This story originally appeared in the March 1995 issue of Spin. In honor of the 25-year anniversary of The Offspring’s Smash, we’re republishing it here.
The day after Orange County went bankrupt, and two days after California Highway 118 was renamed after Ronald Reagan, former high-school valedictorian Dexter Holland shouted, “You stupid dumbshit goddamn motherfucker,” on live TV. His band the Offspring, perhaps the most popular independent-label rockers in the history of the world (four million copies of their Smash album have been sold in the U.S. alone), was opening up the Billboard Music Awards and singing about pulling guns on rude drivers who tailgate on the freeway. He did a swan dive from the stage into the celebrity mosh pit wearing a purple suit coat and green yarn braided into his dreadlocks, and his T-shirt said, “CORPORATE ROCK KILLS BANDS DEAD.” A few hours later, the band watched the spectacle on TV. The network bleeped the bad words, but then Dennis Miller said, “I was talking to the kid from the Offspring, and apparently when he jumped into the crowd somebody pickpocketed his penis.” Holland laughed.
“L.A. punk rock is mostly a bunch of smart kids pretending they’re dumb kids—you know, going out and breaking windows,” Holland, 28, hypothesizes. I’m not sure what windows the Offspring break—cussing on TV doesn’t quite qualify anymore. But Holland’s “smart kids” theory might make sense, at least in these guys’ cases: Holland is a mere virus-cloning dissertation away from getting his Ph.D. in molecular biology from USC, which explains his Germs T-shirt in the “Self Esteem” video. His drummer, Ron Welty, 23, and bassist. Greg Kriesel, 29, have electronics and finance degrees. Their record label. Epitaph, was founded by a thesaurus-happy punk band (Bad Religion) whose singer (Greg Graffin) is at the same educational point as Holland, also in biology. “We don’t look at GPA so nuch.” Epitaph owner and ex-Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz jokes. “But I do prefer my bands to have good work and study habits.”
A decade ago, back when they were starting out in affluent, Republican Orange County, the Offspring had study habits but no instruments. Their Huntington Beach-area homeland had earned an early ’80s reputation for spawning hippie-bashing surfer bullies who turned Black Flag gigs into war zones, though 31-year-old Offspring guitarist Noodles (known to the IRS as Kevin Wasserman) doubts the rep was deserved. “Black Flag were probably just blaming that on the surfers,” he insists. Melodic OC punk troupes such as Agent Orange and TSOL inspired Kriesel and Holland to establish a band, so in 1987 they paid for studio time and recorded a single, which Kriesel says now sells for $30 even without the sleeve the band glued together at Holland’s house. A few years later, they put out their first album. Then, after Gurewitz engineered an Offspring track for a Flipside compilation, Epitaph released 1992’s Ignition, which initially sold 60,000 copies—”a fucking hit” by indie standards, Gurewitz stresses—and is now up around 300,000.
Soon after the somewhat more diverse and vocally audible Smash came out last March, L.A.’s seminal novelty song–hyping modern-rock outlet KROQ started spinning “Come Out and Play (Keep ‘Em Separated),” which quickly spread to kindred stations nationwide, then to AOR radio and MTV. After the follow-up track “Self Esteem” received similar attention, the album lodged itself in the Top Ten for months. The only recent indie precedents for such success are rap and dance hits on labels such as Profile and Tommy Boy. What the Offspring’s phenomenal climb brings to mind is the garage rock of the ’60s, when some body shop buddies could get together and learn the chords to “Louie Lowe” or “Gloria,” and if they were lucky, some Oklahoma DJ would start playing the single’s wild B-side, and it would become a huge hit for 15 minutes. And then they’d vanish back into oblivion.
But Gurewitz sees major differences now. What with SoundScan sales tracking, cheaper personal computers, and “a real trend toward centralization at retail.” he says, it’s not as logistically tough as it used to be for small labels to prosper. Four Epitaph bands sell in the 250,000-unit range, the company gives its acts personal attention, and low overhead costs insure that CDs selling 10,000 copies don’t lose money. As for CDs selling quadruple platinum, that’s a new issue—the Offspring are contracted for another album—but likening the group to Magic Johnson after an MVP year, Holland says, “it’s a different ballgame now,” and as much as he loves recording for an indie, he can’t see sticking with Epitaph unless they make an offer competitive with all the big corporations banging on his door. Epitaph employs just 20 people (up from 10 in pre-Smash days and Gurewitz alone in 1988); the “Come Out and Play” video cost just $5,000 to make, and you can tell.
“Come Out and Play” packs a ton of disparate sounds into a small space—the vocal hooks shout, the drums rumble, the Arabic surf guitar line charms snakes. Holland compares it to rap: “There’s kind of a rhythmic thing about the vocals; I talk instead of sing in a lot of parts. The whole beat of the song is kind of like the old War song ‘Low Rider.’ ” The lyrics remind me of Eddie Polec, a suburban Philadelphia 16-year-old beaten to death by seven teenagers with baseball bats a couple months ago as a mob of 50 just watched, in front of a church where he used to be an altar boy. Last summer, Noodles worked alongside boys who glorify violence like the boys in the song, as a Garden Grove school custodian. “One kid wanted to get his uncle’s prison belt and pants and stuff, and that was a status symbol for him. They were always talking about where they could get guns. When I was a kid, taking a gun to school and playing the badass was the furthest thing from my mind.”
Like lots of smart kids, the Offspring were geeks in high school. “Geek” is their word; they use it all the time. “Oh God, you are such a geek,” Welty tells Kriesel when the latter says he agrees with L.A.’s no-smoking-in-restaurants law. “It’s a pretty geeky thing to be in the math club,” Holland says. “And what’s worse, I was the president.” He’s not worried about anybody bootlegging his valedictorian commencement speech now that he’s a rock star: in fact, the Offspring might open an album with the oration if they can track down a tape.
Holland says he wouldn’t have been the kid in “Come Out and Play” who winds up in jail, nor the one in the morgue after fighting in the hallway: “I would’ve been the one upside down in the garbage can. I used to have kids flushing my glasses down the toilet,” recalls Noodles, who still sometimes loses his black military-type frames onstage. “I don’t think geeks get beat up a lot, though, because usually nobody cares about them,” Dexter adds.
But being a teen with a good self-image wouldn’t be normal, would it? And the success of the Offspring’s “Self Esteem” is proof. “I never knew so many people would relate to that,” Holland says. Basically, it’s the story of a guy whose girlfriend sleeps with his pals and pushes him around—my friend Chris says it should be the theme song for Darlene’s boyfriend David on Roseanne. “It’s just kind of a turnaround,” Holland says. “The girls are real cocky, and the guys are real passive.”
After its “Iron Man”-“Pictures of Matchstick Men”-Beavis and Butt-head opening chant, “Self Esteem” is said to sound a lot like Nirvana. If it was a Nirvana song it’d be the second-best one I ever heard; the Offspring have a better sense of humor than Nirvana, and their words make more sense. Holland. who likes Nirvana fine, nonetheless agrees with me about Kurt Cobain’s lyrics: “Everybody kept calling him the voice of his generation. but really, I could never figure out what his songs were about.”
Back in school, Holland and Kriesel ran cross-country track. “A real unglamorous sport,” Holland recalls. “Cheerleaders ignored us. We’d run three miles, then puke at the finish.” And other than Welty, who graduated years later and who in this band will never live down his comparative pubescent popularity (he could already play drums!), it wasn’t like the guys in the Offspring knew how to make geekdom cool by suddenly becoming punk-rockers or something. “Punkers would, like, ditch class, smoke in the parking lot and get bad grades,” Holland remembers. “The punkers thought we were geeks.”
Some punkers still think the Offspring are geeks. “Punk rock was challenging and dangerous. Sadly, the Offspring are neither,” wrote Greg McQuaid in the California music paper BAM in December. They’re a punk band with pop hits; that’s not supposed to happen. For the last 15 years, punk has mainly been a corny club embraced by phony nonconformists who protected it resentfully from the rest of the world. “If you ever pull up one of those electronic bulletin boards about ‘What is punk?’—they go back and forth all day. Or pick up a Maximum RockNRoll,” Holland suggests. “In the early days, you had shows where Black Flag would play with the Go-Go’s. That’s more the spirit of what punk rock was supposed to be. As it went on, it became more and more cliquish.” Welty pipes in. Can I ask you a question? Who really gives a fuck? I get really sick of having to defend ourselves about whether we’re punk or not.”
He shouldn’t have to. This whole idea that punk suddenly “broke big” in 1994 is mostly a lazy headline; albums by the Beastie Boys and Guns N’ Roses eight years ago destroyed more passersby in the Sex Pistols sense than Smash or Green Day’s Dookie ever will, and the already forgotten Ugly Kid Joe scored with a bubblegum improvement on grunge first. Smash and Dookie sound like transitional albums—in the video hits that have convinced every 14-year-old attitude problem in the country to shell out allowance cash, and in a couple other songs on each record, both bands seem to be moving away from straitjacketed slam-dance shtick into the music they’ll hopefully concentrate on in the future: catchy car-radio hard rock, pretty much just Ratt’s “Round and Round” or Foreigner’s “Dirty White Boy” with a flashy new haircut. Metal Mike Saunders, a CPA who helped invent L.A. punk with the Angry Samoans, thinks the Offspring’s latest single “Gotta Get Away” sounds like Bad Company, and Green Day’s latest, “When I Come Around,” like “Sweet Home Alabama.”
The Offspring don’t even look punk. “My purple suit was probably more new wave than anything,” Holland is proud to admit. And new wave was always better than punk. “Can’tcha tell that your tie’s too wide?,” Billy Joel asked when he made his new wave move in 1980; Billie Joe wore the tie at Woodstock ’94. The Offspring and Green Day give you bright plastic colors, not hardcore’s drab, stodgy shades of gray. In a way, Green Day is the Beatles and the Offspring are the Stones, and things could get extremely interesting if fainting teenyboppers start picking and choosing. Kriesel, who says Green Day gets more girl fans “because they’re cuter,” has blue hair.
The multitude watching the Offspring at the Hollywood Palladium in December had its share of skinny, pimpled twits in long shorts and black boots and legs that didn’t bend at the knees. But more typical were the sorority girls with ponytails and KROQ T-shirts wisely holding their ears during the hyper-screeched homo- and jock-baiting opening set by Guttermouth, boring hardcore dolts who are unfortunately the first signees to Dexter Holland’s Nitro label. Holland says the Offspring originally tried to get Dick Dale to open, appropriate given Smash‘s surf-wipeout parts, but they hit glitches; too bad, since Holland’s fiancée, Kristine Luna (who helped write the matched pair of dating-problem songs “Self Esteem” and “Session”), has squared Cleopatra hair exactly like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, and “Miserlou” would’ve gone nicely.
“The music’s out there to be enjoyed,” Holland says. “It’s not like we’re gonna put out some qualification about who’s cool enough to listen to our music.” So they welcome everybody: punkers (who come less and less); skaters and snowboarders who learned about the band through the board-sport videos with which Epitaph promotes them (even though only Noodles actually snowboards); headbangers in Metallice leather; 35-year-old dads with 12-year-old offspring; and shampooed MTV viewers like the decidedly non-punk girl who won the contest to come onstage to help sing “Come Out and Play” and actually danced to it instead of just slamming.
Back when only ten people used to come see the Offspring, a husky forklift operator from Whittier named Jason McLean always used to yell for them to play their song “Blackball.” Now he’s known far and wide for the Spanish accent that keeps interrupting the proceedings of “Come Out and Play” to growl “Keep ’em separated!” Above his multi-earringed right ear is a bald patch from being operated on after he got hit by a drunk driver in October.
Start him talking, he won’t stop: “Bryan [Holland’s real name] was asking me, ‘Jason, what can you do for us?’ And I said, ‘Man, I pretty much can’t do shit.’ But one day Bryan calls me up and says ‘Dude, come on down, I think we got a part for you.’ ” McLean’s hero, Snoop Doggy Dogg, was in the next room over in the studio, so he had his picture taken with Snoop, and he plans to put it on a T-shirt someday. “Now they want me to dress up like a bee onstage”—you know, à la Blind Melon. “My family fucking hated me before, but now they’re all, ‘Hey Jason, can you come to Christmas at my house?’ ” Some old high school classmates he saw at an outdoor concert wouldn’t believe he was the Keep ‘Em Separated guy until he got onstage with the band. “It’s been the funnest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life. But if they’d gotten this huge and I wasn’t on the album, I’d be saying, ‘Fuck these guys, they’re fucking sellouts!'”
Me, I hope they sell out more. The hits get played at high school dances now, Holland’s niece told him, as well as on The Grind, MTV’s disco show, which Holland doesn’t like so much. “Come Out and Play” even gets hockey-game airplay. Noodles’s five-year-old daughter, Chelsea, likes “Gotta Get Away” almost as much as she likes Barbies and Lego. The chorus from Smash‘s title track says, “I’m not a trendy asshole,” which is what the band’s old punk fans call its new MTV fans, even though the band agrees the new ones are at least as enthusiastic as the old ones—who were, after all, primarily just following bylaws laid down by their genre subculture. “The young kids, they don’t have any predisposition about what it’s supposed to be like.” Holland says. So they can just enjoy the shows for the Silly String and inflatable love dolls he shoots off stage. without worrying about integrity. But Noodles notes the irony in the situation: “I think its kinda neat when you get 5,000 people singing in unison, ‘I’m not a trendy asshole.’ ”