At the Drive-In and Refused are both reuniting for high-profile (and high-paycheck) shows in 2012. What does this say about their legacy, or punk rock in general?
At this year's Coachella festival, two of the best punk bands of the past 20 years will reunite. Refused and At the Drive-In, two bands that succeeded in breaking the "my skateboard is broken and so is my heart" mold that most punk during the last half of the 1990s fell into, will be performing reunion gigs for the first time in years, and people will probably lose their shit. Which is all well and good, but what does it say about the state of punk rock that nostalgia has suddenly become not only popular, but profitable?
At the Drive-In in particular never seemed like likely candidates for a grab-the-money-and-run reunion show. The band, whose live shows were the stuff of legend, famously dissolved on the verge of achieving mainstream success with its 2000 album Relationship of Command, splitting into the more punk-influenced Sparta and the so-prog-it-hurts Mars Volta. Mars Volta leaders Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala distanced themselves from ATDI as much as possible following the split, at one point deriding the group as "jock rock". But here they are. And why? "We're not getting any younger and there's been an offer of money every year", Rodriguez-Lopez told NME this month. "You can't avoid that. You'd be a fool and politician to pretend that wasn't part of it."
Refused hasn't gone on record with similarly candid opinions, but rumors of the group's £500,000 performance fee for appearing at the Hevy Music Festival have flown around recently.
It's depressing that two bands widely hailed as some of the most innovative punk groups of their time are now snatching at reunion gigs for the cash. Then again, they're hardly in the minority--legendary D.C. hardcore terrors Bad Brains reunited several years ago, and though the band hand retained its breakneck virtuosity, lead singer HR's diminished vocal range and enthusiasm was the source of much enmity as the group made the rounds. The Dead Kennedys have been touring for quite some time without founder, mouthpiece, and conceptual driver Jello Biafra, and D.C. punk also-rans Scream reunited last year as well.
But why do we care about this? If the band wants to get back together and play some gigs with old friends, to fans that have aged with them, why should we fault them? Part of the problem is that punk is, has, and always will be a young person's game. Whether you age out of the politics, or you simply decide that you're too old to have someone jump on your face repeatedly, punk typically is a transitional love--something you slip into and listen to on the way to middle age. Punk bands that do age rationally and, uh, "smartly", for lack of a better word, seem to be bands that were predisposed to maturity: your Fugazis, or your Bad Religions.
Maybe it's that there's not exactly a retirement home for punk rock. Punk is a genre that doesn't exactly value technical proficiency, so it's not as if you can find work as a session player after your Oi! band breaks up. For many people, making music a career wasn't even an option to begin with: Al Barile, songwriter and guitarist for legendary Boston hardcore band SS Decontrol, worked during at the GE aircraft engine factory in Lynn, MA for the band's entire tenure (and still does both to this day).
Then again, literally every Sex Pistols reunion show has been about money, and the band were often the first to admit that. The Clash likely would have reunited for their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and probably several lucrative shows afterward) if Joe Strummer hadn't died--bassist Paul Simonon was the only one opposed to it. So maybe the elder statesmen of punk aren't the best examples.
So who are? Is it braver to suffer the slings and arrows of the small venues and shrinking paychecks into middle age, or should the legends-in-waiting of today cut a classic album, break up, and wait until your fan base ages back into disposable-income age? I think we'll see a lot more of the latter than the former today, given how the Internet has accelerated the cycle of hype surrounding bands. Hell, you can be up-and-coming, huge, and then irrelevant in the same time it used to take most punk bands to learn how to play a barre chord.
There's a great scene in the television series The Wire where the mayor's chief-of-staff is talking to his predecessor in a bar. "They always disappoint", one says to the other, talking of their mayors. "All of them." And that's true for punk rock as well. Sooner or later, everyone falls short of the ideals they put forward in their songs, or from the stage, or wherever. It can be somewhat expected (like ATDI, who were never particularly political), or it can be a shock (like Refused, who were). But part of me, the part that will forever be an angry 17-year-old, will keep hoping to the contrary.