The early punks and pre-punks openly pursued starry-eyed deals with major record labels. The majors, however, felt burned by commercial failure and unprofessionalism (New York Dolls: “They’re junkies!” The Sex Pistols: “Loudmouth yobs!”) and wanted little to do with bands that followed. Smelling further disaster, the majors backed off until “safe” acts tagged as new wave appeared.
This lesson was not lost on the homegrown punk bands that followed. A new and more aggressive sound called thrash (pioneered by The Stimulators and Bad Brains) became punk. DIY labels and networks of burned-out warehouse stages filled the void the majors had left wide open like office workers evacuating during a bomb scare.
Second-generation Southern California punks snubbed the melodic sound of L.A. bands such as X and, inspired by thrash, went hardcore. Played up in the press and by the sensationalism of Penelope Spheeris’ documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, the SoCal scene was typified by bloody mosh pits, petty criminals like Jack Grisham of TSOL, and kids who weren’t afraid of violent confrontation with police or even with themselves. There were no more aspirations to stardom, the thought of which was absurd even to the musicians themselves.
From the San Fernando Valley came a band that distinguished itself from previous punk rockers. Bad Religion embraced the DIY ethic but rejected mindless teenage male aggression, even though its own members weren’t all yet out of high school. Lyricist Greg Graffin not only had plans for serious college studies but insisted on penning songs that had a ferocious sound and intelligent subject matter.
Bad Religion’s articulate lyrics forced you to listen, even if you needed a dictionary at your side to interpret Graffin’s mini-dissertations. Songwriting partner “Mr. Brett” Gurewitz matched Graffin in intelligence, if not vocabulary, but his punishing guitar work spoke eloquently. The band appeared to be a lone voice in an unruly mosh pit. (There were other hardcore bands that had something real to say, but these were eclipsed by the public displays of violence that ensured riot squads were called in, further blurring the message.)
“Anarchy” was the cry of many punks who embraced it as merely chaos rather than a concept—living with integrity by responsibly governing yourself and your community. Songs like “You Are (The Government)” and “Don’t Pray on Me” reinforced the ethic that you can—and should—think for yourself, but avoided the buffoonery of the Dead Kennedys or the jock mentality of Circle One.
The book American Hardcore: A Tribal History devotes less than two of its 350 pages to Bad Religion. It’s interesting that here Graffin says, “Bad Religion was never given credit for even being part of that scene.” Whether this was a rejection of the band’s intellectual leanings and anti-violent stance is hard to say. No matter. Unlike other SoCal bands that later reformed for one-off tours, Bad Religion is not making a comeback at Thursday’s show. Except for a 1984 hiatus, the band has never stopped gigging. Or making records that ask you to think.
Sadly, Mr. Brett no longer tours with Bad Religion, although he continues to record with the band on his major-
Bad Religion is turning 30 this year. To celebrate, there’s a new album, The Dissent of Man, which is the band’s 15th full-length release. There’s also a new book— Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science and Bad Religion in a World Without God—written by Graffin, who’s now a UCLA professor with a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology. Even if you choose to watch the show right up front where you’re sure to get soundly thrashed in the pit, try to protect your head and brains enough to take in the wisdom Bad Religion imparts.