In the early 1980s, LA’s underground punk scene was at its peak. Bands like Black Flag, the Germs, and X brought in huge crowds of sweaty teenagers to their shows. But a lot of these punk groups were never able to pivot from the underground scene to more mainstream success.
Bad Religion was an exception. It became a mainstay on KROQ. Their music was a soundtrack for disaffected suburban youth around LA. 2020 marked the band’s 40 years in music.
Two co-founders of the band talk to KCRW about their 40 year history together: bassist Jay Bentley and Greg Graffin, singer and professor at Cornell University in New York.
Originally, Bad Religion was going to honor its anniversary with a world tour. But that was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the band just finished an online streaming event where they played songs from their four decades together at the Roxy on Sunset Strip for NoCapShows.com. They also released an autobiography.
Graffin, who studied evolutionary biology, says the band knew COVID-19 would affect their plans. “It was clear that once the news started saying this thing is now community-spread, it didn't really matter what the numbers were, it was going to be out of control. We had more serious discussions about whether or not we wanted to be responsible for bringing our fans and audiences together in the midst of all of this, and it just didn't seem like a very wise thing to do.”
The band begins in a San Fernando Valley garage
Bad Religion formed in 1980, when Bentley and Graffin were in high school. First practicing at Bentley’s home in Woodland Hills, they were forced to move to Canoga Park, where Graffin lived.
“We tried it at Jay's house. I think it lasted two hours before the police came. My mom, she said as long as you're done by six o'clock, because that's when I come home from work,” Graffin says.
From then on, the band would meet around 2:30 p.m. after school and practice until 5 p.m.
“You could find us there, sometimes rehearsing and quite often just hanging out with whoever made the trek. There weren't many punk rockers in the West Valley at that time. And our garage served as a hub for whoever wanted to come by and hang out for rehearsal,” Graffin says.
At the time, the band didn’t know other punk rock groups partly because they were located in the San Fernando Valley. Graffin says many of these groups were around LA and Orange County, but eventually, they become friends with The Adolescents and Agent Orange.
Bad Religion’s debut album, “How Could Hell Be Any Worse?,” featured the song “We’re Only Gonna Die.” According to Graffin, it was inspired by a quote from Richard Leakey’s “Origins,” a book about the history of the human species.
“The last line in that book says something about how our species is not immune to extinction. And to have arrived on this planet as the most intelligent being, to go extinct so quickly would be the ultimate arrogance. And so, I said, ‘Oh well, we're only going to die from our own arrogance,’” Graffin says.
Bentley says the song symbolized the conversations they had as teenagers.
“Other 15 year olds weren't reading the things that Brett [Gurewitz] and Greg [Graffin] were reading … whether it was quantum physics or religion. There wasn't really anything that we didn't talk about. All of my education has come from being in this band,” Bentley says.
Punk rock is no longer “a dirty underground secret”
According to Bentley, punk rock first began as a space where everyone had to wear the right band shirt or jacket to fit in. Nowadays, he says it’s shifted from the unknown into the spotlight.
“You see all sorts of different fans of music. Punk rock has become part of the music lexicon. It's no longer just thought of as a dirty underground secret. It is just part of rock and roll. It is part of music,” Bentley says.
Despite the shift to mainstream, Graffin says punk rock remains nonconformist at its core.
“It's a real accomplishment when Bad Religion gets played on the radio, because we really don't water down our message. We don't try to talk down to people just to get something played on the radio, or to broadcast it widely,” he says. “We believe what we have to say is still relevant and still interesting. If that's picked up by commercial radio, that's a real windfall, it means ‘wow, we're actually getting this message heard.’”
Possible 2021 shows
Bentley says the band’s touring future is unclear, partly due to COVID-19 liability at performances.
“Everybody wants to go have fun, but no one wants to be responsible. And that is the big question as far as putting on a concert and having people show up. At what point does anyone take responsibility for anything that may occur? … Tours may happen and bands may be out on the road, but what will happen when one of the members of the band gets sick? Or one of the crew gets sick or the merge guy has COVID?”