photo manipulation by nacrowe
THE EPITAPH STORY (EPITAPH, 2003) is an interesting mini-documentary i found online about the legendary independent SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA PUNK ROCK record label EPITAPH RECORDS that was originally issued as an add-on to a now long out-of-print PUNK-O-RAMA DVD. obviously its an EPITAPH-produced film released by EPITAPH about themselves so clearly their built-in bias is to be expected, but what i found interesting was the band-centered ethos that the label was founded on.
you get the sense listening to label founder BRETT GUREWITZ (of BAD RELIGION fame) the impetus was for bands to have a label that supported and worked for them, not financially screw them as had been the practice dating back to ELVIS PRESLEY. helping sell that point are notable interviewees FAT MIKE (NOFX), FLETCHER DRAGGE (PENNYWISE), and JON WALL (CLAWHAMMER) as well as long-time label management and employees in ANDY KAULKIN (PRESIDENT), JEFF ABARTA (ARTIST DEVELOPMENT) and RHONDA JESSEE (PRODUCTION / MANUFACTURING). also included is the noteworthy under-the-radar CANADIAN recording engineer DONNELL CAMERON who co-owns the recording studio WESTBEACH RECORDERS, where the second coming of the label was based out of. where i feel this documentary succeeds is how it puts you in the business mindset of GUREWITZ, especially with the risk involved in putting up capital to front the manufacturing and warehouse costs of upcoming records. and i am specifically talking about the mid-1990s when landmark, best-selling records by the likes of THE OFFSPRING, RANCID and PENNYWISE came out. its crazy to think that when the iron was at its most scalding, he had his home put up as collateral in the mix to front those costs. that could not have been a fun experience, nor the same decision-making on follow-ups. for a documentary about an iconoclastic record label that defied business logic, its ironic that the most interesting aspect of it is the talk of their actual business strategies. i was not anticipating that, especially given that having a successful PUNK ROCK label must have been such long-shot for being profitable. it is a bit mind-boggling, but obviously it sparked a cottage industry in its wake.
i thought it was interesting that there werent more interviewees from the likes of RANCID, THE VANDALS and THE OFFSPRING participating or even then-emerging label-mates such as THE BOUNCING SOULS, MILLENCOLIN or GUTTERMOUTH. probably more of an omission was the lack of any mention of the emerging threat surrounding piracy and digital file-sharing, which was years-old at that point. i know this was more a celebratory homage to themselves but it seemed like a lost opportunity to predict how a community that defines itself by authenticity and individuality would respond to the concept of free product.
being that the label is still around means that question has been answered over the intervening years. the idea of PUNK ROCK guilt surrounding major labels is laughably an artifact of its time. i wonder aloud now what the PUNK ROCK ethos means now in our current cultural climate dominating by online bullying, corporate micro-targeting and social media trolling. seems to harder than ever to be a kid these days.
i wonder what this documentary would like if it was made today. what aspect of the company would they choose to celebrate?
if this topic interests you then definitely check out the excellent recent BAD RELIGION biography DO WHAT YOU WANT (review linked HERE).
photo & text by nacrowe
with the rise and proliferation of RUSSIAN DISINFORMATION, CLIMATE SCIENCE DENIALISM, the SOCIAL MEDIA BOTS, AMERICAN WHITE NATIONALISM and rampant cable news sanctioned XENOPHOBIA being experienced across the UNITED STATES, its likely that there has ever been a more prescient time for a book about SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HARDCORE PUNK ROCK legends BAD RELIGION than our current TRUMPIAN post-fact moment of existential peril. when i consider their influence and legacy, ironically what comes to mind is how throughout their career they seemed very much focused on the present. HARDCORE PUNK ROCK, especially those that descended on the original LOS ANGELES/HOLLYWOOD scene in the early 1980s once the SOUTH BAY, ORANGE COUNTY and the bland extended SUBURBAN wastelands of places like OXNARD and the SAN FERNANDO VALLEY (where the members of BAD RELIGION resided) joined the party all were inherently aggressively transgressive.
but BAD RELIGION was different. as pointed out repeatedly in their recently published autobiography DO WHAT YOU WANT: THE STORY OF BAD RELIGION (HATCHETTE BOOKS, 2020), written by current and past members of BAD RELIGION with help from scribe JIM RULAND (who also collaborated on KEITH MORRIS' 2016 memoir, review linked HERE), the band was focused on using the template of PUNK ROCK as palette to project their musings and observations about how the world works.
the two central figures in this narrative are singer GREG GRAFFIN and guitarist BRETT GUREWITZ, who met through a mutual friend in high school. their songs explore a strident philosophical strain that puts them in concert with the humanist tradition dating back to the enlightenment. again, its beyond timely that their songs as treatises about issues both political and personal are being presented again in an era where lies and untruths have smothered both our political dialogue and our self-conception as AMERICANS.
but i should back up. the book covers their origins, development and ability to move forward despite constantly revolving line-up shifts, music industry cycles and regressive political climates. their independence and longevity is largely due to the relationship of GRAFFIN and GUREWITZ. famously GRAFFIN pursued a side academic career as an EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGIST, receiving his doctorate from CORNELL UNIVERSITY no less, and his availability based on these pursuits both determined the schedule of the band and provided GUREWITZ the time and space to both run his independent label EPITAPH RECORDS and write songs for the band. as fan, i always wondered how that arrangement worked. through this book i learned that when the band jumped to ATLANTIC RECORDS it disrupted both GRAFFIN's academic schedule (as he made himself more available for extensive touring) and GUREWITZ' ability to pull double duty with the band and label, leading to his departure.
eventually the band came to a balance after fulfilling their major label contract after four albums to return to EPITAPH and allow GUREWITZ the freedom to produce and write songs, but not tour. this arrangement has been going on now for the better part of twenty years and counting and no doubt has resulted in their longevity and current status as elder statesmen.
for me they are the LENNON/MCCARTNEY of PUNK ROCK. i also feel that what JOE STRUMMER attempted to convey with limited success is what they both actually achieved as songwriters. this is partly due to their songwriting prowess and production abilities, but i also feel it is due to their creativity and profoundly inquisitive nature. i think longtime fans will be pleasantly surprised to learn how many songs were written by GUREWITZ that most no doubt assumed were GRAFFIN compositions. GRAFFIN is renowned as the PUNK ROCK professor but GUREWITZ is very much his equal and this book sets the record straight on that accord.
great autobiography the presents them and their message of bringing intelligence and intellectual rigor to PUNK ROCK lyricism that is often maligned and derided, especially during the HARDCORE scene that birthed them. if you are interested in PUNK ROCK or meaningful music that asks its listener to think for themselves, then definitely check out this book.
otherwise just go listen to KID ROCK. or KANYE.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
ok i realize that BAD RELIGION by no means is a new band and that in the past i only highlighted recent, more obscure bands in this CHECK OUT THIS BAND series. but really i just felt the need to write about them.
with all this shit surrounding DONALD TRUMP and the dire future of american democracy conceivably going the way of a strong-man dictatorship like those i've lived under in the past (ALBANIA, NIGERIA, MYANMAR and VENEZUELA), its disheartening how few recording artists these days have explicitly addressed this sense of existential dread in an intelligent manner.
enter BAD RELIGION. they're whole career has been a rallying cry against corporate greed and fascism since the 1980s, but to continue doing so publicly at THIS stage during THIS political moment with THIS proto-fascist in charge is beyond admirable, its a necessity. i can't express how much i respect them for that, giving an intelligent voice for the opposition is unequivocally HARDCORE, absolutely PUNK ROCK. i would argue it is their finest hour.
i just wish other musicians would stop worrying about the music industry and how to maximize their market-share and consumer brand identification and just go for the jugular like these QUINQUAGENARIANS! it bothers me that a group of BABY BOOMERS are the only relevant cultural force out there addressing this sort of thing, but then maybe i shouldn't be that surprised with everyone inwardly concerned about their social media presence and sponsorship/cross-branding opportunities. just a shame.
we still have BAD RELIGION thankfully. support them and the organizations they assist. and register to vote. please.