Classic Music Review: Smash by Offspring

the-offspring-smash-remastered-vinyl

I have to state up front that I know nothing about molecular biology. I apologize for my stunning lack of ignorance of this field.

Disclosing that appalling deficit was necessary because here I will be reviewing the work of a molecular biologist, one Dexter Holland, lead singer and songwriter of (The) Offspring (the article is in parentheses because at the time of this release, they were just garden-variety, article-free Offspring).

Fortunately for those of us who are scientifically inadequate, there are no references to RNA replication or bioinformatics on any of the tracks. Smash is the exposure of a dystopian society where the inhabitants are obsessed with guns and violence. Dystopian = “a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening.”

Hmm. I wonder where on earth that could be.

Smash is a power-driven and explosive album with a palpable sense of urgency. Unfortunately, while it sold millions of copies at home and around the world, it failed to change anything in the dystopian society targeted in the songs. If anything, the American passion for guns and violence has intensified in the twenty-odd years since its release, supporting one of the insistent warnings expressed in Smash: The United States is on an irreversible path of self-destruction. The reaction to Sandy Hook and Aurora confirmed that Americans would rather sacrifice children and innocent people than relinquish their God-given right to own weapons.

That’s why when I had the chance to relocate to France, I grabbed it. For dear life.

Smash disarms you at the start with a tiny track called “Time to Relax,” where a dulcet-toned announcer intones a set of words that are loaded with irony:

Ah, its time to relax and you know what that means
Glass of wine, your favorite easy chair
And of course this compact disc playing on your home stereo
So go on and indulge yourself, that’s right!
Kick off your shoes, put your feet up
Lean back and just enjoy the melodies
After all, music soothes even the savage beast

The savage beast lies at the heart of Smash, but as we’ll see, there’s little hope of soothing the American beast. This is hardly a record for relaxation: it is a savage exposé of the cancer in the American body.

The first song is a generational message called “Nitro (Youth Energy).” Opening with a “Wipeout”-like drum roll, the speed and energy of the track force you to hold onto your seat like you’re riding The Big Dipper: it’s hard-ass, in-your-face punk rock without compromise. Dexter Holland is a remarkable vocalist, capable of hitting notes with full force at the higher end of the male scale. I keep waiting for him to crack but he never loses the oomph in his voice. Since this is my generation, the message has been imprinted on my DNA:

Our generation sees the world
Not the same as before
We might as well just throw it all
And live like there’s no tomorrow
There’s no tomorrow, there’s no tomorrow
We are the ones
Who are living under the gun every day
You might be gone before you know
So live like there’s no tomorrow
(Ain’t gonna waste this life)

My parents consider this nihilistic and cynical, and it is—but in a very specific sense. Many of my co-generationists look at the way the world works and say, “You’re fucking kidding me.” The greed, the violence the phoniness, the ludicrous hierarchies, the unnecessary competition, the status games, the obsession with ancient isms—the sheer illogic of it all is appalling to us. Our response is logical—turn our “inheritance” into an object of black humor and live for today, because we know that the generation in power is likely to self-implode and take us along with them. I completely reject the notion that such a stance is a form of nihilistic surrender: it’s realistic. Come on, folks! You know damned well that the fix is in, that voting changes nothing because you’re choosing between gray and grayer and that nothing can change unless you dismantle the entire power structure. Since The Constitution and Capitalism are both sacred cows, and since those in power have no interest in changing the system that makes them rich and powerful, such change is inconceivable without a major cataclysm. All we can do is live our lives truthfully, in defiance of the lies on which the current system is based, help each other out and avoid wasting energy on things that we cannot impact.

“Bad Habit” describes an environment I remember all too well. I went to college in Claremont, California, a peaceful village in the L. A. metro area surrounded by a fucking war zone. I learned to never visit parts of Pomona or stop for gas in Baldwin Park because of intense gang activity. Almost as bad was the legendary parking lot called the I-10, one of many competitors in the L. A. area for the designation of Road Rage Capital of the World. Combine torturous commutes with the macho attitudes held by a good chunk of the male population of L. A. and you get people killing each other over territorial pissing matches on the freeway. Among all the absurd causes of death in the world, this one takes the proverbial cake.

Dexter Holland had to drive through East L. A. every day and captured the sheer insanity of the road rage phenomenon in “Bad Habit.” A first-person narrative from the perspective of the road-rager, the opening sequence is eerie and still, a mix of bass notes and dissonant electric guitar, like we’ve invaded the dark place where these people go when someone cuts in front of them. After the first verse, the song turns into a careening tale of madness on waves of slam-dance rock:

When I go driving, I stay in my lane
But getting cut off, it makes me insane
Open the glove box, reach inside
Gonna wreck this fucker’s ride

I guess I got a bad habit
Of blowin’ away
I got a bad habit
And it ain’t goin’ away
Yeah, yeah

Well, they say the road’s a dangerous place
If you flip me off, I’ll get in your face
You drive on my ass, your foot’s on the gas
And your next breath is your last

The most terrifying part is when the band stops and leaves Dexter Holland to sing and scream the truly megalomaniacal couplet, “Something’s odd, I feel like I’m God/You stupid, dumb shit, goddamn, motherfucker.” No, for this guy, it ain’t ever gonna go away, not with all the therapy in the world.

“Gotta Get Away” is Dexter Holland’s narrative of the excessive pressure in his life at the time, but what really knocks me out in this track is the band. The intro is a fabulous introduction to each band member’s talents, beginning with Ron Welty’s powerful presence on the kit, followed by Greg K.’s Kim Deal-like bass riff and culminating in a seriously sexy display of guitar power from Noodles. The intro is so good I always have the urge to play it again, and I use that clip as one of my wake-up alarms on my iPhone. The lyrics are remarkable for the self-awareness people rarely display when they’re under stress: the closing line of the chorus is “I gotta get away from me,” not “I gotta get away from all the losers who are making my life so, so difficult.” Blame under stress is such a common reaction that to hear someone admit that he’s the owner of all that negative energy is both refreshing and humbling. Shit, I blame the Americans back in the corporate office for everything, so I have to admit I could learn a lot from this song.

“Genocide,” opens with nimbly-strummed power chords that make me die of envy and embarrassment as I consider my own klutzy guitar skills. Ron Welty comes in with drums that reflect the way I feel when I’m whipping my partner’s ass hard and fast to ramp up the heat in a scene. The lyrics develop the theme of American self-destruction, identifying one source as the American competitiveness that true patriots brag about with enormous pride:

Dog eat dog every day
On our fellow man we prey
Dog eat dog to get by
Hope you like my genocide

I find it such a shame
Through the pain I see things as they are
We’re served up on a plate
The pedestal is high enough to fall

And if in time
We can see the errors of our ways
Would anyone change it anyhow
Our time is up

While the song is no-holds barred, intense, crashing punk, what drives that intensity is the enormous frustration we millenials feel about our circumstances: we see the problem, but there ain’t a damn thing we can do about it. Those in power dismiss our perceptions as the ravings of immature youth who don’t know how the world works. No! We do! And that’s the fucking problem! Dexter Holland felt the same frustration about affecting change, poignantly expressed in the lines, “I bet you’d lead the way/If it were up to you to decide . . . but it’s not.” It’s frustrating to sit back and watch an entire culture commit mass suicide, but in this case, the patients don’t think they have a problem.

“Something to Believe In” anticipates the dismissal of the political punks as nihilists by essentially saying, “Okay, then, show me what you got.” When the answer is babbling crap about real American values, the response can only be “Yeah, that’s what I thought: you got nothin’.”

I believe that reality’s gone, disillusion’s real
I believe that morality’s gone and theres’ nothing to feel
If you take the sacred things, the things that we hold dear
Empty promise is all you’ll find so give me something . . . something to believe in.

The high-speed strumming on this song sounds like a cello section playing the motif in a Beethoven symphony. “Something to Believe In” is also a great mosh pit song—an absolute slammer. But the real slam comes at the end with a verse that cleverly rejects the notion that cynicism = nihilism.

The authorities on both sides of the political fence have fed the American people the same moronic dogma for years. Why? Because it works! It works because most people care only about their comfort. They don’t want to think; they just want to immerse themselves in special-effect driven fantasy movies and inane television shows while munching on the snacks and drinking the beer hyped by the sponsoring advertisers. One thing I started to realize before I left for Europe was how rare it was to hear an original thought in the United States: everyone seemed to be parroting their favorite authorities. Dexter Holland’s closing message makes a compelling argument that free thinking is our only real hope in a world gone mad:

If you take home anything
Let it be your will to think
The more cynical you become
The better off you’ll be

“Come Out and Play” was a monster hit in its day, exposing the spread of the gun culture to the nation’s children and the ridiculous macho cultural norms surrounding respect that are magnified in gang life. The famous Arabian-tinged riff and the repeated spoken line “You got to keep ‘em separated” have become iconic, but even after two decades, the energy and commitment in this performance is undeniable. Dexter Gordon’s vocal is fucking out of this world, especially when he nails the oscillation on the half-step chord transition on the word “ti-ay-ay-ay-ime.” Backed by another high-powered band performance, his lyrics express a combination of disgust and incredulity what he saw on a regular basis driving through the East L.A. ganglands:

Like the latest fashion
Like a spreading disease
The kids are strappin’ on their way to the classroom
Getting weapons with the greatest of ease

The gangs stake their own campus locale
And if they catch you slippin’ then it’s all over pal
If one guy’s colors and the others don’t mix
They’re gonna bash it up, bash it up, bash it up, bash it up

Hey, man you talkin’ back to me?
Take him out
You gotta keep ‘em separated
Hey, man you disrespecting me?
Take him out
You gotta keep ‘em separated
Hey, they don’t pay no mind
If you’re under 18 you won’t be doing any time
Hey, come out and play

The second hit from Smash, “Self Esteem,” opens with chords echoing the familiar intro to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The story here is one in which I have considerable experience as a dominant female: men with low self-esteem who want to submit to a woman because they truly believe they’re shit. That’s not the way to get my love and attention, guys! If you’re “submitting” to a woman who uses and abuses you like the bitch in this song, both of you could use some serious psychiatric care. There is a world of difference between submitting to a whipping because you want to fulfill your mistress’s desires and submitting because you feel you deserve abuse because you’re a low-life turd. The first is an act of love and devotion; the second mindless masochism. You can’t be a great slave in the BDSM context without high self-esteem, as paradoxical as that may seem to vanilla sex practitioners. Getting off my high horse and carefully returning my riding crop to its proper place, I will say I’m surprised that this song resonated with listeners the world over: there must be more masochists than I thought possible. As it is, this is probably my least-favorite song on Smash, probably because the character sketch is too stereotypical and fails to acknowledge the positive aspects of submission.

We pick up the thread of impending social doom in the basher, “It’ll Be a Long Time.” Here Dexter takes on the superpowers and the chess game of world domination. The most important line of the song is “When will the world listen to reason/I’ve a feelin’ it’ll be a long time,” which pretty much aligns with my thinking. It’s followed by the only cover on the album, “Killboy Powerhead,” a song from a long-gone punk band from Illinois called The Didjits. This sucker is a high-speed driver with some hot bass picking from Greg K., and fits perfectly with the violence = stupidity theme that dominates the album. “What Happened to You?” comes next, a ska-punk piece with more of a pop-influenced melody. The lyrics are a one-sided conversation about the evils of excessive drug use, but what I love most about this song is Noodles’ sweet guitar solo. “So Alone” is a fast-paced skipper that describes the contradictory experience of feeling completely alone in a large crowd of people. I’ve often wondered why people are attracted to grand events where they know they’ll be surrounded by tens of thousands of fellow human beings and will strive to avoid any meaningful contact with them. I have a fantasy of shouting the lines “Don’t be surrounded/Don’t be so alone” at a concert someday, but I don’t expect much of a response.

After having spent a good part of the album bemoaning the state of the world, Dexter Holland deals with the issue of our own responsibility in the matter in “Not the One.” In the language of Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blue fame, the truth is we’ve been left with a bag of crap that we’re going to have to deal with one way or another. The challenge for us is that it’s not just one bag of crap, but several bags of crap:

We’re not the ones who leave the homeless in the streets at night
We’re not the ones who’ve kept minorities and women down
Still we grow and then the problems they become our own
We carry on without even realizing why

We’re innocent
But the weight of the world is on our shoulders
We’re innocent
But the battles left us are far from over

We’re not the ones whose pollution blackened our skies
And ruined our streams
We’re not the ones who made the nuclear bombs
That threaten our lives

We’re not the ones who let the children starve in faraway lands
We’re not the ones who made the streets unsafe to walk at night
And even if we try and not become so overwhelmed
And if we make some contribution to the plight we see
Still our descendants will inherit our mistakes of today
They’ll suffer just the same as we and never wonder why

From that last verse I take it that Dexter’s opinion is that the present generation is always going to leave its own bags of crap behind for the next. This is probably true, but we can’t let that stop us from trying to help people who are suffering now, and I think Dexter holds both opinions: we may not be here for long, but while we’re here, make a contribution. Musically, the song is another fire-burner—Greg K. plays so fast you’d think he was a frigging android, and the beat never lets up.

The title track ends the album . . . sort of. “Smash” is one more burst of pure punk energy, a terribly exciting song with varied dynamics and a fabulous shift in rhythm on the last chorus. That chorus is a hoot to sing:

I’m not a trendy asshole
Do what I want
Do what I feel like
I’m not a trendy asshole
Don’t give a fuck
If it’s good enough for you
‘Cause I am alive

The repetition of “I’m alive” at the very end of the song is meant as an affirmation: you’re alive when you refuse to follow the program and start thinking for yourself. Smash may not be a pure concept album, but its themes are as strong or stronger than many of the records that have earned that distinction.

I said that “Smash” sort of ended the album. After the song ends, there’s a final “ta-ta” from the announcer, followed by a tightly-played motif that fades into silence. After six or so minutes of dead air, you hear the true end: a guitar duet based on the Arabian riff from “Come Out and Play.” The tempo is slower and the feel is definitely more Rick’s in Casablanca, with belly dancer bells adding a traditional element to the mix. I love this little Easter egg and I’m always happy to hear it when I let the track run to its true end.

Smash was a huge, huge album: the biggest selling indie album in history at the time. This led to bigger concerts, more money and eventually, a controversial signing with the establishment guys at Columbia Records. There was a big schism in the 90’s between “indie” and “the industry,” felt most strongly in the re-energized punk scene. Rancid stayed independent; Green Day and The Offspring went to the labels. I hate to judge either choice because I can understand both sides of the argument, and there are risks and rewards from either approach.

All I care about at this moment is that (The) Offspring produced a blistering, meaningful masterpiece of 90’s punk that is still relevant today. Tight, talented, and committed to their craft, Smash is the album where they put it all together, and whatever you think of the major label decision, you can’t deny the truth or the excellence of Smash.

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