All Time Awesome Record: Against Me! - Reinventing Axl RoseSteve O - December 1, 2015
Show of hands, how many of you have ever read the metal magazine, Decibel? Oh, right, this is the internet. Anyways, they do this great thing called the Hall of Fame, which essentially tells the whole story of a classic metal record, from writing to recording to touring and what-have you. It’s one of my favorite parts of each issue, whether I agree with the record of choice or not. And it’s such an interesting topic to think about too. Is this a classic record, worthy of a Hall of Fame designation, or just pretty damn good?
Since I started contributing to Change the Rotation, I thought it would be fun to try something like Decibel’s Hall of Fame. Obviously, we can’t do the same thing. For one, they talk with everyone who played on the record, and a little blog like this doesn’t have the clout to do something like that. After much pondering the issue, I thought of something we could do: We can talk about some of our favorite records. Not just records one of us likes, or that we think are pretty good, or that we’ve been listening to a lot lately, but records that have stood the test of time and have had a meaningful impact on each of us. An All Time Awesome Record.
After more deliberation about how to do this and worthy records for induction, I am proud to introduce the new, hopefully somewhat regular, feature to Change the Rotation. A record that is at least five years old and has received unanimous support for induction from all three of us. A record that has had some meaningful, lasting impact on us. A record that is so good we recruited a friend to talk about it with us. A record that is so good it deserves the title: All Time Awesome Record.
Our first test subject, I mean guest, is our good friend Danny Brawlins. He’s the founder of Don’t Panic, It’s A Distro, an organization we work closely with. He’s the one who brings you all sorts of awesome shows and records in a shoebox. He’s also a Cheap Date. As in, a member of the band the Cheap Dates. You can, and should, check them out here: facebook.com/thecheapdateschicago / thecheapdates.bandcamp.com. And if you don’t already, keep up with everything Don’t Panic, It’s A Distro does over here: facebook.com/dontpanicdistro.
Just about a year ago we named Against Me!’s newest record, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, as the best record of 2014. We all loved it, and it defeated some great records in its march to glory. It’s another tally mark on their great career, chock-full of great songs that join a catalog of great songs stretching back 15-plus years. And so with our initial All Time Awesome Record, we take a look at Against Me!’s seminal, 2002, full length debut, Reinventing Axl Rose.
Why does this record deserve to be an All Time Awesome Record (ATAR)?
Phil: Reinventing Axl Rose is one of those records that only comes around every so often. It feels like a greatest hits collection in that there is no lull anywhere on the album.
Davey: This album has been around 13 years and it still hits so strong. These songs have been in peoples’ heads for so long and it’s continuing to bring in new ears every day.
Steve O: It lays the groundwork for what we know as Against Me! today. For many people, everything Against Me! has done is compared to Reinventing Axl Rose, whether that's fair or not.
Davey: Folks’ eyes light up when they hear these songs either live or just in a cover or recording.
Steve O: The songs still have an important message, still have a sense of urgency, and still get stuck in your head.
Phil: From front to back, I get charged up listening to it every time. I can come home after a long day, put it on loud and find myself in a more positive space by the end of it.
Davey: It shows the diversity of messages, themes, and musical styles that Against Me! is able to offer. I feel like it also shows what it means to have a mastery of both acoustic and punk styles.
Steve O: It has so many vibes, from spontaneous fun (“We Laugh at Danger and Break All the Rules”), urgent chaos (“The Politics of Starving”), and a melancholic, heartfelt sincerity (“8 Full Hours of Sleep”).
Danny: Not only is it the awesome-est record from an all time awesome band but it was also a pretty fresh approach to punk rock for its time making it not just an awesome record, but an ALL TIME awesome record!
Steve O: It’s been over a decade since I first heard this record, and I still love it as much as I did all those years ago.
Davey: And gang vocals. Hell yeah to gang vocals.
Do you remember the 1st time you heard this band/record? What makes it so memorable?
Danny: I wanna say the first time I heard Against Me! was in my friend’s older brother’s car on the way to school freshman year sometime in 2003 or 2004. He used to play a lot of emo and pop punk so hearing Against Me! come on was like, “woah, this is something different.” I was just getting into punk rock at the time so I would raid his iTunes for anything punk. I came across Against Me! while doing this. He had them labeled as “Cajun Punk;” Folk Punk wasn’t really a well-established genre at the time. The title fit though. Maybe it’s just because I was introduced to Against Me! that way but I feel like it has a pretty Cajun vibe to it. Like the Popeye’s Chicken of punk rock? Maybe…
Steve O: I picked up Reinventing Axl Rose at Record Breakers, back during their glorious Hoffman days. I’m pretty sure I already had a burned copy of As the Eternal Cowboy, and it was either shortly before or after I picked up a copy of Searching for a Former Clarity. So we’re talking 2005, though I had definitely heard the record before I grabbed my own copy.
Phil: I know I was late to the game with Against Me!. Danny, Steve O and I caught them at Warped Tour in 2006. They were touring in support of Searching for a Former Clarity. I think I knew the song “From Her Lips to God’s Ears” at the time, but that was about it. I was very angry with the Bush administration during those years and really resented the pro-war = patriotism sentiment in our culture. So, this was a song that didn’t take long to grab my ear.
Davey: While I don’t remember the first time I listened to this album, I cannot forget the summer that it consumed my life. I had just gotten done with my first year at school, one of the most ridiculous years of my life, and I got my hands on Reinventing Axl Rose around the time summer hit. I had known and really dug some of their newer popular songs (“Thrash Unreal”), but once I heard “Pints of Guinness…” I was hooked.
Steve O: It’s easy to call it memorable because of the nostalgia factor, but I don’t think that has much to do with it. It’s one of those records that just had so many important things to say, portrayed in such a powerful, yet raw, way, that it really sticks with you.
Davey: I was floored by the energy and the CD stayed in my car for weeks at a time. Especially as someone who was interested in the intersections of acoustic and punk music (I hadn’t heard of folk punk yet), this was one of the coolest, most exciting things I could have heard at the time. I have no doubt that it influenced the way I thought about the art I made from that point onwards.
Phil: The time I next saw them at the House of Blues, in late 2007, I had listened to Reinventing Axl Rose many times. It had become my favorite Against Me! record and it remains that way today.
Danny: From the energizing intro of “Pints of Guinness…” to the melancholic ring out of “8 Full Hours of Sleep,” this record is solid throughout. It’s got everything; sing along choruses held together with meaningful lyrics, driving electric guitars intertwined with acoustic, and an incredible rhythm section to back it all up. This record doesn’t just make you move, it makes you think; and that’s always been my favorite quality of punk rock.
What is your favorite song(s) and why?
Steve O: The second half of the record is fucking fantastic. “Those Anarcho Punks are Mysterious…,” “Reinventing Axl Rose,” “Baby, I’m an Anarchist!,” “Walking is Still Honest.” I love the message that they all have, I love the lyrics, I love the music, even the arrangements, like in the way “Walking is Still Honest” gets so chaotic during the second verse, or the way certain lines about burning flags and killing “whitey” are emphasized during the relative calm of “Baby, I’m an Anarchist!” To this day, those are still some of my favorite Against Me! songs.
Danny: “Reinventing Axl Rose” is definitely my favorite song on this album. I can’t even put it in words, every lyric resonates with me. I think it’s like I said before, catchy, meaningful and backed up by a REALLY fucking solid bass line.
Phil: It is really difficult to pick one or two songs off this record, which speaks to why it deserves this kind of recognition. When “Those Anarcho Punks are Mysterious…” comes on, I can’t do anything else but listen and sing along. I’m a big fan of songs without choruses. Songs that just drive forward and tell a story or make a statement. It takes strength to abandon the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure. Yet this is a relatively simple song with minimal instrumentation beyond an acoustic guitar. The lyrics are so important. They carry the song.
Davey: I don’t even know. My favorite thing is that I can’t really pick a favorite. “Pints of Guinness…” has the energy and sound that definitely hooked me in, though. I’ll say it’s my favorite because it introduces us into what is going to be an awesome experience.
What is your favorite line(s) from the record and why?
Danny: “I was burning that fucker and stringing my black flag high” is probably the most fun thing you can possibly scream at the top of your lungs!
Davey: It’s hard for me to pick one, but lyrically I think that “Those Anarcho Punks…” is my favorite. From personal to highly political, this song is able to make statements that supports and upholds punk ideals while being able to take a step back and criticize them.
Phil: “And it’s so much less confusing when lines are drawn like that, when people are either consumers or revolutionaries, enemies or friends hanging on the fringes of the cogs in the system.” This line comes from the heart of “Those Anarcho Punks are Mysterious….” I think it’s true that it’s always better for the people in charge if the masses think in very black-and-white terms about whom our enemies are and who our friends are. It’s a lot easier to paint someone as an enemy if they can be immediately and doubtlessly thrown into a pre-existing depiction of what an enemy looks like. This kind of “us against them” mentality encourages a violent, ignorant society. This is also a really fun line to sing along to.
Danny: “Reinventing Axl Rose” in its entirety.
Steve O: The entirety of “Reinventing Axl Rose” is important, and sums up why so many people get involved with DIY music, and what so many people find important about that scene, and music in general. My favorite is “Just give me a scene, where the music is free, and the beer is not the life of the party.” Yeah, we all love free things, but it’s the second half of that line that really makes a difference. Maybe it’s me being straight edge, (actually it probably is), but that’s a totally radical thing; “where the beer is not the life of the party.” I’ve been to shows where your mohawked, circle-A-patched, punk-as-fuck character is so fucked up, a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, that they can barely stand. How much of the message are they taking away? How much of the band’s set will they remember? Are they contributing to the scene, the inclusiveness of it, or are they just portraying a stereotype? Which side are they on? The side of solidarity, respect, inclusiveness, support, and power to make a substantial difference that DIY punk stresses and embodies? Or the side that simply portrays us as a bunch of fucked up freaks? I think that’s an important discussion that punk needs to have. But the power of this line is its subtlety. It’s slipped in there, amongst all of these other values we pride ourselves on. It’s just a simple statement, that says it’s okay not to drink, that’s not the point of all this. But that really is a powerful statement.
Danny: “And tomorrow, America just might fall apart.” This is the lyric that’s moved me the most over the years. Laura delivers it so earnestly with a touch of hopefulness and uncertainty. There’s something fascinating about being able to find beauty in destruction. “When you sleep, no one is homeless. When you sleep, you can't feel the hunger.” Sometimes it’s just nice to dream.
Do you have a memorable experience involving some element of the record?
Davey: I remember when I worked at my park district cutting grass all around town all day. At one park, the group I was with decided that we weren’t going to do anything for a while, so I just laid back in the grass, closed my eyes, and let the sun hit my face while these songs blasted in my ears. It was fuckin’ great.
Danny: The first time I went to the 7th Street Space in DeKalb, I immediately thought of “Reinventing Axl Rose.” It was a free show, the bands played loud and hard without caring about how many people were there, the beer wasn’t the life of the party, and by the end of the night, you bet I was dancing like no one was watching. Over the years, that thought was only reinforced by attending, playing, and organizing more and more shows there.
Steve O: When Midstress played in at the 7th Street Space in DeKalb a couple of years ago, they covered “Reinventing Axl Rose.” That song is just a perfect summation of DIY music scenes, what’s important with music, and what we had in DeKalb.
Danny: One night Midstress played the fucking song! And I flipped out because it was too perfect. It was like everything coming full circle.
Steve O: Back when I lived in DeKalb, we threw a party at our place. At some point “Baby, I’m an Anarchist!” came on. This was before we really knew most of the punks in DeKalb, and there wasn’t much of a reaction from most people. But Danny, our friend Rob, and I all stood together and screamed along. It was a good example of the camaraderie that music like this can create.
Phil: I remember sitting around a bonfire at Steve O’s one summer and someone put this record on. It was better than whatever we were listening to before, but it also made it hard to focus on anything but the music. When a song or an album that you know most of the words to comes on at a bar or a party, it’s hard to tune it out. That was a nice summer night.
Have you seen the band live? Does that strengthen the case for ATAR induction?
Steve O: A couple times. The most recent was a solo show Laura Jane Grace did last December, where she played a chronological story, both of her life and Against Me!, which included a handful of songs from this era.
Davey: A few times, in the last couple years, the best being at Durty Nellie’s in Palatine last year. The crowd was a mixture of fans, new and old, with many folks in the LGBTQ community. Laura Jane Grace was wearing an old punk rock seditionary shirt from the original punk rock era, which is just a picture of breasts over the chest part of the shirt. In the context of her life as well as ours, I believe that was one of the most symbolically punk things I’ve ever witnessed. The energy was already high but every time they played a song from this album things were amped up to a new level. It was super wonderful.
Phil: I’ve seen Against Me! play a handful of times: at Warped Tour in 2006, at the House of Blues in 2007, at Lollapalooza in 2010, at Riot Fest in 2013 and at Durty Nellie’s in 2014. They continue to play songs off Reinventing Axl Rose and those moments are always among the highlights of the night. They have plenty of strong songs from other releases, but it feels special when they play “I Still Love You Julie” or “Walking is Still Honest.”
Danny: I’ve seen Against Me! three times. Once at Warped Tour in 2006, again at the House of Blues in 2007 and the last time was at Riot Fest in 2013. When I first saw Against Me! I was still just getting into them. I think seeing them play live is really what did it for me because I’ve been a huge fan ever since. Each time I’ve seen them, the songs from Reinventing Axl Rose have been the most memorable part of their set. “Reinventing Axl Rose” in 2006, “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” in 2007 and “Walking is Still Honest” in 2013; those were all outstanding moments for me.
What kind of impact has the band/record had on your life?
Steve O: Against Me! has provided me, over the span of a decade, with multiple records that I thoroughly enjoy; given me a bond with many people who have the same love of the band and their music. That’s kind of the whole point of this sort of music, right?
Davey: I think this album has definitely affected the way that I write and think about music, especially in terms of playing acoustic/folk music with punk roots.
Danny: “Reinventing Axl Rose” was my introduction to DIY as an ideology and in that it’s had a lasting effect on me. As a musician, I’ve taken that approach to so many things in life. Sonically speaking, it’s also influenced the way I make music. To this day I still try to mimic the way Laura screams in between her “woahs.”
Davey: I got into this band at a late point compared to many other people. I had already been into punk for a long time and was honestly not listening to much of it anymore. This album was one of many that catapulted me right back into finding punk new and fresh again and having it take hold of my life and the way I lived it. Against Me! in general has influenced the way I think about what it means to make records and the relationships that people have with bands who go the DIY route and the ones that don’t. It reminds me of how complicated this issue is and how easy it is to fall in the trap of thinking about things in terms of “selling out.”
Phil: I find inspiration in the band’s career arc. They went from being revered in the DIY punk community to signing with a small, well-liked label to signing with a big label in the punk world, at which point they faced some backlash from their fanbase to signing with a major label at which point everything changed to releasing their latest album themselves on their own label, at which point everything changed again. This whole time, I think they have just been doing what they think is the best move for them and I get that. I am very happy to see them in a newfound prime with this new record and new lineup. They’ve been through it all and at this point they are as strong as ever.
Davey: Seeing the effects of Laura Jane Grace’s story and life on people has been an awe-inducing experience. I have been moved and inspired by the stories and love surrounding the people that have been positively affected by her existence and her messages.
Why would you recommend this record to someone?
Phil: I would recommend Reinventing Axl Rose to people who like to get fired up listening to music. This is a record for people who want more from songs than just being good jams. This is a record you can connect with deeply and come back to again and again.
Davey: Do you like catchy choruses? Do you like bands who put their souls into their performances and words? Do you like to yell? Do you like to have fun? I know you do. There are so many things to like about this album.
Steve O: There’s a lot of sing-alongs, if that’s your thing, and there’s a lot of energy. It’s catchy too, which is usually a good thing.
Danny: There are so many elements that make this a good album. It’s a great introduction to punk rock and to folk punk; it’s very widely appealing. Also, aside from maybe their newest record, I’d say Reinventing Axl Rose is the best introduction to Against Me!.
Steve O: There’s a lot of important messages on the record, both in terms of larger politics (“Baby, I’m an Anarchist!,” “The Politics of Starving”), personal (“We Laugh at Danger and Break all the Rules,” “Walking is Still Honest”), and the punk scene (“Those Anarcho Punks are Mysterious…,” “Reinventing Axl Rose”). If you’re not the kind who likes important political messages in your music, well, just don’t think about it in that sense. Think of it in terms of a record that just fucking rocks.