|Category:||Review - Newspaper||Publish date:||7/3/1984|
|Source:||The Village Voice, July 3, 1984 (United States)|
Bombast In The Blood: Bad Religion
Since my generation has always equated supersonic with bombast with rock’n’roll, and since that equation has always been one of the things which has made me more than a little ashamed of my generation, it bewilders me no end that the album I’ve listened to more than any other in recent months is so supersonically bombastic. Maybe like Bad Religion, whose punk-to-pomp move on Into The Unknown is what has me so captivated, I’m just discovering my roots.
Some roots, huh? But let’s face it – to us white males who came of age in the suburban Midwest in the mid-to-late ‘70s, and to I bet a lot of females and urbaners and ruralers and Easterners and Southerners as well, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Dust In The Wind” and that ELP song the radio used to play a lot are truer folk music than Loretta Lynn or the Wild Tchoupitoulas will ever be. In as much as the people I grew up with are of the same species and therefore as in need of musical ritual as your average Creole or Bantu, “Stairway To Heaven” was (for a while, anyway) our “Caimanera,” our “Iko Iko,” our “Cotton-Eyed Joe.”
Which isn’t to say it didn’t suck. But to suggest that it had nothing going for it except AOR brainwashing techniques is to deny the reasoning capabilities of my entire high school senior class, many of whom scored higher on their SATs than I did. There had to be some intangible which attracted all of those unsuspecting hordes. Bad Religion – an L.A. punk band whose 1982 debut How Could Hell Be Any Worse was rightfully lumped with Christian Death, 45 Grave, et al. into the ephemeral “horror rock” sub-subgenre – has found that intangible.
What they’ve discovered is simple, really; nothing that arena-watchers haven’t known for years: everybody loves an anthem. Just about all of the songs on Into The Unknown build to these incredible, mighty climaxes, fully awash with track upon track of piano and organ and synthesizer and acoustic and electric guitar. Sounds Wagnerian or phallic or corny to you, I know, and it is; it’s all those things. But it’s also inspirational as all get-out. And I bet if I were 16, and I heard this stuff on the radio, I’d be even more enraptured than I already am.
Drawing on the anthemic nature of ‘70s AOR is nothing new, I know; great songs from “Born To Run” to “Love Will Tear Us Apart” to Glenn Branca’s “The Ascension” do it, and so do supposed ‘60s-revival groove bands like the Neats and the Dream Syndicate and the Smiths. But while I can’t imagine, say, “Do The Things” or “What Difference Does It Make” following “Roundabout” on Detroit’s WABX or WWWW eight years ago, I think Bad Religion’s “It’s Only Over When… “ would fit right in.
Bad Religion’s been compared to the stubbornly “psychedelic” three-chord organ-groove band Hawkwind, but frankly, I don’t think they’re that exotic. They’re more like Styx or Kansas; like the American art-schlock bands, they write teen-angst anthems for the post-Tang generation. What sets them apart from the pomp-rock mainstream is their tendency toward irony as well as their allegiance to the hook aesthetic; conceptually, at least, Into The Unknown’s real antecedents are records like Led Zep’s Houses Of The Holy, B.Ö.C.’s Agents Of Fortune, and Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight, albums which attempted to explode AOR from within via self-parody and an awareness of pre-AOR rock’n’roll. Bad Religion strips everything that made pomp-rock the excrement it was: its “Dust In The Wind” nihilism, its “Cold As Ice” misogyny, its Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends pomposity. And what’s left over still sounds like pomp-rock.
Bad Religion’s songs are mostly just little parables about bad things old people do and about how young people can and should keep from becoming bad like the old people. Typical is “Chasing The Wild Goose,” which sounds like Todd Rundgren. A man walks out on the good life after 20 years, and a woman kills herself when marriage proves not all it’s cracked up to be. Both “Wild Goose” and the next song, “Billy Gnosis,” are dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut; in the latter, a regular guy kills his wife, blows up his car, loses his mind to drugs and worms, and just generally goes bonkers to a tune lifted outright from Steve Miller’s “Take The Money And Run.”
The idea, I guess, is that stuff is pretty absurd once you’ve stopped striving for it and just settled down and accepted it; that Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons who aren’t busy being born are busy dying; that, in the words of the guitarist Brett Gurewitz, life is pointless in the presence of the prize. Seems like a pretty good teen-angst idea, as teen-angst ideas have been going lately, so it’s not surprising that the two completely acoustic songs Bad Religion contributed to Mystic Records’ Sound of Hollywood compilation also deal with the futility of modern existence. In the ethereal, keyboard-driven “Waiting For The Fire,” young people tend “to the rigors of their daily chores” and “social mores” although immersed in what I guess is nuclear anxiety, while in the more upbeat, folk-rockish “Every Day” a guy tells us, “Don’t be deceived by my wife/I’m stuck here all the time, it’s a lonely life.” The characters haven’t yet broken free from their lives, which is perhaps why the influences are prebombast, Buffalo Springfield and early Jeff Airplane.
Most of Into The Unknown’s songs are by singer/pianist/organist/synthesist Greg Graffin, whose tunes break down pretty easily into your life’s-terrible-if-you’re-young-but-not-terrible-enough-to-do-that numbers and your grown-ups-really-fucked-up-the-ecology numbers. Songs of the former ilk open and close the record; “It’s Only Over When… “ and “…You Give Up” are as inspirational in their own ways as – no shit – great Al Green or Mighty Clouds or Swan Silvertones. When you haven’t a friend in the world, and you turn to light and all you get is darkness, and you’re lost in space, and your life’s in the garbage can, it’s only over when you give up. The Lord will make a way, somehow. No, Graffin doesn’t exactly say that, but the hope he displays in these songs (and in his ballad, “Million Days”) suggests that his sort of humanism isn’t that bad a religion after all. If I knew a kid who was considering suicide, I’d play him these songs, and he’d decide to start a band instead. That’s what rock’n’roll’s for, right?
And if it’s also for changing the world, Greg Graffin knows it as well as anybody. I don’t particularly care for harp seals myself, but I can’t remember the last time I heard a song about an endangered species. (Can’t figure out exactly which one – I’m hoping Tasmanian wolf and betting pronghorn antelope.) And “Time And Disregard,” which clocks in at 6:50 of Zep-to-Tull acoustic-to-electric grandiloquence, would be annoying if it wasn’t so damn catchy: when Graffin, after telling us how he used to wander around in the wilderness like some hippie gypsy, shouts “Tomorrow the trucks come,” I swear I get goose pimples. And I realize that that’s probably what happens what happens to some people my age when they hear “Stairway To Heaven” or “Aqualung.” As much as I hate to admit it, bombast is apparently in my blood.
- Chuck Eddy
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