Here’s The Story Behind Bad Religion’s Seminal Suffer, From A New Book About The Band’s History
Bad Religion is an institution. The legendary California punk outfit formed 40 years ago, when its founding members were all in high school. There have been a lot of twists and turns and rises and falls in the ensuing four decades, all of it an arc that defined Bad Religion as a resilient and influential group that helped codify a new punk sound for a new generation. Now, just in time for the milestone anniversary, there’s a new book that attempts to tell that story: Do What You Want: The Story Of Bad Religion, a biography that the band put together with author Jim Ruland.
Some of those rises and falls show how Bad Religion almost didn’t make it to becoming an institution at all. In fact, just a few years in, their career had a strange trajectory. Following their early gigs and the definitively punk-sounding How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, they recorded an album called Into The Unknown. Suddenly, the band was playing around with keyboards and incorporating prog-indebted elements. In hindsight, you could forgive young musicians experimenting, even if it was with elements that’d be taboo within an ’80s punk context. But the album, and personal problems between band members, eventually led to the group’s dissolution in the middle of the decade.
The breakup, as it were, didn’t last terribly long: By 1986, frontman Greg Graffin was pulling each band member back into the fold. Things were going well for them, with enthusiastic crowds packing their shows. And one day, they stumbled into a situation that required a fill-in guitarist. They made the fateful decision to reunite with Brett Gurewitz, their founding guitar player and the man in charge of Epitaph Records.
Eventually, this led to Suffer, Bad Religion’s third album and turning point. Released in 1988, the album marked a reunited and rejuvenated Bad Religion, a band that was staking new territory. The album was beloved in what might be seen as a transitional era for punk music. Though Bad Religion would go on to greater commercial success, you can look back to Suffer as a genesis point for a whole lot of what was going to happen in the next decade, amidst the rise of California skate- and pop-punk in the ’90s. Below, read a chapter from Do What You Want about how the band came back together and made the album that rearranged their lives.
Greg reached out to his old friend Brett to gauge his interest in playing the Gilman Street gig. Brett recalled the phone conversation went like this:
GREG: Hey, Brett, how are you doing?
BRETT: I’m doing really good.
GREG: That’s great. You won’t believe how big the band is now. We’re bigger than we ever were.
GREG: Yeah, we’re playing shows at Fender’s Ballroom and we get like a thousand people now.
GREG: You should play with us. It’s so fun.
BRETT: Nah, I don’t do that anymore.
GREG: Well, we have a show at Gilman Street. Hetson can’t play so we can’t do the show unless someone plays it with us.
BRETT: Oh, I don’t know.
GREG: Come on. Trust me. It will be fun.
Brett relented and agreed to play the show. He got his gear together and practiced to the records. Prior to the show, Brett joined the others to rehearse at Uncle Rehearsal Studio on Kester Avenue in Van Nuys. The rehearsals went well and being back with his former bandmates felt like old times. They drove up to San Francisco, and to Brett’s surprise and delight, Greg hadn’t been exaggerating about Bad Religion’s popularity.
“I don’t know what Gilman Street holds,” Brett said. “But it was packed and kids were going berserk for all of our old songs, just going nuts, ‘Fuck Armageddon . . . ’ and ‘Bad Religion’ and ‘We’re Only Gonna Die.’ It was really fun.”
Reuniting with his old band proved to be crucial because the experience got Brett thinking about the possibility of making another record with Bad Religion. He was clean, had his own studio, and had improved his engineering skills since recording Back To The Known. “I was 25, I was getting my life together, and I had a recording studio,” Brett said. He’d also completed his pressing and distribution deal with Sounds Good, which cleared the way for him to sign new bands. In fact, he had just signed the band L7 to Epitaph. Nevertheless, he was apprehensive about approaching his old bandmates about making a new record.
“I knew I could make us sound killer,” Brett said, “But the guys didn’t know what I’d been doing. They kind of thought of me as this fuck-up with a really bad drug problem. That’s how Jay and Greg regarded me.”
The apprehension went both ways. Playing a gig with Brett was one thing, but writing and recording a new album was something else. Greg recalled that around the time they were recording Back To The Known, Brett would call him up from time to time and tell him he had some royalties for him, but they were always cash payments, never a formal royalty statement. “I think Brett had a lot of guilt,” Greg said. “How Could Hell Be Any Worse? was successful, but the bank account was in Brett’s name and he didn’t pay royalties. We were just kids and he really didn’t know what he was doing.”
But they weren’t kids anymore. They had a come-to-Jesus meeting to talk about the band’s future. Brett wanted them to know, Greg and Jay especially, that he was clean and sober now and was taking Epitaph seriously. He acknowledged the mistakes he’d made with How Could Hell Be Any Worse? If they made another record together, he assured them he’d do things the right way. Brett’s word was enough. Greg and Jay put their misgivings aside and agreed to start working on a new record.
There was one question that remained: With Brett back in the fold, what did that mean for Hetson?
“When it came time to make Suffer,” Greg recalled, “Brett said, ‘We should have two guitars.’ The two-guitar attack sounded cool and Hetson liked that too. From Suffer on, he recorded with us and toured with us as well.”
Shortly after the gig at Gilman Street, Brett went to visit Greg in his dorm room at UCLA. Greg was living with Greta, who was now his fiancée. Brett and Greg sat down with a couple of acoustic guitars and wrote a song. They took the chords from Neil Young’s “Cowgirl In The Sand” as a jumping-off point and started playing around with them. A song came together very quickly. “We wrote the whole song,” Brett recalled, “Including the chords, changes, melodies, and lyrics right then and there. We really liked the way it came out.”
That song was “Suffer.”
Although the way they wrote the song together was very different from how they usually collaborated, it was the first time they’d written new Bad Religion material since Into The Unknown. “It was a nice reunion,” Brett said of the session. “He and I needed to have a new starting point.” But it was more than a clean slate. “Suffer” showed the way forward — for the rest of the record and beyond.
The band continued to meet at Uncle in Van Nuys to rehearse. Greg and Brett agreed they would each have a new song ready every time they got together to practice. “The first rehearsal,” Brett said, “I brought a song called ‘Give You Nothing.’ That was the first one I brought in. I think Greg brought ‘Land of Competition.’ We each brought one song. It was pretty straightforward to teach the band the songs.”
The process was a bit more involved for Brett because he had to teach Greg how to sing his songs, but it went very smoothly considering how long it had been since they’d worked together in a creative environment. “That sort of cemented the tradition of sharing the songwriting,” Brett said.
But there was something different from the last time they’d all gotten together to make a record: Pete’s playing had noticeably improved. Ever since he’d returned from London, Pete had been practicing and getting better. As a result, he was much more confident than he’d been when he was brought in to replace Jay Ziskrout.
Greg and Brett kept writing songs and bringing them to rehearsal. “My day job was working at Westbeach Recorders,” Brett said. “I’d be working on a band, and whenever I was on a break, I’d have a guitar in the lounge and I’d write a Bad Religion song on the couch with a pen and pencil on the coffee table.”
After seven or eight rehearsals they realized they’d written 15 songs in approximately a month. That was enough for a new record. “It was amazing to see them write songs so quickly,” Jay recalled. But were they any good?
Greg thought so. “I was starting graduate school and I didn’t want to be putting out songs that didn’t have some intellectual merit. I wanted it to have some meat. That started the tradition that most people came to know as Bad Religion. Mixing the style of music with themes of intellectual and philosophical inquiry defined the course of my life.”
In other words, Greg didn’t want to write songs like “Frogger” any more. He applied the same level of intellectual rigor to his songwriting that he brought to his studies. Greg wasn’t chasing a piece of paper so he could get a cushy job in academia. His studies were fueled by a thirst for knowledge and a desire to understand how the world worked. Bad Religion provided Greg with an opportunity to shape that understanding and share what he’d learned in a meaningful way.
Brett was also optimistic about their collaboration, but he wasn’t quite sure what they had. “I don’t think I realized how good the songs were in the moment,” Brett said, “But I did realize how easy they were flowing, which was fun.”
That was the operative word. If it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t worth doing. After eight years of ups and downs, they recognized they didn’t need to reinvent themselves; they needed to reclaim the passion they’d felt when the band was forming in the Hell Hole. They still didn’t know what they were doing, but they had a better understanding of how to do it.
Despite their growing enthusiasm for the new material, their expectations for the record were modest. It was their first full-length album since Into The Unknown, and they knew their hardcore fans, if they had any left, would be stoked. Beyond that, they didn’t know what to expect.
In April 1988, they started recording the new album at Westbeach. Brett wasted no time laying down the tracks on his cherished MCI JH24 two-inch 24-track tape machine. It only took a week to record the album. During Bad Religion’s long layoff, Brett had been recording bands nonstop and knew how to make a record that sounded good. He also knew that no one was making music like this.
“When we recorded Suffer,” Jay said, “the world had written Bad Religion off. We were a dead band. We recorded this album, the way I look at it, like mad scientists in a laboratory. We were doing this thing and the only people who knew what we were doing was us. We knew we were doing something that was kind of out in space.”
But it wasn’t just Bad Religion that had been written off. Punk rock was at a low water mark and had been in steady decline since the early ’80s. The popularity of MTV had pushed punk deeper underground as young audiences turned to punk-influenced bands. In the mid-’80s, independent labels like SST had released records by Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, and Sonic Youth, but struggled with administrative issues (to put it mildly). Fewer bands were making punk records and those that did understood it wasn’t a viable path to commercial success. But Suffer was about to change all of that in a big way.
“It felt like a demarcation line had been crossed,” Pete said. “A new chapter was about to start.”
The album opens with an address to the listener. The first track, “You Are (The Government),” begins with the words “Hey sit down and listen,” like a storyteller beginning a tale. The opening lyric to the last song on the album, “Pessimistic Lines,” is “So here we are again,” framing everything in between the first song and the last as a conversation between the band and those who have stayed loyal to Bad Religion.
The songs weren’t all that different from their early material, but they were faster, more melodic, and, in most cases, noticeably shorter. The addition of a second guitar ramped up the intensity, but thanks to Brett’s skills in the studio, the overall sound was much improved. This sound showcased all of Bad Religion’s talents, from Greg’s singing to the faster rhythms to the harmonizing background vocals.
“The moment it dawned on me that we had something special,” Brett said, “was when I was driving home from a show at Iguana’s in Tijuana with Jay Bentley. I had the finished, mastered album of Suffer on cassette. I was in a late ’80s Buick Century, which had the best GM Delco stereo. We were driving home, listening to Suffer. We’d listen to the whole album, then the tape would flip and we’d hear the whole album again. Then it would flip and we’d hear it again. We listened to it three or four times, and we just looked at each other like, Holy fuck! Is this as good as I think it is?”
Jay felt the same way. “I remember Brett and I kind of looking at each other and laughing. Holy shit. Is this really happening?”
That summer, Greg was working at a restaurant as a salad-bar host with a fellow student from UCLA named Jerry Mahoney. Jerry was an artist who was proficient in airbrushing. Greg told him the name of the album and Jerry came up with the image of a boy in a suburban setting wearing a T-shirt with the crossbuster logo, immersed in flames like a Buddhist monk. Whereas How Could Hell Be Any Worse? featured an apocalyptic vision of downtown Los Angeles, the image that Mahoney created feels more intimate set against the clean lines of suburban sprawl. The boy isn’t being consumed by the flames, but instead seems to be generating them with the force of his defiance.
Suffer was intended to signal a fresh start for the band, and it sounds like it, but there are several links to the Bad Religion of old. The first is “Give You Nothing” with its primitive drumbeats and ferocious guitars. The band’s high school friend Tom Clement, who brought Greg and Brett together and had died in a car accident under mysterious circumstances, inspired the song. The chorus, which repeats the line, “I give you me, I give you nothing,” was something that Tom used to say. The song sometimes appears with “Tom Clement” in parentheses.
Another link to the early days of Bad Religion has created a great deal of confusion over the years. “Part II (The Numbers Game)” is the eleventh track on the album, and the penultimate song is called “Part IV (The Index Fossil).” But there isn’t a song called Part I or Part III on Suffer. Bad Religion did write a song called “Part III,” but it appears on How Could Hell Be Any Worse? and is about World War III. Because “The Numbers Game” is all about the buildup to war, Brett decided to call it “Part II.” Following that logic, “Part IV” is about the aftermath of war and is presented from the perspective of a society in ruins after humankind has been wiped off the face of the earth. Needless to say, “Part IV (The Index Fossil)” was inspired by Greg’s studies in geology. Taken together, the three parts tell the story of before, during, and after a cataclysmic war.
The song that pointed the way forward was “Do What You Want.” On one hand, it’s Brett’s sly critique of the malignant philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Indeed, the song’s title is his interpretation of Nietzsche’s will to power; in other words, what the philosopher posited is the driving force within all human beings. Nietzsche believed this will to power was neither good nor bad, but when it has been embraced by fascists and authoritarians, it conveniently ignores the fate of those who get trampled by those who seize power and seek more and more of it.
Ironically, “Do What You Want” is the ultimate “Go for it!” anthem, a song that has launched millions of skate sessions:
Say what you must
Do all you can, break all the fucking rules
And go to hell with Superman and die like
Its ferocious guitar licks and relentless rhythm power the song along. When all is said and done, “Do What You Want” clocks in at just over a minute. As for the compression of “Yeah!” and “Hey” into “Ya-hey!” Greg said he “copied it from Joey Shithead” of D.O.A.
Brett was very much aware that the skaters and surfers were Bad Religion’s core audience. Epitaph advertised in Thrasher, and Brett noticed the magazine frequently offered giveaways for new subscribers. This promotion was usually in the front of the magazine. That gave Brett an idea.
“I called the guy at Thrasher and said, ‘Hey, I’ll give you some records for the subscription promo so anyone who subscribes to Thrasher gets the new Bad Religion cassette.’ They were like, ‘Yeah, we’d love to do that!’ It was like getting an ad and paying for it with records, and it was advertising to the exact right people. It was a really good thing.”
Suffer was released September 8, 1988, but due to a miscommunication, copies of the record weren’t ready when the band set out on its first nationwide tour. Joining them was L7, some of whose members played on Suffer. Jennifer Finch provided backup vocals on “Part II (The Numbers Game)” and Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner played guitar on “Best For You.” Jennifer was no stranger to Bad Religion. She was part of the crew during the Oki-Dog days and had even attended Bad Religion’s first show, and was not particularly impressed.
Jennifer was also a close friend of Maggie Tuch, another punk from the Valley. “We knew them because they came to all of the shows,” Keith Morris said. “They’d come to Circle Jerks shows. They’d come to Bad Religion shows. They’d come to shows that we were playing together. We ended up being their personal chauffeurs at one time. If Bad Religion was our younger brother band, along with Social Distortion and Wasted Youth, they were like our younger sisters.”
The tour began in Houston, Texas, with dates throughout the Midwest before they headed to the East Coast. Bad Religion was such an unknown in the middle of the country that flyers advertising their shows read, “Bad Religion, featuring Greg Hetson of CIRCLE JERKS.”
“On the Suffer Tour in the states,” Jay said, “almost all of the Bad Religion billboards said ‘featuring Greg Hetson.’ It wasn’t something we were trying to sell. It worked because he was bigger than us.”
On the road, the band discovered that Hetson had another talent. Hetson had been to most of the cities on the Suffer Tour while traveling with the Circle Jerks, and he had an uncanny memory for finding venues, hotels, and restaurants that he’d been to before. Whenever they arrived at the city they were playing, the driver would turn the wheel over to Hetson, who would guide them to wherever they needed to go. This earned Hetson the nickname “Mr. Memory.”
Copies of Suffer finally caught up with the band in New York, where Bad Religion played a sold-out show at CBGB. In places like New York and Chicago the kids lined up around the block to see the band, but outside of the major cities the crowds were modest.
“We played a lot of shows for less than 10 people,” Brett said. “I remember playing shows in the Midwest where there’d be no one in the club. We’d go out to the parking lot and there would be four cars out there. Kids would stay out in their cars and drink six-packs because the beer inside was too expensive. So we’d go outside to the parking lot to see if there were people loitering and we’d beg them to come inside. We’d tell the management, ‘Don’t worry, people are coming.’ Then the show would start and we’d have 12 people.”
“Fun is fun,” Greg said, “But not if you don’t have anybody in the audience.”
Jennifer Finch echoed this sentiment. “L7 toured with Bad Religion throughout the country and we didn’t do that great. There was a notorious show in St. Louis where there were just eight people. I have a great picture of these skinheads in Boston who sat in front of the stage with their backs to the band. It was a great experience but they weren’t at a level where they were pulling people out to see them.”
Bad Religion played approximately two dozen shows from coast to coast in less than a month, but most of them were sparsely attended, and when all was said and done the tour was in the red. The van they rented from the Circle Jerks cost money. So did the U-Haul. They also had to pay for gas, food, and lodging. “We didn’t make any money,” Jay said. “In fact, we each owed money.”
Greg was the only one in the band with a credit card and he racked up a bunch of charges booking hotel rooms. He would pay for a hotel room and they would all sleep on the floor, five guys to a room. Greg came back from the tour with $3,000 of debt on his credit card, which put him in a difficult situation. Shortly before Suffer was released, Greg and Greta were married in a little wooden church by the sea in her hometown of Del Mar. As always, Greg was looking beyond the next show or the next album and was thinking about his future, but losing money on the road was neither sustainable nor a recipe for success. If the goal was to make money or break even, the tour was a failure.
“People look back on Suffer like it was some monumental milestone,” Greg said, “But it didn’t feel like that at the time.”
As discouraging as the tour might have been, there was considerable reason for enthusiasm. By the end of the year, Suffer had sold 10,000 copies and more records were being pressed to meet demand. More importantly, it had been named the best album of the year by the only two publications in the country that were still paying attention to punk rock: Flipside and Maximum Rocknroll.
Suffer had also introduced a new term into the lexicon of punk. In the liner notes, the “oohs” and “aahs” of the background vocalists were transformed into “oozin’ ahs.” “It was just a cutesy way to describe the background vocals,” Brett explained, but it would become a mainstay for Bad Religion. The “oozin’ ahs” were a key component of their sound and set them apart from punk rock bands that came before them.
The word was out: Bad Religion was back and better than ever. Suffer was a game changer. The new songs were short, fast, and undeniably intense. But they were also catchy, melodic, and fun to sing along to. With Suffer, Bad Religion immediately slid into the pantheon of Southern California punk bands who made smart, sharp records that had something to say. The fuck-up with a drug problem, who had reluctantly agreed to fill in for the guy who had taken his spot in his old band, had produced the best punk record of the year, a record that would mark a seismic shift in the punk rock landscape whose aftershocks can still be felt today.
But in 1988 they had the field to themselves. Not to take away from Suffer’s excellence, but as Brett intuited when he was recording the album, no one was doing what Bad Religion was doing. That, too, would soon change.
Excerpted from Do What You Want: The Story Of Bad Religion by Bad Religion with Jim Ruland. Copyright © 2020. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.