Bad Religion: Damned To Be Free
Looking back on 40 years of the punk legends’ first classic How Could Hell Be Any Worse?
Bad Religion found its sound on 1988’s Suffer album and has stuck to a core formula ever since. Fans came to trust their reliability, and they are now considered one of the most influential punk bands of all time.
But from 1980-83, the fledgling band blasted along a startling trajectory. In its first four years the band quickened from the embryonic punk of its eponymous six-song debut E.P. to the disastrously received prog attempt of its second album Into The Unknown. Between those drastically different releases was the landmark DIY American punk album How Could Hell Be Any Worse?.
Bad Religion was literally a high school band that made good. Four precocious Hesse-reading teens at a public school in the San Fernando Valley found each other thanks to social cues like dyed black hair and ripped t-shirts. Though shunned by their classmates, the bullying could have been worse had not three of the aspiring musicians been over six feet tall. And while their record collections included Genesis and ELP, that sort of towering virtuosity was far above their reach.
Bands like The Jam, the Dead Boys, and The Ramones were beacons. Punk proved that a simpler form of expression wasn’t just on the table; it was lying in the gutter. The latch key kids in Bad Religion had long leashes, little parental oversight, and immediate access to mingle with and catch performances by locals like X, The Germs, Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks.
Before they’d played a single gig, Bad Religion’s guitarist Brett Gurewitz borrowed money from his father to produce the band’s first E.P. While the elder Mr. Gurewitz was no fan of underground music, he was pleased that his son wanted to embark on an entrepreneurial venture. The first 500 copies sold quickly, as did a second pressing of 1500. By the fall of 1981, the young band had enough scratch to record a full-length album.
As detailed in Jim Ruland’s excellent authorized 2020 biography Do What You Want: The Story Of Bad Religion, Brett took a meeting with Bob Say who had been a buyer at Moby Disc. The store had blown through stacks of the first record. Bob was savvy, and had moved on to work at Jem distribution. He asked Brett if a full-length album was planned. Brett explained that they had the money to record, but not enough to press the album. Bob offered to pre-order 3000 copies, and to front fifteen thousand dollars for the pressing.
The band chose North Hollywood recording studio Track Records to cut the album. The deal was that they could record for free so long as they worked from midnight to 7am. Engineer for the sessions would be Jim Mankey, a founding member of Sparks, later known as the guitarist of Concrete Blonde.
While the music on How Could Hell Be Any Worse? is primitive, the songwriting had advanced significantly over the single year since Bad Religion’s first official recordings. The Beatles built their chops by playing hundreds of shows in Hamburg. Bad Religion’s crucible was a blistering San Fernando garage space they named The Hell Hole.
The fourteen songs written for HCHBAW? are a window back in time to halcyon days when getting a new distortion pedal or cymbal changed the way you played. When a well-placed pick slide added immeasurable drama to a great riff. Simpler times when studying the bridge in a favorite song made you want to write your own. The compositions were like patches sewn on a jacket, so fundamental that every stitch is a point of pride.
Bad Religion was basic in 1981. Their lack of chops or pro gear, and the overall naivety of their songwriting made it all the more a shock that their next album was a charming (if ham-fisted) attempt at synth-drenched progressive rock. Thanks to the band’s veritable erasure of Into The Unknown after its resounding market failure, it’s been easy to write off the album as a bizarre tangent. Few have heard it, and most don’t even know that it exists. Many copies were burned after they were returned.
But I would argue that How Could Hell Be Any Worse? is part of a progressive continuum. Bad Religion’s music was based on the tastes and abilities of vocalist Greg Graffin and guitarist Brett Gurewitz. Both became fans of Elvis Costello, but they grew up on bands like Yes and Jethro Tull.
Brett’s now gigantic independent label Epitaph was named after a King Crimson song. Much later in the band’s career, they would enlist Todd Rundgren to produce their 2000 album The New America. Bad Religion’s most famous song “21st Century Digital Boy” is another nod to Crimson, even if the reference went over the heads of most of their fans.
I’m not implying that the band attempted to make How Could Hell Be Any Worse? into a prog album. In order to play the music they had in their heads they first had to teach their hands to find the notes. How Could Hell Be Any Worse? barely holds itself together, saved mainly by the exuberance of youth and some truly spirited performances. To mix metaphors, it’s an incredible document of a young band bottling lightning by the skin of its teeth.
Mankey’s mix gets the job done with few frills. (By the way if anyone can put me in touch with Jim, please do so). Double tracking vocals, adding a few overdubbed instruments, or a bit of reverb here or there was as progressive as the band was capable of sounding at that point in time.
But consider this: The lead track “We’re Only Gonna Die” contains tempo changes, a breakdown replete with acoustic guitar and piano, and a lyric that covers tens of thousands of years of disappointing human history. Sure, the main riff is comprised of only two notes, but the guitars blare like horns. This song was a clarion call announcing that a new era of homebrewed California punk had planted its sword in rock music.
On track two, “Latch Key Kids” Greg Graffin brings the lyrics back home with a topic the band and their peers could relate to. Greg’s vocals have always been a hallmark of Bad Religion’s music; strong and melodic, full of swagger yet bereft of machismo. His sense of harmony came from his choir background. But it was his instinct to squeeze long strings of words into machine gun blasts that littered transcendent moments throughout the album. Rather than a jumble, Graffin generated savant syncopations between the vocals and the music.
Up next is one of bassist Jay Bentley’s two songwriting contributions to HCHBAW?. The lyric is one of many the band wrote in the early days of the Reagan era that reveals a generation’s fear of looming nuclear apocalypse. Since they’d already put a song called “World War III” on the Bad Religion E.P. this one was simply titled “Pt. III.” Adding a bit of firepower is a guitar lead from Circle Jerks axe man Greg Hetson, who would go from Bad Religion mentor to member a few years later.
“Faith In God” strikes a perfect balance between musical urgency and moral superiority. Graffin has nothing but pity for those who are passive enough to believe a higher power is pulling all the strings. A major contributor to Bad Religion’s early and enduring success is the universal appeal of its name and its “crossbuster” logo. Not only did the iconography supersede all language barriers — it was easy to spray paint.
AUDIO: Bad Religion “Fuck Armageddon… This is Hell”
Rage Against The Machine’s Zach De La Rocha has gone on record saying that “Fuck Armageddon… This Is Hell” changed his life. It’s also the track that contains the album title in the lyrics. Edgar Colver’s duochromatic cover photo (shot from the Hollywood cross) was taken with the title in mind. And what bored suburban teen can’t relate to the irony of these lines?
“In the end, the good will go to heaven up above
The bad shall perish in the depths of hell
How could hell be any worse?
Life alone is such a curse
Fuck Armageddon… this is hell!”
By this point the band has hit a musical stride. “Pity” is another Graffin lyric that sets him intellectually above the “billions of ignorant people.” He’s not wrong. The guy went on to earn a PhD in Zoology, and received a Rushdie Award from Harvard. With maturity, the band’s stance on world faiths has certainly softened over the years. Anyway, I’m not going to judge the guy based on lyrics he wrote when he was seventeen. When I was that age Bad Religion’s blasphemous irreverence drew me in like a bespectacled moth to flame.
Side A ends with the album’s longest track (and a personal favorite) “In The Night.” This is a dark, driving Gurewitz composition that presages the best of emo-punk. If I was going to play early Bad Religion for someone who’s not particularly into hardcore, this is the song I’d pick based on sheer hooks. Bentley finds a great bass lick and isn’t shy about repeating it throughout the song.
Side AA kicks off with “Damned To Be Free.” This paean to individuality and its repercussions foreshadowed fans kicking the band to the curb a year and a half later. There’s a great little piano flourish at the 1:17 mark before the breakdown. It goes by so quick that it’s easy to miss, but it’s still the kind of no-budget studio touch that proves Bad Religion were going for something more ambitious than a live-to-tape presentation.
“White Trash (2nd Generation)” follows with further condemnation of the band’s classmates, and the status quo in general. Black Flag sang about drinking “Six Packs.” Fear wanted “More Beer.” The Circle Jerks were into breaking bottles and getting “Wasted.” Darby Crash slurred from the stage, “Somebody get me a fucking beer!” Bad Religion on the other hand describes a “beer-stained dad” in a “broken home.” That’s called perspective.
“American Dream” is one of the first Bad Religion songs to bring backing vocals to the forefront. A key ingredient of their sound in later years, these would often be credited as “Oozin’ Aahs.”
Christianity was not the only faith in Bad Religion’s crosshairs. In “Eat Your Dog,” Hinduism gets shaken down as another blind alley. The sheer teenage vitriol of the lyric, “You’re dying you assholes, your religion can’t help you now” is over the top. Golf claps from me, Mr. Graffin.
Jay Bentley’s second and final song on HCHBAW? is “Voice of God Is Government.” Greg Graffin masquerades as a televangelist preacher in the spoken word intro. My friends and I howled at the humor in satirical lines like:
“No longer will young Christian Americans
Hedonistically indulge in masochistic submission”
Of course those kinds of polysyllabic mouthfuls would find their way onto many future Bad Religion lyrics sheets.
“Oligarchy” rails against a problem that’s only gotten worse. It’s the lone song on side AA that features drummer Pete Finestone. Previous drummer (and timpanist!) Jay Ziskrout quit halfway through the sessions after having a fit over the band looking at some photos without him. Finestone was his roadie and took his place. The album is heavily frontloaded with Pete’s performances. Ziskrout is credited at the bottom of the liner notes, and regrets to this day that he quit the band over nothing. Without a cheat sheet, it’s tough to distinguish which drummer is on any given song since neither was particularly skilled at the time.
The final track “Doing Time” begins with a guitar intro, then the rhythm section muscles its way in. Graffin sings this morose tune with a sense of surrender. This ‘story song’ depicts several wasted lives. Midway through there’s a breakdown; Gurewitz’s guitar chimes like the tolling of a bell. Considering “…Time” is in the song title, it’s a sophisticated moment that recalls something off In The Court Of The Crimson King, albeit if Robert Fripp only had two fingers to work with. After that comes a vamp that sounds inspired by the Dead Kennedys. The album ends with melancholy minor chords, and Graffin’s voice drenched in reverb.
These fourteen songs in thirty minutes are cemented in the foundation of punk culture. How Could Hell Be Worse? is full of buzzing guitars, pounding drums, raw melodic vocals, and socially conscious lyrics. Initial pressings of the LP sold twelve thousand copies well before it was reissued as part of the 80-85 CD comp. On its own, it has stood the test of time. Thanks to its uncut facets, for many listeners with no stomach for Pop-Punk, it’s the greatest album Bad Religion ever released.
The band reinvented itself six years later as a sleek machine, shining with studio polish and three part harmonies. That era, from Suffer to No Control to Against The Grain, was an important gateway for me, as I initially craved a bit of melody in order to grapple with the furious tempos of punk music. But it was the intelligence of the lyrics that truly spoke to me. The Gustave Doré woodcut illustration from Dante’s Divine Comedy on the back cover was another cue that this band had more to offer than most skatecore.
On a DIY scale, Bad Religion’s first two self-released records were fantastically successful. They had every reason to believe that all the fans and goodwill they’d generated gave them license to progress artistically. But they were sadly “Damned To Be Free.”
One can only wonder what course Bad Religion’s career might have taken if that drive to experiment wasn’t beaten out of them nearly forty years ago with the release of their second album Into The Unknown. But that’s an article for next year…
VIDEO: 1982 fan-shot video of Bad Religion in concert
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