Bad Religion have been the role models for many second generation punk bands since the early nineties; they have been around for over twenty-five years and collected a devout and steadily growing fan base. Their provocative lyrics sang on fast melodic though sometimes aggressive guitar playing, backed with harmonies, became their trademark. But how did it all start out? How did this Do It Yourself punk rock band become so influential? Get ready for the complete history of the greatest punk rock band ever!
In 1979, at the age of 15, Gregory Walter Graffin, discovered the radio show Rodney On the Roq on KROQ. This show featured the latest punk and new wave releases from the U.K. and New York. But possibly more important was that the show also played a lot of unknown punk music from the Los Angeles scene. For Greg this show was a revelation; finally he had found something he could identify with. At his school only quite a few other kids were interested in this scene, however just a few of those were proper musicians. One of them was drummer Jay Ziskrout. Together they decided it was time to start a band in their favorite genre. A guitarist was found in Brett Gurewitz from Woodland Hills who was introduced to them through a mutual friend. At that time Brett already played in a new wave band named The Quarks, but he preferred punk music over new wave so it was no problem to quit and join Greg and Jay’s band. Besides that, he also owned an amp and a van.
With the arrival of Brett a new band was born. The trio started to rehearse, but in a few weeks they noticed that there was something missing: a bass player. Jay Bentley, who went to the same school as Greg, became the band’s newest member after Greg had contacted him. Bentley, however, was originally a guitarist, but wanted to be in a band so bad that he agreed to play the bass even though he didn’t know how to play it.
Now completed with Jay Bentley, the band still needed to come up with a name. Several names were considered for instance ‘Smegma’ or ‘Head Cheese’, 'Vaginal Discharge' and 'Bad Family Life', but finally they agreed that Bad Religion was the best name. The crossbuster insignia became their logo. The idea behind both the band name and the logo weren’t meant to be anti-religious; it was their way to define religion as ‘any kind of social group that prescribes a certain way of thinking.’
Greg Graffin’s garage became the band’s official rehearsal space and was nicknamed 'The Hellhole.' They usually rehearsed when Greg’s mother was at work. From the very beginning the band already gathered a small fan base among the local kids who passed by and hang out in front of the garage.
It didn’t take long before the four musicians entered Studio 4 to record their very first demo. This tape was spread around friends; one of them was Lucky Lehrer, drummer with the Southern Californian band the Circle Jerks. When Lehrer was invited to Rodney On The Roq he took the opportunity to introduce Bad Religion to the radio audience by giving the tape to Rodney. In a matter of time Bad Religion debuted as the opening band for Social Distortion.
The band was now set on recording their first EP. To put it out Greg and Brett decided to form their own label: Epitaph. The self titled EP was first recorded in a small studio, run by Ziskrout’s drum teacher. However, the band decided to master their first vinyl at the Gold Star Recording Studio in Hollywood.
With the success of the EP, and a $1000 loan from Brett’s father Richard Gurewitz, the band could now record How Could Hell Be Any Worse, their debut album in 1982. During the recording of How Could Hell Be Any Worse Jay Ziskrout left the band without any particular reason.
As they were halfway finished with the recording, the band needed a drummer to finish it. Without auditioning Pete Finestone, a local Valley guy, became the new drummer. They first practiced a couple of times before returning to the studio to finish the album. The album also featured a guest guitarist: Greg Hetson, guitarist in the Circle Jerks and Redd Kross, who played a solo on one of the tracks.
After the success of How Could Hell Be Any Worse the following year became a breakdown as the band seemed to be falling apart: the punk scene was totally disillusioned, Greg Graffin was getting ready to go to college in Madison, Wisconsin, Brett Gurewitz started (already in 1982) getting into drugs, Pete Finestone left the band to study in England, and Jay Bentley walked out of the studio when they were recording the first song of their second album. The main reason Jay quit the band was that he didn’t agree on the new sound of the band. Greg had gotten a Roland June 6 synthesizer and he only used one polyrhythm which sounded monotonous. Besides the breakdown of the punk scene, Greg also started to see the band more as a hobby than something serious. However, in 1983, the second album Into The Unknown was finished with a new drummer, Davy Goldman, and bassist Paul Dedona.
After recording Into The Unknown Greg moved to Madison to get in-state tuition. Brett had to shut down Epitaph as the label was bankrupt and continued working at Chameleon. Jay Bentley was the only one who was still playing in a band. After leaving Bad Religion he was asked to join T.S.O.L. At that time he also played in a local punk band called Wasted Youth.
When T.S.O.L.’s original bassist returned to the band, Jay left and joined another band called Cathedral Of Tears. But in no time Cathedral Of Tears broke-up and Wasted Youth underwent a change in line-up; Jay was no longer in a band.
However, when Greg Graffin didn’t manage to get the in-state tuition, he was forced to move back to California where he enrolled at U.C.L.A. in Los Angeles.
At that time, it was Greg Hetson who contacted Greg Graffin to convince him to reform Bad Religion again. Greg Hetson became the new guitarist as the Circle Jerks were taking a year off. Together with Pete Finestone, who had returned from England, and Tim Gallegos – from Wasted Youth – the band started playing shows again. Between 1984 and 1985 Greg Graffin asked John Albert to fill in Pete's place when he left to England.
In 1985, the band released once again an EP: Back To The Known and the band started to tour in other places than Southern California. By 1986, Jay Bentley was asked to rejoin the band. He first rejected the request, but Graffin managed to convince him that everything had changed and that the setlist was build up out of songs from How Could Hell Be Any Worse.
By the time that Jay had rejoined Bad Religion, John Albert quietly left the band. Fortunately enough, Lucky Lehrer once again offered some help by taking place behind the drum kit in September 1987.
Meanwhile, Greg Graffin and Jay occasionally bumped into Brett, who had quit doing drugs, but they couldn’t convince him to come back to the band. After the failure of Into The Unknown Brett wasn’t so sure about the acceptance of the band in the Southern Californian punk scene. However, time had passed and Bad Religion was back in the scene playing shows again. But when Greg Hetson had to tour with the Circle Jerks, there was no guitarist in the band. Brett decided to fill up the place for only one show in San Francisco. That show reunited Brett with the band again.
During the time that Brett wasn’t in the band he had been working as a studio engineer. Together with Donnell Cameron, he had founded an own studio: Westbeach Recorders, which later on became the new base for his revived label Epitaph. Bad Religion’s next album Suffer would become the Epitaph’s first independently distributed record.
After numerous line-up changes (Pete Finestone replaced Lucky Lehrer) the band started to record their third album; no one knew what impact it was going to have on the punk scene. In 1988 the Southern Californian scene was as anemic as death; punk rock was passé and no longer hip or cool. Hardcore and Straight Edge music had become separate scenes; something the band couldn’t relate to. However, the new record caused a gigantic boost for the Southern Californian punk scene and keeping it alive.
In 1989 Suffer was followed with another success: No Control. The band kept on selling more albums then ever before. However, they still had to keep their jobs, as touring didn’t bring in enough money to live from. Even worse was that their first American tour ended with a loss of $2000. It was a German promoter who offered the solution: Bad Religion had to tour somewhere else than the U.S. like overseas in Europe. The band hesitated, but finally gave in and unexpectedly the European tour ended up being a success. From 1989 till 1991 Bad Religion continued touring in Europe, and only playing some U.S. West coast shows now and then.
The next album, Against The Grain in 1990, finally showed the band’s own style: the harmonies became the trademark of the band. The same year, Greg Graffin had completed his master’s degree at U.C.L.A. and was planning to move to Ithaca, NY, to take part in the doctoral program in evolutionary biology at Cornell University. Greg Hetson worried about the band’s future, but Greg Graffin could reassure him that nothing would change. Even when Pete Finestone decided to leave the band for his side-project The Fishermen, the band just looked for someone who could replace him: Bobby Schayer.
Bobby had been a long time fan of the band and was known as being a talented drummer. In 1980 he started drumming, after he had learned to play both the guitar and bass. In 1988 he joined his first band called The Questions. If it wasn’t because of his love for the band that Bobby was asked to join Bad Religion, it was because of his first drum teacher: Lucky Lehrer who showed him his drum techniques. And so it was quite likeable that one Circle Jerk, Greg Hetson, called Bobby, asking him if he was interested to become Bad Religion’s new drummer. Bobby, however, was still in a band called Two Free Stooges, but after doing an audition he was accepted as the new drummer.
By the end of 1991 the band started to work on their following album, Generator. During the recording process of Generator the Gulf War reached its climax when Baghdad was bombed. When the San Francisco based fanzine Maximumrocknroll approached Bad Religion with the question if they were willing to take part in recording a protest EP with Noam Chomsky, the band immediately recorded the two songs Heaven Is Falling and Fertile Crescent. Even though these songs were meant for the Generator album the tracks also appeared on The New World Order: War #1.
With Generator the band signed a sixty paged record contract with Epitaph. It was the first time that they signed such a major contract without being on a major label. The following record became a success too. Comparing with the former records, Recipe For Hate was more experimental, catchier and less aggressive which made it more accessible. However, the success of Recipe For Hate had also a major impact on Epitaph: the label could no longer handle the growing pressure. In 1993 the band left Epitaph and signed with Atlantic Records.
Their first recorded album for Atlantic was Stranger Than Fiction. After the recording Brett decided to leave the band to concentrate on Epitaph which had become the largest independent label because of the success of the Offspring’s album Smash. However, Epitaph was not only the main reason for Brett’s departure; his arguments with other members, especially with Jay, were crucial to leave Bad Religion on no good terms. Soon Brian Baker, guitarist and bassist in bands as Minor Threat, Dag Nasty and Junkyard, was offered to replace Brett.
Without Brett the entire songwriting process had changed as Greg Graffin became the band’s primary songwriter. After having recorded all the demos by himself a new album was released in 1996: The Gray Race. They continued touring and The Gray Race found its greatest success in Europe. During the 1996 tour the band recorded several shows. Some of the recordings ended up on their first live album in 1997 named Tested. Even after releasing two records within two years the band seemed unstoppable; the year 1998 welcomed No Substance, Bad Religion’s tenth studio album. This time, the entire band had worked together on the songwriting process. However, the band’s popularity continued to decline ever since Brett’s departure.
After the poor record sales Greg Graffin decided to write the next record himself again. The album became more personal and less social political. Meanwhile, Brett wasn’t doing alright. Ever since his departure and the success of the Offspring he had been struggling with a crack, heroin and alcohol addiction and eventually got arrested and sentenced to jail. During his absence in Bad Religion Brett had founded , together with Gore Verbinski and Josh Freese, a new band called The Daredevils. However, after recording the single Hate You, which was reportedly directed towards Jay Bentley, the band fell apart.
Nevertheless, the end of The Daredevils wasn’t the end of Brett’s musical career. It was Greg Graffin who kept in touch with Brett all the time and in 2000 Brett joined Bad Religion once only to co-write and play the guitar on the song Believe It of Bad Religion’s The New America.
Even though The New America was considered to be a small improvement comparing with No Substance, the band still seemed to have lost their way over the years. The following year, 2001, brought quite some changes. Bobby Schayer had to leave the band as he was no longer able to drum professionally due to a chronic progressive shoulder injury. However, instead of one, the band embraced two new members: Brooks Wackerman replaced Bobby and Brett Gurewitz made his comeback in the band after a six-year hiatus. Brooks, often referred to as a drum prodigy, had played ever since his childhood in several bands such as Bad4Good, The Vandals and Suicidal Tendencies. The arrival of the two members wasn’t the only change the band underwent: they also departed from Atlantic Records and returned to Epitaph.
The renewed collaboration between Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz brought the band to a peak again when they released their twelfth studio album The Process Of Belief in 2002. The success of The Process Of Belief showed that it was the right decision to start co-writing the songs again. Yet, Brett still had his duties at Epitaph, so touring with the band didn’t seem very realistic. He stayed as band member, but only played the shows in the Southern California region.
In June 2004, The Empire Strikes First was released. Comparing with all their other albums, this one tended to be their first concept album. It was Bad Religion’s way to show their dissatisfaction about the Bush Administration and its war on terrorism.
Between 2004 and 2006 the band continued touring all around the world and even released their first live DVD called Live At The Palladium. During 2006 the band started to write and record a new album. Meanwhile Greg Graffin had to combine the recording of the album with his lectures at U.C.L.A., where he had become a teacher of life sciences after getting his Ph.D. in zoology at Cornell University.
In 2007 New Maps Of Hell was released; twenty-five years after the release of their first album How Could Hell Be Any Worse. Even after almost thirty years with numerous changes in line-up they are still motivated and energetic enough to record more albums. During the 30th Anniversary House of Blues Tour the band recorded their second live album 30 Years Live to celebrate their 30th anniversary. After the House of Blues tour the band immediately started recording their fifteenth studio album named The Dissent of Man, which was released on September 28th, 2010.
During the summer of 2012 the band started to record a new album with Joe Barresi. Their sixteenth album, True North, was released on January 22, 2013.
Not so long after True North was released, noteworthy changes occurred. Nigh-perennial guitarist Greg Hetson and percussionist of fifteen years Brooks Wackerman saw their lives take them in other directions, and both resigned from Bad Religion.
Such developments can be devastating for some bands--but not all! Fortunately for everyone, competent successors were found in Michael Dimkich and Jamie Miller, respectively, and the band was able to carry on.
New Bad Religion songs were not immediately forthcoming, however. Though many bemoaned the long wait for what lay in store, it should be understood that the individual members of Bad Religion have very full plates; which is to say, they must balance various competing interests (e.g. families, non-Bad-Religion careers, other life obligations). It would therefore be six years before the next full-length Bad Religion record would provoke thought and inspirit mosh pits around the world. During those six years--the longest-ever time between Bad Religion album releases--listeners were grudgingly compelled to content themselves with a number of reissues, along with singles The Kids are Alt-Right and The Profane Rights of Man. Naturally, there was much grumbling and speculation on the parts of pundits, critics, and fans.
In the end, it became evident that Bad Religion had in fact cohered and been hard at work for some time, stubbornly refusing to be rushed into releasing a sub-par (by their own standards) record. Finally, the seventeenth Bad Religion album, Age of Unreason, was released on 3 May 2019 via Epitaph Records.
Age of Unreason simultaneously expresses the group’s still-erudite worldview, pays homage to the band’s stylings both modern and vintage, and proves that time-honored tradition is still potent even in this new-school era.
After approximately forty years, Bad Religion remains quite vivacious – and quite peerless.