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Against Me!

Punk paranoia has always fascinated or disturbed the masses. For the aptly-titled folk-punk outfit AGAINST ME there was more at stake than just the day-to-day politics of the blue-collar working class, but rather their frontman Tom Gabel’s gender dysphoria which led to the songwriter officially becoming a transgender woman (Laura Jane Grace), in 2012. Not since drag-queen-punk star WAYNE COUNTY became JAYNE COUNTY way back when even The Rocky Horror Picture Show was risky, these changing times – by rock music standards only – were certainly more old hat and otherwise acceptable.
Recalling the attitude of CRASS or BILLY BRAGG wrapped in day-glo GREEN DAY, and a raft of other anthemic angst-y bands, AGAINST ME have become staples among undiscerning youths. Still, if screaming and shouting was an art form, one’d still be stuck in a 1977 time-warp loop – but then again, if it’s an easy way to pay for the sex, drugs and a rock‘n’roll lifestyle, then who could blame bands like the ‘Me for bringing neo-oi!/punk to the masses.
Formed in ’97, initially as a solo concern, the 17-year-old Gabel’s AGAINST ME was quickly into his stride after performing around his local Gainesville, Florida area. Adding bassist Dustin Fridkin and drummer Kevin Mahon (although not always with the former), the trio/duo unleashed a string of now-collectable mini-cassettes or vinyl; `Vivida Vis!’ (1998) for Misanthrope Records and an eponymous 12” (2000) for Crasshole featuring embryonic versions of their protest-punk repertoire. When Gabel and Fridkin were buffeted by guitarist James Bowman and drummer Warren Oakes, material that they’d delivered on two EPs (`Crime As Forgiven By’ and `The Acoustic’), mainly `Jordan’s 1st Choice’, `Those Anarcho Punks Are Mysterious’ and the celebratory `Pints Of Guinness Make You Strong’, re-appeared on their first full-set, named after another one of these angst-ridden anthems, REINVENTING AXL ROSE (2002) {*8}. What the GUNS N’ ROSES general also thought of this tongue-in-bum-cheek accolade was anybody’s guess (the sleeve design was of the bandana-man himself), but it was little consolation to a feisty folk-punk band ready to rise from the basement garage to the ground-floor of rock’n’roll.
When Andrew Seward was preferred over Fridkin (and Moog-playing fifth-member Jordan Kleeman), Fat Wreck Chords took the reins from No Idea Records, although that didn’t stop their former imprint re-issuing a barrage of colourful, day-glo vinyl versions every consecutive year. Meanwhile, country-folk-punk album number two, AS THE ETERNAL COWBOY (2003) {*7}, kept the kids united and not divided, although, at well under a half-an-hour playing time, the band’s re-invention of the 2-minute song (`Cliché Guevara’, `Sink, Florida, Sink’ and the witty `You Look Like I Need A Drink’, among them) was hardly value for money. Described in some quarters as The POGUES of the Sunshine State, or even a booze-soaked REPLACEMENTS, AGAINST ME were one of the brightest punk combos since the gamey GREEN DAY played “Kerplunk”.
As inevitable as eggs is eggs, the Gabel end of the musical spectrum was beginning to bear fruit, as third album SEARCHING FOR A FORMER CLARITY (2005) {*8} just missed out on a place in the Top 100. Irony and sarcasm were part of Tom and Co’s harmony-driven armour, and in the Bush-era-baiting `From Her Lips To God’s Ears’, `Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners’ and `Mediocrity Gets You Pears’, AGAINST ME could match any FALL OUT BOY for street-smart titles.
In thanks and respect to Fat Mike at FWC after signing to Sire, the Mean Fiddler-recorded AMERICANS ABROAD!!! AGAINST ME!!! LIVE IN LONDON!!! (2006) {*7}, showed why these Yankee kidults were fast becoming all the rage.
Confirming their growth in popularity, the Butch Vig-produced NEW WAVE (2007) {*7} brought more than ripples and a Top 60 entry from the punk-rock fraternity on the lookout for something dirtier and grimier than the usual run-of-the-mill pseudos littering the market. Okay, “the new wave of the new wave” had all been done previously in the mid 90s by Britpop-punk acts such as S*M*A*S*H and THESE ANIMAL MEN, but with young Americans not cottoning on to the similar James Dean Bradfield of MANIC STREET PREACHERS (or Ian Astbury, anyone?), the market was ripe for pretenders to the punk-pop throne. Marked out by Tegan Quin (of TEGAN & SARA) and her duet by way of `Borne On The FM Waves Of The Heart’, and further tracks in a more explosive and incendiary nature, namely `Up The Cuts’, `Thrash Unreal’ and `White People For Peace’, AGAINST ME seemed destined to reach their goals.
Time out then to see the reaction to Tom Gabel’s solo mini-set/EP, `Heart Burns’ (2008), and the attendant `Anna Is A Stool Pigeon’, a worthy if not fully committed bunch of diversions. Squeezed either side of exploitation releases by Fat Wreck Chords (“The Original Cowboy” and “Total Clarity”), AGAINST ME were again ready to take the plunge in 2010, although Oakes would sign off during the recording of the band’s fourth studio album proper, WHITE CROSSES {*8}. George Rebelo (from HOT WATER MUSIC) had been duly enlisted. Anarcho-punk fuelled with a PLACEBO-meets-MANICs-esque power-punk, best described this newfound sing-a-long paean to rock’n’roll, and in hook-line lead cue, `White Crosses’, plus `I Was A Teenage Anarchist’, `Because Of The Shame’ and the name-checking `Bob Dylan Dream’, a small number of fans were disgruntled at their cop-out to their punk roots. But with a new set of trendy, blue-collar punksters to take their place, the arena-rock-friendly AGAINST ME (and mighty chants `Rapid Decompression’ and `High Pressure Low’) were hardly breaking the trend of others before them.
Unhappy at Sire Records and global tours cancelled, the singer also deputised an ill Rebelo with Jay Weinberg, a position made permanent early the following year. In an attempt to regain control of his creativity, the mainman launched both his own record label (Total Treble Music) and a comfortable studio, based in nearby Elkton. And then came the shock news, announced at an interview with Rolling Stone in May 2012, that due to his gender dysphoria he would live as a woman, becoming Laura Jane Grace. In the meantime, Grace and Bowman (Seward departed) enlisted bassist Inge Johansson, while veteran of several seasoned punk acts (from ROCKET FROM THE CRYPT and The OFFSPRING to SOCIAL DISTORTION and DANKO JONES), drummer Atom Willard superseded Weinberg.
Marking her dramatic deed-poll change in personality, January 2014 saw the release of the group’s first entry into the Top 30 by way of the poignantly-titled TRANSGENDER DYSPHORIA BLUES {*8}. Whether autobiographical or intended as a courageous concept set depicting a transsexual prostitute, the confessional and confrontational record changed little from Laura Jane Grace’s amorphic “Hedwig”-istic overtones. As power-laden and dynamic as ever, the sing-a-long-a aspect was ever more apparent on the opening title track, plus `True Trans Soul Rebel’ and the excellent `Unconditional Love’. But whether everyone was comfortable with word-for-word harmonising along to `Drinking With The Jocks’ (not apparently about getting blotto with a Scotsman!) or even the heavy `Osama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ’, the juke-box-jury was out for recess. We’d not heard the last of amazing Grace.
On the back of a double-disc, near hour-and-a-half concert crowd-teaser, 23 LIVE SEX ACTS (2015) {*6} – recorded the previous February – fans who bought into their transitional “Transgender…” set were not as impressed with 2016’s SHAPE SHIFT WITH ME {*7}. The fact was it only reached No.80. While their previous studio encounter could brandish hyperbole and empowerment for Ms. Grace’s sex-change, when it was all said and done, angsty AGAINST ME! had to let their music do the talking. The punk revival as pretentious and predictable as it always was in its latter revolutionary reincarnations, there was only room for so many uber alles; if the kids were united the collegiate would be divided on the likes of “best bits”: `12:03’, `Boyfriend’, `Crash’ and `333’. At least they were not a boot-licking act as depicted in the suggestive artwork sleeve.
© MC Strong/MCS Jan2014-Sep2016

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