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.