Flash back to the punk scene in 1983: A Republican was in the white house, a recession gripped the nation's economy and punks were using both as inspiration. Hand-made buttons with Ronald Regan's face and the slogan "End of an Error" were slapped on every other T-shirt. Bands like The Dead Kennedys, T.S.O.L. and Regan Youth attacked the right with every note. It was a pretty crappy time to be an American, but the golden era of political punk rock.
Now it's 2003. We've got another Republican in office. The trickle-down Reganomics that prolonged the hard times in the '80s are back, to the joy of the upper tax brackets. A new age of oil drilling on public lands has been ushered in, to the oil companies' delight. Furthering corporate joys, the Environmental Protection Agency's budget has been slashed. Most troubling of all, if unnamed Washington sources are to be believed, the USA Patriot Act II will put the same civil-liberties-curtailing powers in the hands of law enforcement to use against citizens as its predecessor did for use against aliens.
The punk community, has largely ignored the situation. Vagrant Records has flooded the market with songs about girls instead of the socially conscious fare of punk's golden years. Drive-Thru's made polished, melodic and decidedly pop fare push out the jagged, aggressive and overtly rebellious sounds of "three chords and the truth." Today's punks, much unlike their predecessors, are sleeping through the hard times, wrapped up in an opium dream of pop hooks and tales of mundane love lives.
Not all of them have lost their bite. Some have actually found their edge: NOFX, long known for laying down the blueprint of adolescent, silly punk rock, has entered a new phase. With this year's The War on Errorism, whose title and many songs are dedicated to sparking left-wing activism with only one goal: To help vote George W. Bush out of office. Fiery and pointed, the act's tossed out the slapstick stories of lesbian love and hokey punk humor for something with a bit more weight. While the band sticks largely to the skate-punk sound it pioneered, then developed on previous albums, it's got a vision, a goal and a reason to irritate. It's a thunderclap of activism in a world where punk music has, by and large, lost its bite chasing tail and perfecting pop arrangements.
"Everybody is more concerned with selling units then possibly offending anyone," says singer/bassist "Fat" Mike Burkett. "What we end up with is a bunch of homogenized, wimpy punk rock sounding bands. Girls and love replaced alienation and hate. It makes me sad."
Yes, in an era of flag stickers, flag tattoos, flag T-shirts and a million other ways to spend money to display your hyperactive patriotism, it's not just hate, alienation and disgust that have gone by the wayside. Even in the punk community, it's gone past that: Despite the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, which ironically were designed to promote political debate, it's considered un-American to express yourself if slightly speaking against the establishment. The debacle that surrounded the Dixie Chicks, whose sales suffered, radio play plummeted and, in extreme cases, irate fans even went to lengths such as formally organizing the burning of Chicks records. So much for the marketplace of ideas: The right has cornered it, and is ready to squash competition like never before.
True to their punk ideals, NOFX (Burkett is joined by guitarists Aaron "El Hefe" Abeyta and Eric Melvin and drummer Erik Sandin) flipped the bird to mainstream devices, and positioned itself as the preeminent anti-Bush spokesman. Are its members worried about a backlash? Hardly.
"Now everyone is scared of being 'Dixie Chicked,'" Burkett says. "You say one thing bad about your government and you might lose a large portion of your fans. Good. Who wants a bunch of idiots for fans, anyway? Besides all that, I feel that it is the artists responsibility to speak out. Noam Chomsky recorded an entire speech on the same subject. If artists don't speak out, who will?"
Try telling that to fans. The Blood Brothers have been booed while speaking out against the war on stage. Radio stations have been loathe to play singles written to protest the latest Gulf War. While everyone from Zach De La Rocha to Sleater-Kinney has raised voices in protest of the increasingly uncompassionate business end of modern conservatism, they've only been embraced with lukewarm enthusiasm. No wonder so few artists have gone on the record as opposing the Oval Office.
That's much of the reason Burkett's dedicated himself to raising his voice: It's a rare thing these days. While many mainstream pundits will say he preaches to the choir -- giving punks, traditionally known for their antiestablishment views exactly what they want to hear -- the scene's overwhelming apathetic reaction to the rise of the right coupled with the lack of any sort of action taken by its musical leaders has shown that revolutionary spirit and punk rock don't go hand and hand like they used to in the old days.
"It may have been accurate in the '80s but not now. Punk rock is too big now," Burkett says. "A half million kids are going to buy the new NOFX album. Half of them are probably under 17 and probably don't know shit about world affairs. They're in school, doing homework and shit, probably not reading newspapers and reading political books. When I speak at a show, I can guarantee that I am not speaking to a converted crowd. More like a confused crowd. That's why a lot of people give me the finger when I talk shit about the president. Shit, in the '80s every fucking punk rocker hated Reagan. Now there's just a bunch of indifference.
"Most of them don't care because they don't feel they can change anything anyway," he continues. "How are they supposed to find anything out when the mainstream media is so far to the right anyway."
Of course, punk's not known for its grounding in realism. Extreme viewpoints and idealism have helped to shape punk ideology. That means that NOFX is destined to encounter extremists who contend that voting Democrat is akin to selling your soul to Satan. Of course, the other alternative means wooing the demon of. Toss in any number of left-wing third-party candidates, and the only real winner is a Republican candidate through a basic divide-and-conquer strategy, as left-wing votes are distributed among a horde of candidates, while the right rallies under a single contender for an easy victory.
That sort of realism puts Burkett directly counter to the Green Party trendiness that dominate most of the politically active underground in 2000. Sure, you may want to vote for Nader with your heart, but it's a wasted vote, which, ultimately cost Democrats the election.
"Nader fucked us," Burkett flatly states. "He needed five percent of the vote to be in the next debates, but it didn't matter where he got the five percent. He could of campaigned in states where Gore was a shoo-in, but he decided to also go to swing states where the elections were very close. Nader should have never campaigned in Florida. Bush would not be in office if he hadn't. Don't get me wrong, Ralph Nader is an American hero, but he did fuck this election up."
What's more important than the politics of vote-splitting and anti-Republicanism that are thrown about on The War on Errorism is the implications it has on the world of punk rock around it. Namely, the notion that a high-profile band that gets political can come as a shock. It never used to, but things have changed. Punks have girls on their minds. Bands have careers on their minds. It's a formula that's destined to lead to trouble: Political action, once the keystone of punk-rock ideology has faded into memories. Yeah, there's a few political bands making a racket in the underground, but the Good Riddances and Strike Anywheres are few and far between, and destined to languish in obscurity.
Here, however, is a top-shelf punk act willing to lay it all on the line in the name of the cause (it's a cause Burkett also pushes on his punkvoter.com site). There's no backing down or wiggling out of any sticky situations. NOFX has bucked the trend and delivered a record that celebrates old-school punk ideology.
It may still come as a shock, however. With scattered gross-out and silly songs among the act's zillions of records, The War on Errorism is a surprisingly poised record -- not the thing for which NOFX is really known. Let's hope its fans can make the switch.
"I can only hope that people take me a little seriously," Burkett says. "I hope our songs and ideas on our new CD stand on their own."
Stand up they do indeed. The only question is, are legions of high-school punks ready for that sort of lyrical weight? Burkett and his boys have thrown down the gauntlet. It's now time for their fans to live up to the challenge.