Corruption. The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.
Shedding one’s skin. The snake that cannot shed its skin perishes. So do the spirits who are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be spirit.
– Friederich Nietzsche, The Dawn
I approached the reemergence of Refused with no small amount of trepidation. While it’s true that the current tour – including stints at Coachella, Fuji Rock and the Jimmy Fallon show – of the extremely left-wing, anti-capitalist Swedish hardcore legends contradicts greatly with their Final Communiquè (“we will never play together again and we will never try to glorify or celebrate what was”), this would not be the first time that great minds have reined in on previously espoused ideas. The option then lay on the table for Refused aficionados: those feeling uneasy could refrain from this Fenix risen from the ashes, they could keep the recordings (the cannon) and memories, or more likely wishes, of basement shows fourteen years ago (the original miracles); or they could take a chance, taste and see. For the proof, as always, is in the pudding. How would it turn out? Sour? Sickly sweet? Or balanced just right?
So come the night of April 18th, the night Refused descended upon San Francisco’s Warfield Theater, I banished, as best as I could, the negative and cynical hesitations that burdened my mind. I imagine Odysseus had similar thoughts as he returned to his Penelope, thoughts that led him to dress as a beggar and investigate the faithfulness of his wife. Would the memory of love be better than a re-encounter with that love (and all the various unknown possibilities that such an encounter entailed)?
Crossing the Bay Bridge, the city lights of San Francisco glittering amidst the dark bay, anticipation grew. The crowd outside the venue was a vast array of punks, metal heads, former hardcore kids with the tattoos to prove it, and then a few, well, normal looking middle aged folk. Overall the gathering resembled, in my admittedly bizarre imagination, a conference of defected Nazi youth – an army of white men in their late twenties/early thirties sporting a new deserter’s uniform of tattoos and beards and black shirts.
As I waited in the merchandise line to buy a show poster I watched the doors to the lower General Admission area as disgruntled fans stuck with balcony seats tried to sneak their way in. A small Asian girl was all that stood between these hardcore kids and the pit they lusted after. The hilarity was not lost on me.
The pit would have been nice but after all the stress and trouble it took just to get my tickets, I had no reservations climbing up the stairs to the balcony. The bar on the balcony was packed – ironic for a straight edge band (although I doubt all the members of Refused are still straight edge – further proof that over time opinions, beliefs and ideas can change; should we judge every kid with an XXX tattoo carrying a Jack Daniel’s and Coke? Should we judge every anti-capitalist band that reforms and plays Coachella?). Thankfully I avoided the long lines (and nasty bottled water) by finding a water fountain in the corner by the balcony exit.
Having arrived fashionably late I missed the opener The Bronx – a decent band, but one formed post-millennial and opening on a night for nostalgia. The Hives were up next, a band I briefly enjoyed during university but had missed when they opened for The International Noise Conspiracy (the promoters bafflingly put The Hives before 90 Day Men and Milemarker, two local Chicago bands we could have seen anytime).
On record The Hives are something of a one trick pony, pumping out retro riffs that the Rolling Stones themselves stole from someone else. Their live show, however, is another matter all together. Decked out in tuxedos and top hats the band blends a hilarious mix of obnoxiousness, obscenity, and braggadocio. Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, the band’s frontman, when not managing the incredible feat of singing and keeping the microphone plugged in while snaking through the pit, would spend the respite in between songs demanding the audience applaud, then scream, and then applaud again. Alternatively Almqvist would babble on incoherently about how his powers of hypnosis (“When you wake up you will go buy The Hives’ new record”). On the final song he demanded that everyone in the free standing General Admission area be seated before he proceed (“Or else Refused won’t play. I got all night.”). He went on to step on the head of one audience member who failed to comply (“Oh no, I’ve just been told. Refused canceled.”).
Not a band I would probably actively listen to in my spare time, but fun as hell to watch live – and their ethos (contra taedium) matched well with Refused. Of course it helped that the two bands are old friends and played together as far back as the early Nineties.
The break before Refused did not seem that long, but maybe the comfort of sitting down in a seat took away the pain of waiting. Instead of the usual jams over the PA, some fittingly pretentious Stars of the Lid-esque droning went on in the background while roadies set up behind a black curtain. During this time audience members screamed and applauded as the crowd below swayed back and forth involuntarily (many had obviously gotten past the little Asian girl guarding the door).
Slowly the stage lights came on to reveal a massive cut-out banner the size of the entire stage, simply bearing the word REFUSED. The applause increased as the entire balcony rose to their feet. Most people had out their iPhones. I was about to introduce myself to the strangers next to me, as one would to someone they were about to experience something great with – sky diving or bungee jumping – but they too were filming on their iPhones. The droning increased and then there was a muffled spoken word introduction that I don’t think anyone could hear (“The classics never go out of style, baby?”), the stage lights exploded, the banner dropped and suddenly, like a gunshot, “I got a bone to pick with capitalism…and a few to break.” After that, the realization that this reunion was well and truly on, I went positively apeshit.
With the first song not yet finished I somehow managed to entangle my leg stuck in a folded balcony seat. An embarrassment no doubt, but a quick moment to look around and see that everyone else was just standing around. I managed to get free after half a second of struggling thanks to some help from my better half and proceeded to forget about everyone else just standing around – jumping up and down, flailing around, head banging as if the apocalypse were upon us; all in the upper reaches of the balcony.
The sound, it should be said, was atrocious. Better than The Hives, whose mix sounded worse than a pub band, but still very poor. This could have been due to my position up in the balcony, but at any rate it was easily the worst sound out of any venue I have been to in the Bay Area. Thankfully I didn’t care. Refused could have played a cappella and I would have willingly stage dived into an empty auditorium.
A few songs into the set and Refused took a short breather while Dennis – the frontman and literal mouthpiece for the band – began to sweet talk San Francisco about how much they had wanted to play here back in the day. This led to the elephant in the room, the issue of a reunion. “This has been a strange journey,” Dennis began. He proceeded to tell the story which all fans probably already knew. Fourteen years ago Refused were fucking pissed off. They hated the political climate, the financial system, pop culture. By the time they broke up they hated counter-culture, the kids at their shows and even the other band members. This venom, a double edged sword, brought forth the seminal album The Shape of Punk to Come but also spelled the end of their time as a band.
So why had they returned? Dennis recalled questioning the songs from that time period, so filled with hate and anger, and whether they still had relevance today. His answer, yes. Almost a decade and a half on and everything was still the same. Everything but the band members. So bitter previously, the four members of Refused (and their on and off again bassist) were now almost bubbly (look at pictures online of a couple band members backstage with Kirk Hammett). The rhythm section and guitar riffs still rained down hellfire, but the positivity was undeniable. Was this why Refused had returned to the stage? This new lesson? Was this the New Noise they prophesied fourteen years ago? Critical, challenging, powerful but also positive in its thinking. Could all that anger on its own be unhealthy?
No sooner had these questions arisen and Refused were on their way again. Blasting through a scorching setlist comprised of classics from The Shape of Punk to Come and Songs to Fan The Flames of Discontent (not to mention the old-school track “Everlasting” – one of the highlights of the evening with its simplistic, hardcore riffs carrying more clarity than some of their more later and complex works).
The punk rock show is a bizarre phenomenon to those uninitiated. Unlike other concerts where one can get a bit tired standing around, or find themselves yawning in their seats, punk rock should annihilate all boredom. For the brief moment as the guitars wail, the drums pound away and the singer screams his lungs out you almost stop thinking. Instead you become pure action. Your body convulses, limbs flying in every direction, rational thought dissipates as the mind works solely in conjunction with the body, trying to keep from falling over or being trampled. Dare I say it, the punk rock show is our Dionysian act (yes, I said it!).
It’s hard to know exactly what primal necessity this physical urge satisfies, but it certainly does – and in our technological, alienated, information based existence it is a rare thing to surrender the mind to the body in a manner that doesn’t involve drug abuse (of both the legal and illegal kinds). We tell ourselves we go to the gym or go running because we need to lose a few pounds, and while this may not be completely untrue, our society is fitness obsessed simply because we have so few healthy outlets to “lose our minds.”
As Refused began their final encore, Tannhäuser, I felt my thoughts leaving me, like steam fleeing boiling water. The penultimate track on The Shape of Punk to Come begins with a wailing violin and a syncopated drum beat completely unheard of in hardcore music. The looping rhythm lulls you into a mesmerizing trance after an album (and in this case, a set list) of in-your-face explosivity. Of course the trance doesn’t last for long before the cymbals crash, the distortion returns and Dennis screams, “Boredom won’t get me tonight.” But the technique has served its purpose, the mind is wiped clean from worry and stress about your job, what you’re wearing, what bills you need to pay, what new-thingy you just have to spend your money on. And then the music ends and Dennis’ voice, like a cry from the battlefield…
It’s been a beautiful fucking night!
The Bronx! The Hives! Refused!
I don’t know a lot of shit, but I know that… don’t let anyone dictate how to live your life. Don’t let anyone tell you how to look, think, how to act. Stay wild. Stay curious. Stay hungry.
So how then did the pudding taste? It tasted pretty fucking good. Should New Noise or some other Refused track suddenly appear on a car commercial (or fittingly, an advert for Coca-Cola or Shell) the taste might suddenly turn very sour. For now it’s satisfying to see Refused happy and positive about life, despite the ugly times we live in. For regardless of the money this reunion will bring, those qualities are certainly priceless.
One Hell of a Fucking Set List
Worms of the senses
Refused party programme
Rather be dead
Summer holidays vs punk routine
Hook line and sinker
Refused are fucking dead
The shape of punk to come
P.s. As a way of completing the arch, as it were, of this article I would like to remind the faithful reader of Nietzsche’s own opinion of boredom. Upon asking the rhetorical question, “How is [boredom] accomplished?” the German philosopher replied, “By the means of the concept of duty.” All that to say that I too have a duty to fulfill – an edict, you might say, from
The Leader the editor – to draw attention and celebrate the advent of our twentieth issue.
Many of this esteemed collective have chosen to celebrate the sacred number twenty in this illustrious of all issues and so I too will join my colleagues in praise of reaching twenty issues. One might, ill-advisedly, try to praise some other numbers – the three hundred and three days since our first post, the one hundred and twenty three articles we have published or even the nine hundred and sixty six spam comments that Akismet has protected our site from – but this would be dangerous. One wouldn’t want to find themselves taken around the back of the barn, and relieved of one’s burdens (as might happen, say, to an injured racehorse in Macau or something) by our dear and eminent
Happy twentieth. Long live the Collective.