It may have been an inconspicuous debut, but it set the course for one of today’s most vital and exciting punk bands, still going strong two decades on
In The Sopranos episode “A Hit Is A Hit,” we see Christopher Moltisanti desperately trying to pitch the band Visiting Day to a skeptical Hesh Rafkin.
When Hesh tells him that his band is not a hit, Christopher wants to know why Hesh thinks that. “For reasons we can’t comprehend and codify,” he angrily replies. Hesh’s response may seem wishy-washy, but there’s some truth to what he says. Sometimes, discriminating ears can just tell when a band or artist has the X-factor.
On first listen to Against Me!’s debut album, Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose, one might almost instantly dismiss the record. It’s understandable; the recording is murky and poorly mixed and sounds exactly like what it is: a very hasty recording made in the most primitive of studios and for almost no money. And what exactly is the lead singer saying? Good luck working it out without the lyric sheet. All in all, one’s first impression of Reinventing Axl Rose is that it’s messy.
But there’s something going on here that soon becomes apparent. In spite of all its flaws, Reinventing Axl Rose has…something. You can’t identify it, but this record possesses something special.
Laura Jane Grace began making music in the late 1990s, performing and recording as Against Me in and around her hometown of Gainesville, Florida. Her music up to this time was largely acoustic in nature, but more out of necessity than design; early recordings simply featured her with a drummer. By 2001, she had recruited guitarist James Bowman, bassist Dustin Fridkin, and drummer Warren Oakes. The newly-formed band would enter the studio and hastily record their debut album, Against Me! is Reinventing Axl Rose, over the course of two main recording sessions in December 2001.
While the fidelity might have left something to be desired—Reinventing Axl Rose is lo-fi for financial reasons, not aesthetic ones—one undeniable thing stood out: that voice. Grace sings these anthems with a rough-hewn and occasionally painful rawness; a Joe Strummer with a fully shot voice mixed with a Blake Schwarzenbach rawness that can’t be denied. It doesn’t hurt that the band behind him is a tight one; their musical arrangements run the punk gauntlet from The Clash and Jawbreaker to more contemporary bands such as The Old 97s, Flogging Molly, Lucero, and Dropkick Murphys. In other words, Against Me! wasn’t reinventing the wheel, but their take on anachro-punk wasn’t derivative, either.
VIDEO: Fan video of Against Me! performing Reinventing Axl Rose in 2016
Yet the low-rent recording quality and the hasty, urgent arrangements make the record appealing, and the urgency and humor of the lyrics (once you can discern them) simply shine through. The anti-love song “Baby, I’m An Anarchist!” will make you smile with its tale of romantic disharmony based on who has the most leftist stance. Elsewhere, on “The Politics of Starving” and “Walking Is Still Free,” the anarchist politics are on full display, offering serious thoughts on the subject at hand while presenting them in an enjoyable, singalong fashion. Meanwhile, “We Laugh At Danger” feels less like a punk anthem for the audience and more like the band’s personal manifesto going forward; it describes the band’s mission to get outside of the safe confines of Florida’s borders, because they want to take over the world. With its catchy melody—the band breaking down in hysterics with its friends over the chorus of “Because if Florida takes us/We’re taking everyone down with us”—Grace is promising great things when the band gets better.
And indeed, Against Me! did get better. Upon release, Reinventing Axl Rose sold quite well—maybe not so much in mainstream commercial terms, but in the punk underground of the era, it proved quite successful–and it fermented the band’s reputation as a fresh new voice in the punk world. What the record lacked in fidelity, the band made up for in the live setting, and these songs quickly became anthems. You might not have gotten the lyrics when you listened to the album, but live was another matter: those songs blossomed into the anthems one suspected they were. Grace still thinks highly of the album; in looking at the band’s setlists over the past decade, one sees they still play nearly half of Reinventing Axl Rose live.
Not long after Reinventing Axl Rose was released, California punk label Fat Wreck Chords signed them. Their second album, Against Me! as The Eternal Cowboy, came out a year later, and the maturity is stunning: the fidelity clean, the songs tight, the music aggressive. Indeed, it didn’t take long for Against Me! to find their place in the independent music world.
Reinventing Axl Rose may have been an inconspicuous debut, but it set the course for one of today’s most vital and exciting punk bands, still going strong two decades on.