Editor’s Note: I had asked my writer to write up short little blurbs with his thoughts on each band playing for Red Bull Sound Select’s “30 Days In L.A.” featuring Bad Religion, and he came back to me with a magna opus about punk rock. Rather than chop it up for each of the artists’s section, it’s right here in it’s entirety for your reading enjoyment. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did. For photos and Instagram videos of each band, click the respective links below.
Written by M. Sloves
I found parking at an empty meter on 11th street about 30 feet from the Mayan. It was only 8 o’clock so it was still pretty early considering Bad Religion wasn’t scheduled to go on until almost 11. And it’s LA, home of the fashionably and unfashionably late, so with no traffic and crazy close street parking I figured this semi-random slice of downtown Los Angeles would still be pretty empty. Instead, I rounded the corner onto Hill and was pleasantly surprised to see that a line of the punk rock faithful was already stretched around the block gnawing on food truck pupusas while they waited for the doors to open.
Looking around the crowd, the sea of t-shirts, tattoos, and flat billed hats read like a roster of Epitaph all-stars: The Descendants, NOFX, The Vandals, Pennywise … Bad Religion. Clearly an educated crowd. It felt almost like a North Redondo warehouse party circa 1993. And yeah, a lot of people in the crowd looked old enough to have been slamming beers at a North Redondo warehouse in ‘93. As for everyone else? Well, they were likely conceived at a party at said warehouse. But God bless the youth – if they’re going to hitch their horses to a wagon from the past, might as well be this one.
Perhaps there’s hope for the future after all.
As for me? I was geeking out as hard as anyone else. Growing up in the South Bay and hitting puberty during the last days of punk-rock disco, Bad Religion is kinda like musical royalty. Even back in the late 80s and early 90s they’d already cemented their status as godfathers of Southern California punk. They set the bar high and yet as hard as they worked to perfect their own craft, they seemed to work just as hard to mentor the younger bands coming up. If they couldn’t outdo themselves, they wanted to be damn sure that someone else did. That’s part of the mystique that feeds into their legend status. It’s not just their music. It’s the legacy of bands that via the Epitaph label Brett Gurewitz et al. had a personal hand in developing.
So even though it had been ages since I even listened to a Bad Religion album, I knew there was no way this show could totally suck. Not totally. No way.
And yet I was still plagued by the inescapable question that presents itself when a band has been hitting it hard for over 30 years: is this going to be epic or epically awkward? I mean, not all rockers can age gracefully. Look at most hair bands – nothing inherently wrong with their music but when the spandex, mesh crop tops, eyeliner and body-by-cocaina, skinny-ripped bodies fade to hair plugs, spare tires, and post-op facial stretch marks, the magic behind the music can fade along with it. But I guess I wasn’t really that worried. Punk bands tend to pull it off. Cranky young dudes segue pretty smoothly into cranky old dudes … as long as their knees hold up. Maybe it’s the righteous indignation that fuels their music in the first place. It comes from a pure source that’s woven a little deeper into their DNA. Especially dudes as cerebral as Graffin and Gurewitz. Their lyrics align with an ethical true north that’s uncompromised by trend or fashion – their music isn’t a momentary spectacle meant to dazzle or distract or offer catharsis for the heartbroken. It’s a creed. It’s an ideology. It’s pretty heavy stuff. …
Before I could muse too much longer on the implications of Greg Graffin flashing an AARP card for discount movie tickets, the opening band went on. My meditations on geriatric punk rock were put on hold as Atlanta band Baby Baby took the stage and served up a fat hot steaming pile of unapologetic youth. A little punk, a little party band, a lot of fun. That’s how they describe themselves – “fun rock”. Mission accomplished.
They look like a United Colors of Benetton ad …or the cast of Glee – some white dudes on drums, keyboards, and percussion, an Asian guy on bass, black dude on lead vocals. I only point that out because it made me wonder – what the hell happened to the Afro Punk scene? It’s just weird when you think that two of the most influential bands in the history of the genre are Bad Brains and Fishbone. Were they just outliers? Was there ever really any scene to carry on? Whatevs. I got my theories but that’s a rant for another time.
Back to the lads. Baby Baby (I do NOT get the name) opened strong with a heavy arena rock intro. Thick drums and guitar rhythmically smacking you in the face for no apparent reason other than to let you know they’re there. Super high energy. Drums and percussion laying down thick beats counterbalanced by an overlay of more psychedelic riffs from the keyboards. Head banging apery with the chaotic coherence of an H.B. Halicki car chase.
The music stands more or less on its own merits but I think it’s fair to say that Baby Baby as a live experience is all about front man Fontez Brooks. The brash young turk has some stones and a solid knack for pageantry. Whether it’s ego, talent, raw enthusiasm, not giving a fuck, or a healthy combination of all of the above, his commitment to engaging the crowd is unimpeachable – even if it means ripping them a new a-hole.
Not totally sure if it was real or contrived (after all, their most popular YouTube video is called …. “Haters”) but early in the set Fontez locked in on someone in the crowd who was heckling the band and immediately went into standup comic mode. Whatever thumbs-down stooge he imagined was out there, he channeled his retaliatory energy into an ongoing rapport with the audience: “What? We got haters here? Well how bout you send your ladies back stage and we’ll send ‘em back fans… [big smile] HEYO – gonna fuck yo girlfriend!” This went on throughout the set, dedicating songs to any and all alleged haters and checking in now and then to see if they’d made any progress in winning over hearts and minds: “See? We’re best friends now – everybody give it up for that guy. My new best friend.” The whole thing was in direct violation of my first rule of talking to the crowd which is, don’t do it. Musicians tend to have very little to say when they’re not singing and unless they’re telling me to tip my waitress and try the veal, I just don’t want to hear it. But Fontez is pretty damn likeable and while his schtick could have gotten really tired really fast, he has just enough charisma and arrogance to pull it off. What can I say, the kid’s got moxie. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the music lives up to the promise of their self-glossed “fun rock” genre.
The real obstacle for Baby Baby is that the crowd in attendance on this particular night wasn’t at the Mayan for Baby Baby. A couple of “Bro Hymn”-esque choruses played well to the many Pennywise fans, and in the end I think they managed to win over the haters but nobody seemed all that amped on them. That’s LA though. A dance floor full of music aficionados keeping vigil with a subtle head nod and arms folded in a self-embracing bro-cross. Not a lot of feet shuffling. Hell, I’ve been that guy. Wait… I am that guy. So I know firsthand that it takes a lot to disrupt the status quo and get people to move their ass, especially when everyone is saving it for headliner. Can’t blame that on Baby Baby though. The dudes brought it hard and I’d love to see them on their home turf and playing to their own crowd. They throw a lot of good energy out there and any audience that gives a little more back would be sure to go home hot and bothered, in a good way.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a great amount to say for the next band up, New Jersey’s The Scandal. Not a knock on them though. Purely a logistical snafu. I tried to squeeze in a run to the shitter between bands and got caught in an oddly long line for a men’s room. Maybe all the aging punk fans have prostate issues. I don’t know… but it took forever and I missed a good chunk of The Scandal’s set. From what I was able to hear, they’re a bit formulaic but very tight. In a landscape that demands you either innovate or execute, they execute extremely well. Their cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” played well to the audience and their pop-punk brand is a testament to the lasting influence of bands like Unwritten Law and Face to Face that helped define the sound for Southern California in the early 90s and (for better or for worse) took punk in a slightly more mainstream and accessible direction.
[Side note: many argue that The Descendants pioneered the California punk pop sound that bands like The Scandal still emulate. When discussing this with my compadre Daniel Cooper, he casually mentioned his uncle Ray Cooper played guitar with The Descendants in the 80s. Dude…talk about Torrance royalty! I’d put Uncle Ray up there alongside all-time greats like Michelle Kwan, Steve Sarkisian, and Dirk Diggler.]
Anyhow, the whole punk-pop pigeonhole that I’m sticking these guys in probably sounds a bit condescending. But it’s not. In a genre where a lot of bands sound the same, quality becomes lyric-driven and hinges as much on the band’s rapport with the crowd as any musical innovation or craftsmanship. My point is: these are Jersey guys. Their peeps are a continent away. Nonetheless, the punk educated crowd at The Mayan seemed to approve. Nobody was really moving much but hell, it’s LA, we’re talking about a world where a quiet bro-nod is tantamount to a public erection. And they earned a good number of those.
Not public erections.
At least, as far as I could tell. But then again, I wasn’t really looking. It was a solid set though – certainly not “scandalous” …but solid – and while I wasn’t personally blown away, these are clearly talented guys. Good guys too. The break between The Scandal and Bad Religion was pretty hefty. During that time they manned their merch table and warmly welcomed every fan, groupie, geek, cool guy, and music head that came by to chat them up. I’d roll the dice and see them again I just hope that as The Scandal grows musically, they move beyond their well-crafted homage to their precursors and find a somewhat more distinctive voice.
After the aforementioned long break between sets, Bad Religion religion finally took the stage and started just as you’d expect them to: minimal bullshit, maximum intensity. At 50 these guys still look like freaking rock stars. Well, all of them except for Graffin. With his horn rimmed glasses held on by a pair of Chums, receding grey hairline, and an endearing middle aged dad-gut testing the tensile strength of his polo shirt, he looks more like a high school chemistry professor or an engineer from TRW. But it doesn’t really matter. Dude still runs the crowd like a G.
The set opened with “Fuck Armageddon… This is Hell”. For some reason my first impulse was to close my eyes. Kinda weird for me. But I wanted to eliminate the visual. Take everything out of the equation except for the sound. Verdict?
So damn fresh!
They’ve been doing this for so long – for decades – and yet it wasn’t even remotely stale. Instead it felt fast and crisp and …communal. Looking around The Mayan you could really feel the shared sense of stoke and mutual recognition that only happens when a group of people all bear witness to a voice that speaks truth to power.
During the front end of the set, there was very little hesitation. The band plowed forward, each song more classic than the last. But there were a few songs that hit a little harder than others. For me, the first moment where I really felt them pull at the heartstrings of nostalgia was when at about the quarter-mile mark when they burst into “Stranger than Fiction”. Hearing this song live was …electric. Literally raised the hair on my arms – and that’s not easy because I’m a hairy bitch. When they hit the chorus, I felt myself jerked straight back to UCSB circa ’97. In our crash pad on Sabado Tarde, my Orange County brochachos and I weren’t always on the same page (I was both token Jew and token South Bay member of the house) but we always agreed on three things: Cantina Breakfast burritos, Seinfeld, and Bad Religion. Generator, Against the Grain, Recipe for Hate – these albums fueled many days and many more nights of benevolent ape-shittery …and why was this night different from any other night? Because Bad Religion was cramming 30 years of punk rock classics into a single evening of musical rad.
“build me up, tear me down”
At some point Graffin took a breath just long enough to acknowledge that it had been a while since they’d played in Los Angeles (weird, right?). To make up for the extended absence, he promised that they would really “bring it”.
By this point they had already done brought it. Mission accomplished. And the crowd expressed its stoke by ditching the aforementioned bro-nods for a wholesome and healthy all-American mosh pit. It was long overdue and it was also cool to see the multi-generational makeup of the moshers coexisting and functioning on the same page. For me, it was precisely Bad Religion and Fishbone who many moons ago taught me the ethics and the essence of a proper mosh pit – a lesson lost on many a meathead who still doesn’t get it. Because t’s about communal expression, not individual testosterone. You move, you shove, you take an elbow, you throw an elbow, youslam – it’s violent, no doubt – but the intention is never to take someone out and when someone goes down, the obligation is always to help them back up.
It takes a village to rage. And inside the Mayan, the village was strong.
…HOWEVER… while there is a counterintuitive nuance needed to understand the pit, any asshole can don the Staff Pro jacket and work security. Literally. Any asshole. And nothing freaks out the man in the yellow windbreaker like someone trying to crowd surf. So there you have the eternal tension. Any pit worth its salt has to get some kids in the air. After all, crowd surfing at a punk show isn’t just a liberty or an indulgence – it’s your damn duty! The entire ethos of the show is encapsulated in the crowd surf. It’s against the rules, it’s fun, and you can’t do it by yourself. Everyone needs to be on board. And that makes the Staff Pro minions bristle to the core. Makes me wonder what the world would be like if every Staff Pro at a punk show had to demonstrate as a condition precedent to being hired that they actually like punk music. Maybe it would be too much. Peace in the Middle East? Cubs winning the World Series? Both fantasies that are as unattainable as finding a Staff Pro who isn’t a total douche (Disclaimer: I worked Staff Pro at several shows in my early 20s).
Anyhow, I’m kinda stoked I didn’t really listen to a lot of Bad Religion before the show. The whole night felt like a series of reencounters. Every song gave me the feeling that I was bumping into an old friend or finding that missing sock I thought I’d lost at the laundromat. So recognizable. So familiar. Filling empty space where I didn’t know anything was missing. So many of their songs are so classic and so provocative that hearing them was like standing up straight and spreading my arms after sitting slouched and hunched over in front of computer screen for hours…days…years. It was liberating …and powerful.
I think I really felt it most when they played “New America”. What a kickass anthem! What a righteous call to arms. I mean, I’m cool listening to Taylor Swift sing about ex-boyfriends. I’m not a hater. But there’s a saturation point, isn’t there? Which always causes me to wonder: where is the political in popular music? Folk was swallowed up in the angst of singer/songwriters who can’t get laid. Funk got eaten by disco which was then euthanized in the 80s. Rap started political but by the late 90s it had largely cannibalized its own prophets. Rock has pretty much sucked since Rage Against the Machine (except maybe for System of a Down). What are we left with? Basically a lot of narcissism.
My party. My love. My loss. My heartache. My blah di fucking blah blah blah….
But punk continues to live in a largely political realm. It’s a purpose driven music that offers more than mere catharsis. It’s not all genius but when silverbacks like Graffin, Gurewitz, Dimkich, and Bentley hold it down, most of it is.
At one point Greg Graffin PhD looked up at the plaster cast Mayan carvings that line the walls of the theater and blurted out: “These hieroglyphs are not authentic.”
Maybe that one moment summed up the entire night. Bad Religion remains relevant because they remain authentic. When they scream “Fuck you!” it sounds just as urgent and outraged as it did 30 years ago. When 55 year olds and 22 year olds are packed shoulder to shoulder on the dance floor with their fists in the air screaming the chorus to every song, for one night at least, Los Angeles indeed is burning.