand people showed up. The show has become somewhat legendary, and audio available from the Live Series site hints at the excitement in the room when Fugazi launched into “Song #1.” People in attendance not only knew the song — they knew all the words. “It’s just this massive eruption from the crowd,” Andersen says. “The chorus of the audience is deafening.”

The live recording includes MacKaye joking about the crowd’s knowledge of the tune. “What, have you guys been trading tapes or something?” he asks. “What’s going on out here? If anybody here owns an unauthorized copy of a Fugazi tape, I’m going to sue you. Hand them up. Come on, over to the front. Let’s go.”

Fans kept handing tapes over to other fans through the years, even after studio versions of most of the demo songs became available on LP and CD. The methods of tape distribution remained the same a few years later, and the reactions could be just as strong. Brent Eyestone, who founded the indie label Magic Bullet Records in 1996, got a copy in the early 1990s, when he was living in Stafford, Va. He was a tad too young to make the trek to D.C. to see Fugazi just yet, but the cassette did its part to fill that void.

“That tape I probably haven’t listened to for at least a decade, but I still remember what everything sounded like,” Eyestone says. “This quote-unquote demo is better than most bands’ final record.”

Galil is a freelance writer.