It’s kind of ridiculous that a band like Bad Religion should still exist. Back when I got that copy of Suffer on a cassette (mostly crammed on a side of a TDK D90 after the Dwarves Toolin’ For A Warm Teabag, which was recorded at the wrong speed), it was an anomaly. Underground music had largely embraced flavours of metal or crust to the extent that confident, melodic, hard-hitting punk seemed like a strange and rare thing… your average Doom fan wasn’t particularly interested.
I expected that they would follow a Circlejerks kind of path – two or three certifiable classics, a couple of lesser efforts, and then just go away like all bands seemed to do.
…Strange the way things pan out…
The recruiting of Jim Ruland to put a Bad Religion book together was an inspired choice – The longtime Flipside and Razorcake contributor did a sterling job with the Keith Morris book, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor, a few years back. These things need to be documented by somebody who understands the trajectory of American punk in a pre-Nirvana world from a first-hand perspective, even if the text is driven by oral history provided by all of the band members past and present… Except for Greg Hetson, who is still sulking and wouldn’t do it – This doesn’t exactly sabotage the project, but the absence of his voice is noted in places.
Because Bad Religion’s story isn’t one long trudge through success, this doesn’t sit into the rock-book formula of wild early days, meteoric rise, smash hit album, car crash, rehab & wheatgrass shake/yoga years, skipping a couple of decades in the middle. And there are no wild and crazy days with Bad Religion really… Everything is very focused on engaging with punk as a legitimate form of expression and working on finding a place within it. If you want punk rock degeneracy, the NOFX and Jack Grisham books are out there.
Probably the most fascinating aspect of DO WHAT YOU WANT – The Story Of Bad Religion is the transition between the first and second albums, from a successful and reasonably interesting debut to a strange, brave and clunky progressive rock experiment. Although the general consensus over the years is that this was a horrible mistake, perspectives on the material and how it all unfolded and unravelled are informative and analytical rather than dismissive.
Of course, the Bad Religion story becomes wildly transformative with a quick-fire series of seminal and hugely popular albums, starting with Suffer in 1988, and charging through a manic period in the early 1990s when elements of the American music underworld surfaced in the mainstream. At this point, Bad Religion was already that elder statesman band – hugely influential but never quite destined to reach the commercial heights of their former opening bands, even when they finally opted to leave their own label and play the major label game.
Where this book succeeds is that it doesn’t conveniently skip over anything. The whole story is traced out album-by-album, and apart from The Descent of Man (which seems to fly by in a couple of pages for whatever reason), there’s plenty of analysis of the individual releases. This all appeals greatly to my inner punk nerd, but I’m one of those people that found consistency in pretty much everything the group released. If you stalled at No Control and subsequent releases were all the same to your ears then this might bore you.
As the book progresses, it intertwines achievement with candid accounts of repeated fuck-ups – assorted alcohol and drug problems – and this is a curious juxtaposition for a band that is unfairly viewed as overly academic in its approach to punk.
As Bad Religion settles into a steady success level of more recent years, the tour stories and accounts are somewhat less interesting. The book’s strength is its dissection of the essence of Bad Religion along the way (see what I did there!), and it’s a positive thing that the narrative has little interest in digging for a rock’n’roll lifestyle side of the band. These are smart people, and demons and destructive behaviour are quite openly and honestly acknowledged as negatives.
The Bad Religion story is one of strange devotion to something that started as a teenage band in a garage 40 years ago. It tells of luck, motivation and a unique clarity of songwriting driving an unusual and somewhat mismatched cast of characters to excel at their craft decades beyond what many might have considered a sell-by date.
I read this book way too fucking quickly!
Read Scatalogik’s review of Bad Religion’s Age Of Unreason HERE