Against Me! released their debut album, Against Me! is Reinventing Axl Rose, in 2002 and kept the promise of the title song, that of being the band “that plays loud and hard every night/That doesn’t care how many people are counted at the door“. In a season where due to elections the world’s attention is courted by populist messages as well as radical and idealistic political viewpoints it does good to remember the simple optimism and effervescence of Against Me’s debut.
Against Me! is generally described as a punk band. One that especially in its infancy stood for various political causes and who own convictions stood left of the political spectrum. Although at times their messages may have seen slightly less informed then they could have been (see also contemporary Anti-Flag), the message was certainly heartfelt and was part of their own fight against complacency.
Punk rock was designed under the simple precepts that it should be elementary-rock n roll, played with excitement and speaking of the lives and struggles of the audience members (whereas most dinosaur bands were talking about wealth and how much of a good time that was). Under these rules, Against Me is a great punk band.
The album opens with “Pints of Guinness make you strong” under a march-like rhythm and a frantic acoustic guitar. The title is a, of course, a tongue in cheek reference to slogans about the medicine like effects of drinking Guinness beers. This is a song about alcoholism and about commitment, yet if you weren’t very familiar with English or just could not work what is being sung, it would sound like a simple, melodic rock song with a big chorus. The lyrics though are emotional and the music is stronger for it. The band isn’t trying to disguise its feelings (quite ever really) and doesn’t fall into being overly dramatic. The point being is that this was not your typical pop-punk band. Sure, Against Me is melodic and while Laura Jane Grace is screaming on many of the songs, the vocals would not be out of place playing on the radio. And occasionally they do.
Reinventing Axl Rose is an album that needed to happen. It did take someone with great songwriting skills to do it, of course, but it seemed like all the energy of the new protest songs, folk-punk artists playing in the era of globalization and by the numbers popular music had found it’s home on this album. In my opinion, it worked so well, that Against Me! wisely decided not to make the same album again.
For all, it’s strength’s it’s easy to anticipate the band going into self-parody if they were to try and repeat the formula. Against Me! decided to play into their strengths and in some ways become a more traditional sounding punk-rock band. As it always happens in these cases, many of the fans they already had disowned them, while their newer direction (starting with “Against me as the eternal cowboy”) found them new fans impressed with the well-written songs, the humor, and the conviction.
In main ways, Pints of Guinness is as much a classic rock song as say a Tom Waits or Bob Dylan song. The lyrics seem to tell the story of a working man with a drinking problem and his wife keeping him in loving memory after his passing. Punk rock and folk have always had more to do with telling the truth and less with embellishing it then other music genres. The songwriting of Against Me! functions under these rules. The lyrics of the band are at times embarrassingly honest, like confessing to the one thing that they ought to keep away from the audience in order to maintain a rockstar image. But it’s not that kind of band. Bands like Against Me! , the Gaslight Anthem, more recently Andrew Jackson Jihad, are the modern equivalents of the classic rockers with a conscience, Dylan or the Clash. The sound and lyrics may often be more abrassive. But, their intentions and lyrical themes of their songs, are not far removed from those used by their predecessors.
Pints of Guinness make you strong remains an important touchstone in Against Me’s varied, and long lasting career. Full of youthful idealism, it helped reignite general interest for folk punk. While indebted to punk and its philosophy, the band would soon progress to other sonic territories. Years on, their debut remains one of the highlights of the group’s discography.
Against Me! has continued to play Pints of Guinness in live shows pretty consistently until today, while their sound has naturally gone through many changes. Seeing them play this one song is like taking the band’s pulse and finding out (with relief) that they still mean it. As much as Against Me! works under classic songwriting forms of verse-chorus-verve, the punk energy and idealism cannot be faked. Different sounding and looking, but just as confrontational, emotional and honest, Against Me! walks on.