"People have been shitting on Good Charlotte since day one," says guitarist-keyboardist Billy Martin, with a creeping note of exasperation, at the end of an otherwise congenial phone call to the Georgia Straight. "Critics have never given us an easy time, and we've had to learn from the day our first record came out that nothing's gonna be easy, that we're gonna get smacked in the face all the time, that we're gonna get shot down, and we're gonna get knocked backwards. We always just have to be there for each other and realize that there's millions of kids who love our band. You just have to look at the good in things."
Perhaps more than even Blink-182 or Sum 41–and certainly more than any of the lesser, jumped-up brats whose names and numbers we should work hard to forget–Good Charlotte came to symbolize the new-millennium phenomenon of mall punk. That's where the perfect synthesis of canned rebellion and full-spectrum corporate dominance was finally achieved beneath the lovingly co-opted graphic-designer anarchism of coast-to-coast Hot Topic outlets, Total Request Live, and finally–because every Frankenstein needs its bride–that terrifying vacuum known as Avril Lavigne.
Good Charlotte attracted a particularly healthy dose of disgust because vocalist Joel Madden played so brazenly for the wrong side. There was the stint as an MTV host, his clothing line MADE (now DCMA Collective), his nauseating relationship with child-thing Hilary Duff and subsequent engagement to a knocked-up Nicole Richie, and his generally shameless embrace of a life lived out loud, with so-called personal business reported on in every tabloid that matters. All the while, he carped that celebrities ought to have their mansions robbed so they'd know what it's really like "livin' life out on the street", as Madden sang, somewhat unconvincingly, in Good Charlotte's biggest hit, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous".
With its original fan base outgrowing the band that defined its adolescence, and with the L.A.–based five-piece touring with Justin Timberlake in what appears to be a naked bid to refresh its market share, Good Charlotte has seen its critics go into a killing frenzy. The band's fourth album, Good Morning Revival, has received astoundingly dismal reviews. The Guardian noted its "stunning fatuousness"; the NME compared it to "a urine-soaked sock"; the All Music Guide sneered "turgid mess"; and Now magazine recommended "Go in with absolutely no expectations. Not even low expectations. Nothing."
"I used to get real upset about it," admits Martin about the inevitable deluge of hostility. "I didn't understand how they didn't hear it like we hear it. But you know, half the reviews that came out took a stab at Joel's personal life and didn't mention a single word about the music. How can you seriously write a review of a record without mentioning the music? If someone wants to trash the music, I'll take it any day of the week because they listened to it."
The music received short shrift in a lot of quarters, but not all of them. Right here in the Straight, Shawn Conner stood up for Good Morning Revival, applauding its "self-aware sense of humour" and "up-to-date dance-rock groove". And while Madden's lyrics will still rankle anybody sensitive to Good Charlotte's radioactive lack of cool, the album does have its moments. "Keep Your Hands Off My Girl" parodies robo-dance new wave with a certain magnetic aplomb; a killer chorus in "Break Her Heart" rises to the challenge set by savvier popticians like Fall Out Boy; and the new single "I Don't Wanna Be in Love (Dance Floor Anthem)" is driving and hefty in a way that would have seemed beyond Good Charlotte's reach not too long ago. Madden and his guitar-playing twin brother, Benji, expected Martin to hate it–"They thought I'd think it was too pop," he says–but "Dance Floor Anthem" is the multi-instrumentalist's favourite track.
"I just thought 'That's the biggest, strongest chorus I think I've ever heard,'" he recalls. "It's got these big, thick, distorted synthesizer sounds in there, a dance-y kick drum, and big, heavy programming. That's the kind of stuff I'm really into."
The biggest departure for the band, meanwhile, is courtesy of Martin himself. He wrote the cascading keyboard ballad "Where Would We Be" under the influence of Muse, "a really piano-heavy band that I love", he notes. While Martin admits that the band "absolutely" worries about a diminishing audience, his personal animus toward the album's token return to pop-punk bounce, "Broken Hearts Parade", is revealing.
"I protested the ska horns. I wasn't feeling that," he says, before glumly adding that it was nonetheless polled as the fan favourite on the band's Web site.
Predictably, Good Charlotte has only attracted scorn for trying to venture away from its roots. It's naturally (and unfairly) assumed that its newfound diversity is motivated by commercial concerns more than artistic ones. Martin's skin is thick enough to repel the endless barbs, although he has no tolerance for the band's strongest set of haters: not the "stuffy, 45-year-old guy in a closet" who routinely skewers Good Charlotte in print, but the aging punk-rock survivors who view the band and its ilk as the final betrayal of the value system they internalized almost three decades ago. As Martin points out, those hard-core granddads brought the fight to them–not the other way around.
"I don't think we've ever once said we were a punk band," he fumes. "It was everybody else that said, 'Good Charlotte thinks they're punk, and they suck, cause they're not.' I'll be the first to wave my hand and say, 'You're right, we're not punk, and we never have been.' I personally can't name one punk band that's been an influence to me. I never listen to that music, I've never been into it, and I was shocked when we started to get lumped in with pop-punk bands.
"I mean, Good Charlotte as the end of punk?" Martin pauses to snort derisively. "I dunno, man," he says. "I think it ended way before that." -
Good Charlotte opens for Justin Timberlake at GM Place on Wednesday (September 5).