From fuck off to turning folk on 

Old-school punks Bad Religion keep the faith, preach change

Irish poet W.B. Yeats, in his 1920 post-WWI work "The Second Coming," wrote, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity."

For those who grew up on punk music spawned in the Reagan years, Yeats' words could describe the current environment, which finds the most potently political musical movement of the last quarter-century saddled with popular acts more concerned about their girlfriends than the Bush administration's self-righteous policies. But they're words that certainly wouldn't fit old-school standard bearers Bad Religion, a band that's not only remained true to its agit-prop principles, but has just released the most overtly political album of its 24-year career, The Empire Strikes First.

The sextet's second album since the return of co-founder Brett Gurewitz from a self-imposed exile (during which he turned his label -- Epitaph, early home to Bad Religion, Offspring, Rancid, etc. -- into an enormous indie powerhouse), Empire assails the politics of fear ("Let Them Eat War"), religious fundamentalism ("God's Love"), the Orwellian complicity of inaction ("Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever"), and, on the title cut, the new American policy of pre-emption.

"Bad Religion has always been a political band, but on the earlier records, [lyricist] Greg [Graffin] was usually singing about global issues, not the specifics of a particular administration," says guitarist Brian Baker from the band's Warped Tour bus. "This new record is really the most direct of any of the Bad Religion albums in its commentary on our current administration. I think it's delivered in a way that's going to have some long-lasting value; but, make no mistake, this record is part of the personal desire of the members of our band to remove the current administration and do anything we can to do so."

Baker's happy to be on the front lines of this crusade -- not only preaching to the thousands of kids at each Warped Tour stop via the band, but also working with Punk Voter, the organization founded by fellow SoCal punk band NOFX's Fat Mike, to get kids registered and voting in the coming election. Talking to them offstage and in the booths, Baker has sensed a change in attitude that contrasts with post-'80s hardcore punk's typically aloof passivity.

"If you look at punk as a microcosm historically, it was a 'no future, fuck the man, I'm not voting, I'm not part of the machine' thing. But that doesn't work anymore," opines Baker. "The general sentiment I'm hearing is that we have no business nation-building and Bush is bad. Even if it has to be that simple, it's still gonna work. And I'm shoving this message down people's throats as gently as humanly possible."

Baker admits that the intricacies of political policy may not be universally appreciated by 18-year-old gutter punks, but more than ever, Baker says he's experienced a sense that participation is now seen as cool, and that's what's important to him. He greets the commercial success of pop-punk with similarly open arms.

"This pop-punk thing and the success of all these lighter bands -- I can't tell you how awesome I think that this is. Anything that perpetuates this type of music is a great thing," says the former guitarist of furious '80s hardcore provocateurs Minor Threat. "If a kid comes into punk rock because he's a Good Charlotte or New Found Glory fan, and somehow that gets him to a Black Flag, Circle Jerks or Minutemen record, how wonderful is that? I have absolutely no problem with the lightening of punk, because I think this type of music is so vibrant and important that I don't care how you get to the door, as long as it gets you inside the house.

"Punk's the new American folk music. I'm talking Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers. I'm talking early 20th century," continues Baker. "It still has an outlaw context, it requires a certain costume -- at least purportedly. The songs are by and large interpersonal -- issue-oriented or story of my life type of things, and that's echoed every time you listen to the Louvin Brothers. It's the same thing, just with creepers on and a chain belt."


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