Punk rock bands don't often sustain careers of longer than a few years. You can probably count on one hand the groups that have stuck it out for more than a decade, retaining their relevance, continually winning over new fans and influencing new bands.
Outlasting nearly all of its original contemporaries after almost 25 years together, Bad Religion is still going strong, touring the world, and releasing albums that mean something.
In fact, this year marks the group's third appearance on the Vans Warped Tour, playing to kids who weren't even alive when the band's early albums were first released in the late 1980s.
"We love playing the Warped Tour," says Jay Bentley, a founding member of the band. "We've been doing this for so long, we feel like we're contemporaries of two decades of bands and we're happy to help out the younger generation of bands that's just getting started today."
He continues, "what's really amusing is that we sometimes meet parents who were fans of ours when we first got started and they're bringing their kids to our shows who are also fans.
"It's never felt like some retro trip, though. We're not trying to repeat Suffer or Against the Grain over and over and we don't feel like some historical relic. If we did, we'd hang it up. But we still have a lot to say."
Bad Religion formed in 1980, when Bentley (bass), Greg Graffin (vocals) and Brett Gurewitz (guitars) got together in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, as three teenagers who felt outcast from the rest of their peers and were angry at the state of the world unfolding in the then-nascent Reagan Era.
The group's debut album, How Could Hell Be Any Worse was released in 1982, a combination of The Ramones and Black Flag, two of the band's early contemporaries.
Shunned by record companies, Gurewitz founded Epitaph Records as a medium for the band's message. At the time, this practice was common in the punk community, with tiny labels popping up all over the country as a means to unite local scenes and distribute albums regionally and nationally.
It wasn't until 1988 that the band truly came into its own, with the release of its second album, Suffer. A blast of melodic punk rock miles ahead of its prior releases, the album is widely credited with revitalizing the southern California punk rock scene in the late '80s and leading it into the present. Doubling the guitar sound with former Circle Jerks member Greg Hetson, Suffer was far different than any punk album before it, and it paved the way for the sound of bands like The Offspring and Green Day to take over the mainstream in the early 1990s.
Bad Religion stood apart from its peers both musically and lyrically. Gurewitz and Graffin were like a punk rock Lennon and McCartney, competing with one another via their songs. The tunes they produced were faster and more tuneful than any punk band since The Ramones. The band's harmonies were lifted straight from The Beatles and Beach Boys.
Lyrically, Graffin and Gurewitz were intelligent and thought-provoking, challenging philosophy and politics, and imploring listeners to open their minds to education and more worldly ways of thinking as well as taking on the status quo.
The growth of the band on subsequent albums and the punk scene in general helped to fuel Epitaph's growth as well, and it would eventually become the most successful independent label in history.
In 1993, the band split with Epitaph and moved to Atlantic Records for 1993's Recipe For Hate, a controlled, focused flash of anti-establishment vehemence and personal politics. Following 1994's Stranger Than Fiction, Gurewitz left the band to run Epitaph full-time, and was replaced by former Minor Threat member Brian Baker on guitar. His songwriting talents would be sorely missed. Though 1996's The Grey Race is a powerful statement of a more esoteric, personal nature, 1998's No Substance and 2000's The New America were low points in the band's career, though each had its moments, the band admits that they were struggling without Gurewitz' influence.
"That was hard," says Bentley. "Having Brian replace Brett on guitar was one thing because he's just incredible. He's probably the best player I've ever seen. But no one could replace Brett's songs."
"The Grey Race, I think is just a great album. Graffin was going through such a tough personal time that it really made for an incredible album. But after that, none of us really knew what direction to take. We didn't feel forced but we didn't feel like a whole band, either."
In 2002, the band returned to Epitaph as a label, and welcomed Gurewitz back into the fold, releasing The Process of Belief, an album full of potential but made by a band seeking to regain its voice after a period of uncertainty.
"On one hand, it was the first time that making an album was fun again," says Bentley. "But we didn't really know what we were doing."
Having also welcomed a new drummer into the fold in the form of Brooks Wackerman, a veteran of various bands, the band found itself in the midst of a decent-sized transition.
"We hadn't played any shows or anything with Brooks," says Bentley. "Brett was back full-time, which he hadn't been since '94, and we had to figure out how to get him, Hetson and Brian all working together as guitarists, as well as him and Graffin getting used to each other as songwriters again.
"It was very constrained. No one knew how far they could push things."
Immediately after touring for Process ended, "Brian, Hetson, Brooks and I sat down and started playing together on a regular basis," says Bentley.
"One thing I learned? Brooks is a monster. He's an amazing drummer. Having him and Brian in the band is huge for us. They're both so talented. We know how things are supposed to sound in our heads, but they can actually play them and get the songs to where we know they should be."
When the whole band got back together, it was like no time at all had passed. "We got into the studio and we knew that this was the way the band was always supposed to be," explains Bentley.
"The real key to that is having Brett back. He and Graffin push each other to do their best. They're coming from two completely different worlds, and that makes a huge difference in their songwriting." Graffin holds a Ph.D. in Biology from Cornell and spends his time away from the band in academia; in addition to running Epitaph on a day-to-day level, Gurewitz produces bands and plays in various side projects.
Bentley continues, "Brett came in when we first started this album and said 'You know, we really need to make a great album.' This was something we all knew but it hadn't been said. It just sort of hit all of us that this needed to be not a comeback record but a real statement."
And a statement it is. A return to form for a band that has spent the better part of the last decade without half of its songwriting team and an integral band member, The Empire Strikes First is a fury of politically charged, current-events-motivated punk rock, aimed at getting the message out that all is not right with America.
"It doesn't take much to get motivated these days," says Bentley. "All I have to do is turn on the television for five minutes in the morning and I'm ready to spread our message."
Bad Religion has always been a topically-minded, political band, but never has its message been so specific, so charged against such a small group. This is protest music of the kind that has been so sorely lacking for so long. Intelligent, informed, and well-articulated, the songs on Empire take on the media as well as the government, taking them to task for contributing to the climate of fear and misinformation perpetuated by those in power.
"This is the first time that we were really all on the same page, politically and personally about the state of the country and we felt like it was time to make a really explicit statement about how we felt things stood," explains Bentley.
The title track takes on the war in Iraq head on. "Never before has the U.S. been part of a pre-emptive strike against another nation," says Bentley. "Being a part of the anti-war movement and meeting others involved made me realize how small our voice really is these days. And that needs to change." The song's most moving lyric -- "we spit and we cursed/and our bleeding hearts burst/but even 10 million souls marching in February couldn't stop the worst" is a reference to the administration's complete ignorance of the peace movement.
"The song as a whole is really about that event but also how it all seems so media driven," explains Bentley. "'The greatest show on heaven and earth' refers to the 'shock and awe' statements, and the media's treatment of war and death as entertainment.
"All of us are doing interviews leading up to our tour and on tour -- through Warped and then headlining this fall. My plan is to start talking now and not shut up until November, and hope for a regime change at home.
"I don't think people realize just how bad Bush really is for America, especially the working class," says Bentley.
"Let Them Eat War" takes a look at the working class members of society who are harmed by the president they so adamantly support. "This is just a case of how the media is skewing things for the current administration," says Bentley. "Somehow, Bush is supposed to be a friend of the working poor. But who does his policies most benefit -- the richest of the rich. And Reagan had the same effect but these people are taught to love him. Reagan hated poor people. He'd sooner spit on them then help them off the ground. Bush is no different.
"All politicians at this point are damaging to some degree, with the way they twist facts and exploit truth but I have to believe that there's something better than our current situation," he says.
The media and celebrity culture have always been a favorite target of Bad Religion, and "Los Angeles Is Burning" is a prime example.
"That song was written while Los Angeles actually was burning," explains Bentley. "During the fires last summer. And it became a metaphor for how the media fans the flames, so to speak, of fear and uncertainty here. With all their alerts and warnings and sensationalism, are they actually making things worse and not just reporting? Television news is entertainment. It's borderline fiction now. Reality television indeed.
"With LA as the entertainment and media mecca of the country, the metaphor was just sitting there for us to grab hold of for a song."
One of the most striking songs is the closer, "Live Again (The Fall of Man)," which is "about suicide bombers," says Bentley.
"Greg's lyric at the beginning -- 'what good is something if you can't have it until you die' -- is really poignant to me," he says. "It's probably my favorite on the record.
"Religion is something we've always talked about in our songs. And now we've really taken hold of how it's used to justify violence," he says. We're looking at planning your whole life around some reward that happens when you die and using religion to justify violence toward someone else.
"As a world, where has that gotten us? It's time to put the stick down."
"Sinister Rouge" takes on a similar topic, that of the rampant abuse in the Catholic Church.
Bentley explains, "Here you've got 2000 years of policy that basically says, 'Obey us. Do what we say, not as we do. Just shut your mouth and you'll get to heaven.' I think it's about time that's rethought."
Bad Religion has always been the thinking man's punk band. Well read (they paraphrase Thomas Wolfe and lift a song title from Orwell's 1984 on this album) and well educated, both formally and not, their songs are designed to provoke discussion and encourage new ideas. Angry, but never reactionary, throughout their career, they've emphasized the importance of independent critical thinking, and even implore listeners to find their own answers, and not necessarily rely on their lyrics.
One of the band's most famous lines is contained within the song "No Direction," from 1992's Generator - "I don't believe in self-important folks who preach/no Bad Religion song can make your life complete."
During the band's stint on the Warped Tour and then on its own tour this fall, the members will be available for interviews with anyone holding any sort of journalistic credentials. The band is also teaming up with PunkVoter.org to provide voter registration and nonpartisan information on candidates to interested concertgoers.
The Empire Strikes First is available now, and Epitaph has released each of the bands first five albums with updated packaging and liner notes, and digitally remastered.
by Andrew Bunnell