"Prisoner of Society" by the Living End is the closest thing to spirit-of-'77 punk on what passes for "alternative rock" radio right now. It's got your snappy, pit-producing backbeat; Blitzkrieg guitar riffs with enough hook to ensure a played-to-death radio rotation; and a bratty, screechy vocal from a guy named Chris Cheney, who, were he an American instead of an Aussie, you'd laugh at what you'd swear was his fake Cockney accent.
Cheney sure sounds pissed. But at what? You can't tell from the lines he belts out ("Well! We! Don't! Need! No! One! To! Telluswhattodo!"), or anywhere else, really. The kid's angry, angry, angreeeee. But since he never lets us in on the whole story, his rage is . . . cute.And as our pal Mike Ness says, punk rock was never supposed to be cute.
Pittsburgh peace-punkers Anti-Flag are not cute. And, unlike just about every band on the radio, Anti-Flag actually have something to say, even though they'll never make any station's playlist.
That's because Anti-Flag are an overt, unashamedly political band who advocate revolution, anarchy and, ultimately, unity. They hang the U.S. flag upside-down onstage before their sets—a distress signal, and their statement that there are way too many things wrong in the Greatest Country on Earth. Go to their show, and you'll hear them rage against whatever's pissing them off in the world at the moment. Their first album, Die for the Government, had says-it-all songs like "Fuck Police Brutality," "Kill the Rich" and "Red, White and Brainwashed." Their latest, A New Kind of Army, is more of the same, with the band spewing against corporate domination, war, politicians, sexism, racist cops, homophobia, fake punkers. . . . Well, we'll just let them tell you themselves.
In "Got the Numbers":
"You push and push a people, what are they to do?
"Soon this corporate-run government will be through.
"You see, it doesn't represent the people anymore.
"Big business are the pimps, and government's their whores."
"They get on TV and openly state
"That Saddam Hussein should be removed from his place.
"If anybody said that about the U.S. president,
"The U.S. military would rip them a new ass."
In "Free Nation?":
"They pass laws unfair to gays
"And separatist laws to keep the non-whites in their place.
"Family values as a smoke screen blowing in your face
"Family values isn't something that should be based on hate."
In "Police Story":
"Patrol man cruising in his car at night,
"Just looking for some homeys he can rough up in a fight.
"Pulled over three kids in a total rage.
"Next thing that you know, there's bodies all over the place."
In "Captain Anarchy":
"You never saw an anarchist with such perfect hair
"Or so many 10-dollar spikes, or so much punk-rock gear.
"He said he used his welfare checks to buy his boots and plaids.
"In reality, it was all paid for by his mom and by his dad."
Yeah, Anti-Flag mean it, maaan.
"No, we definitely aren't a cute band," says Anti-Flag guitarist/lyric scrawler Justin Sane (in the finest punk tradition, everyone in the band has a fake moniker; their drummer, for instance, is Pat Thetic). "But I think of us as an accepting, friendly band. I don't want to alienate kids by saying that because you don't think or believe in the same things we do, we don't want to have anything to do with you—fuck off. But at the same time, I want to sing about more than just girlfriends, which is what's going on with about 90 percent of the bands out there. We're trying to do something else."
Anti-Flag's ideological punk roots can be traced back to '70s Brit provocateurs Crass, a band that dismissed other "revolutionary" bands of the era like the Sex Pistols and the Clash as all-talk-no-walk greedheads who were only punk for the sake of fashion. While John Lydon was belching a faux anarchy, Crass were roaming the streets of London, spray painting graffiti and committing various acts of wire cutting and sabotage. When they released the anti-Thatcher, anti-Falklands War rant "How Does It Feel to Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead?" the Tories tried to get Crass tossed in prison.
"I always thought Crass' politics were interesting," Justin says. "Some of the things we do don't necessarily match up with the whole Crass ideology:they snubbed their nose at mainstream media, but I'm not against exposing our message and ideas through as many venues as possible."
Good luck—Rolling Stone, Spin and MTV ain't exactly pestering Anti-Flag for interviews.
"It's hard to get a message like ours across to a wide audience, though," Justin acknowledges in a tone that sounds like he figured that one out eons ago. "The media itself is so conservative. But we get letters from kids saying that they've never heard of any of the things we talk about, and that gives me inspiration to keep doing what we're doing."
Justin grew up on a steady diet of street punk bands:old Social Distortion, Black Flag, the Avengers, UK Subs, the Exploited. Most of his politics were handed down from his parents, who opened one of the first vegetarian restaurants in Pittsburgh, a real phenomenon in a working-class town of carnivores. "They were always involved in some sort of boycott or protest, so their views on things just came pretty natural to me," he says.
He kicked around in various bands, but always ones with a political bent. At one gig, a gaggle of skinheads showed up—American-flag jackets, no necks, the whole bit, but too stupid to notice that Justin was onstage singing about overthrowing the state. "It was very frustrating," he says. "I didn't want there to be any confusion as to what the band was about, which is why we named ourselves Anti-Flag."
Anti-Flag, meaning, in Justin's mind, anti-nationalism, anti-blind patriotism, anti-division. But not, as he'll point out to you, anti-American.
"Our name means that we're pro-positive change, pro-making a difference for the better."
Realistically, though, calling for change and revolution—whether it's from a stage or from a round piece of plastic—is one thing; implementing those beliefs is quite another. "Unless things get really horrible, people aren't going to rise up and take over the government," Justin says. "It would take even me a lot to get to that point. But I do believe there could be a cultural revolution, a revolution in the way that people think—just the idea that people should care more about one another would be a really good first step. There's such a horrible attitude of me-me-me in our country."
Which is what the New Kind of Army track "The Consumer's Song," maybe the album's best tune, touches on. Different from Anti-Flag's usual menu of hard-fast-loud punk, the song has Justin, armed only with his Les Paul, coming off like a spiky-haired Woody Guthrie, throwing down biting lines against big-business downsizing ("Go ahead and be the corporate stooge that they trained you to be/ And then you'll see what you get for your loyalty") and empty-headed, uninformed mass consumerism ("But the fact, my friend, that you don't see/Is the money you spend on the goods they make/Supports their methods of abuse on the Third World scene/And in your very own back yard, yes, your country").
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"When you're not thinking about where you're buying your products and who is suffering so you can have another pair of Nikes you don't need—that's what that song is about, the idea of caring about people other than yourself and not just about what's going on immediately in front of you."
Ultimately, Justin says he sees himself and Anti-Flag more as educators than punk rockers.
"And it's not an easy job, especially in punk," he says. "As soon as somebody puts themselves on the line with any kind of message, people want to shoot you down—people don't attack bands who sing songs about girls. But I'm willing to do it. It's so inspiring when we get mail from kids who say that we made a difference for them, and I think that's what we're shooting for. I think if people can make a change in themselves and slowly pass that change along to other people, if we can educate people in that way, I think that could really help."
Anti-Flag perform with the Criminals, Pinhead Circus and the Atomic Bombs at Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 635-6067; www.allages.com. Fri., 7:30 p.m. $8. All ages.