By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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The signs on the house speakers facing the dance floor at the Roxy say no stage diving: “If you dive, you go home.” This rule generally applies to everyone, but club management wouldn’t dare enforce it at a Bad Religion show. Stage diving and crowd surfing have long been SoCal rock traditions, so when the younger end of Bad Religion’s fan base swarmed the Roxy recently, the show in the pit at the front of the stage went on as usual.
Of course, once you get up onstage at a Bad Religion gig, or any punk-rock gig, you get your ass off there as quickly as possible. You don’t hang around getting in the musicians’ way; you don’t act like the kid at the Roxy who relished his moment in the spotlight one beat too many. Security booted him.
“Too slow! Blew it!” said Bad Religion’s lead singer, Greg Graffin, hands and arms outstretched toward the audience in an amused shrug. “Hey, you guys, you know you gotta be fast to pull this off!” The crowd roared its approval. Fists and arms flew into the air. The band pounded into its next song, and more kids rushed the stage to catapult themselves into the sky.
No one understands or embodies pit-kid culture better than Bad Religion, originally a gang of teen punk misfits from the north Valley whose core members were pit kids themselves before they scrambled onto the professional punk-rock stage in 1980. It’s been 16 albums and a roller-coaster ride of career ups and downs in both the indie and the megacorporate record-business worlds for Bad Religion. Right now, with the release of a new CD, The Process of Belief on Epitaph, a label conceived specifically to put out the band’s recordings, and still riding on the success of “Infected” and “21st Century ‘Digital Boy,’” they’re on a career high; thanks to regular rotation on stations like KROQ, the band has never had so many fans.
And yet, some wonder: Is it possible for a punk rocker to live well and have a successful long-term professional career? Parochial zines take harder snipes: Why don’t Bad Religion just go and shoot themselves in the head and self-destruct if they’re truly “punk”? If you’re a contemporary songwriter, like Bad Religion co-leaders Graffin and Brett Gurewitz, working within the genre of punk rock, are you maintaining a tradition, or — as some know-it-all cynics would have it — are you simply wallowing in nostalgia for “roots punk rock,” a musical style whose more extreme hardcore version began here in L.A. two decades ago? Is Bad Religion a keeper of the populist punk flame, or a ruthless assassin of the ethic that says no relevant fat-assed tattooed punk band plays to more than 150 people with ticket prices more than 5 bucks?
Whatever they are, the musicians of Bad Religion tore up the Strip recently for three consecutive nights: at the Whisky, the Roxy and the Key Club. All three shows sold out within hours of the cheap $10 tickets going on sale (a special gesture from the band to help promote its brand-new CD).
The throngs mostly ranged from midteen skate kids (quite a few of them not old enough to drive were accompanied by approving parents) to mid-20-somethings and a few stray geezers. “The cool thing about punk rock is that at least you know where they are . . .” one 40ish mom commented with a knowing grin. Some fans wore personalized clothing adorned with the Bad Religion cross-buster logo and handmade slogans: “Commercialism Is Ruining Art,” “The Bible Is Bullshit.” Graffin has such masterful rapport with them that when they started hollering out song requests, he ran it down that the band is phasing out this or that old tune. “Y’know, we all love that song, too, but we wanna try and move on and play some new things, okay? It’s time . . . don’t you think?” The kids understand and respect him; some of them even cheer him for it. So much for wallowing in the past.
Bad Religion enjoys an eclectic audience of punk-rock kids and skating/snowboarding rocker dudes, and is big in the life of a certain type of high school–age kid, the one who’s quite brainy, maybe on antidepressants, frequently from an outer-suburban single-parent home.
Many of Bad Religion’s crowd tend to have cerebral, geeky interests and some of them are even college-age. You could say they’re kids who don’t quite fit in, but then jocks and cheerleaders like Bad Religion nowadays, too. It’s an odd mix. An ardent Bad Religion fan I met recently is a professional embalmer who schleps stiffs around a mortuary all day and styles ’em up for their beloveds while listening to Bad Religion.
Love it or hate it, the sleek Bad Religion–Epitaph–Westbeach punk-pop sound of layered guitars and harmonized vocals — epitomized by the hit “Infected” — has become the soundtrack to the surfer-rooted extreme-sports-meets-punk-rock culture of contemporary Southern California, a phenomenon that was written off as extinct 20 years ago. This punk-pop sound and its offshoots and descendants are everywhere, generating tens of millions of dollars in record sales and concert-ticket receipts, through attractions such as the Warped Vans tour, an annual summer punk gala that makes Lollapalooza seem like a poetry slam in sheer numbers.
If you punch around enough local FM, you’ll eventually hear a Bad Religion tune or a band that’s been influenced by the SoCal sound Bad Religion helped pioneer, from the classic “rock block” pop-punk of Nirvana to the proto-“emocore” of Weezer. To name-check the heavy- rotation list on KROQ and other “modern rock”–format stations: Green Day, Blink-182, the Offspring. For many teens and preteens, anything’s better than radio’s current roster of “angry nu-metal” simps and designer rock-rap show bands; for many kids, SoCal pop-punk is a preferable alternative to bloodless navel-swiveling teen chickadee singers and inane all-boy song-and-dance troupes.
Bad Religion alone has sold more than 3 million records for Epitaph. Each release automatically does about 180,000 to 200,000. Yet such sales figures have been dwarfed by other bands influenced by its sound, who have sold millions of records for the label.
Now in their mid-to-late 30s, Bad Religion’s co-founding core members are three former students from El Camino Real High in Woodland Hills: bass player Jay Bentley, lead singer–songwriter Greg Graffin and guitarist-songwriter Brett Gurewitz. The Bad Religion–Epitaph Records saga is a complex beneath-the-mainstream-radar success story about Gurewitz and Graffin, the former an addict-in-recovery record producer and label CEO, the latter a zoology Ph.D. candidate and singer-philosopher. The other band members are a former surfer on bass, a Circle Jerk from Hawthorne on rhythm guitar, a founding member of the iconic East Coast hardcore band Minor Threat on lead guitar, and a child-prodigy musician who recently played drums in Spinal Tap.
As the final mixes were being done on The Process of Belief, I talked to the members of Bad Religion about their past, their future and the state of the industry.