The dream gig for the punk cover group Me First and the Gimme Gimmes went in the opposite direction and landed just shy of recreating the infamous Disco Demolition Night of 1979 at Comiskey Park, which ended in a riot. Both events, however, involved explosions and a major league ballpark.
Spike Slawson, the lead singer for the group — which is on a tour that stops on Thursday at Dallas’ Amplified Live — recalls the group’s 2006 performance of signature pop covers of Neil Diamond standards in PNC Park. The group followed the Pittsburgh Pirates’ big win against the Houston Astros on Fireworks Night to a crowd of 32,000 fans who clearly didn’t understand the comic sensibilities of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, who bestow the full punk treatment on pop classics by Neil Diamond and Led Zeppelin.
The concert had a bit that had some of the Pirates’ star players telling the crowd what songs they were into, and the band would then play a punk cover of it. All that was breaking the silence of the confused crowd were the explosions from the fireworks that punctuated each moment of pure tension.
“We do ‘Sweet Caroline’ and unbeknownst to us, that was the fight song for the Boston Red Sox,” Slawson says. “Then the booing started in one corner of the stadium. I looked at the drummer [Dave Raun] and he said in a panic, ‘Are they booing, man?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think they are’ and I looked at [bassist Fat Mike] and he had this manic look on his face like, ‘Yeah. It’s great, isn’t it?'”
The group had to stay in the stadium for hours to make sure that all the fans had left. The following day, they made the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under the headline “Band strikes out with Pirates fans.” They were supposed to play two more shows, but their manager texted “Were fired,” a moment Slawson says he remembers because he left out the apostrophe.
One band’s hell gig is another band’s epic war story, and it’s actually the perfect performance for a group like Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. They know their role and they play it well. The crowds that are in on the joke love them for it.
“Comedy is always built on tension and awkward — at least when people are doing it right,” Slawson says. “Even on a bill that we’re headlining but certainly on a bill where we’re supporting Flogging Molly or Violent Femmes, we were the heels of the bill. We figured that out pretty fast and we reveled in it.”
The group started almost 30 years ago in San Francisco and has grown into one of the greatest punk supergroups ever. The long list of players have come from groups like NOFX, Lagwagon, Social Distortion, Bad Religion and The Damned. They’ve even got CJ Ramone from the actual goddamn Ramones.
The first of many incarnations of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes started by re-punking AM rock hits by the likes of Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond and John Denver. These songs would form the group’s first album Have a Ball.
“I don’t care for a lot of that kind of music,” Slawson says. “The original source material, I did not like. I think that had a lot to do with the success of those songs. I wasn’t trying to do justice to them. I was trying to change them into something I like.”
The band’s popularity pushed members to explore punk sounds in other genres, leading to themed albums like the R&B tunes in Take a Break, Broadway show tunes with Are a Drag and country classics in (wait for it) Love Their Country.
The album covers and the tours that followed display the group in appropriate band garb for each album’s themes. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes’ Are We Not Men? We Are Diva! explored the punk side of diva hits by the likes of Whitney Houston and Madonna and put Slawson on the cover in a red, glittery dress that showed off just the right amount of leg to help land the joke.
The group’s current uniform consists of gold sheen shirts, ties and slacks designed by Slawson’s wife. He describes the garb as “German schlager” or “American schlager because I respect Germans’ contributions to the trash cannon but no one can do it like Americans.”
“I don’t care where you’re at,” Slawson says. “If you’re playing on a floor in someone’s basement, it’s still a premium art. It’s supposed to be a show. It’s supposed to be entertaining in a visual way.”
Part of the reason the band’s jokey pathos works so well is because the sound they produce is pretty damn good. Even if they are performing songs that no punk head would dare admit to liking in its incubator form, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes do it the fullest of their musical ability.
Anyone who can make a crowd jump and slamdance to Manilow’s “Mandy” is doing something right, and Slawson says he still gets a jolt out of watching it.
“I love it,” he says. “There’s humor in it when it doesn’t appear to be. Singing and performing the songs earnestly, there’s humor in that, too, and I would argue that honors whatever so-called punk spirit more so than the middle-class white dude in board shorts complaining about shit that doesn’t really affect them.”