For the most part, punk rock serves as the ethnomusicologist’s antithesis to disco. It broke from the exorbitant, cloying conformity of the late ‘70s, erupting from the Sex Pistols and Blondie, pouring from the Clash and a myriad of CBGB fare. Where rock and roll found itself again.
But in the United States, punk evolved beyond 1980, serving a more political purpose. The ascension of Ronald Reagan to the presidency coincided with the untrammeled real estate boom, to create a period rife with visual and social stagnation. Southern California areas such as Orange County and San Diego County saw leas become seas of tract homes and smog. The Northeast witnessed the other aspect of Reaganomics (“trickle down”, to use the anathema term now propounded by CNBC economists) with a sharp increase in homelessness and education continuing its precipitous decline under the pressures of small budgets and disinterested teachers.
In interviews Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye promulgated these problems and their social pertinence, as if his songs extending Henry Rollins’ Black Flag animosity weren’t lucid enough. Songs were broken to their core, turned into one-and-a-half-minute lambastes against everything the establishment had concocted and crafted. MacKaye continually mentioned the 1960s, the protest era, and his band often came across as a modernized version of the MC5 in using lyrics and haphazard speed to inform the populace.
Not only did MacKaye “preach” about change, he did so with a third-person slant. In Minor Threat’s lyrics, the word “you” is the fulcrum for the polemics. The listener has been the prick. The listener has been snorting too many lines of coke. The listener has preconceived notions to expunge. The listener must change. Theoretically and politically, MacKaye’s concept makes sense: only if the listener realizes the current problems can a shift commence.
What MacKaye did, and how he conflated his music with his words, can be heard in LA’s Bad Religion. With their first album, 1982’s How Can Hell Be Any Worse?, now reissued on Epitaph Records with a bounty of unreleased tracks, Bad Religion followed a similar approach, believing in two minutes (or less) the change could begin. With the problems and their results also came from the same source. However, despite their similar goals and perspectives, Bad Religion had a somewhat more Marxist philosophical undergirding.
Unlike Minor Threat, who primarily detailed and limned the current social stifling, Bad Religion took a more sanctimonious (dubiously quixotic?) approach: religion is the opiate of the masses. The majority of the tracks, the buzzing guitars and sloshing sloppy drums, pound forward with lead vocalist Greg Gaffin vehemently shouting “fuck Armageddon, this is hell!” As if the three horsemen mentioned in Revelation aren’t merely phantasms, but an endogenous disease eating at the mind. The man selling religion on the street doesn’t care about the now, thinking the holy salvation awaits.
For Bad Religion, especially on How Can Hell Be Any Worse?, that is the point. Apathy and listlessness surface when an individual just accepts every moment as pre-ordained, as fate and by the hand of God. When Gaffin recounts the story arc of Hitler on “We’re Only Going to Die from Our Own Arrogance”, he does so pointing towards the populace. When it reaches its shattering climax, the words “killed himself with his own mind” pour forth. Simple, yet effective, in conveying how shockingly myopic the population can become when mollified into acceptance of quotidian fate.
Even though Bad Religion show a predilection towards issues regarding religion, several tracks fall more patently into the Minor Threat framework. “Politics” and “Voice of the Government” are cries against Reagan’s politics, both in the White House and in Sacramento, while “Slaves” provides some big brother paranoia.
After Bad Religion broke up, reformed, broke up, and then reformed, their 1991 effort Against the Grain exposed the band’s enormous growth and, in particular, Greg Gaffin’s enormous vocabulary via his Cornell education and subsequent teaching career. It may also represent the band’s zenith. While the themes remain the same, detailing the government’s wrong doings, environmental problems, and several blasts at pro-abortion protesters, Gaffin’s lyrics now read as dissertations.
With “The Positive Aspect of Negative Thinking” he strings together a series of GRE words, creating a flow of prolix tropes to describe the government. Then with “Entropy” Gaffin uses physics metaphors to eviscerate the idea of steadfast acceptance of a simple (i.e., religion) answer to demise. One could rail Gaffin for preaching, but his language creates a sense of ambiguity for the listener who can’t quite pick out everything being said.
Musically, it is still punk, but there are minor gestations from the band’s two previous outings, No Control and Suffer, while light years from their teenage How Could Hell Be Any Worse?. The band sounds tighter, the production more exact. The speed and melodies arguably surpass any hard punk album ever recorded. Ironically, it also features some stunning arrangements, changing time signatures for example, and rather exquisite harmonies, things often missing or avoided entirely in most punk during this period.
Somewhat surprisingly, the songs on both of these reissues hold up fairly well and ring with an element of clairvoyance in retrospect. References to the government, to oil, to “morons in power” carry more weight now than they did back then. Yes, it can become moribund and downtrodden. Yes, Gaffin’s polemics might go too far for those without a disposition towards such ideas. But they expose what Bad Religion sounded like in their heyday before they became radio friendly and far less invigorating, as if the world counted on what they created. They also show what punk really embodied in that nascent Southern California punk scene alongside TSOL, Social Distortion, and Agent Orange.