How Bad Religion transcended the ages of American punk rock
“A guy from Minor Threat, a Circle Jerk and a college professor opened for Blink-182 in a sports arena (16 sports arenas, to be exact)” has a funnier ring to it than “In 2000, Bad Religion toured opening for Blink-182.” But it happened. And it’s no surprise, really. As singer Greg Graffin himself once crooned, er, shouted, “Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.”
About every other summer, the SoCal skate-punk godfathers serve as heritage act on the Warped Tour, where they — a band with the name Bad Religion and a song called “American Jesus” on an album called Recipe for Hate — perform alongside dozens of young underlings with stretched earlobes and earnest lyrics about God and all his glory, yet cite Bad Religion as an influence. It must be a disheartening sight for the unstoppable old-schoolers. If there’s one cue Bad Religion’s footstep-followers forgot to take, it’s to drop the fashion. They’re a jeans-and-T-shirt band that comes onstage looking like cool dads on a Sunday afternoon. But don’t forget: They’re punk as fuck. In fact, some years they’re the only bona fide punk band rubbing elbows with emo kids on the Warped circuit.
The current and long-running lineup of the band would qualify as a super-group if they weren’t already punk legends as a unit in their own right. Guitarist Greg Hetson got his start in Red Kross and is a founding member of Circle Jerks. Guitarist Brian Baker was a founding member of D.C. hardcore architects Minor Threat. Sometime-guitarist and principal co-songwriter Brett “Mr. Brett” Gurewitz founded breakthrough punk label Epitaph Records. Drummer Brooks Wackerman is an in-demand hard-rock session cat whose punk punch card includes Suicidal Tendencies, Tenacious D (OK, not punk, but certainly punker than most contemporary self-identifying punk bands) and The Vandals.
And perhaps most punk rock of all, frontman Greg Graffin is a life sciences professor who’s taught at Cornell and UCLA.
Sure — with the exception of junior member Wackerman, who joined in 2001 — Graffin & Co. have grown noticeably older in press photos. But over the decades, whether with the hardcore offerings of their youthful years, the ’80s skate-punk of Suffer, the alt-rock of their mid-’90s major label records or latter-era pop-punk anthems (à la “Los Angeles Is Burning” and the bordering-on-emo anthem “Sorrow”), the band has altered their sonic DNA about as much as AC/DC. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
True North — the band’s latest, its first since 2010’s New Maps of Hell and 16th since 1982’s How Could Hell Be Any Worse? — sounds more or less like every other Bad Religion record. That’s not to say the album isn’t inspired. It’s a tight 16 tracks of driving drums, anthemic choruses, pummeling power chords, pick slides and riffs galore, combined with Graffin’s commanding rasp and thesaurus-necessitating, anti-establishment diatribes on intellectual American sloth, your middle finger and how it should relate to the government and, well, religion.
Standouts like the none-too-subtle “Fuck You,” the almost-ironically titled “Past Is Dead,” the half-pipe-ready rocker “The Island” or the catchy call-to-arms indictment of Mitt Romney and his plutocratic ilk, “Robin Hood in Reverse” — “Citizens united, I was excited / When kids are united, they can never be divided,” sings Graffin in the chorus — are sure to pair perfectly among tried-and-true set-list staples such as “Generator,” “Atomic Garden,” “21st Century Digital Boy” and the eternal-teen-angst classic “Do What You Want” at Wednesday night’s War Memorial throw-down.
Bad Religion hasn’t managed to change the world with their music yet, but it’s good to see they’re still trying. And it’s even better to hear ’em keeping punk rock honest and alive while fighting the good fight, because the kids have still got a lot to learn.
- Adam Gold