Hearing someone scream “I’ve got a bone to pick with capitalism” at Coachella, one of the biggest and priciest American music festivals, might seem a bit silly at first. In this case, though, the skinny punks in question actually mean it. It’s also common knowledge that they’re not alone at this particular point in history. In fact, there is probably no better possible time for a band like Refused to reunite.
Fourteen years ago when the Swedish hardcore four-piece split up, it was a bit unceremonious. Punk bands have a propensity for going out with a whimper rather than a bang. Their final US gig was in a Harrisonburg, Virginia basement and was shut down by the local police. Not exactly befitting a band who had named their album The Shape of Punk to Come.
Since then, however, the title has proven correct. Odd time-signatures, alternate tunings, electronic sampling and the usage of revolutionary Situationist imagery made Shape far from your typical punk album. It was more in the vein of the Clash or Nation of Ulysses–using the spirit of punk as an excuse to subvert some of the genre’s most ingrained standards. Hardly a surprise then, that like Nation of Ulysses and Fugazi, Refused were political revolutionaries too.
The Shape of Punk to Come is now regarded as one of the most influential albums ever made–not just in punk, but music as a whole in the last 25 years. The “new noise” that the group attempted to forge (“how can we expect anyone to listen if we’re using the same old voice?”) clearly resonated with more than a few people out there.
To be sure, the members of group haven’t been twiddling their thumbs since its demise. Some went back to school and got degrees or started new bands. Dennis Lyxzen, the group’s frontman, formed the (International) Noise Conspiracy and continued to explore that indescribable nexus between rock and revolution. There was always, however, a feeling of that “we never did The Shape of Punk to Come justice back when it came out.”
Indeed, there does remain a lot of unfinished business. Namely that business itself has gotten a lot uglier, a lot more cut-throat and brutal even as it’s proven itself to be a lot more resilient. When Refused called it quits in 1998, it was easy to think that the whole rotten system was on its last legs. The Asian economy was in shambles, and the revolutionary rumblings in Indonesia might be spreading. The general strikes in France a few years before had given rise to a slogan: “the world is not for sale.” Globalization was being proven a sham, and a world-wide movement was taking shape that made it seem a more humane order was right around the corner.
As we all know now, that’s not exactly how it played out. Even as Refused’s star ironically continued to rise in the years after their breakup, humanity’s prospects got dimmer. The alter-globalization movement sputtered out as America puffed its chest into Afghanistan and Iraq. Even as capitalism hobbled its way through the panic of ‘08, it managed to be arrogant and brazen. They created the crisis, and yet we bear the brunt.
Alongside this is the interminable decline of the big-time music industry. It bears mentioning that even as The Shape of Punk to Come became near iconic among musical misfits of varying stripes, Refused were never on any of the “big four” record labels. The condescending, formulaic and whitewashed approach of label CEOs doesn’t square with reality for most people.
And so the amazing thing about Refused getting back together in the here and now isn’t how ill-timed and hackneyed it so often seems to be when bands reunite. Quite the opposite; if anything, the songs of Shape are more relevant, more hard-hitting, more resonant than they’ve ever been. Yesterday’s buzzwords of “national security” and “war on terror” have been pushed to the side in favor of “occupy,” “indignados” and “Tahrir.” In straightforward terms, the same people whose fates appeared sealed just a few years ago have found a voice; the impossible has now, once again, become possible.
One of the common slogans of the Situationists by whom Lyxzen and company have long been inspired is the “revolutionizing of everyday life.” In other words, even the most mundane and apparently co-opted entities under this system have the potential to be turned back in on itself, re-appropriated for the cause of true liberation. There might be more than a little truth to this. Recent surveys have revealed that despite the inexorable fall in both living standards and album sales, ticket sales — even to expensive mega-fests like Coachella — continue to rise.
It doesn’t take too much speculation to figure out why: in a world where so much is denied, even a vague experience of affirmation and communal feelings has no price tag. Cynical booking agents and promoters might laugh at a band playing Coachella having “a bone to pick with capitalism.” But when they make it clear that they also have “a few to break,” there’s a good bet that many of this forgotten generation felt it in every fiber of their being. Indeed, a world of affirmation might be worth a few fractured knuckles.