It sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, went sextuple platinum and is still considered the best-selling independent album of all time. When it was released on April 8, 1994, the same day that Kurt Cobain's body was found, Smash effectively captured the zeitgeist of FM alt-rock and marked the beginning of the Offspring as a serious, professional band. Well, maybe not that last part.
“We weren't professional, that's for sure,” spiky-haired front man Dexter Holland says with a laugh. “I would barely use that word to describe us now, certainly not then.”
In fact, the Offspring were probably one of the last groups anybody, including themselves, expected to hit it big in the early '90s. It seemed sheer luck when Bad Religion guitarist/Epitaph label head Brett Gurewitz tepidly gave the band a record contract to put out their sophomore album, Ignition. Before that, the band's 1989 self-titled debut on Nemesis Records sold a whopping 3,000 copies and they were playing for roughly 10 people per gig. Holland, guitarist Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman*, bassist Greg K. and then-drummer Ron Welty had only one decent-sounding amp between them when they went in to record what would become their landmark release.
This week, in the midst of Smash's 20th anniversary and subsequent world tour (including a date at the Pacific Amphitheater on July 11), we're reminded of the role that persistence and happy accidents can have on a band's future—in addition to writing timeless anthems, of course.
“A lot of the bands were great back then and made great songs but didn't necessarily have a lot of melody,” Holland says, “and that's what we were trying to do, combine those two things.”
Yes, the Offspring are proud of the record that launched them and helped many pop punk bands after them lay siege to FM rock radio. But back then, the energy required for punchy, melodic guitar lines of “Genocide” or “Self Esteem” were fueled more by haste than revolution. Preparing for a tour and in a bit of a rush, Holland and company decided against recording in the Orange County studio they picked because of sound and tech issues that they thought could prove disastrous to the album. Instead, they booked Track Record Studios in West Hollywood; a few days later, the Northridge earthquake hit.
“The next day, the ceiling was, like, drooping,” Holland says. “Track Record was in the center of North Hollywood, so it got hit really hard.”
Despite the damage, the band soldiered on with producer Thom Wilson (who'd worked on the band's previous two records). By that time, the band was perfecting their dynamic sound built on huge hooks, catchy choruses and Holland's plaintive, punk vocals. Most of the lyrics were written in the front man's piece-of-shit Toyota truck while going back and forth to USC, where he earned a degree in biology. One time, he says, a guy in the next lane threw a Big Gulp on his hood because the truck was going so slow. And behold, “Bad Habit,” a song about road rage and freeway shootings, was born.
“Actually, I've saved the truck,” he says, laughing. “It's kinda sentimental, right?”
Even after they had the mixed, mastered product in their hands, the band didn't know quite what they had. They figured it would sell maybe 140,000 copies tops. Turns out they underestimated a bit: The early-'90s explosion of MTV (back when it actually played music videos) allowed them heavy rotation on TV sets across America. Before they knew it, the Offspring were celebrities. Noodles was janitor for the Garden Grove School District at the time and was getting noticed while roaming the halls by kids who'd just seen his band on the tube before getting to school. It was definitely an early sign of a monumental career to come.
Today, the band are an indie act again, but in a different sense. They finished their contract with Columbia after seven albums, including 2012's Days Go By. They're currently recording music with no immediate plans to sign to a new label. Last month, they accepted the OC Impact Award at the Orange County Music Awards ceremony, a long-overdue honor in front of a packed house at the City National Grove of Anaheim. It seemed fitting two decades after their big break, since at the time Smash came out, they played to just 100 people at the release show at Goodies (now the Latin club Alebrije) in Fullerton. The enduring success of Smash resulted in a legend and a following that will long outlive them.
“Not many bands really break through, and it actually really happened for us,” Holland says. “That's really the coolest thing about being in a band, when people know your stuff.”
*The original version of this article published Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman's first name as Scott. The Weekly regrets this error.