NOFX have become somewhat of a punk rock institution and their frontman Fat Mike a hero. As the founder of Fat Wreck Chords – home to countless fantastic punk bands – and writer of many great songs, his reputation places him in extremely high regard in the minds of a generation of punk fans.
In 2010, Fat Mike made a solo appearance at the SXSW Festival. Dressed as Cokie, a sad clown, he spent most of his set recounting detailed tales from his past. He subjected his audience to stories of how he watched a loved one die, of how a friend committed suicide and he and friends divvied up the departed’s record collection, of frankly disturbing sexual acts and how he’d seen a girl being assaulted at a show in the early 80s. The event has been discussed many times online since, with one reviewer claiming the event had left him “shaken afterward”. While some younger fans have hailed this car-crash as “totally punk”, it is obvious to those with any sense, that Fat Mike Burkett was having anything but fun: that set acting as therapy for some deeply scarring emotional issues.
On Sunday 17th June 2012 at approximately 9:20 PM (following enjoyable sets from Margate, Snuff and Less Than Jake), NOFX unceremoniously take their place on the stage at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Their arrival is so disorganised that they gather only a muted response from the crowd, as if another set of roadies have shuffled on for a last minute tune-up. It’s the last night of the tour and Burkett wanders toward mid-stage – his mohawk flopping – and picks up his bass. Following a bit of witless banter, the band launch into their opening song and the audience becomes a mass of heaving bodies and plastic glasses begin to fly.
A couple of songs in, the between song chat takes a turn for the worse. Burkett makes childish remarks about audience members being gay (something of a recurring and quickly tiresome theme). “Your country is built on racism”, he quips a little later, leading to lots of other remarks about race. He’s not actually being racist, of course; his approach of making fun of ethnic minorities involves a broad enough range of nationalities over the course of an hour, suggesting that, in his eyes, everyone is equal and thus fair game. Fair game, maybe, but it does not really pass as humour. In contrast with Snuff’s set, where both band and audience appeared to be having a great time (and where all humour was generally directed at nobody and nothing specific, aside from the band themselves), as things progress, it’s now only the audience who appear to be having fun. NOFX, aside from being physically exhausted, are clearly not enjoying the experience. They’ve been funny (and had fun) in the past, but now that fun has fizzled. End of tour tiredness is certainly a factor, but there is a sense that it’s not just tiredness that hinders their performance.
The sad clown make-up is not present, but the doomy spectre of Cokie The Clown still hovers over Burkett, affecting almost everything he says in some small way. It certainly isn’t as direct as that fateful day at SXSW, but it’s there, and he’s more than going through the motions. He is resenting every second on the stage. It’s as if he’s not performing because he likes to, or even wants to anymore, but because he has feels that he has to…and he’s bitter. His snippy attitude is one of a man in self-destruct mode, always picking the fight, as if he wants to be punished for those things he’s been holding in from the past. Such behaviour is common amongst those who are in some way unhappy, but that sad familiarity doesn’t make it any less hard to watch. His attitude does not deserve the fan adoration he still commands – and surprisingly still receives – from most of the audience.
Occasionally, a brilliant tune between will be sharp reminder of how fantastic NOFX once were and of how they’re still great musicians. There are spirited renditions of ‘Murder The Government’, ‘It’s My Job To Keep Punk Rock Elite’ and ‘Soul Doubt’. The superb ‘Eat The Meek’ is also a bright spot, as is a surprise appearance by Frank Turner on a cover of his own ‘Glory Hallelujah’. But these fantastic moments don’t counterbalance the general air of resentment. While a huge chunk of the audience are blissfully unaware of any potential depressive issues, for the most part, watching a band slowly bashing another nail into their coffin – with Fat Mike brandishing the metaphorical hammer – proves to be a rather saddening experience.