NOFX fuses I-got-the-world-up-my-ass (think Circle Jerks) attitude, British punk-era political cynicism and a snotty vocal tenor wedged somewhere between Dead Milkmen bratcore and an air of early Social Distortion disillusion. The Hollywood-formed foursome jabs at the ill effects of capitalist society — repression, prejudice, the poor — all with an underlying sense of paranoia. But rather than stand on a soapbox, vocalist/bassist Fat Mike and crew opt for sarcasm and humor, producing a one-two punch that, on the early releases, helped distract from the music’s monotony and continues to set the band apart from the power- punk pack. In recent years, with Fat Mike and guitarist Eric Melvin as the only remaining original members, the group has, to the disappointment of punk purists, become more pop-friendly.
Expressing blatant distaste for ’80s just-say-no conservatism, NOFX debuted with a 7-inch “The PMRC Can Suck on This,” released on Fat Mike’s own Fat Wreck Chords label. Soon after, the band put out Liberal Animation, a generally straightforward punk-paced collection produced by Brett Gurewitz (who, according to NOFX, offered to put it out on Epitaph, an offer they initially rejected and then regretted). It has a few reggae rhythms and “Here Comes the Neighborhood,” which mixes a slow, introspective intro and hard-rock guitar solos. The songs are a bit sloppy, but one look at the lyric sheet and cover illustration (three cows, one sporting a Dead Milkmen T-shirt, sitting at the dinner table partaking of roast human) makes it apparent the band’s not very serious about its agit-prop. There are silly songs (“On the Rag,” “Beer Song,” “Truck Stop Blues” and “A200 Club,” about crabs) and digs at non-carnivores. “Vegetarian Mumbo Jumbo” asks “Why should I be sad about cows getting hit in the head…It’s survival of the fittest and we’re winning.” The band does offer up a bit more insight with the anti-politics stance of “Free Dumb” and the focus on hypocrisy in the lifestyle of peace punks in “Piece.” The main feat here is that Fat Mike pulls off stupid and sarcastic equally well.
S&M Airlines maintains the breakneck speed but expands the band’s stylistic repertoire with more prominent guitar solos and ska/dub grooves. Parts of the amusing “Professional Crastination” recall the beginning of Iggy’s “The Passenger,” though the song quickly jumps to hyperspeed and then back to the reggaefied breaks; “Life O’Riley” also toggles between ska and fast punk. Many of the lyrics again poke fun at American society — “Jaundiced Eye” supports minority pride — but the band is no less prone to spouting un-PC humor. “You Drink, You Drive, You Spill” puts a twist on the statistic that 35 percent of auto deaths are alcohol-related. “The other 65-percent are not alcohol-related/What does this tell us about the drunk drivers/They seem to have a better record than the sober team.”
Ribbed continues the lyrical levity in “Moron Brothers” “Food, Sex and Ewe” and “Shower Days.” “New Boobs” is a funny take on silicone society and an example of the band’s broadening style: the song devolves into a Sha Na Na-like ’50s parody. NOFX even offers up its first ballad, “Together in the Sand,” penned by short-term guitarist Izzy Drew Lynn. Mike doesn’t alter his bratty delivery, but the record’s increased use of harmonies would become permanent.
It’s on The Longest Line — which introduces new guitarist, singer and trumpet-player El Hefe — that the NOFX sound really comes together and spreads apart. On “Kill All the White Man,” NOFX takes its affinity for reggae one stop further by imitating the form’s vocal style. Though the band is serious about its anti-racist stance on that cut, the “Batman”-like chorus of “white man” lightens the touch. On the title track, you can taste their soured view of life; “The Death of John Smith” offers further commentary on the void in middle-class America.
White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean adds poppier melodies, softening the edge but not the attitude. A guide to creating formulaic hits (“Please Play This Song on the Radio”) sticks in a slew of curses just to mess with DJs. Tracks that dive into untested waters serve to break up the more predictable fare: a jazzed-up cover of Minor Threat’s “Straight Edge” complete with Louis Armstrong-style vocals, the Al Jolson-era ditty “Buggley Eyes,” the “Oi!” chants and ska beats of “Bob.”
There’s not much change in Punk in Drublic. The pace is still brisk; most of the songs hold to the standard Offspring/Green Day style. The highlights are the jokes: “The Brews” is a takeoff on typical Oi skinhead sound with lyrics that would make a rabbi proud, “My Heart Is Yearning” is an operatic vocal parody. As far as that Top 40 punk style, the sound works best on “The Quass,” “Don’t Call Me White” and “Punk Guy,” where the band brings back some of the old British flavor.
Announcing that “NOFX are: same as last album but older and fatter,” Heavy Petting Zoo continues the band’s crude and catchy socio-political-sexual analysis in Weezer-tight pop blurts like “Hobophobic (Scared of Bums),” “Bleeding Heart Disease” and the weight-conscious “Hot Dog in a Hallway.” Fat Mike revels in his Howard Stern-like sensibilities: “The Black and White” attempts to settle the feminist anti-pornography movement with the predictable “I think they need a good hard fuck,” “Freedom Lika Shopping Cart” accuses the homeless of chronic irresponsibility and “Release the Hostages” tastefully praises Johnnie Walker Red for “keep[ing] my insides warm like a cunt.” Musically unassailable and lyrically unforgivable (but with an impressively principled printed nose-thumb at TV, major labels and commercial radio), Heavy Petting Zoo is a punk album in spirit if not always in sound.
The brilliantly titled I Heard They Suck Live, recorded in early ’95 at a Hollywood club, contains solid, straightforward live versions of songs from each of the band’s prior releases plus a cover of Rudimentary Peni’s “Nothing but a Nightmare.”