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That Higher Calling

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Frank Ockenfels 3

The Good, the Bad and the Very Ugly: Punk stalwarts Bad Religion get zealous about their music on Thursday at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.

By signing with a major record label, has punk band Bad Religionreached divinity or sacrificed their souls to the corporate machine?

By Neal Rogers

"There is no more efficient means of rendering a subversive movement impotent than to present it as high fashion and declare it safe for mainstream consumption."
--Tricia Henry

Enter the scene: The Catalyst, mid-December 1994. Inside, a man in his mid-30s stands onstage in front of a band that is not playing. He appears to be worn out--the long touring combined with embarking on his fourth record in five years have left their mark. He has completely sweated through his black clothes, and like the room he stands in, he is steaming.

Amid shouts of "Fuck you" and "Sellout" from the predominantly young male crowd, he holds his microphone down into the front row. The silence is broken by the voice of an unseen young man who shouts over the PA, "I can't fucking BELIEVE what I'm seeing. ... I used to pay $5 to see you at Gilman and now you're charging $20 so the kids can come worship you like the gods that you told us to destroy!"

Welcome to the world of Bad Religion singer Greg Graffin--a man who these days finds himself being tried and crucified in concert and in the underground press. As the band he helped create gains momentum on punk's pendulum swing back into popularity, Graffin has been slotted as punk-rock's Judas, facing a stream of accusations that the members of Bad Religion have compromised their lyrical ideals about corruption and superficiality by leaving their independent record label for the fortune and fame of a major label. Not an easy position to be put in for somebody who wants nothing more than to make music.

So how exactly does Graffin deal when put into these confrontational situations? "I just figured there was something else in his life making him angry," Graffin said in a phone interview last week. "I didn't take it personally."

But maybe Graffin should take it personally. Although Graffin and Bad Religion have been laying down the punk rock gospel for years, and even if Santa Cruz's young skate punks aren't known to be the friendliest of crowds, a punk band that is being directly challenged by its fans and isn't concerned about it is a punk band that has lost touch with what exactly their message means.

Guitarist Brian Baker assures me that Graffin and bassist Jay Bentley talked to the disgruntled spokespunk from the crowd backstage and cleared it all up. However, the rest of the audience didn't receive this treatment and might still like some explanations.

For example: What was with the choreographed stage lighting and the computerized set lists? It all was so unpunk, and the controversy begs the question: Has the band sold out its punk rock roots for commercial success or is Bad Religion guilty of nothing more than bad public relations?

Sacred Torch Bearers

The legacy that is Bad Religion began in 1979 when the band was formed in Los Angeles by Graffin and Bentley. Their first record, 1982's landmark How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, sold an impressive 10,000 copies on BR's own independently run label, Epitaph Records, a company that co-songwriter and guitar player Brett Gurewitz started while still in their teens.

During the Reagan/Bush years, the band gained a reputation as being the torchbearers for all that was sacred to punk rock--individualism, intelligence and independence. Their style of music could be described as fast and furious, but shouldn't. It's more of a punk-rock sundae, sprinkled with harmonies and laden with messages about humanity and the need for awareness in an age of apathy. Still, their "cross-buster" logo and name itself, representing the "antithesis of the prevailing dogma," hold a middle finger to the religious and hegemonic structure of our collective society.

In the last few years Bad Religion has outgrown its cult following--and with good reason. Alongside Epitaph Records, they're viewed as one of the major influences on the California punk music scene, which has spawned bands such as Rancid, Pennywise and NOFX, as well as the Offspring (all of which have been produced by Brett Gurewitz). BR fan Eddie Vedder laid down backup vocals on 1993's badass record Recipe for Hate, and punk-popsters Green Day opened up for them on the Recipe tour.

Still, last year Alternative Press magazine ran a cover story on the band, playing on the title of BR's first release, asking the question "How Could Success Be Any Worse?"

Why has the success of this band been so negative? In 1994, Bad Religion signed with Atlantic Records, leaving Epitaph Records and subsequently guitarist/songwriter/producer Gurewitz, who cited the band's signing as a "conflict of interest." Yeah, maybe a conflict with the interest in Epitaph's bank account, a company that stood to earn millions off Bad Religion's growing popularity. The Atlantic deal and the split with Gurewitz raised questions about the sincerity of lyrics such as Graffin's "Now I believe in unity and I am willing to compromise/but I'm not gonna lie or sell my soul" from 1994's "The Handshake."

While the band may have done little more than decide to let the suits deal with record distribution while they earn more money, signing with Atlantic still seemed to most a flagrant violation of a major rule taught in Punk 101--never compromise the integrity of the band for the evil major corporate label. Fortunately for the band, however, they appear to be enjoying the artistic freedoms that came on their independent label while taking advantage of all the affluence and opportunity of stardom.

Even if punk rock has lost its subversive edge through homogenization and integration into mainstream culture, their newest release, The Grey Race, rocks as hard as any Bad Religion record. As Baker puts it, "So what could be more punk rock than bands like Green Day selling millions of records? The triumph of punk rock is that the music is better than fucking Winger."

As I waited on hold for Graffin to wake up for our phone interview, I was given recorded descriptions of the "luxurious Minneapolis Radisson Hotel" that Graffin was staying in and couldn't help but think that maybe I, too, would be able to "not take it personally." What could one do differently in a situation such as Graffin's? Perhaps work on public relations a bit--talk to the fans, let them know that the rumors about limousines and caviar aren't true, explain to them the difference between what Baker labeled their "peripheral accessories of lifestyle" and what really counts, their music.

Then again, maybe that isn't a priority to Bad Religion anymore. Whatever the case is, let's just hope that Graffin can live with the sight of his reflection in the gold record he's after.

Bad Religion performs with Dance Hall Crashers and Unwritten Law on Thursday (7:30pm) at the Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., SC. Tickets cost $16.50.

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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