The opposite of love ain't hate, baby. It's apathy. And the blue-collar baseball fans watching Bay Area punk band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes were anything but apathetic.
"Boooooooooooo!!!" That's what most of the 32,000 Pittsburgh Pirates fans inside that city's PNC Park were shouting the evening of August 24. "Boooooooooooo!!!"
Postgame fireworks burst over the irate crowd while, down in the diamond, postgame entertainers the Gimmes savaged yet another American classic. First a punk-style Neil Diamond cover, then an uptempo, snarling rendition of "Stairway to Heaven."
Led Zep, however, is sacred to working-class Pittsburgh. "Boooooooooooo!" The refrain grew louder. Throngs stomped toward the exits in protest.
It was the biggest crowd Pittsburgh native, SF resident, and Gimmes frontman Spike Slawson had ever played to. Yet it felt as if he were being repeatedly punched in the stomach. He looked toward legendary Gimmes bassist, Fat Mike of NOFX, clad in a white Pirates jersey like the rest of the quintet.
"Well, what did you think was going to happen?" Mike asked.
Slawson didn't know. He surveyed his hometown denizens. The sunflower seeds and goatees. The foam fingers. "What if they were cheering?" he thought. "It would be over for us."
This October, punkdom's best cover band hopes to parlay the press bump born of this Pittsburgh rejection into sales for its seventh full-length, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes Love Their Country. Recorded in San Francisco earlier this year, the album molests the Eagles' "Desperado," Dolly Parton's "Jolene," Johnny Cash's "Sunday Morning Coming Down," and nine other country staples, all done with the power chords, professionalism, and pluck of veteran punkers. It's destined for mainstream radio airplay; the only thing defter than the album's musicianship might be the Gimmes' decision to play their biggest show in history before a crowd guaranteed to demand their bleached skulls.
As representatives of a storied yet economically hosed town, the Pittsburgh Pirates are dead last in their division, new stadium notwithstanding. With its mix of cheesy live music and pyrotechnics, the Skyblast postgame show was the one redeeming aspect of Pirates games. It was a member of the Pirates' staff who contacted the band, offering a boatload of money, plus airfare, lodgings, and a decent rider, to come and play three shows.
Slawson, 37, grew up getting his ass kicked in Pittsburgh. The town practically made him a punk out of aversion. "Misgivings. I had weird crazy misgivings," he says, exhausted on the phone after an eleven-hour day chopping vegetables for a Bay Area catering company. "I think they were in a position where they were just willing to try anything to generate publicity and get people into the stadium." Similarly in need of a PR boost, the Gimmes were getting ready to release their new album, and no ordinary promotion would do.
The band formed in 1995 as an excuse for some friends (members of the Foo Fighters, NOFX, Lagwagon, and Swingin' Utters) to get together and jam; its name is a ripoff of a children's-book title. What started with one-off punk covers of Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, and Paul Simon songs grew into 1997's full-length Have a Ball, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies on the strength of the Gimmes' treatment of '70s and '80s classic rock.
"Fuck it," they thought. The Gimmes proceeded to savage show tunes, '60s oldies, early R&B, even bar mitzvah classics, covering REO Speedwagon, Styx, and "Hava Nagila" alike. The R&B-themed Take a Break was a low point, Slawson says. Rhythm and blues classics just aren't that open to uptempo revision, given that R&B is half "rhythm," which just couldn't be sped up.
However, country songs often use three chords in a four-four measure, making them rather punk-a-rific. "I thought that it was kinda, you know, passé to say Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn were the first punk rock," Slawson says. (Actually, the honor of proto-punk belongs to 350-year-old Atlantic sea chanteys sung by Barbary pirates raunchy, simple choruses with an even simpler beat. Listen to Lou Reed on the just-released compilation Rogue's Gallery for proof.)
But goddamn if country doesn't make great punk. Slawson says the band sat down in the studio with perhaps three dozen classics and began messing around. "We had to eliminate quite a few songs that sounded like they would be funny just 'cause they suck," he says. "They suck in a really funny '80s country way, when country was trying to be hip. We'd try out a few songs, and if we felt a song was promising and by 'we,' I pretty much mean Mike we'd try the songs a few different ways. I think it was the most methodical we've been."
The methodology paid off, but so did the mixing and editing: Love Their Country glows like an overdriven amp tube. "On this record it was definitely a shift," Slawson says. "We picked a guy to engineer it who sort of was assertive, which was good. He got the sound he wanted, and then Jason Livermore at the Blasting Room mixed it and put his own touch on it. Mixing is just as important as, like, engineering and tracking."
Indeed, the result will impress Gimmes diehards and maybe even 107.7 the Bone listeners, assuming they're not Pirates fans.
As for the now-infamous night, Slawson says the band played its whole seven-song set and was promptly ushered out of the stadium, wherein a roadie peed on the building and everyone split up to get drunk. The Gimmes were fired via e-mail the next morning, but did get a $20,000 paycheck for their 25 minutes of work. They also became the talk of the town, getting airplay on most Pittsburgh radio stations and landing on the cover of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"In hindsight, if Fat Mike knew what he was doing, it was the most ingenious publicity stunt," Slawson says. "But Jesus if I had known when I was a kid in Pittsburgh that that's how I would end up on the front page ..." He sighs.
Pittsburgh Pirates VP of communications Patricia Paytas said the Pirates have no comment.
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