By Alex Distefano
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Thirty years is a long time to be anything organized, let alone a band, never mind a punk band, but faster than you can say Clash Chuck Taylors, Bad Religion are celebrating three decades as one of punk’s last (or at least oldest) bands standing with a bunch of career-retrospective House of Blues gigs in Anaheim, LA, San Diego and Las Vegas.
With that kind of time served comes something often absent from punk’s riff-fast, dye-your-hair homogeneity: perspective. Greg Gaffin, Brett Gurewitz and Jay Bentley started the band in ’79 in their parents’ garages in tony Woodland Hills, and give or take a few trips to rehab and the occasional hiatus by one or more members, the band have remained surprisingly intact. Bentley split for a spell after the disastrous prog-rock direction the band took with 1984’s Into the Unknown; Gurewitz left to run the Epitaph label he founded to release Bad Religion 7-inches, launching Rancid and the like. And Gaffin’s day job is UCLA lecturer and author.
With the permanent additions of Greg Hetson (Circle Jerks) and Brian Baker (ex-Minor Threat, Dag Nasty and Junkyard), who turned down a touring gig with R.E.M. to join the band (how punk is that?), Bad Religion have remained unwaveringly and unapologetically consistent. As Bentley, who recently returned to SoCal after a stint raising his teenage sons in Vancouver, puts it, “We think of ourselves like a sports team. It’s like NASCAR: The fastest guy drives the car, but there’s someone filling the tank, and there’s someone changing the tires.” The result, he says, is people know what to expect. “We’re not trying to re-invent the wheel,” he says.
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Bad Religion do, however, like a new set of rims now and then, as evidenced in the deluxe repackaging of 2007’s New Maps of Hell, which includes an acoustic EP that confirms Gaffin and Gurewitz are the Simon and Garfunkel of hardcore punk. The most compelling addition is a live DVD from a MySpace show at the House of Blues in Las Vegas: Six guys pushing 50 in T-shirts and jeans playing sophisto-power-pop punk—with Baker’s tastefully aggressive leads and Gaffin’s fatigue-proof, purposeful bellow—Bad Religion deliver the goods to another generation of kids discovering the adrenalin rush of feeling good about feeling bad from a bunch of dudes old enough to be their dads.
Bentley remembers the OG three were very aware of being “these kids from the Valley not wanting to be another band saying, ‘Fuck you, I won’t clean up my room.’” Their name, he says, came from their target, the institutional hypocrisy of what they saw as predatory televangelism. It made them immediately more highbrow and universal (“American Jesus” still fuckin’ rules), as did their sound.
“Brett’s tastes were very Ramones, whereas Gaffin was more Sham 69,” Bentley remembers. “I always liked the more melodic stuff. The Adolescents had these three-part harmonies that were amazing. Fear and Black Flag were the biggest bands, but we liked how OC bands like Social D were writing songs.”
It’s ironic that their attention to intelligent songcraft in the wake of “Six Pack” that Bad Religion are now, to quote Vincent Gallo, “spanning time.” Not as a retro act (see Misfits) or majestically flawed relaunch (Bad Brains) or even punk-rock historical re-enactors (Negative Approach), but as the same-as-it-ever-was Bad Religion who are simultaneously current and retro, the grand old men of youth gone wild.
Bentley offers a breathless history of the SoCal punk sea changes Bad Religion lived through relatively unscathed. “In ’78 or ’79, ‘punk rock’ was like Oingo Boingo and Devo—anything that wasn’t Van Halen or Rush or AC/DC. But then from ’83 to ’88, punk rock got super-cliquéy, like that whole Maximum Rock & Roll definition of punk rock in which you either conformed or [were] ostracized,” he says. “Then when punk rock died, it seemed like the only thing it did was make it okay to wear ripped jeans and have short hair. The LA clubs said, ‘No more punk rock,’ and everybody started growing their hair out and getting a lead guitar player. Everybody had to make some sort of adjustment. I remember seeing China White’s bass player wearing a ‘Blizzard of Ozz’ scarf and thinking, ‘That’s fuckin’ rad.’ If anything tries to define what I do, then my job is to deny that definition.”
Ironic, then, that Bad Religion are now a working definition of functional punk rock. They’ve somehow sidestepped that weird midlife crisis in which bands all want to be Neil Young making Harvest Moon, instead focusing on being somehow older and wiser but no less purposeful—even if that purpose is to conjure a timeless punk-rock euphoria for audiences who could use a reminder.