In the Early ’80s, L.A. Punk Bands Played Where They Could—Even at USC Frat Parties

In an excerpt from the new book ’Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion,’ the Valley legends look back at beer-drenched gigs, jocks vs. punks showdowns, and breaking through with Rodney Bingenheimer
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One of the problems with being an L.A. punk band in 1980 was there were very few places to play. Part of this was due to bias. If you weren’t a known commodity, it was hard to get people to take you seriously. For instance, Keith Morris literally begged bookers and promoters to let Black Flag play. When his band was finally invited to perform at the venerable Masque, the show was shut down and the venue closed its doors for good. Many of the older punk scenesters from the seventies looked down at hardcore bands and their fans for the negativity they brought to their scene. They were too violent, too reactionary, or just didn’t get it. To their minds, bands like Bad Religion embodied everything that was wrong with the punk scene.

Hardcore bands had to get creative. They realized that by supporting each other they could make their own scene within the scene. One of Bad Religion’s first live shows was with a relatively unknown band from Fullerton called Social Distortion who invited Bad Religion to play with them at a party in Santa Ana.

“I think our first show was at a warehouse,” Bad Religion guitar player Brett Gurewitz recalled, “which was fairly common back then because there weren’t that many venues that would book hardcore punk bands.”

On the day of the gig, bassist Jay Bentley was so anxious he threw up before the show. Steve Soto, a Fullerton native and bass player for the Adolescents, gave Jay a bit of friendly advice.

STEVE SOTO: You’re really nervous.

JAY: I know. I get so nervous before we play.

STEVE SOTO: You should always drink at least a six-pack before you play.

JAY: Okay, I didn’t know.

Lead singer Greg Graffin remembered the audience being particularly hostile because the promise of free beer had not materialized, but they made it through their set unscathed. When they got off the stage, Brett received a boost from a familiar face who’d made the journey from Woodland Hills to Orange County to see them play. “After the show,” Brett recalled, “my friend Tom Clement said to me with great seriousness, ‘Brett, no matter what else you do, just don’t break up. If you guys don’t break up you’re going to be huge—seriously. You guys are really good.’”

A Greek organization at the University of Southern California was having a punk-themed party and naively decided to invite actual punks to perform.

Another early show was even stranger: a frat party opening up for the Circle Jerks, the band Keith Morris started after leaving Black Flag, and one of the most popular L.A. punk acts of the early eighties. A Greek organization at the University of Southern California was having a punk-themed party and naively decided to invite actual punks to perform. Once the gig was confirmed, members of Bad Religion and the Circle Jerks invited their friends and distributed flyers like they would for any other show. The frat boys dressed like punks and the punks behaved like, well, punks.

For Lucky Lehrer, the drummer for the Circle Jerks, “it was a typical funny, bizarre, tragic night I’d come to expect with Greg Hetson, Roger Rogerson, and Keith Morris. At the end of the party, Roger got drunk off several free-flowing beer kegs and tried to fight half of the USC football team’s offensive line. They beat the shit out of him.” Apparently, Roger had it coming because Brett recalled watching him attack the jocks with a pair of nun-chucks while blackout drunk.

Despite the hijinks, it was an important gig for Bad Religion. Punk photographer Gary Leonard documented the show, and the band made a favorable impression on Lucky. “I connected with Bad Religion a little because as we were loading all our gear back into cars and mini-trucks I sensed these ‘kids from the Valley,’ as I called them, were a little less insane than the Circle Jerks.”

Lucky wasn’t being condescending. They were teenagers who despite their intelligence and ambition had very little experience in the ways of the world. “That was the first time I ever witnessed a beer bong,” Bad Religion drummer Jay Ziskrout said of the party.

Keith Morris also had fond memories of the show. When the beer ran out at the punk-themed party, Keith went searching for more, and discovered he wasn’t the only one on a reconnaissance mission.

“My favorite part of the night wasn’t playing with the Circle Jerks or watching Bad Religion,” Keith said. “My favorite part of the night was scamming on as much keg beer as I could possibly glug down. We played fraternity or sorority row and every house had some kind of thing raging. Directly across the street was a party with a country theme. They had all these bales of hay stacked randomly in the front yard. I went to go check it out and there’s this big, tall, blonde-haired surfer dude in a USC frat jacket who turned out to be Ricky Nelson’s son hanging out with Darby Crash.”

The presence of Darby Crash and Pat Smear of the Germs did not escape Brett’s attention. Brett, who idolized Darby, was astonished. “The first hardcore band that I ever saw and fell in love with was the Germs. It was distinctly separate from the punk I had been listening to. It was not the Buzzcocks or the Sex Pistols or the Ramones, who had this very accessible power pop sound, almost like it came from the fifties. The Germs were dark and felt more dangerous.”

bad religion

The show signaled the start of a long association between Bad Religion and the Circle Jerks, with Bad Religion being one of what Keith Morris referred to as “baby brother bands.”

“The scenario with Bad Religion and the Circle Jerks,” Keith explained, “was that we appreciated each other’s music. There weren’t any assholes in the group. There were no dicks. Everybody was cool. We wanted to go to the party and bust the punk rock piñata. The situation was because of our friendship with Bad Religion they started playing shows with us.”

But that night at USC, Bad Religion learned that the Circle Jerks were going to be interviewed live on KROQ during Rodney Bingenheimer’s show, Rodney on the ROQ. Rodney was one of the few L.A. scenesters who was connected to the music business and understood the importance of punk rock. (Greg Shaw of Bomp! Records was another.) He was an eclectic figure who’d had his own nightclub in the early seventies called Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco. He ate lunch at the same Denny’s in Hollywood every day. People in the music industry would drop off records, and musicians would try to get an audience with the “Mayor of Sunset Strip.”

During his show he would often play music by local punk bands. For early enthusiasts it was the best way to find out about the latest music in the scene. Kids would record Rodney’s show and exchange the tapes with other punks at school. As strange as it sounds in today’s era of corporate commercial radio, in 1980 you could turn on Rodney on the ROQ and hear the Adolescents, the Circle Jerks, and the Germs. In fact, the Adolescents’ song “Amoeba” broke through into KROQ’s regular rotation and became an underground hit.

Brett understood Rodney’s importance to the scene. “He was a guy who prided himself on knowing who the cool new bands were because he went to shows. Rodney had a radio show that started at midnight. He’d play imports from England that we couldn’t get and local bands that were hard to find, but the bands would give him their tapes to play on the radio.”

Rodney’s show made Greg’s dream of making music seem more attainable. The music Rodney played on his show included crude demos. This sparked the realization that you didn’t have to be signed to a major label to get on the radio. All you had to do was do it.

For Ziskrout, Rodney’s radio show was a crucial link to the Hollywood punk scene. “In those days KROQ had a really weak signal. We were out in West San Fernando Valley and we couldn’t get KROQ at my house most of the time. I used to go to Brett’s house because he lived up on a hill. There were times when someone would have to hold up a wire so the signal would come in clearly.”

The Circle Jerks brought Bad Religion’s demo tape to the radio station. (Both Hetson and Lucky have taken credit for delivering the tape.) Keith introduced the band and Rodney played the song “Politics” on the radio. Even though Ziskrout was aware that it might happen, he wasn’t prepared for how he’d feel when it did. “The thrill of hearing yourself on the radio for the first time can’t be put into words. There’s nothing else like it.”

“Rodney really championed us. He liked the song. He felt we were good. That got us known because kids would tape the show. It was a way people could hear our songs before they were even on a record.”

Rodney’s listeners were enthusiastic about the new band from the San Fernando Valley. They wanted more, and Rodney gave it to them. “That was really the start of the band getting popular in L.A.,” Brett said. “Rodney really championed us. He liked the song. He felt we were good. That got us known because kids would tape the show. It was a way people could hear our songs before they were even on a record.”

 [By year’s end] they’d made a popular demo, played some shows, and recorded an EP. They’d accomplished more in their first year than many bands manage in their entire careers. That two of their earliest shows were with Social Distortion and the Circle Jerks and attended by people like Darby Crash suggested they were well connected.

They weren’t. While punk was more popular than ever in L.A., there were very few places to play, so people would come out from all over greater Los Angeles and beyond to attend backyard parties and warehouse shows. On the flip side, punk bands were always looking for like-minded bands that were hungry to play and could be counted on to show up—even if it meant hauling their gear to someone’s house or a rented hall in Oxnard, East L.A., or San Pedro. That was Bad Religion.

“The scene was fairly small,” Jay said, “so you kept seeing the same people over and over again. You’d go to a show and watch a band play. You’d go to a show and you’d be the band playing.”

In those days, a punk kid who’d never set foot in Hollywood could go to a show and stand alongside one of his heroes. Of course, the feeling of admiration wasn’t always mutual. Jay’s first interaction with John Doe of X was when the bass guitar player gruffly said, “Move, kid.”

“He was probably twenty-one,” Jay recalled, “and I was fifteen. He probably thought I was ruining his scene, and he was right.”

The subculture distrusted outsiders and protected its own, even nerdy punks like Bad Religion. Going to a show where you didn’t know anyone and they didn’t know you could be dangerous.

One of the things about Bad Religion’s early shows that stood out to the band members was how many kids knew the words to their songs—and their EP hadn’t even been released yet. When people in the audience sang along with the band at their shows, it made them realize that this weird thing they did together after school in Greg’s mom’s garage had made an impact beyond their immediate circle of friends. It also reinforced the idea that what they were doing was important and had value. The realization slowly took hold that perhaps these kids memorized their lyrics because they had something meaningful to say.

With an audience made up of their heroes and peers, Jay found it hard not to be critical of his performance. “I remember always thinking, That was a good song. That was a good one. Oh, that one sucked.”

Jay wasn’t the only one who struggled with nerves. Brett also admitted to feeling uneasy onstage but credits Greg’s charisma for winning over the crowd. “I feel like Greg was a real performer from the get-go, and I think that was a big part of Bad Religion’s success. A charismatic singer is very important to a punk band, and Greg was always a great performer while I didn’t feel like I was until many years later.”

Greg may have appeared confident, but inside he was just as nervous as everyone else. “It was really nerve-wracking but I had a lot of confidence in the music. My view was, We’re all in this together, so I’ll do my part, but if I’d been up there alone I’d be shitting bricks. And I’ve felt that every concert since. A big part of my confidence comes from the guys behind me.”

It also didn’t hurt that the three performers standing at the front of the stage were all well over six feet tall. With his dyed hair, motorcycle boots, and leather jacket Greg looked the part of a punk rock front man. Brett stayed out of the spotlight but exuded a don’t-fuck-with-me aura. While Jay, the tallest member of the group at six foot four, focused on his guitar, his face a mask of intense concentration.

Brett, who was always a self-described “nerdy kid,” was surprised to learn that simply being in a band deterred people from starting trouble with him. “I remember when we were starting to get popular, more than once tough punk kids would be very menacing to me. Then someone would say, ‘Aren’t you in Bad Religion?’” When Brett told the aggressor he was, that usually ended it.

The subculture distrusted outsiders and protected its own, even nerdy punks like Bad Religion. Going to a show where you didn’t know anyone and they didn’t know you could be dangerous. For Brett, encounters like these were part of his punk initiation. “What attracted me to the punk scene was it felt like a tribe of outsiders. I felt like a person who chronically didn’t fit in. So, joining the punk scene was a way of making that a choice rather than having it inflicted on me.”

Bad Religion today

Skyler Barberio

Each of the members of Bad Religion had attended punk rock shows and had witnessed things that were difficult to understand or even explain. That’s how the media was able to hijack punk and advertise it as a violent free-for-all that attracted people who were drawn to such behavior. It was violent, at times shamefully so.

At the first punk rock show that Jay attended, Black Flag and the Circle Jerks at the Hideaway, someone crashed a car into the warehouse where the show was being held and drove through the gate. Brett recalled a show attended by Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L. who brought a friend whom Jack kept on the end of a leash. Jack would introduce his friend to strangers and tell them they had to fight his “dog.” If they declined, they had to fight Jack, who stood six foot five and reveled in violence. For Jay, the early Bad Religion shows were “exciting and terrifying and cathartic.” Punk bands whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and when the audience gave that energy back, unpredictable things happened. Bad Religion tapped into that energy in places that were unsanctioned, unsupervised, and unsafe.

Many if not most punk rockers used drugs and alcohol to rise to the occasion and/or deal with the emotions the experience generated. For some punk bands, like the Circle Jerks, the party was their whole reason for being. But Bad Religion wasn’t a party band, nor where they interested in writing confrontational lyrics for the sake of being obnoxious. They had a higher purpose in mind.

“There’s a reason we called ourselves Bad Religion,” Brett explained. “Greg and I were attempting to be intellectuals. On our debut EP I wrote a song called ‘Oligarchy’ and Greg wrote a song called ‘Politics.’ We weren’t writing joke punk or funny punk. We were teenagers, still naive and quite immature, but we were trying.”

For all their intelligence, there was no getting around the fact that they were suburban kids who didn’t know what they were doing or what they were getting into. As fans, they were outsiders, but participating as performers didn’t make things any less baffling.

“I felt like we were in an adult world that we didn’t understand,” Jay explained. “There were other people dealing with the business side of things that I didn’t want to know about. I just wanted to play and leave. It wasn’t business and it wasn’t a party.

There was this feeling that this was important without knowing why. Maybe that was just youth and not having a grasp on things, but the party thing wasn’t really for me. I think part of that was from our discussions in Greg’s garage: ‘What do we want to be as a band? What do we want to say? How do we want to present ourselves?’ I don’t know what other bands talk about when they’re forming. I just know that we had that discussion. We didn’t want to just be up there screaming, ‘Fuck the cops!’ or ‘I hate my parents!’ There had to be something more meaningful than that. That was how we felt about the band. It wasn’t a vehicle for drugs. It wasn’t a vehicle for money. It was a vehicle for us to say the things that we felt. That was more important than anything else.”

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Excerpt adapted 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.