Closing in on its silver anniversary, Bad Religion has been around long enough to remember the first time North American punks got pissed at a Republican president. Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office when the long-running group got together in a San Fernando Valley garage. Although the Gipper was hated by hardcore kids at the time, Bad Religion never really took part in the bashing. There were no references to the now-deceased president on the band's debut, 1982's How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, or on subsequent outings like Into the Unknown or Back to the Known. As its stature grew through the '90s, the group continued to steer clear of politics, choosing instead to concentrate on topics like molecular biology.
Bad Religion is as literate as ever on its latest, The Empire Strikes First, continuing its reputation as one of the most intelligent acts in the history of punk rock. Never one to resort to Hardcore for Dummies, lyricist Greg Graffin once again impresses with lines like "Ratiocination is a practicable way to derive/An attitude of altitude and probity by which to abide". And although the band's trademarks--heat-seeker harmonies and chain saw--roar guitars--are accounted for, this time out there's been a noticeable shift in the Bad Religion camp. For the first time ever, the group has made an unabashedly political album.
"When George Bush Sr. had the Gulf War it seemed almost reasonable," explains bassist Jay Bentley, on the line from a tour stop in Germany. "At that time you had a big country, Iraq, attacking a smaller country, Kuwait. Senior seemed to get cold feet at the last second and got out of the Middle East. And that set up where we're at today. What inspired The Empire Strikes First is that the war in Iraq has become bigger than anything the world could have imagined. We've started down a really slippery slope."
Bad Religion doesn't actually mention George W. Bush by name on its 13th album, which is also its second since the return of founding member Brett Gurewitz. But anyone who's been watching the horror show that's unfolding overseas will have no trouble decoding "Atheist Peace" lyrics like "The world might cease if we fail to tame the beast". Adding fuel to the argument that America's in the middle of its biggest foreign-policy disaster since getting its ass kicked by the Vietcong, the raging title track finds Graffin bellowing "We're coming on fast and we're built to last/We stumbled once in 'Nam now we're glad to say those days have passed". Elsewhere, "Let Them Eat War" is pretty much self-explanatory.
What has Bad Religion so enraged, says Bentley, is the way that Bush has turned former allies against America in the wake of 9/11.
"We've gone from having the sympathy of the world to having the world angry at us. With this record--from the artwork and the lyrics on down--we were looking to say, 'Look, we can't ignore that.' This band has been through three Republican presidents: Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr., and now Bush Jr. This period is by far the scariest."
The return of Gurewitz, who left the band acrimoniously in 1994 to concentrate on running his label, Epitaph Records, has recharged a band that, a couple of years back, seemed to have run out of ideas. Despite having been around for a quarter-century, Bad Religion sounds like it's just discovering punk rock on The Empire Strikes First, even slyly referencing its debut album with the "Los Angeles Is Burning" line "How could hell be any worse?" Gurewitz can take partial responsibility for the band's artistic rebirth.
"I remember Brett phoning me and asking if I could name the Ramones' 13th album," says Bentley, who appears with Bad Religion at Thunderbird Stadium on Tuesday (July 13). "I couldn't, which somehow made it even more important to make sure that we did something great."