Against Me!’s classic debut album ‘Reinventing Axl Rose’ turns 20
Early and often, Laura Jane Grace pinned the target squarely to her own back–or maybe it was a bum flap.
Against Me!’s early material underscored the commonality between a punk rock “how-to” manual and a manifesto of radical left-wing politics. Rooted in DIY ethos (back when the acronym actually meant band members themselves handling the logistical side of playing in a band), Grace’s lyrics were uncompromising in delivery and in substance. But to espouse lofty ideals is to invite scrutiny in their pursuit.
Purists were quick to turn on Against Me! at each incremental stage of their well-documented “selling out”. First to Gainesville’s own No Idea Records, next to the venerated independent label Fat Wreck Chords and ultimately to the Warned-owned Sire Records. Tension reached a fever pitch with punk rock figureheads and underground music publications urging disgruntled former fans to slash van tires, vandalize merch and otherwise “protest” the band’s shows. In 2007, Grace spent a night in jail on a battery charge after a heated confrontation in a Tallahassee coffee shop.
In hindsight, why were the band’s “fans” so deeply offended by four Florida twenty-somethings fighting for their own financial survival during the fallout of the Napster Era? Is it so inherently un-punk to want the records you create to have the best possible chance of reaching the broadest conceivable audience? And if it is, does “punk” even matter anymore? Where’s the divide? Maybe the answers stem from one imperfect storm of a record, released two decades ago this Saturday (3/5).
Like many punk rock records that have stood the test of time, Reinventing Axl Rose is the sum total of a limited budget, youthful energy, and a special collection of songs.
Against Me! checked into Gainesville’s Goldentone Studios in December of 2001 and recorded the songs that would become Reinventing Axl Rose in one day. After listening back, the band decided that the first cuts were “too fast,” returning to track the songs a second time–also in a single day. The original take of “Walking is Still Honest,” however, made the record. All in, Reinventing Axl Rose cost $800 to record. At the time, when Against Me! wasn’t on tour, Grace worked as an auto mechanic during the day and checked IDs at a local bar called The Top at night. She made the immediately-recognizable cover art herself with a gluestick and an X-Acto knife.
The bedrock guitar sound on the record, which Grace identifies as a Martin acoustic through a Peavey amp, blurs the line between conventional acoustic and electric tones (perhaps intentionally, given the project’s acoustic roots). She saws away at chord voicings so, shall we say, “inventive,” that Grace herself struggled to decrypt her own guitar parts when re-learning the songs in preparation for a full-album set at Fest featuring original bassist Dustin Fridkin. Even for a band accustomed to less-than-conventional drum setups, then-drummer Warren Oakes’ 12” snare drum sits somewhere between a shrill ring and a crack in the mix, possibly due to its built-in tambourine.
In 2017, Grace would refer to the production as “terrible sounding." Admittedly, Reinventing Axl Rose bears some stark sonic differences, to put it lightly, when held up to the band’s two records with Butch Vig. But the core concept was important: with the right attitude, even you could make a statement without spending thousands of dollars at a recording studio. And that mattered.
Thematically, Reinventing Axl Rose couldn’t have set its sights higher. Even the record’s tongue-in-cheek title (aimed at Grace’s childhood hero) basically boils down to “kill your idols.” In just 31 minutes, with the clear-eyed confidence and shameless urgency only found in the twilight of one’s teenage years, Grace manages to blend classic punk tropes and scene politics with vignettes of her own family history and personal relationships. And then there’s The Song. In case the band’s ideology somehow remained obscured through the first eight tracks, “Baby, I’m an Anarchist,” originally written for one of Grace’s prior bands, sets the proverbial record straight. With lyrics melodramatic almost to the point of parody and a swaying waltz that could not have been engineered in a laboratory to better suit a Guinness-fueled encore, Grace had set herself up for decades of interview probing about her political beliefs. It would prove an albatross she’d overtly cast from her neck a decade later in a way that, you guessed it–made “punks” even angrier.
The record’s title track brings another set of near-impossible ideals:
We want a band that plays loud and hard every night
That doesn't care how many people are counted at the door
That would travel one million miles and ask for nothing more
Than a plate of food and a place to rest
Whether autobiographical, aspirational or somewhere in between, Grace lays out the definitive blueprints as to how a punk band should operate in only two minutes and twenty-four seconds. When confronted with these lyrics in 2011, and asked point-blank whether she thought Against Me! had “lived up to those words,” Grace responded “I think we do that. I mean, fuck, we’ve played 1,600 shows or so in the past ten years. I physically don’t think it would have been possible for us to play more shows if we wanted to. We’re always trying to do better.” But by taking actual arena tours, did Against Me! implicitly turn their backs on “basements and bookstores across an underground America”? Cynics will be cynics, but history has a funny way of sorting itself out.
A number of the songs on Reinventing Axl Rose were re-recordings of prior material, spread across various releases and written or arranged with changing lineups. Among these is the penultimate track and album standout, “Walking is Still Honest” (one of my very favorite songs). Originally released as a blown out guitar and vocals-only affair on the band’s 2000 self-titled EP, Grace and then-drummer Kevin McMahon sped the song up and shaved 15 seconds when adding drums for the two-piece version on 2001’s Crime as Forgiven by Against Me!. As the only song kept from the prior “too fast” weekend of recording, the album version checks in at 2:37.
“You know, that’s one of the few songs that has always felt relevant to me,” Grace said of “Walking is Still Honest” in 2017. “There’s never been a time when we’ve played it, and I've like, ‘ugh, hurry up let’s get to the next song,’ you know? Or felt out of touch with who I was when I wrote it. It’s a song that has continued to evolve and change if it’s going to have that kind of lasting power, and the meaning of it too. But I listen to that and I’m taken immediately back to the little, tiny, small shack that I lived in at the time when I wrote it. And I can feel everything about it.” When Against Me! plays the song now, it takes about two minutes and ten seconds.
Against Me! was clearly not the only band playing overtly anti-establishment, political punk music at the beginning of the Bush Administration, so why were they such a target? Few of their peers can plausibly claim to have even once faced anywhere near the amount of backlash that Against Me! did at multiple points in their career. Admittedly, not all of their peer bands had (or took) opportunities to sign to major labels or play arena tours with some of the biggest rock bands on the planet, but a number of them did. Against Me! was an easy target because they set the bar too high, early in their discography, and would not apologize for it.
By Grace’s own admissions, Reinventing Axl Rose did not set an unattainable standard of instrumental musicianship or recording fidelity–nor was it designed to. Put another way, punks did not turn on Against Me! because Laura Jane Grace learned how to play actual chords by the time the band released another record–or because the drum sounds on As The Eternal Cowboy are better than Reinventing Axl Rose. Punks turned on Against Me! because of the impossible promise made by Reinventing Axl Rose’s spirit.
Producer Rob McGregor recorded and mixed the guitars, drums and bass without relying on any excessive production “treatment" or studio tricks. As a result, sonically, the record exists as a faithful representation of the sum of its parts–four broke Gainesville punks standing in a room together and playing their parts to a “good enough” standard before moving on to the next song. And then re-doing the entire process because it was “too fast” the first time around.
At the forefront of the squalor is Grace, delivering each would-be chorus and verse with the unmistakable urgency and conviction of a 20-year-old who truly believes that the sky is really falling. Accented intermittently by James Bowman’s signature vibrato and backed by a veritable army of friends, Grace makes her points in a way that leaves listeners thinking “okay, this band really does mean it.” The unbridled passion and sincerity have manifested in the band’s live show for over 20 years–almost every song on Reinventing Axl Rose could open or close a live set. And when the band plays these songs, Against Me! fans give it right back.
Grace and company didn’t just play and sing like they had nothing to lose, the lyrics themselves were equally dedicated. “Spineless” liberalism is not enough. Door money is a luxury. If the van can’t last another tour, we have nothing left to live for. Anybody not similarly committed to these ideals is left behind. In other words, a road map for how a skeptical punk audience might form strong opinions on whether the band was “walking the talk.” But at the same time, a hell of an album.
“You've got to give credit where credit's due,” said Grace in 2017, in the process of ranking Reinventing Axl Rose as Against Me!’s second-best record. “Those songs carried my career for however fucking long they carried my career. While maybe a lot of those songs have come out of the setlist now, we played the shit out of them for 20 years. But we play ‘Walking Is Still Honest’ and ‘Pints of Guinness Make You Strong’ every single night. Every single fuckin' night. And I wrote those songs when I was 17. I'm fuckin' 36, you know? You just have to acknowledge that.”