The Shape of Punk To Come? On Reforming Bands & Politics

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[First published at The Quietus, 18 June 2015]

Denis Lyxzen had a lot of reasons to be bullish in last month’s interview with Rolling Stone. He was gearing up for the release of Refused’s first LP since 1998’s seminal polemic The Shape of Punk To Come and he was coming off a string of tour dates that had seen his band play venues fifty times the size of their late 90s basements.

Above all, Lyxzen was determined to emphasise in the interview that his band were still culturally significant, despite their lengthy hiatus: “I was surprised in 2012 just how relevant a lot of these songs still felt to me,” he said, “and especially how lyrically on-point I was with a lot of things.”

It might have been possible to ignore the gentle arrogance that hung over these words. Lyxzen was, after all, trying to promote a band with a revolutionary aesthetic. He’d rarely minced words in the past, so to put any distance between himself and his band’s history might have been perceived as a betrayal.

But then the interview trailed off: “You know, I think most music out there is complete pap. Just carbon-copy bullshit versions of other bullshit versions. Very few bands have depth and integrity,” he said, citing touring partners Faith No More as one of the few bands close to Refused in their gravity.

This assertion of continued significance, coupled with a desire to deride other bands as shallow or frivolous goes beyond cross-promotion. It even goes beyond Lyxzen’s belief that “we are controlled to think the way we think, and act the way we act,” or that “capitalism as not only an economic system but also as a social construct creates sheep.” The implication is that behind this reunion there lies a desire to speak for Truth in an age dominated by pointless, shallow drivel, both in pop culture and in punk rock.

The way Lyxzen saw it, revolution was better back in the old days. Politically-charged music (whatever that constitutes) has lost its way in Refused’s absence and the kids that have arrived in the interim have simply been keeping the throne warm.

Essentially, it’s the same sentimental Golden Age mentality that has stunted cultural progress since long before I was born . So, expressing shock at a reunited punk band from the 90s seeming either detached or a tad arrogant is perhaps naïve and hopelessly idealistic of me.

But Refused should surely be striving for higher ideals. This is the band that rallied against those that “Blame the poor, blame the uneducated & blame the sick,” a group of musicians whose last show before their first demise – the endlessly-repeated legend goes – was played to a handful of committed fans in a basement before being shut down by police. They were a band with a collective mentality, calling for unification in order to bring down insidious structures of wealth and privilege. Lyxzen’s vision of his band as white knights riding in to rescue us from banality and lead us into a brighter tomorrow seems seriously at odds with that.

Worse still, it doesn’t have to be like this. Politically conscious bands can reunite, make socially relevant music, sell-out theatres many times larger than that of their heyday, and not shit on everything else around them; Sleater-Kinney showed that this year. Here is a band that grew from the radical feminism of the riot grrrl movement before creating the great anti-Bush record in 2002’s One Beat, a band that never stood still and, like Refused, built up a remarkable following in their time away from the limelight.

They were under the same pressure to explain their return, too. At the Roundhouse in March, lead singer Corin Tucker offered one theory: “We know things have changed since we’ve been gone,” she screamed, one arm aloft, “but we find that things haven’t changed enough.”

There was a symbolism to the moment. The singer had passed her guitar off to touring member Katie Harkin who had stepped out from the shadows to stand stage left. “So we say: give me respect, give me equality, give me love!” Tucker said before launching into the writhing, fitful ‘Gimme Love’ from new record No Cities To Love.

Harkin represents a new generation of Sleater-Kinney fan. She’s one of the many that formed a band – Sky Larkin – during S-K’s hiatus, inspired by their work and driven to do something about it. She told Spin that she went to see the band on her own in her late teens, feeling detached from the world around her: “Growing up in the north of England as a teen looking for something beyond Britpop or nu-metal, they were a bright beacon.”

Cheri Amour, like Harkin, started a band in Sleater-Kinney’s absence and is now the deputy editor at The Girls Are, covering women in music. For her, the band’s return has offered the sort of visibility that was absent in the past: “you can’t be something if you can’t see yourself in it,” she says, “and maybe girls feel like they want to fuck their hair up and play really loudly. If there’s more of that I think that can only be a good thing.”

Harkin standing to Tucker’s left and playing a song called ‘Gimme Love’ was a moment of inclusion. Sleater-Kinney may have returned because “things haven’t changed enough” while they’ve been gone, but they’re not blaming the scene that sprung up in their wake, nor are they returning as leaders of a movement. Instead, they’re throwing their weight behind the cause, acting as learned elders, drawing media attention to likeminded musicians, and throwing other female-led politically-minded acts into the limelight as a result.

While Refused were plotting their arena tour with Faith No More, fashioning some sort of Rage Against The Machine-style nostalgia trip for exhausted lefties, Sleater-Kinney were touring the US with formidable contemporary hip hop acts like THEESatisfaction and Lizzo. Refused looked at the world in 2015 and wondered why rock music had lost its edge, why people weren’t listening to their “on-point” lyricism from the late 90s. Sleater-Kinney saw that the cultural landscape had shifted.

Most telling of all, Refused’s first single in 17 years tells us “Nothing has changed.” Sleater-Kinney just know “things haven’t changed enough.”

It’s easy to talk about Refused’s most famous song when referring to their return. “And how can we expect anyone to listen/if we just use the same old voice?/We need new noise/New art for the real people.” It was a bold statement and one that resonated with me deeply as a teenager. Now, though, with other radical musicians leading a charge, the more pertinent line is the one so casually spoken at the start of their great, timely record: “They told me that the classics never go out of style but they do, they do. Somehow, baby, I never thought that we’d do too.”

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