AGAINST ME!
by Blair Boyer

I am ashamed to admit that it was the obligatory record company comparison to The Clash that attracted me to Against Me!, a band as fond of the exclamation mark as it is of black t-shirts and Guinness. I was heading to see classicist Brisbane punk band The Disables perform at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne, and intrigued by the level of interest in the act they were supporting, decided to do a little research.

Of course the real story wasn't that the bands record company had compared them to The Clash, it is a common ruse used by promoters to sell bands today in a marketplace that has dredged the memory of Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon from the vaults of 1977 and ear-marked them as the chief influence of everything that wears leather and swears. The real story was that they had a record company. A major one. The avowedly anarchist Tom Gabel (vox/guitar), James Bowman (guitar/vox), Andrew Seward (bass/vox) and Warren Oakes (drums) had resisted the approaches of major labels since a groundswell of interest in the Floridian act was generated on the back of their first two LPs: the raw, fan-favorite 'Reinventing Axl Rose' (No Idea 2002) and the slightly slicker follow-up 'As the Eternal Cowboy' (Fat Wreck Chords 2003). These approaches, and the band's attempts to maintain their core fan base and anarchist ideology in the face of the excesses of the corporate music world, were the subject of a DVD in 2004 entitled 'We're Never Going Home' – a lyric from a track released on 'Eternal Cowboy' and a reference to the band's hard touring ethic. 

Their latest long player, and the album for which they were touring when I stumbled into their path, is entitled 'Searching for a Former Clarity' and marks the end of their tenure with punk label Fat Wreck Chords. On 21 December, 2005 Gabel and Co signed with Sire Records and faced alienating a considerable portion of their audience that had remained loyal in the belief that their anarchist flag bearers would be the last to fall to major label fire. Of course the decision to 'sell out' to the mainstream music distributors is rarely such a black and white issue and was one that caused Against Me! substantial heart ache. When interviewed on www.punknews.org, songwriter Gabel spoke of financial and time limitations that had affected the quality of the band's previous releases: "When I listen to some of those older recordings I start to pick out things that I know we would have done differently had we been given more time or had access to better recording equipment." 

For a band that has always taken a more artistic – as opposed to militant – approach to punk music, the opportunity to challenge themselves musically is a priority, and the move to Sire would suggest that the band is no longer willing to sacrifice artistic advances in favor of the cornerstone punk ethos that demands devotion to independent record labels. "Stagnation is my greatest fear," says Gabel, "…when it comes to playing music…you have to create situations where you feel challenged, where you're traveling outside of your safety zone. We've released 2 full-lengths, one DVD, and a 12" EP with Fat [Fat Wreck Chords]. It just felt like time to move on and try something different. I would hope that as a band we aren't limited to being just viewed as a punk band, 'cause when it comes down to it our tastes in music and our aspirations stretch way beyond those confines. I love punk, and it's an integral part of who I am but I'm not owned by it."

And it is here that Sire's comparisons between Against Me! and The Clash actually ring true. The Clash were famously referred to as 'the last gang in town' before signing to major label CBS in August of 1976. The Clash's justification for 'selling out' can be likened to the explanation offered by Gabel above. The fast, raw sound adopted by The Clash on their 1977 self-titled debut was heavily influenced by the New York Dolls, the Ramones and compatriots the Sex Pistols. The Clash didn't invent punk but neither did they pilfer the blueprint written by those bands and sell it to the major labels in exchange for buckets of cash and international stardom. Instead, the band used the opportunities provided by their label to break new ground in the genre by introducing elements of reggae, dub, folk and other styles. In short, they gave something back to the sound that had inspired their formation. The roots of the country/punk/folk sound synonymous with Against Me! lie in performers such as Billy Bragg, The Pogues and The Replacements (also signed to Sire Records along with the Ramones), however far from their records sounding derivative, they simply draw from these influences and add their own elements to create a genre that often defies classification. 

The bands' comments about the impetus for their switch to Sire Records suggests the limitations of their previous home could have stymied further innovations in their sound, and this would be disappointing not only for the band and its fans, but for the punk genre more broadly. 

These eternal cowboys may no longer be the last gang in town, but regardless of their move to a major label, their commitment to the ongoing relevance and continued growth of punk music will ensure they remain one of the few bands that matter. 

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