“American Jesus,” “21st Century (Digital Boy),” “Infected”
Who Are They?
Los Angeles punks with a penchant for socially conscious lyrics and gorgeous three-part harmonies.
Bad Religion was formed in 1979 by high school chums Greg Graffin, Jay Bentley, Jay Ziskrout and Brett Gurewitz. (This makes the LA punks the oldest band associated with the ‘90s punk revival, along with Social Distortion.) Speaking of Social D, Greg Graffin and company played their first show with those legends in a warehouse in 1980.
After releasing its debut, 1982’s How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, Bad Religion lost the first of many members. Drummer Jay Ziskrout quit and was replaced by Peter Finestone.
The band’s second album, 1983’s Into the Unknown, was more trouble than it was worth. Almost all copies of the album were sold out of a warehouse without the band’s permission. As a result, Into the Unknown went out of print and Bad Religion decided to call it quits.
Obviously, that little hiatus didn’t last long. Greg reassembled Bad Religion with Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson (Brett Gurewitz was in rehab at the time). Brett was eventually persuaded to return and the band released Suffer in 1988.
The next three albums (No Control, Against the Grain and Generator) received high praise and led to Bad Religion being regarded as one of the best hardcore punk bands of the time, despite the lack of mainstream success. (So if you were wondering why I’m writing about a band formed in 1979 on a strictly ‘90s blog, it’s because these guys didn’t hit the mainstream until 1993/1994.)
In 1993, Bad Religion did what most punk bands did during the great period of alternative commercialization: they signed to a major label (Atlantic Records, to be precise). Bad Religion’s seventh studio album, Recipe for Hate, reached a much wider audience and spawned a few major rock radio hits.
The follow-up, 1994’s Stranger Than Fiction, became the band’s most successful album with help from hit singles “Infected” and “21st Century (Digital Boy).” (Flashback: 1994 was a surprisingly great year for music. Grunge had died with Kurt Cobain, but good ol’ fashioned punk rock got a comeback. See Green Day’s Dookie, The Offspring’s Smash and countless others.)
Unfortunately, Bad Religion was met with backlash from both fans and Brett Gurewitz, who had left the band shortly before the release of Stranger Than Fiction. Similar to the shit Green Day got for Dookie, Bad Religion was accused of “selling out” for leaving the indie label Epitaph. (For my thoughts on the ridiculous concept of “selling out,” see my entry on Liz Phair.)
Things got a little ugly between Greg and Brett following the whole sellout business. During some concerts, Greg would change the words to “Stranger Than Fiction” to “I want to know where Brett gets his crack.” This was kind of a low blow considering that Brett had struggled with crack and heroin addictions for years.
After Bad Religion released two more albums to mixed reviews, Greg and Brett finally set aside their differences and started writing together again.
Still rocking that punk attitude (with most of the original lineup).
Instead of sticking it out with the major label, Bad Religion returned to Epitaph Records in 2001. Brett officially rejoined the band and work began on the next few albums.
The Process of Belief (2002) and The Empire Strikes First (2004) were welcome returns to the band’s pre-Atlantic Records sound.
In 2007, Bad Religion released New Maps of Hell to surprising commercial success. The album reached number 35 on the Billboard 200 chart thanks to killer singles and a slot on Warped Tour.
The band celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2009 with a 30-day tour of 30-minute sets (is it just me, or is a 30-minute set just not long enough?), and released The Dissent of Man a year later.
But Why Bad Religion?
The band just released its 16th (!) studio album, True North to widely positive reviews. It also managed to reach number 18 on the Billboard 200 chart, making it the highest charting Bad Religion album ever. Not bad, not bad.
What Does Sam Think?
I think we’ve established that I have a thing for ‘90s punk bands. I know when you saw the title of this entry, you probably rolled your eyes and thought, “Here we go again. And she’s probably going to somehow tie Green Day into all of this.”
Okay, so, you know me too well. Big deal. I really dig punk rock in all its forms. And I understand why some people don’t like it. As I’ve probably said countless times before, this section of the entry isn’t going to consist of me criticizing your taste in music because you don’t like the band I mentioned. But I do hope you take my opinion into consideration and at least give any band you’re not familiar with a try. (End speech.)
So what’s up with Bad Religion? This band often gets crammed into the same category as Green Day (okay, that’s slightly debatable) and The Offspring, but Greg Graffin and company don’t quite fit. Sure, they signed to a major label and had some commercial success, but even their most accessible album feels a little off the radar.
If you want to pair Bad Religion with any band, it would have to be Social Distortion. Both bands have a consistent “roots” style of punk rock that appears to be untainted by mainstream success. It’s almost pure in a way. Most of the bands after them adhered to the pop-punk sound, which is way more radio-friendly.
But I guess Bad Religion does have a radio-friendly vibe. That’s mostly due to those amazing three-part harmonies. Listen to any Bad Religion song and you’ll hear an angelic punk rock choir behind Greg’s gruff vocals. It’s refreshing, especially if you’re not really into punk.
Is Bad Religion the only “true” punk band making music today? No. If you look hard enough, you’ll find some really rad bands keeping the scene alive. But now you’re probably wondering how to tell the difference between a “true” punk band and a “fake” one.
“What’s punk, Sam? How do we measure punk? Who really started it and who killed it?”
The answer, my friends, lies here.
-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.