Advertised on the Fat Wreck Chords website as “one of their top 3 live albums to date”, NOFX released their third live album last month.
A brief history: NOFX first released I Heard They Suck Live, a classic for sure, way back in 1995. In 2007, they released They’ve Actually Gotten Worse Live. This second one was unique because the band went out of their way not to repeat songs from the first live album, thereby leaving off classics “Bob”, “The ’Brews”, and “Linoleum”. But considering the band had released so much new material since 1995, this was an uncharacteristically classy move for the band. What was not classy was teasing the listener by playing the almighty Decline as an encore only to fade the recording out after just a couple minutes (pisses me off just thinking about it). The band did eventually release a live version of The Decline, though by itself and in DVD and vinyl format only.
In the early stages of this millennium, Fat Wreck Chords launched the Live In A Dive series, subsequently releasing seven volumes between 2001 and 2005 and featuring, among others, Lagwagon, Bracket, and the Subhumans. The Live In A Dive title was shed when NOFX released They’ve Actually Gotten Worse Live, though the Mad Caddies 2004 live album had also gone by a different title.
Then a bunch of years passed before the Live In A Dive series was revived with Ribbed – Live In A Dive. As the title suggests, the band plays songs only from their 1991 album, Ribbed. In fact, they play them all, and in order. The band even plays “Brain Constipation”, despite suggesting beforehand that the audience members take a break to go to the bathroom, and calling it “one of our worst songs ever”.
It has actually become commonplace for bands to perform albums in their entireties, and even releasing those concerts commercially; Less Than Jake did this for each of their first five albums. Ribbed – Live In a Dive is a first for NOFX, though.
Going back to “Brain Constipation”, this is a song that I’ve surely listened to dozens of times while listening to the Ribbed album or to NOFX on shuffle, and while it never stood out as a particularly strong song – I’m sure I didn’t even know what it was called before now – nor did it strike me as particularly awful. That’s one of the interesting things about NOFX in concert: they are so NOT rock stars. Their stage demeanor is casual and conversational and filled with self-criticism. I’ve always been fascinated when a band critiques its previous output, as NOFX often does before and after songs, whether panning “Brain Constipation”, or giving themselves passing grades on the final three songs, calling them “all pretty good”.
From their earliest days NOFX has been known for humor, though never really as a musically comedic act, like The Vandals kind of were, and maybe not intentionally, either – how seriously should we take Fat Mike as he sings about bathing on Wednesdays and Saturdays only, that they are “Shower Days”, and that he hates them? Sure, sometimes they cross the line, but in general Fat Mike, El Hefe, and Eric Melvin make me laugh.
Fat Mike also talks down “Food, Sex, and Ewe” as he laughingly reminisces of the days when he thought ska was cool because of Operation Ivy but suggests that he now thinks ska is stupid. Which is too bad because, while most of my favorite NOFX songs are of the fast and hardcore variety, one of the reasons I originally got into NOFX over twenty years ago was because they were often considered a ska-punk band. S&M Airlines has one ska song while Ribbed has two – I say “I Don’t Want You Around” counts – and they continued that practice throughout the decade. “Food, Sex, and Ewe” is not a bad song.
“I Don’t Want You Around” is a better song, though. Not to give too much away but there is a guest singer for this one due to Fat Mike’s inability to sing and play the song at the same time (the guest is Kody from Teenage Bottlerocket/The Lillingtons; ok, I gave away everything).
While the second NOFX live album avoided repeating material from the first, this third one makes no such promise, a good thing because otherwise it would be pretty short – “Moron Brothers”, “El Lay”, “Together on the Sand”, and “Nowhere” were all on I Heard They Suck Live; “Green Corn” was on They’ve Actually Gotten Worse Live; and (this only kind of counts) Ten Years of Fucking Up had live videos of the studio versions of “Shower Days” and “Gonoherpasyphilaids”. Teenage Me thought “Gonoherpasyphilaids” was hilarious. Thirty-Something Me still finds it amusing.
Speaking of things Teenage Me liked, how about the new boobs-jugs-balloons doo-wop tag at the end of “New Boobs”? They actually pull it off live! Comparing the songs “New Boobs”, about breast implants and cosmetic surgery, and “Malachi Crunch”, about racist skinheads, show the wide range of lyrical content NOFX can showcase throughout an album. Showing their range musically is showcased in “New Boobs” alone. Moments like the doo-wop tag seem to have been built for El Hefe. So perfect for him is this tag, as well as “Together On The Sand” and the doo-do-do-do-do-doo interlude in “Moron Brothers”, that it’s easy to forget that El Hefe didn’t actually join the band until after the original Ribbed was released. The transition from the acoustic pseudo-love song “Together On The Sand” into “Nowhere” is identical to that on the first live album, which was identical to the studio version. I’ve always loved the guitar lines in “Nowhere”.
Is “Cheese/Where’s My Slice” one song or two? The title suggests two but they’ve never been split into separate tracks. The sarcastic refrain “Where’s my slice? I want more than equal rights. I want everything for free” along with the line “You think I give a shit if you’re a socialist” from “Nowhere” serve as reminders that punk rock’s political views used to be more libertarian rather than the extreme left it generally promotes today (my quoting from “Nowhere”, by the way, is a perfect example of a writer taking something out of context. Feel free to look up the rest of the lyrics).
While there will always be those who violently disagree with me, I will fight to the death in defense of my claim that Ribbed was NOFX’s first good album. Brett Gurewitz produced it (note the Bad Religion-like harmonies in the middle of “Green Corn”), but he produced their first two albums as well, so it would seem the band simply got better. Ribbed is a solid-sounding record, but the quality of indie punk recordings has gone way up since 1991, so even though this is a live recording (made in 2012 though not released until 2018) the sound quality is superior to the original studio quality.
While the sound quality is better, the performance is sloppier, which is often the case for live recordings, though not always – NOFX’s performances of “You Drink, You Drive, You Spill” and “Beer Bong” on I Heard They Suck Live were both better and tighter than their respective studio versions. One excuse the guys, especially Fat Mike, allows themselves is that these songs are harder, apparently way harder than the First Ditch Effort material. Fat Mike begins the album by warning the audience that they’re “going to fuck up a fucking lot.” Before “Shower Days” he says, “everybody watch me; this is hard”. After “New Boobs”, Hefe and Melvin have a playoff to demonstrate how difficult the guitar lick is in the song they’d just played. I haven’t tried to play any of these songs, but I’ll take their word for it – these songs do sound more complicated than, say, “Six Years On Dope”.
Too much talking often prevents a live album from holding up over time; I like blink-182 but The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show is almost unlistenable now. The novelty wears off after four or five listens as the chitter-chatter turns more annoying than funny. I’ve never found that to be the case with NOFX. I Heard They Suck Live in particular still makes me laugh over two decades later. Their crude potty humor somehow comes off smarter than their peers, despite the onstage discussion that Fat Mike, at the time forty-six years-old, started doing drugs when he was thirty-two, so he’d only been doing drugs for twelve years (uhhhh…math much?). Other talking points include the differences between ska-punks and punk-punks, how to distinguish a high five versus a Sieg Heil, the pronunciation of the word “sabotage”, the consistency with which Jews have good ideas, and that the writers of Californication plagiarized a line from “Moron Brothers” for an episode.
NOFX still sounds good despite the drugs and middle-age. Seems like I haven’t heard a great live album since the demise of the original Live In A Dive series, which coincided roughly with the decline in popularity of punk rock. This one probably won’t become a classic the way I view I Heard They Suck Live, but any fan of the band is going to get a lot of enjoyment out of Live In a Dive – Ribbed.