offspring-smash

It’s 20 years to the day since the Offspring released Smash — so let’s talk about how a California band used a Middle-Eastern guitar lick, some “la-la-las,” and a bit of luck to rack up the best-selling independent record of all time.
 
In the beginning, 1984, the Offspring were Manic Subsidal. They were a bunch of suburban California kids who liked California punk rock — Social Distortion, Agent Orange, TSOL, and so on. They gigged around, they screwed around, they solidified their lineup, and by 1989, they had a record out on a tiny label. This was enough to attract the attention of Bad Religion guitarist Mr. Brett Gurewitz and his burgeoning California punk rock label, Epitaph Records. By 1992, the Offspring’s second album, Ignition, was out. It sold about 15,000 copies, a large number at the time, but a number dwarfed by the sales of Epitaph’s flagship band. It convinced the Offspring’s members to keep their day jobs, which included janitorial work and Ph.D studies in microbiology.

Led by the Epitaph roster and the Gilman Street/Lookout Records scene, California punk was a growing scene. Retrospectively, it seems obvious that one band or another was going to break out and explode, bringing the major labels in to hoover up the talent a la Seattle circa 1989-1992. There were just too many great bands. The bands themselves perhaps didn’t believe it would happen; they’d all claim later that they didn’t see it coming, and they probably didn’t. Does anyone start a punk band thinking they’re going be The Clash Mk.2?

Operation Ivy had forestalled the issue by falling on their own swords. By 1993, Bad Religion had released Recipe For Hate on Epitaph, but then signed with Atlantic Records, which rereleased the record, resulting in a Broken Arrow moment with no full explosion, just a close call with the mainstream.

And it didn’t matter. In early 1994, Green Day blasted the door open with Dookie. By the end of 1994, the Offspring would rip the door off the hinges, Smash the structure to rubble, and set the debris on fire.

As for Smash itself, it’s impossible to discuss the record without also discussing Dookie in some capacity. Tom Breihan already did a great Anniversary write-up for Dookie, so you should read that for a more in-depth analysis of said album. We’ll keep it short and sweet here. Dookie is fundamentally a modernized Ramones with better bass lines and more angst. The production is vanilla pudding: fat, sweet, and smooth. Like a Descendents record, the bass parts are closer to being the lead guitar than the actual guitars, which mostly churn away at simple barre chord riffs. Lyrically, it’s a record about being a teenager.

Smash is a different beast altogether. Yes, it’s basically still a pop-punk record. Yet while it’s beautifully mixed, it’s a much rawer recording than Dookie. You can hear the “sweak, sweak” of hands running up and down the neck over muted strings. The guitar tone is lean, flat, sandpapery, and strikingly similar to the tones used by contemporaneous metal bands. The drums don’t pop as much as they do on Dookie. The bass playing is sometimes highlighted, but more often is just… there. It’s not producer Thom Wilson’s rawest effort, but it’s one of them.

It’s also a record for dissatisfied men in their mid-to-late twenties. Green Day were bored to laziness; the Offspring wanted “nitro” to be a catchphrase for living like there was no tomorrow. The Offspring explored road rage; did Green Day even have cars? “Gotta Get Away” was a prelude to violence, and “Something To Believe In” was achieving maturity but seeing a hopeless future. Green Day wanted to masturbate and smoke pot; the Offspring had a few kinda-sorta political songs, banged a cheating ex because it was better than jerking off and they liked the abuse, and wondered what happened to you, man, ’cause you’ve done too many drugs.

While it was luck that Dookie preceded and perhaps opened the door for Smash, the Offspring were not merely lucky. They offered top-notch songwriting, and as frontman Dexter Holland told Rolling Stone, “Punk rock has some inherent problems. The music itself tends to be monotonous, and there’s walls of guitars with nothing to break it up. In our songs we take breaks, leave out the guitar and let the vocals go by themselves. I’d call our sound listenable — not palatable. We try to make it so after five songs, you’re not just grated.”

Examples abound on Smash: the serial-killer bass line that opens “Bad Habit.” The Middle Eastern guitar riff and bouncy drum part that kick off “Come Out And Play.” The riffs that sat somewhere between Bad Religion, Pennywise’s melodic hardcore, and NOFX’s goofball pop-punk. The band’s ability to seamlessly drop a few gears during a song, giving the audience the breaks that Holland refers to above. The catchy vocal melodies, which played to Holland’s limited strengths as a singer.

And then there was the Offspring’s secret weapon and glaring weakness: cheapo vocal hooks. Specifically, more “yeahs” than a porno, more “hey” than a cow ranch, and so many “whoas” that NOFX felt compelled to say “Whoa on the whoas.” Even more specifically: ~143 instances of “whoa/ayo/oh,” 84 of which are in “Something to Believe In.” About 85 “yeahs,” 44 of which are in “Bad Habit,” and another 28 in “Self-Esteem.” 54 “heys!” Then the “1-2-3-4″ chants in “Genocide,” a fastball down the middle for the home-run chorus. Hell, the Didjits cover had “yeahs!” built into it! And of course, the “la-la-las” that so famously kick off “Self-Esteem.”

When you wrapped all that up — the songwriting, the riffs, the regular vocals, the cheapo vocals, the timely luck of Dookie’s smash success — what you got was an album that sold a staggering, record breaking, sixteen million copies. It’s still the best selling independently released record of all time, and unlikely to ever be dethroned. Gurewitz recalled: “One night I was driving home and didn’t want to go in the house because I didn’t want to stop listening to [the Smash mixes]. I started circling the block listening to the record over and over on ten in my old Volvo station wagon. My wife greeted me at the door, and I said, ’Honey, we’re gonna be rich.’” 

The stylized Epitaph “E” became punk rock’s Nike Swoosh. Holland would try to distance himself from the commodification of the scene it in that Rolling Stone interview, saying, “We are definitely a punk-rock band…we’ve been playing this music for over seven years, so it’s not like we’re part of some movement. We just happened to get a song on the radio this year, and so did Green Day. Some people are even asking if we’re the new voice of Gen X. We don’t want to be known as the fathers of ’90s punk rock.” That NOFX’s Punk In Drublic went gold, Rancid appeared on Saturday Night Live, and Pennywise had a career, would prove him wrong about that “not…part of some movement” claim. My own anecdote: In about 1996, a family friend handed me a cassette of Punk-O-Rama 1, saying, “I don’t like any of these bands, but you like the Offspring, maybe you’ll like the rest.” She was right. I first heard some of my favorite records because of that tape, and I learned that a record label was more than just a logo.

Ultimately, Smash isn’t even the Offspring’s best record; that would be Ignition. But Ignition arrived pre-Dookie and it lacked the one-two-three combo of “Come Out and Play,” “Self-Esteem,” and “Gotta Get Away,” the hit singles that ultimately made the Offspring’s career. Smash wasn’t the Offspring’s best, but it was the best possible record for stardom in 1994. And whoa-oh-oh, it was huge.

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Comments (27)
  1. “You stupid dumbshit goddamn MOTHERFUCKER!”

    I recall that being the baddest lyric around in the mid 90s.

  2. Guy had gross white-boy dreads that would make even Axel Rose cringe

  3. it’s no masterpiece, and it wasn’t starting a revolution with me as a teenager, but what does make it special for me was that it was mostly an entry into metal rather than punk. i still have my copy from 1995. some will undoubtedly say i should have gotten rid of it long ago, but there’s a certain sentimental value that prevents me from trading this record in. over the years, i still find myself going back to it every so often to feel that endorphin rush that i got when i was 15 years old, listening to genocide on my discman, volume at 11.

  4. I was really waiting for this feature since Tom wrote about Dookie, so kind of bummed to see this article is also mostly about Green Day. This was one of my favorite albums as a teenager. Good times.

  5. 16 million records sold!

    This album wasn’t a work of art or anything, but man did it sound awesome when I was first discovering punk rock. It certainly led me down the path of listening to all those other great Epitaph bands the author mentioned, in addition to a whole bunch of annual pilgrimages to the Warped Tour. Punk rock gave me a whole other way of looking at my suburban upbringing that I never considered, a whole bunch of great friends that I still have, and some tunes that still sound as anthemtic and righteous as ever.

    Now pardon me while I turn Bad Habit up to 11….

  6. byers  |   Posted on Apr 8th +3

    the occasional cheese aside, it’s a great record. it kind of all went downhill from there tho as far as offspring albums go.

    I agree on Ignition being their best, altho I do have a soft spot for their debut as well

  7. This album was miraculously not labeled with a parental advisory sticker when I bought it. I also knew where most of the “swearing” occurred in each song and could volume fade when needed. However, when listening more closely to the lyrics than I one day, my dad grabbed the lyrics sheet and read through each song. For some reason I was able to retain the CD even though I received some lecture including words like “slackers” “bad example” and the like. This made me enjoy the album even more deeply than I previously had. While Dookie had its place, Smash always evoked a darker, more rebellious “whatever” vibe.

  8. Best selling indie release of all time? Well, I just learned something new today… totally would have never guessed that.

    I have a soft spot for the Offspring. Sure, people mock their corny pop-punk tunes and Dexter when he had his white-boy dreads, but this album single-handedly got me into the different breeds of punk. Smash led me to Pennywise’s Full Circle, which then led me to the masterpiece that is Rancid’s Out Come The Wolves, and the rest is history for then on. Everyone in my 7th grade class at the time worshiped Dookie, but I was partial Smash… in turn, causing many of debates between the grade-school-era me and my classmates. To this day, I still prefer the Offspring to Green Day.

    However, my favorite release from them will always be Ixnay On The Hombre, followed closely by Ignition. Songs like “All I Want” and “Session” will pop up on my iPod from time to time and – if I’m driving – I can’t help but push my foot down on the gas peddle a little more, windows rolled down on a hot summer day, pat my steering wheel to the beat, and belt out the words with a smile.

  9. “Is that the one where the guy says goddamn mother fucker?”

    - My friend’s mom when I was in 4th grade

  10. I was in grade 6 when this came out (scary). The “Stupid dumbshit goddamn motherfucker!” bit from “Bad Habit” used to drive my friends and I absolutely bonkers. Definitely an early cathartic musical experience, the thrill of which I now realize I’ve been chasing ever since. Of the Big Three albums that turned me onto rock music (Nevermind, Dookie and this), that middle section of Bad Habit turned me into a rabid music fan.

    Also, I’, having flashes of listening to “What Happened to You?” while playing devil sticks in bicycle shorts. Ah, childhood.

  11. Yeah I agree with most of the comments here. This album wasn’t a big deal. Not even worth mentioning actually. Dookie is still the best pop punk album of 1994.

  12. I love this album (and Ignition and Ixnay on the Hombre). If I’m being completely honest, though, I didn’t really get into the Offspring until a few years ago. They’ve never been so much of a nostalgia band for me as they are a guilty pleasure sort of thing.

  13. Oh this album… the soundtrack to my final year at high school, the CD some girl called Lisa (I think) bought and hid from her parents and we thought she was cool because she was the only girl we knew that bought it. Turned out she never listened to it.
    The Offspring became a parody, really, of themselves, a tricky feat when you consider they never really sounded all that serious to begin with. As great as Bad Habit is … and it’s truly great … it’s also ridiculous lyrically.
    I’ve listened to every Offspring album since this one. Apart from Ixnay, I’ve listened with growing regret and resentment and wonder why I’m even listening to it when the past four or five were so bad.

  14. “Ultimately, Smash isn’t even the Offspring’s best record; that would be Ixnay On The Homre”

  15. My dad bought me this record when I was 8 years old because he heard Come Out and Play on the radio and fucking loved it. He then asked me to keep it strictly for my discman when he heard Bad Habit…the wrath of mom would have been swift and merciless. Still revisit these jams every once in awhile. Great fun.

  16. The Offspring has 4 great albums. Smash fit perfectly into the time of it’s release and you heard it everywhere you went. Even today, whenever “Bad Habit” comes up on a playlist, anyone familiar with the song stops to listen to the well known lyrical magic contained at the end of the bridge.

  17. In the year of The Downward Spiral, Unplugged in New York, the Blue Album, Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, Parklife, Bee Thousand, Mellow Gold, Dummy, His’n'Hers, Dog man Star, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, Teenager of the Year and so many more, I must admit that this album just passed me by, never to be seen again…

  18. Every time one of these 20-year posts comes up I can’t really relate to them because when the album came out I was still a baby child, so I don’t have any of these stories about buying and hiding the album or it changing my life etc. Which makes me feel way less old!

    Thanks guys!

  19. There’s more to be said about ‘Smash’ than how it got here. Sure, it cemented something that Epitaph had been building, but at the same time it almost destroyed Bad Religion and Mr.Brett. He split from the band and went missing on a drug-fueled bender. There was the ‘Hate You’ Daredevils single directed towards Jay Bentley. This was the influence of ‘Smash’ on the independent label that released it. And why isn’t there a sexy 20th anniversary re-release? Because there was long-time animosity between the band and the label. Why would a guy who signed his own flagship to a major label stress about Offspring’s decision to do the same? It was no small thing to see Bad Religion and Offspring on the same bill recently. Yes, there’s more to write about when it comes to ‘Smash’…

  20. I never got into the Offspring’s albums, but I do appreciate their contribution to the general climate of mid 90′s alternative rock radio. Their “Come Out and Play,” Green Day’s “Longview,” Flaming Lips’ “She Don’t Use Jelly,” Tripping Daisy’s “I Got a Girl, NIN’s “Closer,” and of course all of Nirvana’s hits.

    Collectively, I got the feeling that I was soaking up some weird, subversive stuff from the radio. An important cultural moment for me, and it only got weirder and more subversive from there.

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