Anger has become a commodity. Its brattier younger brother, Angst, sells millions of records and adorns as many t-shirts as it does scrawled diary pages. Dissatisfaction and Gently Pissed Off rule the roost, because it’s much less offensive to Daddy Major Label if you can get away with mumbling a few vagaries about George Bush rather than presenting a coherent message. Think about every gig you’ve attended in the last three years – has there been a slightly uncomfortable moment when Mr Haircut Lead Singer dedicates a song to how evil George Bush is without taking the time to either say why, or to work out that he’s not in the US? Musical dissent has become a carefully manufactured fashion accessory, rather than the caustic statement of intent it needs to be. Winnipeg’s Propagandhi believe that “every action is intensely political, even apathy. By doing nothing you’re simply perpetuating the status quo.” Which is why, one assumes, they have made their name as the most vital proponents of Righteous Anger (that older, more educated relation) to burst out of the Northern Hemisphere since that dude with the shopping bags in Tiananmen Square.
Emerging in 1993 with the hammerblow debut ‘How To Clean Everything’ via Fat Wreck Chords, they quickly established a name for being as politically outspoken as they were musically proficient. ‘How To…’ was a calling card that, while sonically located in the Californian punk sound characterised by NOFX and Lagwagon (albeit the much heavier variety), was infused with enough bile and venom to make everyone who encountered it sit up and take note. With lyrics like “I’d rather be in prison in a George Orwellian world / Than this pacified society of happy boys and girls” and “For every throne there’s a thousand graves” deliberately positioned to shock anyone thinking they’ve picked up another bouncy punk record, it introduced the world to Propagandhi’s methods: brutal yet melodic riffs subtitled by contentious, thought-provoking lyrics.
Even their most recent release, the incendiary ‘Potemkin City Limits’ contains a thinly-veiled attack on their label boss, Fat Mike of NOFX. In ‘Rock for Sustainable Capitalism’, its title a lampoon of the Rock Against Bush compilations released during the last Presidential election, the line “Just because we were young / Doesn’t mean we were wrong” appears to stick out as yet another “fuck you” to all doubters. Chris Hannah, vocalist and guitarist, refutes this. “It’s more of a tip of the hat to youthful piety in relation to protecting (sub)culture from the proverbial money-changers. Young people, for better or worse, are generally better at being strident about their principles because as people get older, they customarily soften their positions on things: often for the better, sometimes for the worse. [Rock for Sustainable Capitalism] is nostalgic for a time when a dialogue about music and economy was very much on the agenda. Bands and labels making millions of dollars selling garbage to uncritical consumers don’t want that dialogue resurrected,” which perfectly sums up how good they are at grabbing the attention in a world full of cheap stunts and expensive haircuts.
When asked if specific events shaped the gestation of ‘Potemkin…’ Chris is typically forthright. “There’s no real gameplan. Maybe some themes were inevitable given events of our time, but we don’t sit down with a checklist of issues we need to address. The process is fairly chaotic.” There is something gloriously natural about Propandhi’s anger, in that at no time during any of their four albums does it feel forced or emphasized in order to court the Dissent Dollar. I put it to Chris that given an ideal society where the injustices they rail against no longer exist, would he still be able to maintain the band? “Well, the band is only “needed” insofar as we remain interested, regardless of what happens in the world around us. Honestly, we’re just three friends who have enjoyed rocking out together over the years. We don’t really have any delusions of grandeur about what being in the band means.”
As commercialism’s long and insipid arm continues to trade ethics and politics for receipts and haircuts, Propagandhi are in the enviable position of never having once compromised in order to reach a wider audience. A track of theirs was axed from the first Rock Against Bush compilation because the sleeve notes attacked George Soros, a Democrat who had made a vast fortune by exploiting foreign financial markets only to suddenly become a philanthropist and start giving away millions of dollars to various anti-Bush foundations. The band felt that Soros was so unsavoury that they could not accede to Fat Mike asking them, for the sake of the anti-Bush movement, to remove this single line from the notes, which they flatly refused to do, and hence the song was dropped. But then Mike asked if they would accept being on the second Rock Against Bush compilation (to come out three months after the first), with all sleeve notes included. Not for the first time, Propagandhi had refused to compromise their ideals and found themselves in an equally strong position. “I suppose I’m willing to compromise with anyone who doesn’t expect people to throw away their principles,” says Chris. “I find most people who make calls for “unity” almost always expect that unity to be on their terms.”
Propagandhi have carved out their very own niche from stone, much in the mould of NOFX before them, by taking no shit and concentrating on writing meaningful songs that each contain important messages. They’ve grown out of the need to lecture their audiences, preferring instead to present an enlightened vision of the world through some of the most exciting and enervating music to have been released in the last decade. In their hands protest music becomes a thing of passion, as contentious as it is calculated and as important as it is exciting.