In the late ‘80s, no band was more crucial in bridging the gap between classic Los Angeles punk and the massive California punk explosion in the mid-‘90s than Bad Religion. Mainstays on the LA punk scene for more than two decades now, Bad Religion might not have put out a genre-defining classic album as important as X’s Wild Gift, the Germs’ (GI), or Black Flag’s Damaged, but the band has still amassed a very impressive catalog of excellent, accessible punk records that combine cerebral lyrics, searing guitars, breakneck tempos, and surprisingly catchy melodies, especially in the peak years, between 1987 and 1991. Their ability to combine the intensity and simplicity of traditional hardcore with simple, memorable melodies would go on to pave the way for mid-‘90s breakthrough bands like the Offspring, Green Day, and Rancid; hell, just go see the Vans Warped Tour, and you’ll see countless bands who continue to follow Bad Religion’s lead.
Formed in 1980 in the San Fernando Valley by vocalist Greg Graffin, guitarist Brett Gurewitz, and bassist Jay Bentley, Bad Religion released three albums between 1981 and 1983 on their vanity label Epitaph Records. While 1982’s How Could Hell Be Any Worse? was a decent exercise in punk-by-numbers, 1983’s inexplicable venture into art rock, Into the Unknown, left punk fans incredulous, and by 1984, Gurewitz had left the band to battle his drug abuse, as former Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson stepped in on the cheekily titled EP Back to the Known, that had the band returning to the more traditional punk sound. Not long after the release of that EP, however, the band decided to go on hiatus, and when they returned in 1987, sharper and tighter than ever (and with the talented Gurewitz back in the fold), it would truly be their time to shine.
When you see a normally jovial band like NOFX put out an album centered around the band’s criticism of the Bush administration, you know the timing could not be more perfect to re-introduce people to Bad Religion’s early albums. In 1987, when the band re-formed, America was in the middle of the Republican Party’s 12-year reign, and behind Ronald Reagan’s movie star smile was a presidency that was embroiled in scandal, as the public came to learn during the Iran-Contra hearings. Now, 16 years later, we have another President whom young people are beginning to realize cannot be trusted, which makes the populist-themed music of Bad Religion still ring true today, something you hear on their two excellent albums, 1988’s Suffer, and 1989’s No Control.
When Bad Religion reconvened, the band was older, wiser, and much, much tighter. Gurewitz and Hetson delivered a brilliant dual guitar attack, while the pummeling rhythm section of Bentley and drummer Pete Finestone propelled the songs with a relentless intensity, but the real revelation was Graffin. With his sincere sounding, raspy voice, Graffin came off as less a punk than a ‘60s folk troubadour transported 20 years into the future, his songs possessing simple melodies that echoed the phrasing of traditional folk music. More noteworthy, though, are his lyrics; a graduate student in evolutionary psychology, Graffin’s lyrics possessed both a scathing view on authority figures as well an uncanny ability to depict the struggle of the little guy, the normal, everyday obstacles everyone goes through, not to mention a vocabulary that still remains unmatched in punk music (so much so, that younger listeners might want to have a dictionary handy the first time they read the lyric sheet). Only Graffin would dare to write a marble-mouthed line like, “Going through a world of sad debris regarding quixotic reveries of ownership / The blossoming disease of man called tenure and accretion”, and make it work.
Other than Suffer‘s warmer, live sounding production and No Control‘s slightly slicker sound, there are so many similarities between the two albums that they complement each other quite nicely. On Suffer‘s great opening track “You Are the Government”, Graffin gets his agenda across in simple, succinct fashion, like a punk Phil Ochs, singing, “As the people bend the moral fabric dies / Then country can’t pretend to ignore its people’s cries / You are the government / You are jurisprudence… And I make a difference, too”. “How Much Is Enough?” takes on consumer culture (“When will mankind finally come to realize / His surfeit has become his demise?”), while “Land of Competition” question’s America’s obsession with celebrity (“If you just want the best turn to yourself for the rest, and forget about the ones who ‘have it all’). “Automatic Man” paints a scathingly satirical portrait of conformity (“He’s the quintessential mindless modern epicene”), “It Must Look Pretty Unappealing” questions why we live our lives the way we do (“The food on your table is more plastic than protein / And your intellect depends on your TV”), and “Progress” has Graffin getting downright philosophical (“I say progress, is a synonym of time / We are all aware of it but it’s nothing we refine”).
On these two albums, the band never wavers from the set formula, and wisely, both discs top out at little more than 26 minutes each. Each album is direct and unflinching, and before you can even catch you’re breath, the record’s over. In other words, it’s quintessential hardcore punk. With these new reissues, it would have been a perfect opportunity to add on a good number of bonus tracks (the reissue of the Ramones’ Leave Home has a full live set tacked on the CD), but sadly, and most likely to the great disappointment of all Bad Religion fans, there is no extra material to speak of. That said, the sound of both albums is improved considerably, especially on Suffer, which now has a real punch to its sound that the original mix lacked.
In the years after these two albums, Bad Religion would continue to hone their sound (1990’s Against the Grain is widely regarded as their best album), eventually landing a major label record deal. In the early ‘90s, Gurewitz would leave the band to focus on running Epitaph Records, and by 1994, thanks to the success of Gurewitz’s promoting of bands like the Offspring, Rancid, and Pennywise, Epitaph would go on to become the most successful independent label in America. Today, Epitaph is still as great a label as it ever was (the 2003 release of three Turbonegro albums was, like, the greatest thing ever), and Bad Religion is still going strong; with Gurewitz back in the fold as of 2001, they’re headlining the 2004 Warped Tour to spread the word and kick some ass (and show the kids just how to do it right). Graffin might have declared in 1989 that he wanted to take over the world, and while Bad Religion didn’t quite do that, they still left an indelible mark on punk music, whose influence is still being felt today.