“Punk was originally about creating new, important, energetic music that would hopefully threaten the status quo and the stupidity of the 1970s,” asserts Jello Biafra, and in a short amount time it seemed if the stupidity of disco and glam rock were given a solid boot up the keister by what perhaps is defined as “punk’s most recognizable period.” Recognizable because the immediate mention of the word and the majority would allude to what it embodied in the late 70’s – pins, Mohawks, leather jackets and a crusty old stick-it-to-the-man middle finger – and yet many question the validity of the fashion statements as subversive, but one may forget that during that time, wearing safety pins was almost on par with of a nunnery full of whores (or a brothel full of nuns), and it was what got attention to the music if the music itself did not do so. In the immediate proceeding years, the very cornerstones of this counterculture would form; in New York rose The Ramones while the United Kingdom ignited the fury of The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Buzzcocks. It was a short period of immediate glory, but what 1977 brought to the world would ring invariably in many shapes and forms – buoyed by what seems to be an undying cause for personal expression and a very human passion to question what is put before us.
Through the years that followed, the subculture formed many offshoots and evolved in countless ways, but the one product of 1977 that perhaps best represents “punk” in its most effective form, would be the birth of hardcore in 1980s – The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, The Minutemen, Minor Threat and of course Bad Religion. It is from these artists listeners finally sat up and took notice that punk was more than just saying “fuck you,” it was as Greg Graffin summarizes amongst several things, “a movement that serves to refute social attitudes that have been perpetuated through wilful ignorance of human nature.” And the ignorance of human nature was not limited to the suburbs of Los Angeles. But as the new decade rolled around, many of what youth began to see – hostage crises, assassinations, riots, the birth of MTV, and the full fledged burgeoning of iconic corporations – pushed them in one direction or the other. And from these locales, Bad Religion grew into perhaps the most prominent of these groups, spearheading a revolution from the suburbs that spanned the globe. Armed with sweltering melodies, a piercing sense of urgency and a vault of vocabulary, they conquered apathy, suffering, ignorance, greed, hate, faith and the consumption of the human spirit.
Through their approach they were effective with their message; never one to rely on finding singular, common constructs, they challenged their own sound and resisted the temptation to become indifferent – even when they had found their scope of influence. During this period of musical and influential prosperity, one for all intents and purposes we shall label as 1988-1992, their work was boundless, and in essence, untouchable amongst those who shared the same billing. Speaking personally, the albums released during this period, the bulk of Epitaph’s reissues, were by far the most appealing – at least for someone who grew up far from the immediate range of their music (at least for the majority of their broadcast). In this, I found a certain likeness to their work; that it was not merely discourse in the ills of American society, but the ills of the world, and more importantly, the society in which occurred directly outside my window. While my interest in American life sparked very early on, it was during my early teen years that I began realizing the tribulations of the country I called “home” – Indonesia was (and still is) rife with poverty, corruption, ignorance and greed of the highest level that succeeded in creating a false layer of security, hiding a bubbling self-destruction that, unfortunately, has since burst into a pseudo-democratic mess where few take responsibility, and even fewer know how to. Whether or not they aimed globally, Bad Religion spoke of these evils and their words quantified and summarized the moral extinctions to the greatest effect.
1988’s Suffer is widely regarded as one of the finest albums of its kind, and it first displayed Bad Religion’s ability to so efficiently, and meaningfully amplify conscious words. From there, they went on to release No Control, which still exhibits the single greatest song written in all mankind (at least in my humble opinion). “I Want to Conquer the World” will forever be the psalm for a soul desiring change and world revolution – never has two minutes and seventeen seconds been so precise in detailing the follies and hypocrisies of the so-called erudite community and preachers of good speak; fundamentally disclaiming that no human is infallible and/or capable of such wondrous feats, no matter how burning the desire. The follow-up to No Control is perhaps their greatest collection; although that debate would run eternal, Against the Grain exhibits songwriting and deliberation seasoned over two fantastic albums and a wealth of experience gained. Much of their 1995 All Ages compilation was built around a great deal of material from Against the Grain – a sign possibly that the band is best represented by these outings. [On (another) personal anecdote, I remember vividly how during junior high, my music class was asked to each bring in a song that they would like to play for the class – everyone else strode mightily with their collection of trivial music while I played “Modern Man.” I received disconcerting looks (a mixture of horror and confusion) while my teacher questioned my morality and positive responsibility to the classroom environment. Needless to say, the song speaks volumes in documenting how population Earth has so erred in an amazingly brief period of time.] Generator is the last of this period; released in 1992, some have argued its less than powerful nature – and yes, in contrast to its predecessors perhaps that contention holds value. Nonetheless, while it is one of the weaker releases, just barely better than both Stranger than Fiction and No Substance, it still exhibits some fine work – most notably the title track. It was also their last before their departure for Sony, another endless and seemingly futile argument that they somehow couldn’t be as effective surrounded by richer lining.
So now with Epitaph’s decision to reissue five of some of the most important records ever released, where do they really stand in regards to value? For one, the five – the retooled How Could Hell be any Worse? (an amalgam of their early documentation, 80-85, as well as added EP tracks), Suffer, No Control, Against the Grain, and Generator – have all been digitally remastered and reverberate with greater intensity. Cynics will argue the difference is minute, but for those who own the original recordings, the difference is palpable. The guitars discharge even more so commandingly, while the low-end and percussion work have been given added boost. The alterations are clear to anyone who was to play any song of the old recording with the newly remastered one in sequence; take “Modern Man” as an example – the chilling prophetic atmosphere of the 1990 edition is infinitesimal compared to its 2004 version; stunning. (Artwork has been updated as well, but that facet of these recordings is far less important).
Apparently there is debate on the usefulness of these reissues – but I for one cannot understand why this has become an issue. Do we forget at which stage of the evolution we seem so entrenched in? The filth of merchandising, commercialization, branding, manufacturing; this is what has become of 1977’s revolution that grew to immense power in the proceeding decade. Artists clamoring for music video rotation, clothing sponsorship, and magazine cover appearances. Even more alarming, those who are in a position to influence a great number of able bodied kids who seek direction, purpose and understanding are swayed to this useless and pointless brokerage of apathy. I recently came across an article on an influential website that has become a beacon for this meaningless practice, where the proprietor affirms that he is “not punk enough” but he definitely “does not care.” Indeed, discussing what is and what is not “punk” is just as futile, but this apathetic approach to what was the very antithesis for apathy is just plain delusional. And so perhaps these re-releases serves the purpose to (re)educate those who seemingly have distorted their view on what is and what is not. That alone justifies any cause Epitaph may have to re-release these records, and they couldn’t have picked a better selection.
There is no definitive punk manifesto; and while Graffin himself may have come closest in defining the relevance and importance of what it is, there can never be one true understanding. He does however, point to one important factor – that those who have never been challenged by life itself have no reason to doubt. And the existence of these records does endless good to illustrate situations for those unexposed to the many injustices that have become the constitutions of daily living. Humanity is bred imperfect, and we are all of the same mold; but there is much that can be induced from these albums – three of which will eternally remain essential – most importantly, that we should forever seek to find resolution for life’s answerless question.