By now, Queers leader Joe King has grown used to the grumbling.
He'll hear it in record stores when his band's on tour, or in the back of clubs before a show: "The Queers have gone soft," detractors say. "Joe used to be a punk, but now he's like a Beach Boy or something."
King, the Queers' singer, songwriter and guitarist, brushes the whining aside. A glance at his biceps -- beefed up from recent stints on his brother's New England fishing boat -- shows he's anything but soft these days.
"Nothing's more punk than working on a fishing boat in the middle of winter," King, 37, said recently from his home in New Hampshire.
More than giving him credibility with punk in-crowds, the fisherman role has energized King for the current tour in support of the Queers' new album, Punk Rock Confidential. It also has provided him with a challenging, healthy regimen following time spent in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center last year.
"It's totally removed from music," King (a.k.a. Joe Queer) said. "I'm low man on the boat, and it's totally good money."
While the new song "Rancid Motherf-----"(RealAudio excerpt) is an old-school hardcore onslaught, Punk Rock Confidential is filled primarily with the melodic punk that King had long hinted at before finally starting to perfect it on Don't Back Down.
The multi-part harmony on "I Can't Get Over You" (RealAudio excerpt) from that album was like "unlocking a new door," King said.
While myriad other punk groups, from the pioneering Ramones to Green Day, have paired pop melodies with aggressive rhythms, few have expanded the linkage with lush vocals.
Buck bassist Lisa Marr (ex-Cub), who worked with King on "I Can't Get Over You" as well as the new song, "The Sun Always Shines Around You," said the move is natural.
"The Ramones were always perceived as this really hard, punk-rock band, but it's obvious that Joey Ramone was really into '60s girl groups and the Beach Boys -- really classic-pop American stuff," Marr, who is in her early 30s, said. "It's the same with Joe Queer. All the kids are really into [hard] songs like 'Rancid Motherf-----,' but what he really loves, and what really comes through on his songs, is his total love of pop melody."
While their music bares a resemblance to the early innovators of the pop-punk sound, few bands plow through as many changes as the Queers have in the last year or so.
Not only did King get clean, he also moved the band from Lookout to Hopeless Records and recorded with three different lineups under the Queers moniker. In October, he issued the band's sixth studio album, Punk Rock Confidential, which, with songs such as "Tamara Is a Punk" (RealAudio excerpt), is drawing packed houses on the Queers' current tour.
It was after the band's last outing, a seven-month tour in support of the well-received Don't Back Down (1996), that King decided it was time to ditch the bottle.
"I'm so sick of punk bands showing up drunk," he said. "We used to think it was cool and funny. Then all of a sudden a thousand kids were showing up, and we were too drunk to put on even a half-baked show. I don't think it's funny when kids pay six or nine bucks to see a show [and the band is drunk]. We had to keep our s--- together."
Since then, the Queers -- who have seen numerous lineup changes since King formed the group in 1982 -- have gone through several personnel shifts. Longtime drummer Hugh O'Neill left the group for health reasons, while veteran bassist B-Face joined the Groovie Ghoulies.
Earlier this year, King recruited two New Hampshire musicians to record an EP and issued another single backed by the Nobodys before settling on the current Queers roster of bassist Chris Field and guitarist Dave Swain (both members of punk outfit Jon Cougar Concentration Camp), with Steve Visneau (Mess) on drums.
"I feel like we're pushing the boundaries for the listening audience in the punk community," King said. "The kids come along with us for the most part. You're not the same person you were five years ago. I love Love Songs for the Retarded (1993) -- we still play a lot of that stuff -- but I like moving on."
Occasionally, King still pens a number in the obnoxious tradition of such early songs as "Kicked Out of the Webelos." He can rattle off a slew of similar unrecorded numbers, two of which are "I'm So Cool, You Suck" and "I Just Called to Say 'F--- You.' "
"But I'd rather do the pop stuff, that's real exciting," he said. "And plus the girls love it. I love all the guys, but I don't care what some pimply faced kid in East Butt F---, Ohio, says about me."