In the 1950 classic All About Eve, a black-and-white tale of back stabbing and bitchery set in Manhattan's theater district, jaded critic Addison De Witt (George Sanders) has just witnessed a rehearsal by the title character, a mere understudy at that point. He describes her performance to Bette Davis's character thusly: "Margo, I've lived in the theater as a Trappist monk lives in his faith. I have no other world, no other life. And once in a great while I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray. You were one.... Eve Harrington will be among them." He goes on to describe Eve's performance as "a mass of music and fire." It's the best description I can think of for Corrosion of Conformity.
And just when I had given up on thinking! Yes, I'd resigned myself to humming happily along to Top 40 tunes, letting my mind recline on the La-Z-Boy of my spine. But Corrosion of Conformity's latest album Blind (how apropos) provided the necessary wake-up call. It might have been enough that C.O.C.'s music is a hybrid of the true heavy metal riffs of Black Sabbath/Deep Purple and the chord-over-chord layering of early Queen married in a shotgun wedding to the hot-blooded intensity of Black Flag and Bad Brains. Or, as drummer Reed Mullin likes to say, "Blind is 1972 mixed with 1982 played in 1992."
Yeah, the music might have been enough, but there's so much more to C.O.C. Consider this message on their lyric sheet: "Politics is the control of wealth and power. You are being conditioned to condemn politics as petty and boring, thus granting all the more control to the powers that be. You are either a part of the solution or a part of the problem...." C.O.C. goes on to list the addresses for Amnesty International, Greenpeace, National Abortion Rights League, Refuse and Resist, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, Native Nations, and Klanwatch Project.
"The fact that we're politically active is just a facet of the whole thing, but it's completely integral to the music," states Swedish-born vocalist Karl Agell, who, with Mullin, guitarists Pepper Keenan and Woody Weatherman, and bassist Phil Swisher, comprises the current line-up of C.O.C. (the band has been around in various incarnations since 1982). "The whole idea of recording Blind was to make a really organic-sounding record, and get away from that dated, giant reverb drum sound and the big production, and just go for that roots, hard-rock thing that we're all so into.
"We all came from the same school of the past, the punk hard-core thing, which was always an outlet for social commentary and attack," Agell explains. "On top of that, write a good song but don't ruin it with inane lyrics. If we write a really rockin' heavy tune, then the idea is to speak some higher truth on top of that."
Mullin, who shares vocals in front of the drums as well as behind them, agrees. "I think one of the extra things that drives us is the passion and the genuine feelings of frustration we have with the situation in America and in the world right now. The issues we're bringing up in some of these songs are things that we feel are very important. It's portrayed much more sincerely and with much more anger and emotion than if I was [switches to Southern drawl] sangin' 'bout Jack Daniels or somethin'. I guess you can be sincere about that, but it's not the same level of fury."
While C.O.C. band members like to put their lyrics to good use, they don't subscribe to the sledgehammer method of getting their point across. "We did that to make the record timeless," says Keenan of their veiled wording. "You could put on Black Sabbath's War Pigs and it means as much today as it did fourteen years ago." (Interestingly, the hairy hand of censorship touched even the politically correct C.O.C. Faced with a choice between asking legendary political artist Bill Sienkiewicz to include the words "Parental Advisory" on his cover painting for Blind or scratching out the F-word on the lyric sheet, the band chose the latter.)
Still, the meaning behind a song like "Vote with a Bullet" isn't exactly shrouded in mystery, and Agell is hesitant to elaborate. "I don't know if we're necessarily endorsing assassination, but we're not exactly opposing it for certain individuals. I don't know if we're being irresponsible...it's just wishful thinking."
You almost can't blame them for thinking this way considering that they're based in North Carolina. Agell reports some of the highlights of home life: "The night before the elections here, the Democratic headquarters mysteriously lost electrical power and telephone lines. The voting booths actually malfunctioned all over the place. In other counties, guys in trucks were handing out liquor to people to vote for Jesse Helms."
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In a time when it's hip for any band that has mastered human speech to say they're concerned with politics and the environment, Corrosion of Conformity is one of the few that can back up its big talk with bigger action. Sparked by the 1990 senatorial race between head homophobe Helms and the hopeful Harvey Gantt, 23-year-old Mullin helped to form the North Carolina Progressive Network, a nonprofit, grassroots organization dedicated to the promotion of a liberal/progressive agenda by encouraging community involvement. NCPN's calendar of activities regularly includes recycling drives, racism conferences, gay and lesbian political-action meetings, vegetarian picnics...the list goes on.
Taking on the world's problems ain't easy, and Mullin realizes that for most people, getting involved is the hardest part. "It's so easy to feel apathetic. I do a lot of stuff and I still feel that way." And, Agell adds, "There's always going to be poverty and war and liars, we understand that. The whole idea is to perhaps raise people's consciousness a little bit, and maybe they can act upon what they hear and cut through the lies."
It's important to note at this point that, although C.O.C.'s music and beliefs are very heavy, the guys themselves are not. "We're not some kind of messengers from God or anything," Agell insists. "I'm all for drinking and having a good time as well. We don't want to come off as a bunch of priests. The thing we want to instill in people is that politics doesn't have to be boring. It can be fun and dangerous and out of control. Instead of promoting a nerdy liberalism, I'd like to promote more of a radical lust for life. Not in the sense of getting drunk and plowing into a bunch of people...."
Agell chuckles. "Unless Jesse Helms is sleeping in the middle of the road.