Category: article

Old shirts and introverts

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I found an old shirt in my closet the other day. It was my high school uniform shirt, yellowed with age and crumpled in a box. I spent a lot time in shirts like this as a teenager, and it feels odd to look at it now, a relic from a strange, insular world now long gone. One of the traditions of the final day of school is to sign the shirts of other people, leaving little messages on the fabric. As I recall, some people barely had enough space on their shirt to fit all these messages. I was not one of these people. I was never particularly popular, and no one was clamouring for the real estate. I was just a quiet guy that no one really knew anything about. One of the few messages on my shirt reads ‘Hi Luke, u didn’t say much but ur great’. Well, at least they got my name right, I suppose. One of the things that stand out about the few messages that I did get however, is a recurring reference to a particular band. One message reads ‘Have a Green Day!’, written by some guy who I never spoke to. Another message reads ‘Billie Joe is a hillbilly, get a cooler idol’, left by one of the guys who always seemed to be into much cooler music than I was. Yet another oddly specific message informs me that ‘Green Day have little talent but sound cool’. Seems a little contradictory to me, but whatever. From these messages, it seems that one thing was known about me – that I really liked Green Day. Despite being quiet and shy, that fact had still managed to become known.

Thinking back, I suppose I did have a habit of playing their music frequently in the common room. Oh, and I did dye my hair blue that one time, after I saw that Billie Joe had once done the same, although the end result looked like I’d had an accident with blue toilet cleaner. I also shamelessly aped his fashion sense, usually failing to pull it off. With all that in mind, I suppose it makes sense that I was known for my slight obsession with them. But, what strikes me now is how strongly I identified with them, and how they gave me an image that I felt I could embrace during those unsure teenage years. It comforted me, I suppose. Only now as I look at an old, yellowing shirt do I realise just how much their music helped me through that time. I suppose I could also mention the symbolism of reminiscing over an aged high school shirt when I myself am growing older, but I think I’ll leave that alone.

Let’s start again. This post was meant to be about something else entirely, and I’ve gotten a little side-tracked. I also should really clean out my closet. Anyway, what I originally planned to talk about was Insomniac, Green Day’s 1995 follow-up to Dookie. It’s an album that doesn’t seem to get much attention, even from the band themselves, who only tended to include the songs Geek Stink Breath and Brain Stew/Jaded on their setlists. I’ve written on here before about my love of the album Dookie. Whilst it is true that I still love the album, I feel that I should probably make a confession – it isn’t my favourite Green Day record, nor was it the first album of theirs that I listened to for any length of time. Nope, that album would be Insomniac.

It’s easy to dismiss Insomniac as the edgier, lamer and less-successful version of Dookie. It isn’t as accessible. It’s harsher, darker and more abrasive. It didn’t sell as well. In some ways, it follows the tradition of the ‘after the success’ album, much like Nirvana’s In Utero. But, although Insomniac may not break any new ground, it is a ferocious, visceral album that blasts relentlessly forward, speeding through its songs in just under 33 minutes. I always found this album to be recklessly joyful in its approach, which is slightly odd, considering the darkness of the lyrics. The opening song Armatage Shanks is an example of this, Billie Joe’s painfully detailed and perversely proud self-assessment being something I have always found uncomfortably easy to relate to. Overall, the album retains all the melodies and hooks that Green Day are so adept at, and displays some of Mike Dirnt’s best playing, his bass parts being a highlight of the album, especially in songs like Stuck With Me and Stuart and the Avenue. The album simply doesn’t let up, and I always find myself going back to it.

I was going to go further into detail, but I think I’ll save that for another post. I’ve also been listening to Smash a lot lately, so I might write something about that, too. It’s another one of those albums that I often return to. It’s funny how particular albums can become tied to memory, and provide access to certain points in time. We all have our soundtracks, and they do say that the best memories are set to music. At least I think they say that, anyway.

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Animal Farm by George Orwell – An analysis/summary … thing?

This is a summary/analysis of Animal Farm by George Orwell that I wrote for yet another class. I think I messed this up a bit – it isn’t really clear what this piece is supposed to be. Regardless, still a great book (or novella, I suppose).

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Animal Farm is an allegorical novella by George Orwell, first published in England in 1945. Containing many of the elements and themes that would later define Orwell as a writer, it has come to be one of his most celebrated works, placed only alongside 1984 in terms of its impact and legacy. A symbolic retelling of the events leading up the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the subsequent Stalinist period of Soviet Russia, it incorporates Orwell’s keen awareness of social justice with the dystopian setting that has become so associated with his work. Through the setting of Manor Farm and the satirical animals that inhabit it, Orwell presents a metafictional work that draws attention to itself as a representation of history, but also serves as a warning about the dangers of power and the methods in which it is attained and used.

The initial conflict is between human and animal, as Mr. Jones, the owner of Manor Farm, is a cruel and irresponsible drunkard. He is seen by the animals as a representation of all that is wrong with mankind, and they soon resolve to overthrow him, with the pigs of the farm the driving force behind this movement. Old Major, an elderly pig, delivers a rousing speech to the assembled animals, and creates the philosophy known in the novella as ‘Animalism’. Espousing that all animals are created equal, Old Major myopically places blame on mankind for all of their troubles. This speech also illustrates the great power that language can have over crowds, and serves as the inciting incident for the story. He finds supporters in Snowball and Napoleon; two adult pigs who soon become leaders of the newly-found movement. Seven commandments are written upon the barn wall, to serve as a guiding reminder of the shared values they hold. Old Major also imparts a warning that will increase in relevance as the story continues – that ‘in fighting against man, we must not come to resemble him’. All characters are given easily identifiable characteristics, from the slow-witted but powerful Boxer, to the infantile and immature Millie, and all are united in the common goal of overthrowing their human masters.

After the death of Old Major, the animals soon rebel and drive the humans from the farm, destroying all traces of the former regime. The pigs are established as the new leaders, tasked with educating the other animals about Animalism. Snowball and Napoleon are established as the de facto leaders of the farm, which is renamed ‘Animal Farm’. However, conflict between these two characters soon arises, with Napoleon’s theft of communal milk serving as an early delineation between the two. In contrast to Snowball’s high-minded and noble ideals, Napoleon, a ‘fierce-looking boar’,  is concerned with power and is ruthlessly fixed on attaining it. At this point, their revolution has been successful, however it soon becomes clear that the difference between philosophy and implementation is far more marked than the animals may have believed.

At first, the farm operates well, but we soon see the character of the pigs begin to change, with Napoleon and Squealer, the fast-talking mouthpiece of the leadership, showing the most noticeable transformations. The pigs do not assist with any of the work, merely standing behind the other animals as they toil, and begin to appropriate food for themselves alone, which is relentlessly rationalised by Squealer. The overall goal of most of the characters has been achieved, but we now see that the pigs have a very different goal in mind, and are beginning to advance inexorably towards it.

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After a failed attempt by humans to regain the farm, the conflict between Snowball and Napoleon soon escalates to violence, and Snowball is driven from the farm by three vicious dogs, trained by Napoleon for this express purpose. This conflict is ultimately ended with Snowball being branded a traitor, with any mention of his name strictly forbidden. The history of the farm is rewritten, and all traces of Snowball are erased from record. After the defeat of the humans, the farm begins to adopt a militaristic tone, and the pigs begin to exert further control. Napoleon instructs the animals to construct a windmill, an idea originally proposed by Snowball, but now rather than being a project of self-sufficiency, it is now merely a justification for punitive methods of control.

Napoleon soon establishes total control over the farm, starving the animals and working them harder than they ever had under the rule of the humans. However, all thoroughly believe in the pig’s message, as displayed in the horse Boxer’s unceasing dedication to work harder, all the while constantly reassuring himself that ‘Napoleon is always right’. The animals are entreated to sacrifice for the common good, whilst history is rewritten further, the commandments painted upon the barn walls now subject to alteration. All characters have changed through this process, with the common animals becoming wearily accepting of their life, reduced to the recitation of mindless slogans, whilst the pigs drift closer to becoming the embodiment of the very thing they once rose up to fight.

By the end of the novella, years have passed, and the pigs have completed their assumption of power over the farm. The common animals have no concept of how much time has gone by, and are accepting of their life of toil and oppression, and in an echo of 1984, reason that it must have always been this way. The pigs have completed their transformation, and now resemble humans to such an extent that the common animals cannot tell them apart. The pigs now dress in clothes and carry whips, and all vestiges of the original revolution have been wiped away. In the conclusion of the novella, Orwell reminds us of the dangers of power – that even the most altruistic ideals can be warped into being merely the tools of the corrupt and the cruel.

NOFX: 60% or so is just fine

Another article for previously mentioned project. Also feel like I could have done better with this, but I had to write it pretty quickly. 

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NOFX would tell you that they’re over forty, and doing just fine. Soon they’ll be over fifty. It’s been a long journey for the fiercely independent band, that first formed back in 1983. Formed by Mike Burkett (hereafter known as Fat Mike) and Eric Melvin in Los Angeles, the band began by playing tiny shows and embarking on ramshackle tours, usually playing to crowds of five or less, or quite often no one at all. The band initially possessed an abrasive hardcore sound, eschewing proficiency on their instruments in favour of fast tempos and walls of noise. This period saw the release of numerous demos and EP’s of varying quality, including So What If We’re On Mystic! In 1986, and The P.M.R.C Can Suck On This in 1987. These were limited releases, and are therefore quite rare now. After recording Liberal Animation in 1988 with Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion, the band’s next few releases would be on Gurewitz’s Epitaph label.

After undergoing a series of lineup changes, the band stabilised in 1991 with the addition of El Hefe on guitar, and various other instruments. The release of White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean saw the band begin to diversify their sound, incorporating elements of jazz, ska and skate punk. A lot of this can be contributed to the addition of Hefe, who as a Berklee College of Music graduate, could play a variety of instruments and possessed a knowledge of music theory that influenced the band to diversify their sound and improve the quality of their releases. However, the band retained their breakneck tempos and trademark sense of humour. In 1994, punk rock entered the mainstream with the success of Green Day and The Offspring, and NOFX subsequently had a commercial breakthrough with the release of their fifth album Punk in Drublic. A classic punk rock album, it came along at the perfect time for the band, who were now finding themselves the target of interest from major record labels. They responded to this interest in their typical way – wry humour and sarcasm. They made a clip for MTV, but then refused to release it to them. Fat Mike was later quoted as saying “We made the ‘Leave It Alone’ video, and we decided not to send it to MTV. We just didn’t want to be a part of that machine, of that ‘punk wave”. The band declined all offers, making these rejections explicit in the liner notes to the live album I Heard They Suck Live!!, stating “We’ve been doing fine all these years without you so leave us alone!”. The 90’s were rounded out with Heavy Petting Zoo, So Long And Thanks For All The Shoes and Pump Up The Valium. This period also saw the release of The Decline, a single track EP that holds the distinction of being the second longest punk song ever recorded, coming in at just over 18 minutes in length.

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The following years saw the band lean towards socially aware music, releasing The War on Errorism in 2003. The album was filled with commentary on Bush-era society, and singer Fat Mike took this a step further by organising the Rock Against Bush tour, aimed at encouraging young people to vote, and as a collective criticism of the Bush administration. The overt political commentary faded over the ensuing years however.

As one of the most successful independent acts of all time, NOFX has been instrumental in popularising and encouraging the spread of punk rock, all the while steadfastly maintaining an endearingly irreverent attitude towards themselves, their music, and their fans. Their witty, intelligent lyrics and instantly recognizable song writing (none of their songs have choruses!) have made them a hugely influential band of the genre, and have managed to do so whilst fiercely protecting their independence. Whatever they may do in the future, there is no doubt that it will be on their own terms. And most likely not done very seriously.

Ties and Hair Dye: Growing Up with Green Day

An article I wrote for a magazine project. I should rewrite this actually – I feel like I can do much better, and writing about my all-time favourite band is always fun.

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I was thirteen years old, and without taste. In music, that is. My preferences were mostly the leftovers of my parent’s music collection, dusty LP’s sitting beside a record player that hardly ever saw use, except as a convenient spot to place a plant. I knew music existed, but I didn’t quite understand it. When people would ask me what bands I was into, I would be forced into an awkward silence, before reciting some names that I saw amongst the record collection at home. These were not popular choices. It just all seemed strange to me; I would hear kids talking about Nirvana, and would nod along with conversations without fully understanding what they were. As far as I could gather, they enjoyed teen spirit. Were they just really into team sports? One afternoon after school, an excited friend played me Nevermind. I secretly thought it sounded like the noise a bunch of malfunctioning power tools would make – abrasive and depressing. I mean, I was thirteen, so I was confused and depressed enough already. If that’s what music was, I would keep a healthy distance from it, and resign myself to the fact that it would forever be a world that I could never be a part of. But, everything changed when I heard the opening drum rolls of Green Day’s Dookie.

I knew straight away. This was the band for me. Brimming with energy, with tight and punchy songs topped off by a snarky self-effacing sense of humour, the Californian trio’s third album resonated with me in a way that no music had before. I borrowed a copy of the album from a friend, and listened to it non-stop. The lyrics spoke of boredom and apathy. About confusion and disconnection, of anxiety and alienation. This was music that I could understand, that blasted out of my speakers and reminded me with a snotty voice that perhaps I did have a place after all. A few other things also became clear. I was now into punk rock, and I needed a guitar.

Evidently, I was not alone in this reaction. The album was huge. Having formed in 1986 by Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt, and originally known as Sweet Children, the band had been honing their skills through relentless touring and recording. After a name change to Green Day, an oblique reference to the band member’s affection for marijuana, original drummer Al Sobrante left to pursue a college degree, and was replaced by Tre Cool in 1991. They put out a number of EP’s and LP’s on Lookout! Records, the major releases being the compilation 1039 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours and 1992’s Kerplunk, which brought them to the attention of major labels. After singing to Reprise Records, and teaming up with producer Rob Cavallo, Dookie was the result. It was a sensation, eventually selling over 20 million copies and spawning the hits Long View, Basket Case, and When I Come Around. It blew punk rock onto mainstream radio, and along with bands such as The Offspring and Rancid, had a heavy influence on the path of alternative music during the 1990’s. The album was undoubtedly difficult to follow, and whilst the following albums Insomniac (1995) Nimrod (1997) and Warning (2000) were solid musically, commercially they did not match their earlier success, and it was generally accepted that the band was declining, and facing irrelevance. This changed with the release of American Idiot in 2004. It is a rare band that can change the course of modern music – it is an even rarer band that can do it twice.

American Idiot was another huge success. It sold 15 million copies, spawned numerous hit singles, and hurled the unexpectedly matured band back into relevancy. The band once again altered the musical landscape, and American Idiot now features alongside Dookie as the bands best work. However, it was at this point that the connection I felt to the band started to wane, as they were no longer the three bratty young men I had first heard in my youth, and not the band that I had grown up with. Despite this, I still find myself returning to their music. It has formed the soundtrack to my life, and been with me during all the highs and lows that go along with it. For this reason, I will always have affection for those three goofballs from California, and hope that their journey isn’t quite over yet. Hopefully, I can go with them.