Bad Religion - Biography
By Amoeba Staff
Bad Religion originated as a group of teenagers playing thrash-punk in LA’s early hardcore scene. On the 1988 album Suffer, the band introduced the sound fanzine writers used to call “melodic hardcore” – sweet melodies and vocal harmonies over speedy punk tunes – that has come to be identified with a certain style of commercial California punk. Though Bad Religion’s name and logo (a crossed-out cross) announced the band as explicitly anti-Christian and anti-religious, singer Greg Graffin decries human folly in a verbose rhetorical style that comes straight out of the American pulpit.
Greg Graffin, Brett Gurewitz and Jay Bentley all attended El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, a suburb in the southwestern part of the San Fernando Valley. According to Steven Blush’s book, American Hardcore (2001 Feral House), Bad Religion played its first show opening for Social Distortion in Fullerton in October, 1980. Graffin was fifteen years old. The band formed its own label, Epitaph Records, to release the first Bad Religion record, a self-titled six-song hardcore punk EP (1981).
How Could Hell Be Any Worse? (1982 Epitaph) is among the best albums of LA’s early punk days. The front cover superimposes the title on a grim black and red photograph of the downtown Hollywood skyline. The back depicts Dante and Virgil at the entrance to Hell. On the prototypical Bad Religion song “We’re Only Gonna Die,” Graffin lays out a view of the world based in ecological doom resulting from human stupidity that he would not modify much over the years singing, “We’re only gonna die of our own arrogance.” Soaked in reverb and the threat of nuclear apocalypse, Bad Religion’s early songs still sound brand new. Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson plays the solo on “Part III” and has, with the exception of Bad Religion’s next album, been with the band ever since.
To the shock and dismay of many of Bad Religion’s hardcore punk fans, the band’s second album, Into the Unknown (1983 Epitaph), was a prog-rock album that showed off musicianship at every possible opportunity and relied heavily on synthesizers. Despite its excesses, the album now sounds more or less continuous with Bad Religion’s catalog. At the time of its release, however, Into the Unknown sounded so frankly commercial and was so poorly received that (though it has been widely bootlegged) the album has been officially out-of-print since its initial pressing.
Bad Religion returned with the Back to the Known EP (1984 Epitaph), recorded by Gurewitz, played by vocalist and guitarist Graffin, bassist Tim Gallegos, guitarist Hetson and drummer Finestone. The EP’s songs more or less return to punk forms though the harmonies and production call ELO to mind. Graffin then focused increasingly on his studies at UCLA where he earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s in geology. In the years following, Graffin got a Ph.D. in biology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, spending the academic year at Cornell and the rest of his time recording or touring with Bad Religion.
Graffin, Bentley, Hetson, Gurewitz and Finestone played on the reunion album Suffer (1988 Epitaph), where Finestone introduced the double-time drums that would be identified with Epitaph’s popular Southern California pop-punk releases in the ‘90s. Three-part vocal harmonies, credited to Bentley, Gurewitz and Graffin as “Oozin’ Ahs” predominate. The album’s cover depicts a punk youth in a Bad Religion shirt consumed by flames on a suburban sidewalk… perhaps in the western part of the San Fernando Valley. Bad Religion’s next album, No Control (1989 Epitaph), followed but refined the formula of Suffer.
Against the Grain (1990 Epitaph) was more stylistically varied than any Bad Religion album preceding it, though instantly recognizable. Generator (1992 Epitaph) introduced drummer Bobby Schayer and recapitulated Against the Grain with better fidelity and dynamics. Recipe for Hate (1993 Epitaph) was the band’s most commercial album since Into the Unknown, featuring smooth melodies, slide guitar and guest vocals from fan Eddie Vedder. It would be the band’s last for Epitaph, the label run by Gurewitz, and was soon rereleased by the band’s new home, Atlantic. Stranger than Fiction (1994 Atlantic) was a more intricate Recipe for Hate and included the alternative radio hit “Infected” as well as a remake of the suburban anthem “(21st Century) Digital Boy” from Against the Grain. After some shows promoting Stranger than Fiction, including a three-day Epitaph showcase at the Hollywood Palladium, Mr. Brett left Bad Religion. Gurewitz’s drug problems, about which he speaks candidly in the Suffer tour video documentary Along the Way (1989 Epitaph), are widely credited as a major reason for his leaving the band though he also left to focus his attention on Epitaph. In the mid-‘90s, Epitaph acts such as Rancid and The Offspring enjoyed mainstream popularity and enormous commercial success.
Former Minor Threat guitarist Brian Baker replaced Gurewitz and has remained with the band ever since, even after Gurewitz rejoined the band in 2001, bringing the number of guitarists to three. Ric Ocasek, the former Cars frontman and producer of legendary albums by Suicide and Bad Brains, produced The Gray Race (1996 Atlantic). During Gurewitz’s absence, Bad Religion, now led by Graffin alone, also produced No Substance (1998 Atlantic) and The New America (2000 Atlantic).
Bad Religion reconfigured in 2001. Drummer Schayer left the band and was replaced by Brooks Wackerman, Gurewitz rejoined the band and Bad Religion returned to Epitaph. This version of the band issued The Process of Belief (2002 Epitaph), The Empire Strikes First (2004 Epitaph) and New Maps of Hell (2007 Epitaph), the cover and title of which refer to Bad Religion’s first album.