In Fear Of A Punk Decade, the punk and hardcore explosion of the ’90s is revisited, remembered, and reassessed, year by year.
I stood on the stage of The Lion’s Lair, one of the seediest bars in Denver, getting heckled by the singer of Agression.
Agression (the misspelling is intentional, or at least that’s what the band would have you believe) began in the ’80s as one of California’s first skate-punk outfits. By 1994, the group had relocated to Colorado. It seems like an odd move for a band with more than one song about the beach, but many notable punk bands—from pop-punk champ All to post-hardcore powerhouse Planes Mistaken For Stars—have picked up roots and headquartered in Colorado over the years. It’s a relatively easy state for a musician to live in, and when it comes to touring, you’re centrally located. Agression’s frontman, Mark Hickey, was being less than neighborly that night at the Lion’s Lair. I forget his exact words, but as my admittedly wobbly young punk band played, he drunkenly yelled something about how our Offspring-sounding shit sucked, and that it might be best for all involved if we simply got off the stage. He generously volunteered to help with that.
Standing there with a bass strapped to my scrawny frame, I wasn’t intimidated by this grizzled old punk from a legendary band heckling me. I was offended. The Offspring? We didn’t sound anything like the goddamn Offspring.
In 1994, The Offspring’s breakthrough hit “Come Out And Play”—with its annoyingly infectious refrain, “You gotta keep ’em separated”—hit radio and MTV like a bomb. It rocketed the previously unknown band to instant fame, and eventually it would turn the album it appears on, Smash, into the biggest-selling independent album of all time, a distinction it still holds. I never cared for The Offspring; their 1992 album Ignition hadn’t done anything for me when it came out, and “Come Out And Play” sounded just as tuneless and empty. But that wasn’t why I was so offended when my band was compared to them. It upset me for a far more petty reason: I didn’t want to be labeled as some kind of wannabe sellout.
Short of dressing like Urkel, selling out was the uncoolest thing you could do in 1994. Actually, dressing like Urkel was okay, assuming you were in Weezer—another band that would go supersonic before the end of that year. But Weezer wasn’t punk, even though the group would eventually influence an untold number of punk bands by the time the ’90s were out. The Offspring was punk—only The Offspring wasn’t that huge of a band in the underground scene before making the jump to stardom. It was easy to view things on such black-and-white terms back then, totally ignoring the fact that musicians might want to make a living—hell, a great living—at playing music. Punk was supposed to be a higher calling. If Fugazi could make a living by releasing its own records, selling no T-shirts, and charging only five bucks for its shows, why couldn’t any band? So went the common argument against selling out circa 1994. Logically, that was full of holes; Fugazi could do that because it sold hundreds of thousands of records and had a guaranteed draw of a thousand kids in almost any town in America. What seemed like a cut-and-dried, us-vs.-them issue was actually extremely complicated. But if there’s anything punk loves to view itself as, it’s the sword that hacks away at the Gordian Knot.
Green Day didn’t make things any simpler. As angry as frontman Dexter Holland tried to seem, The Offspring wasn’t taken seriously by that many punks. But the punk scene had truly taken Green Day into its heart in the early ’90s—because, not in spite, of Billie Joe Armstrong’s nerdy romanticism. When Dookie came out in February of 1994, Green Day seemed instantly huge. Those of us who knew every word of the band’s first two albums, 1990’s 39/Smooth and 1992’s Kerplunk, were well aware that the major-label debut was coming. But we had no idea Dookie would turn into what it did: the next Nevermind
Kurt Cobain died on April 5, 1994, three days before The Offspring’s Smash was released. There is no correlation between these two events except for the fact that Cobain helped pave the way for the mainstream acceptance of punk, and that his suicide letter bemoaned the loss of his artistic independence—an ethic learned in his “punk rock 101 courses.” The Offspring and Green Day were just the vanguard of the battalion of punk bands that made the leap to the big time in 1994, thus leaving a perverse wreath on Cobain’s grave. Strangely, most of the others had very little chance of ever succeeding on that scale. Samiam had spent years making gruff, brooding, darkly melodic albums, and its major-label debut, Clumsy, was just as good as its predecessors—but if Atlantic Records executives thought Samiam was going to be the next Pearl Jam, they were sadly mistaken.
Two of the most curious major-label debuts by bands from the post-hardcore scene, however, were Shudder To Think’s Pony Express Record and Jawbox’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart. Both had previously released albums on Dischord Records, the label run by Ian MacKaye of Fugazi; as such, Dischord was the last label anyone thought would produce a major-label band. It only made things sting more when Pony Express Record and For Your Own Special Sweetheart wound up being not only good, but amazing—huge leaps forward in artistry and ambition for each group. Naturally, the stage-diving public had no idea what the hell to make of such weirdly, subtly confrontational music. A year earlier, In Utero had tested the limits of how far a mainstream rock album could push the envelope of middle-American tolerance. With Cobain gone, people were ready for the far more digestible punk roughage of The Offspring and Green Day.
That said, The Offspring still made it big on an indie label—although the irony was that label was owned by Bad Religion, which had recently made its own jump to the majors. Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz had run Epitaph Records for years, but Bad Religion’s 1994 album, Stranger Than Fiction, was released on Atlantic, and it remains the group’s best-selling album. Epitaph had a full slate of up-and-coming bands of its own, including the ex-Operation Ivy outfit Rancid, whose rousing, retro-’70s-sounding Let’s Go helped set the stage for a much bigger showing with 1995’s …And Out Come The Wolves. Lesser Epitaph signees like the impassioned Down By Law—led by Dave Smalley, former singer of All and Dag Nasty—helped flesh out the roster, providing punk with a bit less polish and overt careerism. On Down By Law’s 1994 album Punkrockacademyfightsong, Smalley sings a fist-pumping song called “Punk Won”—but rather than trumpeting punk’s victory over the Billboard charts, it extols the integrity and idealism of the punk he grew up on. Curiously, Smalley would soon become a rare voice for conservativism in the punk scene. But in 1994, politics seemed to be the least of most punks’ worries—even those on a label run by the notoriously outspoken Bad Religion.
Bad Religion had Epitaph, and NOFX had Fat Wreck Chords. Owned and operated by NOFX bassist and lead singer Fat Mike, the label similarly exploded in the early ’90s—although NOFX itself was on Epitaph, including 1994’s Punk In Drublic, an album whose goofy irreverence and hardcore speed belied a deep knack for pop songcraft and wordplay that was both silly and genuinely witty—not to mention satirical of the punk scene itself. Plenty of other popular bands put out albums on Fat Wreck in 1994, including Lagwagon’s NOFX-like Trashed and Strung Out’s earnest, Bad Religion-esque Another Day In Paradise. Those albums contributed to a meme that was beginning to take hold in the punk scene: that the bands on Fat Wreck are all derivative and same-sounding, subject to the Fat Mike meat-grinder that made generic punk sausage out of its signees. It’s an unfair, inaccurate claim, as would soon be proven when the label began to branch out—albeit never very far—as the ’90s progressed.
It didn’t help that the first of Fat Wreck’s many inexpensive sampler CDs, Fat Music For Fat People, came out in 1994. Along with the first volume of Punk-O-Rama, Epitaph’s series of cheap compilations, Fat Music For Fat People turned thousands of kids on to bands they might not have normally heard. In the days before the Internet became a primary means of music promotion, that was central to the wild success Fat Wreck and Epitaph would see in the ’90s—but it also reinforced the notion that each label had an inbred house style, and that they existed just to manufacture punk-rock product even more homogenous than what the majors pumped out. Not that it stopped Lagwagon from smartly exploring the complexity surrounding that bogeyman of the ’90s, “corporate rock,” on “Know It All,” a standout track from Trashed that also appears on Fat Music For Fat People.
Part of the mythology of punk rock is that the music is supposed to sound crude and raw. But there’s always been room for slick sounds in punk, at least relatively speaking; even the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks is slathered in studio polish. But with all the Epitaph and Fat Wreck bands beginning to sound cleaner and cleaner—not to mention Green Day’s Dookie being a huge step above its previous releases, fidelity-wise—it’s not surprising that a crop of decidedly scrappy punk bands sprang up. Lo-fi, after all, was a buzzword in indie-rock at the time, and while it may be hard to imagine Sebadoh and, say, F.Y.P, being part of the same continuum in 1994, they kind of were.
Led by Todd Congelliere, one of punk’s most unfairly overlooked pop songsmiths, F.Y.P produced static-addled classics like 1994’s Dance My Dunce, a disc full of adenoidal weirdness and surreal juvenilia that flew in the face of every prevailing punk trend at the time, although it’s not hard to trace a line from F.Y.P to later kindred spirits like Jay Reatard and King Khan. Accordingly, Dance My Dunce still holds up—as does Got A Record, the 1994 debut by The Rip Offs, a band formed by ex-Supercharger frontman Greg Lowery and former Mr. T Experience member Jon Von. That mash-up of gritty garage gunk and pop-punk snarl resulted in one of the best punk albums of the ’90s, even if it irked (or just plain confused) many punks at the time.
Hardcore’s roundabout route of mutation throughout the ’90s is as frustrating as it is exhilarating. For every holdover from the ’80s like 7 Seconds or Agnostic Front, there were new bands springing up trying to fill the void—even as they genetically modified hardcore by adding elements of dissonance and complexity. San Diego’s Drive Like Jehu can barely be called punk, but like Weezer, the group didn’t need to be embraced by the punk scene to wind up influencing so many bands within it. Yank Crime, Drive Like Jehu’s 1994 swansong, inspired legions of post-hardcore bands to get weird, scratchy, and angular—and Jehu’s San Diego neighbor, Heroin, took that formula to a higher level with its self-titled album from ’94, an epochal disc that helped kick off what would become known as screamo. But hardcore proper received a shot of adrenaline to the heart with yet another San Diego act, Unbroken. The straight-edge, Slayer-loving outfit didn’t make sense on paper, but on record, it was unstoppable. Unbroken’s 1994 full-length, Life.Love.Regret., is a brooding, metallic spasm of righteous rage that pointed the way toward a brighter, bleaker hardcore future.
Screamo was the tag bands like Heroin got saddled with, but that unfortunate portmanteau couldn’t have happened without emo. The first, brief wave of emo—initially called “emocore”—fizzled in the ’80s after Rites Of Spring, Guy Picciotto’s and Brendan Canty’s legendary pre-Fugazi outfit, broke up. But by 1994, it was a vital and surprisingly diverse subgenre. That year, veteran group Moss Icon released Lyburnum Wits End Liberation Fly, a poetic, sporadically delicate meditation of moody post-hardcore that set the template for the artier side of the emo underground. The same can be said of younger groups like Indian Summer. Although it never released a proper full-length, Indian Summer put out enough singles and compilation tracks to warrant an anthology, Science 1994, that showcased the group’s affinity for both post-hardcore intensity and post-rock dynamics. Few bands of emo’s second wave, however, held as much sway as Cap’n Jazz. The suburban Chicago band’s lone full-length—whose ridiculously long title is more popularly known as Shmap’n Shmazz—was released in 1994. It’s emo’s The Velvet Underground; not many kids bought it at the time, as it was barely available before going out of print for years. But it inspired legions of budding, sensitive young men and woman to flex their wordplay, fly their nerd flags, and scream about the emotional landscape of youth over cathartic, harshly jangling art-punk.
Not all emo was challenging. Some of it was downright pretty. Denver’s Christie Front Drive released a self-titled EP and a self-titled seven-inch in 1994, and like Shmap’n Shmazz, they left a mark on the fledgling emo scene that’s still felt. It could rock out and even get a little screamy, but for the most part it’s an epic, achingly tuneful slab of post-adolescent soul-purging. The members of California’s Sense Field were a little longer in the tooth, having spent time in the hardcore band Reason To Believe before going sweetly, dreamily melodic on albums like 1994’s Killed For Less. Released on the hardcore label Revelation, it also set the stage for a similar-sounding band of former hardcore dudes, Texas Is The Reason, who were a couple years away from unleashing Do You Know Who You Are?, their heralded album on Revelation.
Likewise, Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate featured former members of hardcore bands, including Christ On A Crutch. Sunny Day Real Estate’s 1994 debut, Diary, couldn’t be further from that kind of corrosive punk. Layered, lush, and otherworldly, Diary hit the emo scene hard. The album has been heaped with hyperbole since its release, but it’s best to remember that it was already spoken about practically in whispers when it came out. Diary was a sea change in emo—not just because it was so intricate and singular, but because it came out on Sub Pop, the label that meant both artist credibility and commercial viability. First grunge had gone mainstream, and then pop-punk. Was emo next? Diary was the first album that raised that question, even though it was still many years before that question would be definitively answered.
One of the bands that would eventually haul emo into the mainstream is Jimmy Eat World—not that you’d know it from the group’s 1994 self-titled debut. Recorded when the members were still teenagers, it’s a promising yet rough document of feisty, messy pop-punk—a style that would soon change when Jimmy Eat World began playing shows with Christie Front Drive, resulting in a split single in 1995 and JEW’s gradual ascent to emo superstardom. It didn’t hurt that, in a few years, the up-and-coming JEW would tour with a band that was just beginning to find its feet in 1994: Blink-182. That band’s first album, Cheshire Cat, came out in ’94, and its off-kilter bounciness immediately caught the ear of kids who were already starting to wander from the Epitaph/Fat Wreck flock. Cheshire Cat isn’t radically different from your typical Fat release from 1994, but there was a refreshing sloppiness and wide-eyed exuberance to it that augured lucrative things to come.
Green Day had sold out. The Offspring had sold out. Many more would follow, regardless of whether selling out was really as evil or clearly defined as many ’90s punks thought it was. Besides Fugazi, one of the biggest bands that seemed to be holding the independent line was Jawbreaker. 1994 marked the release of the group’s third album, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, which remains many fans’ favorite—and by then, Jawbreaker had become a bona fide phenomenon. After 1992’s sprawling, ambitious Bivouac, 24 Hour was punchier and punker; at the same time, it packed odd pockets of strangled noise and tangled verse into its short, sharp doses of raspy pop-punk.
But Jawbreaker was already straining at the indie leash. In 1993, the band had been hand-picked to open for six dates on Nirvana’s In Utero tour—and before long, Jawbreaker would sign to Nirvana’s label, Geffen. Before that polarizing (and ultimately disastrous) leap to the majors happened, Jawbreaker delivered a masterpiece of ’90s punk. On one of the disc’s high points, the anthemic “Boxcar,” leader Blake Schwarzenbach spits in the face of punk orthodoxy with the opening lines, “You’re not punk, and I’m telling everyone / Save your breath, I never was one.” And on “Indictment,” he throws around phrases like “Selling kids to other kids” and “What’s so wrong with a stupid, happy song?”—clues that he was already wrestling with the decision to follow another catchy Bay Area trio, Green Day, into the great, mainstream unknown.
Fear Of 1995: In 1995, it became official: After 20 years of making only marginal inroads in America, punk was the next big thing. Not only that, but The Offspring showed that it was possible to have it both ways—be a platinum-selling band while remaining technically independent. While bands like Rancid went for the gold, others like J Church remained proudly underground, even as the first Warped Tour began to solidify the money-generation infrastructure of mainstream punk. The sleeping dragon of the ’90s, hardcore, finally awakes in 1995, and so do ska-core and street-punk. In the midst of it all, gloriously unique groups like Smoking Popes and Scared Of Chaka forged their own sounds in the cracks between subgenres. It’s the hump year of ’90s punk—and it shows.