Slim’s, San Francisco
When NOFX took the stage they immediately told the sold-out crowd at Slim’s that they were tired and didn’t want to be there. But of course no one took them seriously. The Bay Area-based punks have kinda made their careers out of not being serious, in fact. NOFX shows are always a boisterously good time, and this was just the first bit of the sarcastic banter that makes their shows completely unpredictable and as funny as they are rockin. Hell, the band has as much fun at their shows as anyone else.
That’s because they do things entirely their own way. From their music to their shows — even their record label, Fat Wreck Chords — they’ve never bothered catering to anybody else’s expectations.
Far too many punk bands do seem to cater to some accepted definition of punk. Another local (but lesser-known) group, The Departed, opened the night with a solid set of generic three-chord punk. Their style seemed to play well to the masses, but it lacked anything like originality or volatility. They broke up the monotony at one point by playing a song that was reminiscent of the more layered indie-punk of Sleater-Kinney, but, after that, frontwoman Michelle Lockneck told the crowd they were going to “pick the pace back up.” Apparently, she meant they were going to continue churning out different variations of the same standard punk tune.
Now, if you’re really into punk then I can see how you’d like the Departed. They’ve got great energy on stage (and in the crowd after NOFX’s set, dancing to the house music), and drummer Nikki Stix carries a jaunty but propulsive beat with ease. I’ll be the first to admit that I am unfair about any music that I perceive as generic or pedestrian. What was really unfortunate for them, however, was that a video of a Dead Kennedys show was playing between sets. Jello Biafra’s hyper-manic stage show and the endless stream of stage-divers were a demonstration of the raw energy and power that punk once attained to. And, unfortunately, the Departed just didn’t measure up to that. They kinda got blown off the stage…by a DVD. Or at least would have, if the sound to the DVD had been turned up. Still, even without sound the Dead Kennedys were a lot more intriguing to watch than the Departed.
To be fair, few bands could measure up to the intensity of that Dead Kennedys show. Hell, NOFX didn’t either, in some ways.
Neither did the next supporting act, Strike Anywhere, who are nonetheless aptly named: them boys are damn near combustible on stage. They projected a fierce energy, jumping around and playing a much heavier and dense version of punk than the Departed. But still, they weren’t really offering anything that various other bands, like AFI and Strung Out, don’t already offer, which sort of negates any “outsider” status, a necessary component of punk, IMHO.
Whoever made the choice to play the Dead Kennedys video—whether it was the Slim’s staff or NOFX—made a grave error. Punk was supposed to be all about anti-establishmentarianism and outsider art, and at the time this video was shot, the Dead Kennedys come off as being punk as fuck, if only because they clearly are just doing things their own damn way. Right next to Biafra’s extreme animation, you’ve got Klaus Fluoride and East Bay Ray in the background meekly playing along. (Which makes me wonder how they ever earned themselves nicknames. Don’t you have to have character to get a nickname? I guess they’re much more interesting off-stage.) But hey, Klaus Fluoride and East Bay Ray were doing their thing, in a band where defying the status quo appears to have been the primary goal. And that’s what matters most.
The most impressive thing about the DK performance, though, was how they extended this anything-goes ethos to include the audience: the band’s complete acceptance of fans coming on stage, chugging their fists, knocking into the musicians, and then leaping back into the crowd was incredible.
The reason I say NOFX didn’t measure up to the intensity of the Dead Kennedys show is this: about halfway through their set, one single guy somehow got onstage, and not only was he not permitted to stage dive, but security guards quickly and roughly escorted him offstage.
That’s pretty damn lame.
But, to my mind, NOFX make up for it in many, many ways. And after all, if that’s not their thing then fine, it’s their show. For me, listening to singer/bassist Fat Mike’s satirical, sarcastic, and frequently hilarious lyrics (which have a lot in common with Jello’s, actually), more than makes up for the fact that I wasn’t allowed to get onstage and do a swan dive onto the concrete floor. And NOFX’s stage presence may not be as rowdy as DK’s was in their prime, but NOFX makes up for it with a presence quite possibly unique unto themselves (at least I’m not aware of any other band that could pull it off), as well as an inventive musical style that draws equally from punk, reggae, ska, and hardcore. NOFX is a true champion of the DIY ethic and a torchbearer of the outsider punk tradition.
As they launched into a reggae-fied version of “We March to the Beat of Indifferent Drum,” guitarist/trombonist El Hefe affected a Jamaican accent and hollered, “Jamaica, Jamaaaica.” Fat Mike wasn’t having that, though. He stopped the song and told El Hefe to do the intro again, because they were recording a live album that night and he didn’t want that on the record. When someone in the crowd apparently took issue with Fat Mike stopping a song that had already been started, he told that person, “We can do whatever we want.”
In fact, that’s exactly what NOFX has always done. Stopping songs that you’ve already started is supposed to be a cardinal sin in musical performance. NOFX doesn’t care; that wasn’t the only song they stopped.
While in the crowd, I heard some dude complaining that “they talk too much between songs.” This is, of course, another bit of music industry “wisdom:” Talking too long between songs supposedly loses your audience. This is a bit of wisdom that NOFX flouts mercilessly at every show, though. I don’t know what that dude was talking about: the between-songs banter—mostly between Fat Mike and El Hefe—is just as worth the ticket price as the music. And of course that dude was pogo-ing along with everyone else a few short minutes later.
NOFX may not allow stage-diving, but they engage the crowd more than any other band I’ve ever seen. For instance, at one point, as El Hefe laid into his trombone to start a song, Fat Mike stopped him.
“Stop! Stop! Look at what that girl is doing!”
El Hefe stopped and looked.
“Whoa,” he said, “that’s means your father didn’t give you enough attention when you were a kid.”
I guess they embarrassed the girl, because after the song El Hefe noticed she was gone. By the end of the show, however, she was back, mostly because El Hefe went out of his way to assure her: “We were just having a laugh at your expense.” (He meant it in the best way possible.)
Another girl asked Fat Mike to say “Happy Birthday Amy.” When he figured out the girl making the request was Amy, he led the band into a quick rendition of their song “Happy Birthday, You’re Not Special,” even throwing Amy’s name in and mentioning several times that she’s a crackwhore.
Okay, so I guess that maybe you had to be there. And yeah, Fat Mike and El Hefe really are kind of arrogant dicks at times, but it’s all in good fun. You get the feeling that these are old pals just hanging out, shootin the shit, playing music. It just so happens they hang out on stages with sell-out crowds watching them. Though they can be a bit cocky, the guys of NOFX can’t be accused of taking themselves too seriously. There’s also plenty of self-deprecating humor going on.
When someone handed Fat Mike a joint, he took it and raised it to his lips. Two crew-members and Fat Mike’s wife rushed on stage—for a moment I thought another dangerous, nihilistic crowd member was attempting to—horrors!—STAGE DIVE!!! But no, they were just there to take the joint away, though they looked more like they were mauling Fat Mike. “They let me have alcohol, coke, and ecstasy all tour long,” he immediately quips. “But apparently no marijuana. Good lookin’ out, guys.”
Fat Mike also told a story about a guy who flew in from Minnesota to attend the show the night before, and afterward invited them to go golfing the next morning. But he warned the band not to dress too weird because they were going to a ritzy country club and he didn’t want them to cause a scene. So, because they really wanted to play this course, the boys of NOFX put on their best golf duds and showed up to play. But the guy that had invited them had apparently been partying all night long, and ended up ODing on the second hole.
“His heart actually stopped beating. There were two fire trucks and an ambulance. EMT’s right there on the second hole. We played through though,” Fat Mike assured us. “It was a really nice course.”
Then they launched into “Whoops, I OD’d.”
Which brings me back to the music. NOFX ripped through crowd favorites like “Lineolum” and a cover of Rancid’s “Radio,” as well as several songs from their new album, like “Seeing Double at the Triple Rock” (which the band allegedly banned MTV from playing) and “Instant Crassic.” From the raucous, rockin’ punk tunes to their laid-back, reggae version of the Rancid song, NOFX pretty much nailed it all.
The true root of their individuality as a band is the fact that they resist any easy classification as just a “punk” band. What punk guitarist other than El Hefe, for example, would launch into a quiet, pretty version of “No Woman, No Cry” while the second guitarist is having technical problems?
Though a lot of Fat Mike’s lyrics aren’t meant to be taken seriously, some are exceptionally sincere and meaningful. Channeling the same contempt for the mainstream music industry that the Dead Kennedys were notorious for, NOFX played their song “Dinosaurs Will Die,” which lays out their vision for making music: “Music written from devotion not ambition, not for fame/Zero people are exploited there are no tricks up our sleeve/We’re gonna fight against the mass appeal/We’re gonna kill the seven-record deal/Make records that have more than one good song/The dinosaurs are gonna die and I do believe no one will cry.” Indeed, there were no teary eyes in the crowd that night.
Just in case there were any doubts left about where NOFX stands in relation to the establishment, they closed with their song “The Idiot Son of an Asshole,” an ode to the president.