Talkhouse Contributing Writer Zachary Lipez is the former singer for Freshkills and the current singer of Publicist UK. He writes the “Adult Problems” column for Noisey/VICE. He also contributes to Hazlitt, MySpace, and Vol.1 Brooklyn. His most recent book, with Nick Zinner and Stacey Wakefield, is Please Take Me Off the Guest List (Akashic Books, 2010). He tends bar at 124 Rabbit Club. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Bad Religion has been a punk band since, roughly, the beginning of existence. In Gnostic religions when the Monad, the mind of God, first became aware, it gave birth to Sophia, who in turn gave birth to the Demiurge, who, being flawed and misguided, created man. Immediately after the fall of man, Bad Religion formed. Shortly thereafter, Maximumrocknroll criticized them for using too many big words. It was a time, pre-civilization.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, from the cloud-piercing peaks of Los Angeles, Bad Religion made about as many flawless melodic pop-punk albums as there are melodic pop-punk stars in in the sky. Their most popular song, “21st Century (Digital Boy),” is a pretty basic rewrite of Eddie and the Subtitles’ “American Society” and their best two albums are 1989’s No Control and Bad Religion’s own redheaded stepchild, 1983’s Into the Unknown. The band and their fans hate the latter but the one true god is unknowable and they are wicked incorrect. The silly-billys at Epitaph have gone so far as to let Into the Unknown go out of print and pretend it never happened. But, like the early Christians, I know what I know. I’ll draw the band’s logo, “the crossbuster” in addition to “Into the Unknown Rules, OK?” in the sand with my feet so others in my sect will recognize. But I digress. Your passions don’t have to be my passions. Point being, I like Bad Religion. Always have. I just like some records (way) better than others.
Now Bad Religion has released an album of Christmas songs.
Bad Religion is a provisionally agnostic leftist organization. I say provisionally because while the politics they espouse are never less than progressive (being consistently and vocally pro-choice and having gone so far as to have done a fine split single with Noam Chomsky), at the same time, through touring and licensing choices, they operate as one of the longest running shoe commercials in recorded history. That’s fine. Not every anarchist dreamer is a walking critique of the capitalist system in the waking world; sometimes you just want to say stuff. Me too, man. And I say provisionally agnostic because the band’s members are apparently theists and lapsed Catholics and all the other things every other musician at the bar is. (What I wouldn’t do for a nice Anglican who plays bass.) Anyway, Bad Religion have repeatedly stated that their name was punk kids being punk kids, so this album isn’t a betrayal of an initial identity. Bad Religion were never actively looking to post a “Question Authority” sticker on baby Jesus’s longboard. They just really believe in evolution.
Bad Religion’s publicist called Christmas Songs “subversive.” But a publicist’s notion of subversive usually consists of eating local and listening to Arcade Fire. But, fuck it — sure, it’s subversive. In that the band plays it relatively straight. If the listener expected a GG Allin-esque curse- and poop-fest, the listener’s expectations are subverted. It’s less subversive if the listener expects a pleasant enough, melodic as all-get-out novelty record about Jebus. The record may start with a children’s choir on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” but that lasts 20 seconds. Then the drums kick in and it’s Matt Pinfield on a half-pipe for the rest of the album. Well, that’s not exactly true… hence the total frustration of this record. There are moments, man, there are moments. See, even though Bad Religion is an easy target (punks don’t really listen to them anymore and the members wear shorts and wallet chains like little boys) BAD RELIGION ARE ALSO (at times) A REALLY GOOD BAND. The albums I’ve mentioned, I mention not in faint praise; they are some of my favorite punk albums. They have smart lyrics, memorable melodies, and a palpable sense of rage and frustration at a world that would maybe be slightly better if people would just listen to what main songwriters Brett Gurewitz and Greg Graffin had to say. Maybe that last part isn’t strictly speaking true, but in a world where stringy-haired Marxist 101 stand-up comedians are considered genius, Bad Religion are Pinky and the Brain, with every member being the Brain. They always projected a well articulated, world-weary yet strangely utopian viewpoint I find compelling to this day. And there are flashes here and there on this record where it almost stops being a novelty record and then I immediately want to punch their sense of aesthetics when they bring the goddamned stupid chunka-chunka guitar back.
I suspect that I was asked to write about this album for the same reason most people are being asked to write about it, to make fun of it. And, you know, partially happy to oblige. But for every total joke on the record (their version of “White Christmas” is a slap in the face to all good assimilationist Jewish artists, from Irvin Berlin to the Ramones), there’s a swell version of “Little Drummer Boy,” a song that’s hard to fuck up and Bad Religion doesn’t. And, as with all decent punk records, the album ends way before you need it to.
Do I like the record? No, I don’t. It’s a novelty record and I’m a big boy with a girlfriend who doesn’t need punk covers on her Christmas mix tapes (OK, because she’s Muslim and more into Kate Bush), so I don’t need any more novelty records in my life. Honestly, the only Christmas punk album anyone needs is M.I.A. covering “California Dreamin’” 12 times in a row.
Like I said, Bad Religion is a bit of an easy target and, being a bit of a jerk, I’ll always take the cheap shot. But I’m a booster and an ardent appreciator of the obvious, the sincere, the punk lifers of this world. And Bad Religion wrote “I Want to Conquer the World,” which I, invention of a time machine notwithstanding, didn’t. So they may take this review in the spirit it’s intended: one written partially out of a squirming, vile envy not fitting for the holiday season. Also, it would be remiss to not mention that this novelty record is also a charity record, with proceeds going to the SNAP Network (Survival Network of Those Abused by Priests).
Final Verdict? If I were you, sweet consumer, I’d probably give this little guy a pass, donate a tenner to their charity, and then order a few old Bad Religion records. And please write them a strongly worded e-mail demanding they reissue Into the Unknown on vinyl. It’s what we should all want for Christmas.