Twenty two years ago today, NOFX released what was to become their most successful album to date, 'Punk in Drublic'. For those of you who love it, here's a great chance to reminisce. For those of you who've never heard of it, here's your chance to learn. Elliot Burr guides us through.
As an underground genre back in the 1970s, characterised by its hostility towards the artistic prog-heavy music of the time, the thought of punk rock making chart history should seem absurd. Yet early punk bands such as Sex Pistols and The Clash achieved it in the UK with Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols and London Calling respectively, and have since become internationally recognised as classic punk acts. Nowadays, we see a continuation of this classification of punk albums for the progenitors of the skate punk subgenre that emerged in California during the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The year is 1994. The year of my birth. Yet unbeknownst to me until at least 16 years later, this will be remembered as the time when American punk music was finally initiated into the mainstream. 1994 saw the release of Green Day’s greatest effort Dookie and The Offspring’s ground-breaking third album Smash, two bands that soon after signed to major labels to become popular chart successes. However, the same year saw the release of NOFX’s Punk in Drublic, their fifth and most profitable album to date. And still they remain one of the most successful independent bands after over 30 years in the business, having never gone down the same route as their contemporaries, sticking with Brett Gurewitz’s label Epitaph (of Bad Religion fame) and Fat Mike’s own label Fat Wreck Chords. The front man is fairly condemning of these so-called ‘sellouts’ of the punk scene, unsurprisingly.
“one of the most consistent collection of songs you’ll ever hear. Pick it up, learn it, get drunk, go to a show, scream the words”
It is NOFX’s DIY attitude mixed with their trademark irreverent humour which makes them stand out to me as the greatest skate punk band to have existed. This year saw the release of their autobiography, ‘The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories’, a no-holds-barred account of the band’s decorated history full of drug trips, rehabilitation, bondage, arrests, and experiences too graphic and grotesque to detail now. The band has always been vocal about their battles with addiction and financial problems, yet here they are still, in their late 40s, doing very much the same thing. The band makes the joke themselves that they’ve been recycling the same music since their inception, yet the phrase ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ can certainly be applied to Fat Mike’s songwriting. The mixture of puerile humour, catchy hooks, and fast delivery is captured no better than on Punk in Drublic, a document of everything great about NOFX.
Having channelled their earlier hardcore punk aggression from releases S&M Airlines and Ribbed into short songs matched with catchier hooks, the ’90s releases of NOFX are the peak of their discography. Across its 40 minute runtime, Punk in Drublic showcases 17 songs, all capturing the band’s signature sound: fast-paced, party time punk, with occasional flashes of mariachi (My Heart is Yearning), ska (Reeko) and even metal chugging (The Qwassitworsh). Eric Melvin’s guitars stick to tried-and-tested chordal sequences matched by Fat Mike’s pulsing bass and Erik ‘Smelly’ Sandin’s solid snare-heavy beats. Indeed, the liner notes of the album seem to reflect the band’s nonchalant attitude towards their musical abilities:
Fat Mike – double chin
Eric Melvin – dreads
El Hefe – talent
Erik Sandin (credited as Herb Reath Stinks) – tattoos
El Hefe, called so due to his gifted musicianship, has stand out moments throughout the album: a trumpet riff (which is incorporated into NOFX’s sound far more following Punk in Drublic), a soothing, reggae-esque guitar solo in Reeko and, in an obscure hidden track to close the album, we can hear his delectable impressions of Looney Tunes characters in the recording studio, reciting lines from Punk Guy to humorous effect. El Hefe’s quirky persona is even shifted from studio to stage, with his vocal warm-up at the start of Linoleum and his rallying cry “C’mon you Schmucks, one more time for Hershel!” in The Brews improvised in the live setting consistently, both still being fan favourites eight albums later, alongside tracks such as Leave It Alone and Perfect Government.
“Punk Rock is just great music played by bad, drunk musicians” – Fat Mike
At the very heart of Punk in Drublic however, is the presence of the irrepressible Fat Mike. The main songwriter and lyricist of NOFX is notorious for his outspoken, don’t-give-a-shit attitude in the public eye, his disorderly live performances and the trading of some mediocre banter with the audience whilst inebriated or under the influence of hard drugs. It is his gruff, blunt delivery that matches the band’s punchy output, each element working in tandem to somehow mask Fat Mike’s occasionally terrible vocal performance. But that’s his appeal. The lyricism on the album truly captures Fat Mike’s sporadic mindset, with topics that are arbitrary yet nostalgic. On the one hand, we have the downright ridiculous ode to his kitchen floor (Linoleum), the irregularity of an Epitaph employee’s shoe choice (Jeff Wears Birkenstocks? – dubbed by Fat Mike as “the worst song on the album”, I actually disagree) and even the loss of a childhood sweetheart to the adult film industry (Lori Meyers). Elsewhere, the singer vents some serious political and racial views in trademark sardonic fashion. Following previous album White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean, Fat Mike plays on the band members’ different ethnicities; The Brews indicates his and Melvin’s Jewish background – “The fairfax ghetto boys skinhead Hebrews” – whilst live anthem Don’t Call Me White instead condemns the stereotyping of the “fucking ordinary white” Caucasian. This satirical stance of NOFX would be continued later in their career, in tracks such as Murder the Government, The Decline and the entirety of the 2003 album The War on Errorism, focusing on the presidency of George W. Bush.
It is without doubt that Fat Mike attempts to mix the serious with the playful, yet this successfully makes any overbearing political views accessible to the listener. Captured perfectly in Reeko, the singer links a reckless party scene, with the alcohol having run out, to an apocalyptic view of the American government, where he pleads with the President to notice the apparent devastation that needs to be rectified. The easygoing ska of the song’s first half, juxtaposed by the fast-paced punky outro justly exaggerates this shift from light-hearted to severe lyricism. It is instances like this that validate NOFX as a punk band sticking to a true ethos; The Cause indicates that the band, without commercial success, are not in it “for the money, […] for the fame […] we’re just doing it for the cause.” This cause being to bring their fun-loving, satirical views to the world through masterful punk music, willing to piss people off all the way through their illustrious career (see, for example, both album covers for Heavy Petting Zoo if you can stomach it).
When El Hefe sarcastically states “Ah hell, he’s even more punk than me” in Punk Guy (‘Cause He Does Punk Things), I’d like to think that NOFX actually remain one band that stay true to their punk philosophy, much like Bad Religion and Propagandhi. Anyone willing to get introduced to skate punk or pop punk should start right here with Punk in Drublic, a seminal album which paved the way for all successors of the genre, and generally being one of the most consistent collection of songs you’ll ever hear. Pick it up, learn it, get drunk, go to a show, scream the words. That’s both myself and Fat Mike talking.
Image: Epitaph Records