Published Jun 01, 2000This year, L.A. punk stalwarts Bad Religion celebrate 20 years as an entity. With the possible exception of the Ramones, you'd be hard pressed to find another punk band as enduring or influential. Their teenage days hacking at their instruments and spewing angry punk rhetoric went largely unnoticed. It wasn't until the late 1980s and early 90s that they entered their most influential and prolific period, and their dedication and perseverance paid off: both for the band and the Epitaph label they started. Combining youthful exuberance with musical and lyrical maturity, Bad Religion found a sound to call their own and released four groundbreaking albums in five years. Their consistency and drive to survive earned them the title of "the new godfathers of punk," and they remain a band that commands respect from their peers and devotion from their audiences. Vocalist Greg Graffin looks back on the last two sometimes wonderful, sometimes turbulent decades, and the band's 11th studio album, The New America.
1980 to 1982
Greg Graffin, who moved to L.A. from Wisconsin with his divorced mother four years earlier, begins Bad Religion with high school pal Brett Gurewitz, with bassist Jay Bentley and drummer Jay Ziskrout. They start jamming in Graffin's garage and pissing off the neighbours. "My mother used to work late hours, which gave us a lot of time to rehearse," he recalls. Unfortunately, high school and Greg's summers in Wisconsin with his father make touring next to impossible during their formative years. "We got some initial popularity in the L.A. punk scene and then right when it was time to go on tour I had to go back to Wisconsin. Our whole early history is plagued by not going on tour. I think it ended up helping us in the long run because it created this hunger."
In October of 1980 they record their first EP, a six-song, self-titled effort. A thousand copies are pressed and sleeves are stuffed in Graffin's living room. With the official release of the EP in February, 1981, Epitaph Records is born. After selling out of the EP, the band records their first full-length, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, in 1982 with a new drummer, Pete Finestone. It features a guest appearance from band pal and Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson. With national distribution, the record sells about 10,000 copies, but touring is still impossible.
Frustration sets in and the band appears to be headed for a break-up, a fate all too common in L.A.'s punk scene. "Something fell apart in the summer of 1982. Peter and Jay were so anxious to go on tour they went and joined other bands, but Brett and I didn't care because we were the songwriters." With two new members (bassist Paul Dedona and drummer Davy Goldman), a new synthesiser and a porta-studio, they record what would become their most infamous and hardest-to-find album, Into the Unknown. It is a new direction for the band, an experiment that backfires. "If I had to compare that 1983 album to anything it would be the first R.E.M. album," Graffin says of the new direction, "because it has a lot of acoustic guitar and subtle keyboards. It wasn't 80s dance music. It was so different it didn't even come close to captivating our audience; they rejected it outright. It's a great example of youthful innocence, and that's about all it is." With interest in the band waning and Brett developing a substance addiction, Graffin moves back to Wisconsin to pursue his studies in evolutionary biology.
1984 to 1986
Graffin transfers to UCLA and reforms the band with Finestone, Hetson and bassist Tim Gallegos to record another real punk record, an EP mockingly titled Back to the Known. At this point, Graffin's academics and Gurewitz's dedication to the growth of Epitaph keep Bad Religion activity quiet for a few years.
1987 to 1988
The band reforms with Hetson now a full-time member, Gurewitz back in action and Bentley and Finestone returning to the fold. They begin writing and recording their watershed album, Suffer. With a combination of thrashing beats, scorching guitar riffs, Beach Boys vocal harmonies and highly literate lyrics, Bad Religion dare to make punk smarter and more musical while retaining a core angst and energy. It is a dynamic sound that bands will continue to emulate ten years later. "A lot of fans say it's what saved the genre, because by 1987 there were hardly any punk bands - certainly none that were putting out as good quality as Suffer. We knew we were onto something good with Suffer but after the first year's sales of 3,000 records we were a little disgruntled at the state of things." They had, after all, sold 10,000 copies of How Could Hell... with very little effort and no touring support.
1989 to 1991
Undaunted, they quickly release No Control and Against the Grain in the next two years. "By the time Against the Grain came out we were shipping 100,000 copies," says Graffin, crediting word-of-mouth and relentless touring. But criticism that the records sound too much alike begin to surface, despite this being the band's prime period. "We were doing what came naturally, so of course there's some sameness to it," Graffin admits. "But it's always been a labour of love. I'm very proud of the achievements, but those days were very innocent. We knew we were gaining a larger audience, but to us it wasn't like we had to be careful or we'll squander everything. Although we did learn from the Into the Unknown episode - we knew that if we were going to build an audience you can't just do what you want. We were trying to build consistency."
Pete Finestone leaves the band before recording of Generator and is replaced by Bobby Schayer. "It was for a really stupid reason. The other band he was in told him he had to make a decision and he chose the wrong one. Bobby's a much more accomplished drummer; he can do almost anything. We really scored with him."
1993 to 1995
The unthinkable happens. The band reaches a level of success on Epitaph but feels there's still room to grow. They leave the label they formed, which was experiencing significant success with bands like NOFX, and ink a deal with a major label, Atlantic, who re-releases their 1993 record Recipe for Hate. "All our lives we thought of being on a major label, and it was amazing how few of them were interested in us. A lot of a lot of them assumed that we were doing fine on our own," says Graffin.
"We wondered how we could continue to grow. Brett and I never talked a lot about this because I was busy with academia and he was busy running Epitaph, so we never had a lot of strategy talks. But I believed we had to go to a major to get bigger distribution. At that point there was a big backlash. People thought we sold out. I'm pretty immune to criticism and I don't care what people think, but Brett was running the label full-time and he took it very personally, even though he voted with the rest of the band to leave Epitaph."
The backlash, however, is short lived. "When people heard Stranger Than Fiction they realised, What difference does it make what label it's on? It's the music that matters.' You can't judge something based on who distributes it. Some of the greatest punk albums of all time were on major labels. The thing that I immediately noticed that is so gratifying is that our records are always in the store. People finally had access to Bad Religion, and they didn't have that when we were on Epitaph and that's before it's as big as it is now. We can go to Argentina and see our records in stores."
1995 to 1998
There's trouble in paradise, and Gurewitz, unhappy with the contract and looking to spend more time with Epitaph, leaves the band. Graffin takes over sole leadership and puts his evolutionary biology studies on hold. "I knew something would have to suffer." Former Minor Threat and Dag Nasty member Brian Baker is recruited after having spent a few years in Great White clone band Junkyard. "It was like when Bobby joined," says Graffin. "You get these really talented people sitting in where there was some deficiency and it opens up a whole new direction of creativity." That line-up records, releases and tours for The Gray Race (1996) and No Substance (1998).
Bad Religion head to Hawaii to Todd Rundgren's studio and records The New America, an album significant for its retro look, sound and overall feel, which recalls the band's earlier days. "For me it was natural to gravitate to some of the original punk motifs," says Graffin. "I wanted to champion the cause of pioneer punk, because it doesn't get enough credit. It's a reflective album with a lot of sentimentality and also a little bit of warning about the future." It also contains the first post-split contributions from Gurewitz in the form of a co-writing credit and guitar solo on the track "Believe It." "Working with Brett again was a great step in the right direction," Graffin states. "It was refreshing and it made me remember how good it is when we write together. It was such an uplifting experience and we're going to do more of it on the next record."
The first stage of the New America tour sees the band hit the road with Blink 182, a move that stuns many observers, who feel Bad Religion is somehow above touring with a bunch of punk pretenders whose audience members are only a few tattoos and piercings away from being at a Backstreet Boys show. "They were always huge Bad Religion fans," Graffin says of the Blink trio. "Unlike the bands we supported and gave a lot of visibility to when we brought them on our tour I'm talking about Green Day and the Offspring, the mega acts in punk who have never asked us to open for them I've got to hand it to Blink for at least saying they'd like to pay us back somehow. However innocent that gesture is, at least they're not afraid to ask us. I've never heard form those other bands again."
But why do it? "Punk is a great way to go through life and if you're not educated about what good punk is you'll never learn, so you're living a lie," Graffin reasons. "I look at this as an opportunity to educate a lot of people each night about what real punk sounds like."