When driving through the seemingly endless suburbia of inland-empire Southern California, track homes and dry chaparral overwhelm the senses with a constant monotony, it isn’t hard to put oneself into the shoes of the countless punk bands to emerge from this landscape in the late 70s through the 80s. Among those, one of the most enduring has certainly been Bad Religion, formed in the Los Angeles area in 1979, who would go on to provide the template for countless second generation punk bands throughout the next two decades.
In 1982, after the formation of their own record label, Epitaph, and the relative success of their self-titled debut EP, Bad Religion entered the studio to record their first album: “How Could Hell Be Any Worse?” Greg Graffin served as the singer and main lyricist, with Jay Bentley on bass, Brett Gurewitz on guitar, and Pete Finstone and Jay Ziskrout on drums. The album is seemingly the epitome of angry, political Southern California punk, and the gritty lo-fi instrumentals serve as the perfect foil for Graffin’s intelligent, and passionately verbose lyrics.
The opening track, “We’re Only Gonna Die,” is a short, fast song about the futility of human progress, the chorus giving the song it’s title – “We’ll only die of our own arrogance.” Though at first appearing to be a song easily confused with the scores of other nihilistic punk anthems, it stands out for the mid-track tempo drop, and the use of piano and acoustic guitar, even if they seem a little overwhelmed by the ever-present distortion and peeking drums.
The album continues with the breakneck speed of “Latch Key Kids,” and the apocalyptic anti-war song “Part III,” with a guitar solo provided by future member, and then Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson. “Faith in God,” appropriately anti-religion for the band, is followed by “Fuck Armageddon… This is Hell.” Opened with a flanger-soaked bass intro, the track provides the album with it’s title, as well as lyrics that address pollution and climate, war, and the obligatory religion.
Over the final half of the album, highlights include the bass heavy choruses of “In the Night,” the lyrics of “White Trash (Second Generation) – “Pretty fascist on the tube draped in red and white and blue/ White trash, 2nd generation, stupid foibles, indignation/ Offspring of suburban fright,” and the nasally spoken word intro of “Voice of God is Government,” ”Neighbors, let us join today in the holy love of God and money/ Because neighbors, no one loves you like He loves you/ And what better way to show your love than to dig deep into your pockets/ Dig real deep, until it hurts. Alleviate your guilt/ Free yourself once again, because he gave to you, brothers and sisters.” The album ends with “Doing Time,” with lyrics concerning the society that drives people to suicide.
The entire album is a raw, crude look into the minds of the millions of young people growing up in the repressive sameness of track homes and suburbia. Bad Religion voices all these topics in an angry, messy, but incredibly cohesive debut album that exhibits Graffin’s no-nonsense vocals with surprisingly fresh sounding instrumental performances littered throughout the record. After this album, and a brief period of synth-heavy experimentation, the band would take a four year break, and then release Suffer, a cleaner, less rough-around-the-edges, though no less angry look into the bands future as second generation and skate punk trailblazers. But their debut album still stands the test of time, providing a glimpse into the nihilistic anger of the youth punk culture in the early 1980s.