Read Hard’s Classic Pop-punk Picks #33: Propagandhi- How to Clean Everything/ Less Talk, More Rock

Posted: July 25, 2017 in Read Hard's Classic Pop Punk Picks

Image result for propagandhi how to clean everything

Image result for propagandhi less talk more rock

It’s been half a year since the last Pop Punk Pick and I am sorry for the anticipation I have put on this one! I’ve decided to do something special. This time there’s not just one album; there are two! I figured Propagandhi is one of those bands that have two very good albums, so why not write about both? And compare them? This will be fun, people! Propagandhi was formed as early as 1986 in Winnipeg. Jord Samolesky and Chris Hannah started the band and recruited bassist Scott Hopper, who was replaced by Mike Braumeister, who was replaced by John Samson, a young musician and poet. Braumeister moved to Vancouver. They were a political band right from the get-go, but in the early days they referred to themselves as a progressive thrash band rather than the skate punk band they turned into in the early 90s. They put out three demos; We Don’t Get Paid, We Don’t Get Laid, But Boy Are We Lazy, Fuck the Scene and Martial Law with a Cherry on Top, before signing to a label. In 1992, they played a gig with NOFX (or Fat Mike just went and saw them, there are different stories) at the Royal Albert in Winnipeg and played a Cheap Trick cover. I’ve read about it being both “Surrender” and “I Want You to Want Me”, and I’m not sure what song is the correct one, but Fat Mike loved the cover and their harmonies so he signed them to his newly started Fat Wreck Chords and released How to Clean Everything, their first album. After a series of EP’s and splits they released Less Talk, More Rock in 1996. After the album John Samson, due to anxiety and not enjoying playing shows and musical differences, quit the band and formed the Weakerthans.

After Samson left the band became a lot more aggressive and had less pop sensibilities. The two next albums on Fat Today’s Empire and Tomorrow’s Ashes and Potemkin City Limits were more hardcore, and even thrash metal leaning. On the later records such as Supporting Caste and Failed States they returned back to progressive thrash it seems. PCL was the last album to be released on Fat; the reasons for their departure were political. When it comes to their political ideology, I would say that they’re on the libertarian left side of the political chart. In an interview with Wild Donna, they say: “Yeah, generally our songs are derived from struggling through daily life and trying to make sense of this upside down and backwards world. We seem to be the type of people who have a burning need to communicate ideas through music. We have no real plan or agenda we just speak what’s moving us at the moment, be that animal rights, human trafficking, our own shortcomings. or any injustices we feel strongly about. In the end we’re always aiming for a more peaceful and just world.”

On the label of Less Talk, More Rock the band describe themselves as Animal friendly, Anti-fascist, Gay-positive and pro-feminist. As mentioned earlier, the departure from Fat was political. Propagandhi submitted a song to Fat Mike’s Rock Against Bush comp even if they opposed both candidates (Fat Mike famously supported John Kerry over Bush). What, however, became the final straw was Propagandhi insulting billionaire Democrat supporter George Soros, and Fat Mike thought it could hurt the Punkvoter cause and wanted to put Propagandhi on the second comp instead, something they refused. Later on, the Fat released Potemkin City Limits; on the song “Rock for Suitable Capitalism”, Propagandhi also came hugely criticised Fat Mike, something that hurt his feelings. He claimed they worked for the same goals, just in different ways. Chris Hannah said in the documentary A Fat Wreck that he expected him not to take it as seriously as he did. Fat Mike claimed Epitaph’s Brett Gurewitz said he would’ve kicked them off the label if it were him. After PCL, they parted ways and their next album was only released on their own label G7 Welcoming Committee and a Canadian label called Smallman. Though known for their politically correct stances, they also often use politically incorrect gallows-humour like saying “free John Hinkley” and saying what they hate about ISIS is that they aren’t there when you need them, with a ‘TrumpInauguration’ hashtag.

The first Propagandhi song I heard was “Back to the Motor League” from Today’s Empire, Tomorrow’s Ashes. I always thought it was a bit macho and I found the lyrics silly, but there was something very melodic about the chorus and I didn’t understand that the lyrics were supposed to be sarcastic. I didn’t really get into them before I heard How to Clean Everything and I was pretty much blown away. I thought they sounded like a Fat Wreck band, but even better ,and I sort of got the lyrics more than before and I found them provocative both shock-wise and thought-wise.

How to Clean Everything was released on Fat May 31st 1993 and Less Talk, More Rock was released on Fat April 23rd 1996. I don’t think the albums are very different musically, the lyrics might be a bit more mature on the latter, but they reflect on the same topics. A huge difference is seen in the album covers. HtCE is more cartoonish and full of colors. LTMR is a lot darker and shows a man getting attacked by bulls, probably to show the horrors of rodeos. The picture is the promotional poster for the Calgary Stampede in 2004.

Western Apathy and Ignorance

“Apparently, I’m A “P.C. Fascist” (Because I Care About Both Human and Non-human Animals) (Less Talk, More Rock)”

The song starts up with Chris introducing his otherwise productive and brilliant friends who resort to ad hominem attacks on people who take a stand against oppression. He feels marginalized and penalized for standing up against different kinds of oppression. He says that they ignore the issue and deny relations between consumption and brutality. Aristotle is known for saying that ignorance can rid someone of guilt and Jesus is known for saying something similar “Forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34) something that often by turned around into “forgive them not, they know what they’re doing”, something Chris indirectly does in this song when he says they can feign ignorance, but they’re not stupid, they’re just selfish. Chris shows disgust for the idea that someone can become a commodity, whether it relates to worker oppression, sexism or consuming meat and wonders if they could do the same to him and treat him as a commodity or a machine. To me, the main point in the song is to point out that we have a responsibility to call out people who do shitty things and we should be expected to be called out if we do something shitty too and that doing that does not make someone a P.C fascist. The song ends with “Consider someone else: Stop consuming animals”. I see this as an introduction to the next song “Nailing Descartes to the Wall” and claims that fighting against animal consumption is just as important as fighting against sexism, classism and racism and other issues that have to do with oppression and privilege.

“Haillie Sellasse, Up Your Ass (How to Clean Everything)”

The title refers to Ethiopian regent Hailie Selassie who reigned in the country from 1930 to a coup in 1974. He was born Lij Tafari Makonnen and when he was Governor of Harer he got the name Ras Tafari (Ras means “head”) and gave name to a religious movement: The Rastafari movement.  The movement started as a Pan African movement in Jamaica. Rastafarians believe that Selassie is the messiah and that God had put him on earth to lead Africans back to Africa and back to freedom, similar to what Moses did to the Israelites according to the Bible. Selassie visited Jamaica and seemed honored by the movement, but denied his own divinity. Reggae music is often related to Rastafarianism. So I’ve always thought it was quite a clever thing to make this song a reggae song. I definitely think it’s one of the band’s stronger songs. There are several ways to interpret it, one of them is sort of racist. It could be a critcism of Selassie (as the title suggest) and the black Rastafari movement and why they would believe in a god that has accepted oppression of black people (How can you justify belief in a god that has left you behind?). This would be a rather strange criticism from a white, privileged person to have of an oppressed people’s movement and the idea of filling the gap between the upper and lower class doesn’t make that much sense in this interpretation. However, if this song is directed to western, middle class followers of Rastafarianism who don’t really understand its background, I think it makes more sense.  A third option could be that the song is a critique of religion in itself, especially the Judeo-Christian religions. The song doesn’t touch much on Pan Africanism or Rastafari as a black movement at all and Chris sings “an amalgamation of Jewish scripture and Christian thought”, which is in many ways is the basis for Rastafarianism, but it’s also the basis for the culture and religious practice in the west in general, and Chris knocks it down by saying “what will that get you? Not a fuck of a lot”. Where the song starts off as a song referencing Rastafarianism it turns into a song about the Middle East conflict and Zionism. Judaism and Rastafari differ in the views of Zion; the promised land. To Jewish Zionists the promised land is Jerusalem or Israel, while to the Rastafarians it’s Ethiopia or Africa as a continent. When Chris mentions the “promised land” in the song he means what Zionists refer to as the ‘promised land’; territories in Israel and Palestine, excluding Rastafarianism from further interpretation in the song.

In that case, the song is just as much directed at Christian supporters of Judeo-Zionism and the song is a critique of western obsession with Israel and America’s relations to Israel as it is at Rastafarianism. Chris sings that Mount Zion in Jerusalem is a mine field and the Palestinian territories the Gaza Strip and the West Bank will be used as parking lots for American tourists (and fascist cops). The most famous part of the song is probably the end: “Fuck Zionism, fuck militarism, fuck Americanism, fuck nationalism” and most importantly, “fuck religion”.

Connection

The biggest connection between these two songs is the focus on the apathy and ignorance of the west and how privilege distorts our views and make us accept exploitation, sexism, rape culture and not only eating meat, but also support the industry that has turned animals into a commodity, as well as turning a blind eye to or even support Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and justifying these actions with ideological or religious beliefs. Another connection is the use of the word “fascist”, I’m not sure if either of the examples of “fascist” in the songs refers to the actual ideology of fascism. In “PC Fascist” it’s used ironically and to ridicule people who call people who are PC as fascist; in “Haillie Sellasse” the word “fascist” is used about cops and might be more used in a literal sense, either about the police in Israel or American cops or, even more metaphorically, meaning military cops.

Animal Rights

“Nailing Descartes to the Wall/ (Liquid) Meat Is Still Murder” (Less Talk, More Rock)

Like I wrote earlier, “Nailing Descartes” is a continuation of the animal rights theme of “PC Fascist”. The song is a defense of militant veganism. Chris describes himself as being between reason and insanity because he values non-human lives as much as human lives. He also says he is “as stupid as anyone”, but he knows his mistakes and he cannot continue consuming animals. I’ve learned something from reading the comments on Songmeanings.com about the song. René Descartes didn’t believe that animals had souls and nailed his dog, alive, to the wall to prove it. The song’s title is a reference to this. He also sings about having dreams about him and a gun and a different species that rhymes with Neumans, it would seem that he’s singing from the point of view of a cow in that particular line. It’s a reference to Tori Amos’s touching, horrific and brilliant lyric about rape; “Me and a Gun (Me and a gun and a man on my back)”. This could of course be a coincidence, but it seems like he is trying to connect treatment of animals to rape. Later in the song, he sings “Meat is still murder, dairy is still rape”. As much as Propagandhi rely on the shock factor, this is a case where I think they are pretty much out of line. It’s one thing to believe that human and non-human animals are equal, but to mock a woman’s rape story seems a bit vile. I guess you could compare it to Morrissey’s comments after the Utøya terrorist attacks in 2011 where he said it was nothing compared to what McDonalds does. The song is just as much a song directed at vegetarians as it is to carnivores and says that if you’re drinking milk (liquid meat?) you’re also part of the problem.

“I Want You to Want Me” (How to Clean Everything)

This cover of Cheap Trick’s classic is, as aforementioned, what got the band signed to Fat. The lyrics to the song are pretty much classic love songs of wanting someone to want you and wanting to do anything for that to happen. The song is sung to someone with the name Megan. The Cheap Trick version was a huge hit in Canada. Lyrically, it’s different from most of Propgandhi’s own songs and it could have been a sarcastic jab at cliché love songs. That being said, in the end of the song Megan is rhymed with “vegan” and the highlight of this love story is that the Megan in Propagandhi’s cover is a vegan and doesn’t eat bacon.

Connection

LTMR is an album where Animal rights and vegetarianism and veganism are very prominent themes, but on HtCe there aren’t many references to this at all except in this cover where they in the end proclaim that Megan is a vegan that doesn’t eat bacon.

Ignore the Message We Convey

“Less Talk, More Rock” (Less Talk, More Rock)

The title track of LSMR is a sarcastic jab at people who just want to hear the tunes, but don’t care much about the message behind the songs. Another theme of the song is homophobia, something they also wrote about in “Homophobes Are Just Pissed Cuz They Can’t Get Laid”.  In the song, Chris describes homosexual experiences, one at nine and the other at 23. The song shows the importance of letting homophobes dance to a song about gay experiences and make money from them. He encourages the toughest guys to dance to the song. There might be a double meaning there, one relating to the “tough” guys, as the macho homophobes, but also tough, as in brave, who are willing to take a stand against homophobia.

“Anti-Manifesto” (How to Clean Everything)

The opening track to HtCE is lamenting the fact that they are only there to entertain and that people ignore the message behind the songs. In the documentary A Fat Wreck, Fat Co-Owner Erin Burkett said that Propagandhi didn’t care much about the music at all compared to the message and could’ve played any kind of music as long as they got their message across in the beginning. Chris states that he doesn’t want to be a soundtrack to a rebellion that is cut-to-fit and that they stand for something more than “a faded sticker on a skateboard”. He describes the culture of fans who love the music, but don’t care about the politics of the band. He also states that the band offers hope, perseverance, a vision, green ink, a 26 Oz. and a big case of big mouth.  By the end, he says that nothing ever felt as right as this and that he “stole this riff”. I think the song is in many ways comparable to the Clash’s “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)”, a song about how punk has become a fashion statement, rather than a place for political ideas. Musically, it’s a great opener and shows what the album is about to give us. The vocal harmonies are great!

Connection

I feel like the messages in these songs are probably those that are most similar in the songs I’m comparing. They both have to do with fans that just listen to the songs because of the music and don’t care about or agree with the message. This does makes me ask one important question though, does one have to agree with the message to enjoy music? It’d be scary if you had to agree with every band you liked’s political opinions, but I’m guessing what they are saying is there are people who don’t care about politics at all and would rather they didn’t display their opinions at all. I would say the people who don’t care at all would be more of a problem than those that disagree completely because at least then there are grounds for a debate or a discussion and the music has the purpose of creating a reaction in those that think different and could also change minds.

Samson: The Man of the Sun

“Anchorless” (Less Talk, More Rock)

A quite personal song about the loss of a close family member who you had ambivalent feelings toward. In the song, the “I” voice mourns the dead relative, but also states that they don’t want to end up like this person. They also ask the dead family member why they were so anchorless and compare them to a boat that’s abandoned in a backyard. It’s an honest and beautiful song. There’s a reference to British writer P.G Wodehouse, who the protagonist inherits novels of that belonged to the dead relative. The dead relative has lived in this small town (in Southern Manitoba) and died there. The song paints a picture of someone who never got to express their true feelings and stayed in the same place all their lives, but still didn’t find their actual place. The song isn’t disrespectful or mean (except maybe the use of “finally dying” in the opening line), neither is it touching and sad, in the sense that the protagonist isn’t awfully sad or grieving, but it is sad in the sense that you can sense that that you feel more pity for the dead than for the survivor. The song’s bridge goes “I don’t wanna live and die here”

“Gifts” (Less Talk, More Rock)

In this song we see a side of Propagandhi we hardly see anymore and it’s a song about self-doubt and self-deprecation. It’s a song about the fact that no matter how old you get you will still be clueless and hopeless and there isn’t always much to do to solve whatever you’re going through and sometimes all you have are memories of times gone by that you feel the need to remember.  The song is about reaching out to an old friend with a gift that is a promise. The promise is “a razor blade and this broken piece of chain/ a history left to rust out in the rain”. It shows that no matter how thoughtful our gifts, our memories or our promises are they will at one point start to fade.

“Showdown (G.E/P)” (How to Clean Everything)

Probably one of the most interesting songs the band ever wrote. The melody is very good and the execution is perfect. The lyrics are a showdown of two entirely different and almost contrasting lyrics and themes, mixed into one song. The song consists of the two songs “Greenest Eyes” and “Preamble” mixed together. “Greenest Eyes” is a love song about not finding the words to say, “Preamble” is a political song about freedom of expression and freedom of speech. “Greenest Eyes” is written by John and “Preamble” is written by Chris. Chris starts off the song with the opening line “We spoke our minds too clearly on some fundamental rights”. His point of view seems to be that freedom of speech only goes so far before you can get in trouble for what you stand for. Later in the song he sings “I’m completely free and liberty guaranteed/Unless, of course, you decide I’m not”. We are basically taught to conform and step in line to the values we are ascribed and that we are free to say what we want, but not if it goes outside of these values. Chris goes against the authorities by saying “I never have and never will pledge allegiance”. Interestingly, Canada doesn’t seem to have the “Pledge of allegiance” thing that the US has, but Chris might mean it metaphorically, in general or he’s trying to appeal to an American audience.

John comes in later singing about how he’s trying to find the words to say to someone, but he can’t find them. He is showing a completely different version of himself than he is on the inside. He repeats “I was right behind you”. He’s showing the meaninglessness of words. She whispers something in his ear, but he can’t hear it. It’s over. This part is beautiful: “Girls with the greenest eyes/ First time you have kissed/ Our quiet softest sighs/ A song for all of those who shot and missed”. In the end, the two themes sort of blend together. Where “Greenest Eyes” shows how words fail you by the end of a romantic affair, “Preamble” shows how words are meaningless when you go against the government and the authorities. John sings “final words are boring”, Chris sings “All these words are boring”. Chris says it’s time for a reaction, but he’s taught to be a pawn, but he is willing to stand up against the government. He sings he won’t “fall in line behind you”. The “you” here are the authorities, whereas the “you” in “Greenest Eyes” is the woman with the greenest eyes. The song ends with Chris and John singing “I was right behind you” and it means entirely different things.

Connection

The connection these three songs have in common are, of course, that they’re all written by John K. Samson. As I wrote earlier, he also started the band the Weakerthans after parting with Propagandhi. He recorded “The Greenest Eyes” and “Gifts” as solo numbers and he did “Anchorless” on the first Weakerthans album called Fallow. He added the lyrics:

“Shoebox full of photos;

found a grainy mirror.

Sunken cheeks and slender hands.

Grocery lists and carbon-copied letters offer silence for my small demands.

Hey how’d you get so anchorless?”

This thing got a bit long, so I’m making it a two-parter. Stay tuned for part two…

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s