Punk of the Month Club

Here's how you get on the cover of Rolling Stone: First make it big on a local scene, so big that you get signed and Stone pronounces you an artist to watch. Next, they'll want you to do a fashion spread for them. They'll give you some nice expensive clothes and write snazzy copy about you in the caption. Then wait and hope you stay cool -- with any luck your label will pony up the cash to see to that. If you do, you'll get a feature, and who knows, if you've got the right image they may just put you on the cover.

For vanilla-wafer bands such as platinum-selling pop pranksters Good Charlotte, learning to play this game is crucial. One slip from the state of grace, once Stone and MTV and the rest of the hype machine decide you're last year's model, and your product is keeping all those Hanson CDs company in the cutout bins. Some bands know this and try to evolve, and others just try to ride the wave they're on until it breaks.

Mike Cummings (a.k.a. Spider One) of Powerman 5000, a band that has something substantive to say on its new CD, Transform, is in the former category. Cummings believes the interchangeable sounds of bands such as Sum 41 or blink-182 or Good Charlotte reflect a dangerous regression in the minds of young, aspiring musicians.

"I suppose when some people think of rock musicians, they think of free spirits or radical thinkers who flip off the establishment," he says. "I think the opposite is true: Most of these kids are conservative, hesitant and scared to be different, and are uncomfortable with taking risks.

"You see it in the chord structures of all these songs. It's even in the way the kids move on stage, doing the exact same thing. I think there's a summer camp for these bands, where they go to get the same look. One guy is serious; one guy is the freak." (One favorite of these pop-punk/nü-metal moves is the guitarist bobbing-while-bent-over-at-the-waist maneuver.)

Right now the members of Good Charlotte are Camp Poppunka's star graduates -- cover boys on the May 1 issue of Rolling Stone. Sure, there are more interesting and relevant bands in the world who might be more deserving of a Stone cover. But now that the magazine has switched to a bite-sized format with fewer long articles and lots of gossipy tidbits, what better cover candidates than Good Charlotte, a band that doesn't challenge much of anything?

Individualism counts in the music industry only when an old trend is about to fade and be replaced by the next big thing. And that mentality leaves Good Charlotte's breezy, thought-free brand perfectly placed for the moment. The young band has that marketable pseudo-tough image, and its disposable music is nice and frothy -- how having a rotten father is uncool or how chicks dig boys with cash to throw around. It could just as easily be 2000's model (blink-182) or maybe Sum 41 or maybe tourmates New Found Glory. But it isn't. It's Good Charlotte's turn. Anybody remember Silverchair?

GC's latest album, The Young & The Hopeless, opens with a powerful Tim Burtonish instrumental track titled "A New Beginning," in which the band suggests that it's a cut above the cardboard cutout pop that hundreds of bands have churned out ever since Green Day ushered in the so-called pop-punk era.

However, once that song fades away, it's replaced by the aptly titled "The Anthem." The opening line unintentionally describes the music in a nutshell: "It's a new day but it all feels old."

Amazingly, Good Charlotte guitarist Billy Martin thinks his band could thrive even without videos or Web sites or magazine covers. "After our first record came out, we were pretty much on the road for two years, hanging out with kids who liked this band," says Martin, during a truncated conversation before his cell phone goes dead. "So by the time we came out on the Vans Warped Tour [in 2002] we could draw 10,000 kids a day. So where the hell did they come from?

"If MTV just said 'Screw it' and didn't play us for the next ten years, and the rest of the media said it didn't care anymore, we would still have that loyal base of fans. I think that's quite an accomplishment for a bunch of kids from Maryland."

Martin's a kid. He's allowed to be naive. He doesn't realize that once those fickle fans outgrow you, you're done. Last year, they were listening to some boy band or other. Next year, it will be something else.

Or maybe Good Charlotte does know the score. The band has certainly shown a firm grasp for the concept of striking while the iron is hot. On this tour, they're sponsored by Honda Civic and Alpine. The Reliant Center floor will be studded with kiosks for free Xbox and video game play and DJ booths, where the kiddies are encouraged to, as Honda puts it, "kick back." In the press pack, Honda manager of regional marketing Charles Koch promises "an evening of sensory delights."

While that's a subjective assessment, what's certain is that this corporate teen paradise is about as punk as Nancy Reagan, and that Good Charlotte has snuggled way up to the Man. GC says it's cool to have Honda as a sponsor to help keep ticket prices down. So much for the band deciding for itself that the tickets cost too much and pressuring tour management to do something.

Despite the glaring evidence, Martin bristles at the notion that his band isn't legitimate. "The more success we have, the more people love to hate us. And I have no clue why," he says. "No one can seem to believe that we're just these kids who loved listening to bands and just wanted to be like them. That's all there is to it, and it must drive some people nuts or something, so they just start saying we have no credibility, or 'You guys aren't punk.' "

Martin, the youngest member of the band, says there was no doubt in his mind that his band was the real thing when he returned for his graduation ceremony at Severna Park High School a few months before the band's debut album was released. He finished his courses by long distance, sending his homework by fax while the album was being recorded.

"I was always this quiet kid into Korn with the dreadlocks. So I come back to graduate with short hair and the GC tattoo on the back of my arm, and all these kids who never really cared about me or noticed were like, 'Man, his band isn't a joke. They really got signed.' It was the sweetest touch of revenge, just for a day."

Enjoy your summer, tattoo boy. It's later than you think.

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr