When I was in high school, a good friend was sent home for wearing a necklace that looked like a hangman’s noose and an orange sport coat. “Punk” attire of any sort was against the improvised and arbitrarily enforced “dress code” at Southport High School in Indianapolis.
My, how times have changed. Last month, my kid’s elementary school watched their principal and teachers get blue-and-green mohawks during a fundraiser/assembly. This acceptance of punk culture might have never happened without Los Angeles punk band Bad Religion.
At the tail end of punk’s first wave, Bad Religion combined the catchy, no-frills simplicity of The Ramones and the social conscience of The Clash with the sound and spirit of their LA predecessors, The Germs, and OC contemporaries, The Adolescents. Songwriters Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz were as versed in Carl Sagan as they were three-chord thrash when they perfected their melodic polemics on ‘No Control,’ released in November, 1989.
There is arguably no better example of short, fast, aggressive bursts of melodic punk music than ‘No Control.’ At 300 bpms, the album speeds along with stripped-down song structures akin to early rock 'n’ roll and thought-provoking lyrics more likely to send fans to the library than the liquor store.
Twenty-five years later, ‘No Control’ sounds as vibrant, and as immediate, as ever.
When they played their first show more than 30 years ago, in November, 1980, nobody in Bad Religion was old enough to vote. Gurewitz was 17 when he wrote his first batch of punk classics; Graffin was 15. The vocal harmonies and driving beat that would become their signature were already there on their debut album, 1982’s ‘How Could Hell Be Any Worse?’ The bizarre prog-rock follow-up, ‘Into The Unknown,’ was a keyboard-heavy misstep, but Bad Religion came roaring back to form in 1987 with a record called ‘Suffer.’
As a teenager, I spotted ‘Maximum Rock N’ Roll’ on the shelves at my local record shop. I was intrigued by the fanzine’s cover: a stark illustration of a young boy standing in the suburbs, defiant, burning with literal fire, wearing a T-shirt proudly displaying a crossed out cross. That was the cover art for ‘Suffer.’ That month’s issue of rival fanzine Flipside also hailed it as the Album Of The Year.
I immediately bought the album. At the time, I didn’t know ‘Suffer’ was among the first albums released by Gurewitz’s venerable Epitaph Records. Back then, not even Nostradamus couldn’t have predicted the label would go on to dominate multiple facets of subculture and the mainstream, working with a wide range of important artists including Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Rancid, Bring Me The Horizon, Pennywise and Dropkick Murphys. But it did.
I was instantly enthralled by Bad Religion’s immediacy. The vocals were loud, but not obnoxious. Graffin’s voice was melodic, but not hair-metal operatic. It felt like Graffin was talking directly to me. It was like a well-read older brother giving credibility to my developing worldview. Even today, when I think about listening to a record on a turntable in my room, it’s usually ‘Suffer’ that comes to mind, alongside similarly important albums of the era, from Black Flag, The Cure and The Cro-Mags.
It was an undeniably game-changing album, for both the band and punk music. So where could they go from there? How in the hell do you top an album like ‘Suffer?’
LISTEN: Bad Religion - 'I Want To Conquer The World'
“'No Control' was a special record because it was our second chance to make a sophomore album, if you know what I mean,” Gurewitz tells me with a self-deprecating laugh. He’s calling from the Epitaph office in Silver Lake, situated in a house they’ve been in since long before the LA neighborhood was “cool.”
“After ‘Into The Unknown,’ which sort of sent the band into a tailspin, we were redeemed by ‘Suffer.’ So now we wanted to prove we could follow up something good with something equally good. We wanted to make a record that was better than ‘Suffer’: faster, catchier, like ‘Suffer’ on steroids; the opposite of what we had done from ‘How Could Hell…’ to ‘Into The Unknown.’ We set out to prove that we knew what was good about ourselves.”
Mission accomplished, because ‘No Control’ is a perfect punk album. Even now, ‘I Want To Conquer The World,’ ‘You’ (which would later be popularized even further by its appearance on video game 'Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2') and the album’s title track are never missing from a Bad Religion set list. ‘Change Of Ideas,’ ‘Big Bang,’ ‘Sanity’ and ‘Henchman’ are often rotated into a Bad Religion shows, too. None of the 15 classic songs ever hits the three-minute mark; ‘Change Of Ideas,’ which opens the album, and ‘I Want Something More’ are over before even one full minute has elapsed. Pure fury.
Consider the climate in 1989. The United States invaded Panama and shot down Libyan fighters as tanks rolled on demonstrators in China’s Tiananmen Square. Iran’s leadership sentenced Salman Rushdie to death for writing a book they didn’t like. George H.W. Bush was inaugurated, just a few months before Oliver North was convicted for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, a political and military scandal bearing the fingerprints of Bush and his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. The AIDS epidemic continued to worsen. A deadly earthquake rocked San Francisco. A white minority continued to rule the mostly black population of South Africa.
What was on the radio that year? Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ - released the year before, it won two Grammys. There was a lot more happening on the radio dial and underground, of course, but the ubiquitous novelty hit couldn’t have been any less congruent with the headlines. The world needed Bad Religion and ‘No Control.’ It wasn’t a mere celebration of anarchic hedonism, as many perceived punk to be. It was laser-focused, precision protest music we could all “slamdance” to *and* sing in the shower.
Also remember that ‘No Control’ was released before Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind,’ Green Day’s ‘Dookie’ and The Offspring’s ‘Smash,’ when a platinum-plus selling punk album seemed totally out of the question. Gurewtiz says the record sold 50,000 in the first year, which he jokingly called “punk gold” back then. It cracked 100,000 in the pre-Soundscan era and went on to sell 500,000-plus worldwide.
The album continues to be relevant 25 years later. In 2013, as part of a promotional campaign for their tour with their former label mates in Bad Religion and The Vandals, The Offspring covered ‘No Control.' And hipster darlings Tegan and Sara, metal-tinged New York City hardcore bruisers Biohazard, folky acoustic troubadour Frank Turner, and SoCal rock/reggae institution Sublime have all paid tribute to the band over the years. Even Christian rockers Switchfoot covered one of their songs, noting both the high quality of Bad Religion’s music and the overall exhortation to think for yourself, a general idea that transcends the specifics of the message inherent in the band’s “Cross Buster” symbol.
Back then and today, Gurewitz feels the work of punks, musicians and writers is a bigger driving force for social change than political agitators. “I’m proud to be in Bad Religion because I think we’ve played a part in that. After 16 records of unrelentingly progressive viewpoints in our music, it can get people thinking, ‘I don’t agree with this band, but they’ve got a right to their opinion.’ So that promotes pluralism in society. It gets people talking.”
“It’s easy to get demoralized," he continues, "but the reality is, things *do* change, even ‘though it’s slowly. For example, we have a black President now. He might not be as liberal as we’d all like, but that’s something I couldn’t have imagined during the time of ‘No Control.’ The President is in favor of gay marriage! That was also unimaginable back then. It just takes perspective, like looking back from today to back to the time of ‘No Control,’ to realize it.”
'No Control' is one of those unique, timeless albums that keeps us looking and pushing forward, sonically, culturally and politically. As Graffin declared on the album's opening track, "What we need now is a change of ideas." One of the many things 'No Control' taught us is that the time is always now.