Tell me London, what’s not to like about a band who arrive on stage to a recording of Richard O’Brien’s The Time Warp just so they can play along? A band whose lead singer has determined a dress to be the most comfortable on-stage attire without a political statement and barely a shred of irony, or humiliation. A band who have made a career pitching the hard matter of life; drug abuse, loss, racism, and the socio-economic fallout of neo-fascist politics, juxtaposing them with their own brand of hilarious self-deprecation set in big, colourful, multifaceted ska-punk-skate-pop outbursts. Nothin’, that’s what.
Opening with a taunt from pink mohawk sporting frontman ‘Fat Mike’ Burkett, “Last night we played the Institute in Birmingham, which was a better show than the one we’re gonna play tonight”. This incites a big crowd reaction. Even before the official set starts there is a lot of activity on stage. Random small groups of people stand behind the band chatting and drinking from red cups, at this gig the backstage has come front stage.
It is clear, they aren’t going to play a half-assed show as the tell-tale give away of crazy guitar finger work of 60% yelps out. NOFX’s songs are punchy and brief, not padded out with repetition or pomp. Songs stop and start with little to join them and Fat Mike takes full opportunity to banter with the crowd between songs. He points up at the disproportionate logo hanging like a pub sign at the back of stage arches. “People have said we have too small a banner, so we are revealing our new banner tonight” with that a gigantic bright yellow banner unfurls dominating the stage as a glorious luminous backdrop… with the band logo in the same puny text as the original sign.
They thrash through Seeing Double at the Triple Rock dreadlocked guitarist Eric Melvin doubling up on vocals. A racing dirty bass line thunders through keeping a short song electrifying. Fat Mike takes a moment to catch his breath and introduce touring keyboard player, and exceptional vocal talent, Karina Denike. Then he introduces, from one of the groups of bystanders her Gandalf-looking father, who sports a big, long ‘super dread’ that she uncoils from his head and trails behind him like a bridal train.
Ripping through Six Years On Dope and Leave It Alone, leaves big hit Bob, stuck awkwardly in the set. It stands out as a big crowd-pleasing, huge-hearted, perfect piece of ska-pop.
For Murder the Government the band asks the audience for call and return, “in the style of Green Day” (I may be going out on a limb by saying I think they are taking the piss). Adding certainty to that conjecture, Mike calls out a guy in the audience wearing a Green Day t-shirt, “you can’t like both bands, Sir.”
It’s soon time for a little downbeat reggae with guitarist El Hefe switching to trumpet for Eat the Meek. Deafening, ear melting bass reverbs around the venue. Fat Mike performs a party trick of keeping the bass line going while he squats to drink from a glass tied to his mic stand. As the song ends, Mike encourages a short outburst of chanting “Karina! Karina! Karina!” to celebrate their temporary bandmate.
A quick, unfinished blast of Nerf Herder’s Courtney Love leads into Mattersville, a beautiful fantasy about a retirement village for punks, featuring a scenario for each band member. The fantasy beats the hell out of reality if you’ve ever seen the photo online of Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop in golfing attire. Later in the set they play, The Quass/Dying Degree – a surprisingly upbeat tune for such a sad lament about the last period of life in old age before death. The lyrics paint a very different picture from the heavenly gated community the band previously dreamed of.
Never afraid to attack right-wing politics they match ambitious ideals with brutal ridicule. Written in the era of George ‘Dubya’ Bush, political parable Idiots Are Taking Over in this modern climate, is just a statement of fact. Moving on Mike explains, “This song is about Muslims, not really, it’s about hookers. Because Muslims want the 72 virgins (which would be terrible) what you really want is 72 Hookers. Really, given the choice, take the hookers”. Yup, there is no taboo subject in their abstract and satirical worldview.
“This next song is about not killing anyone in particular, so if I show up dead tomorrow, it’s not because of Tump or anything”, snickers Mike ahead of The Man I Killed. Played live it has a slight country hoedown feel that even has Fat Mike stomping his foot. To really milk the song to its limit, the band plays it with different musical endings; ‘The Ozzy’, Iron Maiden and Led Zep. Franco Un-American offers more of a satire of Californian Republican state politics and the American ignorance of global effects like environmental impact, abuses of the free market economy and war.
“This song is about me. I am a very sad, happy, depressed person. It’s also about coming down off drugs.”, confesses Fat Mike. I Don’t Think I Like Me Anymore is an angsty, scratchy anthem to self-loathing that is by turns comical and aggressive. It hits on personal themes which peek up repeatedly in NOFX’s songbook. Watching the super tight drumming from Eric Sandin, I notice there are a couple of guys sitting next to the drummer on armchairs shadowing the drumming, have they been there the whole time? The atmosphere on stage has become so relaxed that people are just milling around as if the whole gig is a rehearsal taking place in a suburban basement.
Mike announces, “We’re gonna play another style of music that white people should play.” As an intro to We March to the Beat of Indifferent Drum. Hefe plays mouth trombone, impressively miming along with an invisible instrument. Mellow reggae alternates into frenzied circle pit punk. Mike breaks in with an explosion of what I affectionately think of as ‘whining-Cali-brat’ vocals typical of West Coast skate punk bands.
The brilliance of playing their cover of Mark Curry’s Perfect Government, with its dark and pessimistic worldview, as a piece of feel-good punk-pop has always seemed like a masterstroke. Tonight, it carries the crowd off their feet in a throbbing mosh pit.
Between songs as Mike rambles to the audience to set up the next song, a man tries to outwit the stage bouncers clambering onto the corner of the stage, practically losing his trousers in the process. Distracted from what he is saying Mike calls to the security staff, “Let him win, let the Wookie win!” Too bad he was pulled back down to the pit before we got to see what was referred to as the “Wookie dance”, dammit. Ronnie & Mags proves that politics hasn’t changed enough to warrant removing this from their rotation. Then with a with a tense scratching riff, Melvin kicks off The Moron Brothers.
“Here is a sad song,” says Mike, “It’s a song about Tony Sly because I still fucking miss him”. I’m So Sorry Tony is a rowdy wake of a song played in memoriam of No Use for a Name frontman who was touring with NOFX in 2012 before his premature death. Mike theatrically sets up the final song of the main set, “The last song he ever played was this, one more time…” before playing their own song Linoleum, which was frequently covered by Sly and his band.
The encore break is lived out partly off stage and partly on. The band reappear early but don’t pick up their instruments right away, instead, they join their groups of friends and family, pose for photos, take drinks out of a cooler box and reorganise themselves. Of course, Fat Mike is the first one to re-engage with the crowd and banter about the history of the band and NOFX trivia before launching into additional tracks starting with a stirring version of Bottles to the Ground. This is followed closely by darkly comic Whoops, I OD’d and the lyrically melancholy hit Stickin’ in My Eye, concluding with El Hefe in a star turn on racial revenge fantasy Kill All the White Man. This is a final, fitting example of the power of humour in music as I look out across a mostly Caucasian audience as they chant along, imagining their own demise. Good grief. Or as the self-proclaimed ‘White Trash, Two Heebs and Bean’ might say, Dang! Oy vey! Ay ya ya yai!
The Punk in Drublic Festival Tour continues in mainland Europe through the summer, check the webpage for dates and locations.
Live review 15th June 2018 at Brixton O2 Academy by Sarah Sievers. Photographs by Imelda Michalczyk.