A RAGING SLAM PIT ENCOMPASSES HALF THE ROOM from the moment the Offspring hit the stage for the first of two shows at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium. Twenty-nine-year-old lead singer Bryan "Dexter" Holland immediately takes charge with an instructive lunge into the maelstrom. The band jumps into the opening chords of "Bad Habit"; the music is fast, loud, primitive, profane. But for this punk quartet from Orange County, Calif., something is different.
Soon the moshing mass arcs up to the stage's edge, where nonpunks begin to scream bloody murder Beatlemania-style with their hands above their heads. A half-hour later nearly 30 stage divers clutter the apron, but all politely take care not to jostle the band members as they bop on by.
Before the Offspring play "Come Out and Play (Keep 'Em Separated)," their first Top 40 hit, Holland scans the audience of 2,000 for a keep-'em-separated person, somebody to chant the song's chorus from onstage for its duration. The boy he yanks up is a towheaded 9-year-old who says his name is Jason. Jason performs his assigned task like a seasoned punk three times his age and then executes a swanlike stage dive back into the audience.
Welcome to the new mainstream — a friendly, supportive place where Guttermouth, the evening's opening act, graciously teach the sold-out crowd how to spit at the band, rendering a peculiar but age-old punk ritual even more bizarre. And where the beefy frontman for Face to Face, the next band on, can smile and yell, "If you like us, tell us to fuck off!" and readily expect the whole audience in unison to scream back, "Fuck off!"
Can it be that the whole world has gone punk? Ever since Smash, the Offsprings third album, crashed Billboard's Top 10, it appears so. Smash has sold more than 3 million copies since its April 1994 debut, tying Green Day's Dookie in the punk-superstar sweepstakes. Unlike Green Day, however, the Offspring went triple platinum on a relatively small independent label (Smash has since become the best-selling indie rock album ever). And Smash's boisterous paeans to self-affirmation, songs like "Something to Believe In," "Genocide" and "So Alone," are indeed the purist punk with pizazz that hardcore aficionados swore would never catch on.
But the Offspring are well aware that MTV, not DIY, is responsible for their recent success. And that commercial radio has glommed onto the album's slower cuts, hits like "Self Esteem" and their newest single, "Gotta Get Away." So the way the Offspring figure it, if punk is destined to dominate the airwaves, it's their responsibility to remind newcomers of its roots. For this reason, Smash is punk's most significant commercial breakthrough since Nirvana's Nevermind.
"To a certain degree we're lucky in that its the right record at the right time," Holland says, relaxing earlier that day by a vaporizer (for his voice) in his room at San Francisco's Phoenix Hotel. "Ten years ago when I got into punk, the issues that bands talked about — the not fitting in, the bitching about the government — were only embraced by small groups of people. But those things can now be related to by mainstream America. In the '50s, people were snowed over about things like Agent Orange and radiation. As time goes on — because of the way the world and the media's going — people know about all this crap."
Then again, what makes this band punk? Only bassist Greg K. (ne Greg Kriesel) — 30, reserved and unsmiling with baggy shorts, T-shirt and phosphorescent-blue buzz cut — appears sufficiently stolid. Guitarist Noodles (né Kevin Wasserman), 31, also dons shorts, but he hops around the stage like a cartoon kangaroo, an image made more comical by his waist-length hair, thick horn-rimmed glasses and backward baseball cap. Tonight, Holland does his midair leg splits in a double-breasted purple suit; the dreadlocked and shirtless Ron Welty, 23, shreds hisdrums. The sound is thunderous and fearsome, Holland's keening yowl hovering just above the din.
"Early on, for bands like Social Distortion and T.S.O.L., punk was more of a rebellion-type thing," says Kriesel, "because they grew up in broken homes and stuff. For us, it wasn't like that at all — we come from the suburban middle class. It's always been about the music and doing whatever we like to do. It's never been about angst and shouting out against our upbringings."
Still, many were surprised this past December when the Offspring opened the ultimate music-biz event, the annual Billboard Music Awards. But don' t stop reading: The band refused to perform either of its hits, opting for the more divisive and confrontational "Bad Habit," written from the perspective of a drive-by shootist. "Getting cut off makes me insane," Holland sang in his high-pitched whine. "I open the glove box/Reach inside/I'm gonna wreck this fucker's ride/Yeah, I got a bad habit." Then he shot headfirst into the audience. Although fucker got through in the live performance, a five-second delay prevented the airing of the song lyric that much to the average parent's chagrin is also emblazoned on the back of every Offspring T-shirt: YOU STUPID DUMBSHIT GOD-DAM MOTHERFUCKER.
Wasserman sees all the weirdness as an organic part of punk rock's inevitable rise. "It won't scare me so much if punk rock becomes the new norm and punk bands are all you see on TV and hear on radio," he says. "It's always been growing out in the more rural areas and the smaller cities. Punks are moving out everywhere. So fuck the punk-rock-revival stories — that's not the way it is."
IN MANY WAYS, THE OFFSPRING ARE AS TYPICAL AS Orange County punks get. In California the movement never died — at least not at the grass-roots level Sturdy hardcore salons first grew out of primarily white Orange County suburbs like Huntington Beach and Fullerton way back in the late 1970s. Like their urban-warrior counterparts in New York and their working-class rivals in England, Southern California punks also railed against conformity — conformity in Orange County just happened to he their conservative, largely middle-class families.
Consequently, Orange County punk boasts a rich history that's as self-contained as it is varied. Early '80s bands like T.S.O.L., Channel Three, the Vandals, Agent Orange and Social Distortion became local heroes who rarely translated elsewhere. To this day, each new school year greets a few more Orange County teens sporting fresh mohawks, and on Sunday nights punks still tune in to DJ Rodney Bingenheimer on Los Angeles' KROQ-FM. Since 1976, Rodney on the ROQ has debuted countless local groups, turning on each subsequent generation of disgruntled youth to the fast, hypercharged beat of the latest home-grown talent.
By 1984, when what would become the Offspring formed, the original Orange County punk scene had fractured. "We used to go to this dance dub called Circle City, and there'd be 10 different cliques," says Kriesel. "In our high school there was a rockabilly scene and a mod scene and a New Wave scene, as well as a punk scene," Holland adds.
But at Pacifica High, a large public school in Garden Grove, Calif., Holland wasn't a member of any of those groups. The third of four children born to a hospital-administrator father and a schoolteacher mother, he kept busy being a "good kid" and hoped to be a doctor. "Sports were a really big thing." Holland says. "I was on the cross-country team." He also happened to be class valedictorian (thus his nickname, Dexter).
His senior year, Holland's older brother gave him a Rodney on the ROQ compilation album. Before then, Holland was a casual listener. But soon after, he was devouring Flipside and Maximum rocknroll, fanzines out of Pasadena, Calif., and Berkeley, Calif., respectively, that are virtual how-to guides to punkdom. His favorite bands were T.S.O.L. (particularly 1981's Dance With Me), the Adolescents and Agent Orange — raucous Orange County bands that weren't as hung up on politics as their Bay Area counterparts.
Holland's cross-country teammate Greg Kriesel discovered punk even later. His investment-banker father saw law school in his son's future. And for most of high school, Kriesel was a sports fan and self-proclaimed jock (he also played baseball). The fast punk records he ever heard were the ones Holland played for him. "Music wasn't something that meant a lot to me," he says. "But I started listening to it because it was around, and I got used to it."
Holland and Kriesel formed their first band, Manic Subsidal, with two other cross-country teammates one night in 1984 after failing to get in to a Social Distortion show. At the time, the two didn't even own instruments, much less know how to play them. "Bryan and I both learned together," says Kriesel, "and he wasn't even playing chords at the time, so he'd play on one string, and I tried to do the same thing. By the summer we were actually playing songs, but it took a while."
Kriesel's house was the site of the band's first gigs. "It's just always been a hangout," Kriesel says. "On any given weekend night up to 20 people could just drop by. I had a big upstairs that was pretty much mine, and my mom was downstairs. But she's always been really cool about it."
That fall, Holland began premed studies at USC (he's currently a Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology). Kriesel was attending Golden West Junior College and later received a B.A. in finance from Long Beach State while working part time in a print shop. Weekends were the only time the band could rehearse.
Once Holland had written a handful of songs with self-explanatory titles like "Very Sarcastic" and "Sorority Bitch," the fledgling band headed for a cheap local studio. Momentarily waylaid when its guitarist jumped ship, the band recruited Kevin Waserman, an older Pacifica grad who now worked as the school janitor. Pretty soon, Wasserman was "not doing a hell of a lot except practicing at Greg's house on weekends and drinking excessively." Being the only member of the hand over 21, Wasser-man was particularly useful when it came to buying beer.
"I remember being amazed by Bryan," Wasserman says. "He was valedictorian, he was such a math geek. So when I first saw him with black hair and plaid bondage pants, I was like 'What are you doing?' But I thought it was cool, going beyond what I thought was society's role for him."
Ron Welty moved to Garden Grove for part of high school, and it was there that his older stepsister introduced him to Holland. "My mom's been through a few divorces," Welty says. "She'd get remarried, and we'd move, and then when she'd get divorced, we'd move." Welty was only 16 when he begged Holland to let him substitute for Manic Subsidal's drummer, who had started medical school and was missing lots of gigs.
"I was so young and hardly knew how to play," Welty says. "Bryan would make up names for the different kinds of beats. He'd called 'em slippery beats or other silly names, and he'd write them down on a different piece of paper for each song. I learned the songs that way. In a year their drummer had only played one show, and I'd played all the rest."
Although Welty had gotten an electronics degree with the hope of some day working for Fostex, the home-recording-equipment manufacturer, he also loved drumming and soon decided to make a career of it. "But I never, ever thought it would be with Offspring, because punk just wasn't happening" he says. "It just wasn't big, it didn't go anywhere. You never heard punk bands on the radio."
With punk waning locally — even L.A.'s Anti-Club stopped booking it — the band headlined Kriesel's living room more often than dubs over the next few years. The band rejoiced when 924 Gilman Street, also known for giving Green Day their start, opened in Berkeley in 1986 and began booking younger punk acts — monthly eight-hour drives up north became the norm.
In 1987, the Offspring paid to release their own 7-inch single. Unable to afford the additional quarter per copy it cost to paste the front sleeves to the backs, the band bought a case of beer and glue sticks and held a party for its friends. "To this day the covers don't hold together too well," says Holland. It took the band two and a half years to get rid of the 1,000 copies it printed.
Two years and a pile of rejections later, the Offspring scored a contract with Nemesis, a small punk label distributed by Cargo. After tracking down producer Thom Wilson, who had crafted their favorite albums by T.S.O.L., the Vandals and the Dead Kennedys, the Offspring recorded another 7-inck called Baghdad, and an album debut titled The Offspring. "All punk bands back in '84 wrote about was police, death, religion and war," says Holland. "So that's what we did."
While recording a track for a Flipside compilation with Brett Gurewitz — owner of Epitaph Records and guitarist with what was then Southern California's biggest punk success story, Bad Religion — the Offspring glimpsed a rosier future. "A little after that, I got a tape," says Gurewitz. "But I have to admit: I passed on it."
A year later, when the Offspring began circulating demos for what would become their next album to every punk label they could think of, Gurewitz reconsidered. "It definitely had what people call the Epitaph sound," he says. "High-energy, rebellious punk with great melodies and cool, economical song structures." In 1992, Epitaph released Ignition, 12 brief but energetic Offspring songs that summed up the previous decade of Orange County punk.
Ignition's notable new exceptions included "Session," a tongue-in-cheek rant against passionless sex, and "Dirty Magic," a midtempo cousin to Nirvana's "Come as You Are." Producer Wilson, 43, a mild-mannered practicing Tibetan Buddhist who got his start engineering albums by Boz Scaggs and Barbra Streisand in the '70s, smelled a breakthrough and urged the band to polish its craft. "On the Nemesis record they had a guitar solo on a song called 'Out on Patrol' that I wanted to take out," Wilson says. "And they were kind of stunned. But they allowed me to do it, and they learned from it. You'll notice that Smash only has one guitar solo on it."
Stark perfection — an unwritten punk no-no — only added more power to the band's sound. "We've approached the punk-rock thing as a legitimate style of music," says Holland, "and we try to play it like a real band and write lyrics that people can identify with. And I guess that comes across as refreshing to a lot of people."
Like scores of Orange County punk bands before them, the Offspring delivered hard, melodic songs equally informed by '60s surf bands like the Ventures and seminal punks from the Ramones to the Dead Kennedys. For the Offspring, punk was always a passion, but making a living at it was never important; until last January, jobs and families always came first (Wasserman has a 5-year-old daughter; Welty, a 2-year-old son). "There were times when I was going to quit the band because I had too many other things going on in my life," says Wasserman, "but I've quit school more times than I've quit the band."
Kamala (no last name, please), a mid-20s scenester who helped found Gilman Street and booked both Green Day and the Offspring there early on, explains things like this: "Green Day hung out in the punk scene, but their music wasn't punk; the Offspring's music was punk, but they didn't hang out in the punk scene."
THE NEXT NIGHT, A COUPLE HOURS BEFORE SHOW time, a group of disheveled but relatively clean-cut Off-spring fans stands outside the Fillmore, waiting to be frisked by security. No one seems to notice the evening's headliners skulking mere yards away, a surprising fact considering that lately, Offspring videos have been running hourly on MTV.
"We deliberately shot our videos with fucked-up film and black light because we don't want to be seen too well," says Holland, easily the group's most recognizable member at 6-plus feet with blond shoulder-length cornrows, tonight braided with green yarn. "Once they see a close-up of your face plastered on the screen, it's over. There's no more mystery or fun to it."
The Offspring turned down offers from David Letterman and Conan O'Brien for the same reason. "We've always decided that we don't want to do much TV right now because we don't want to be overexposed," says Kriesel. "Not to knock Green Day, 'cause I like Green Day, but its, like, every time you turn on MTV, you see Billie Joe's face."
Never mind that the USC marching band has recently taken to playing "Come Out and Play" at football games. For the moment, the Offspring take pride in their relative anonymity. When Holland dips around the corner, the scalpers don't recognize him and try to sell him tickets to his own gig. In a gesture of snaky punk retribution, he instructs the Offspring roadies to wait until kids approach the scalpers for tickets to the sold-out show and then to offer them band-sanctioned freebies instead.
Inside the refurbished Fillmore's plush, neo-Victorian lobby is the famous large basket of apples with a sign over it that reads HAVE ONE OR TWO . . . It's a fitting reminder of the original Fillmore, that corny, splendiferous shrine to 1960s hippie chic. Glass-encased posters advertising shows by '60s superstars like Procol Harum and Quicksilver Messenger Service line the wine-colored hallways. Rococo chandeliers glowing an opulent blue hang from the ceiling. Squint your eyes, and it's easy to imagine members of the Airplane and the Dead wandering the place amid the wide assortment of groove seekers who once made San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district the psychedelic capital of the world. But rest assured: The Fillmore will never be punk.
Only an old oversize photograph of the Who's Pete Townshend, his hands over his head, guitar flying 15 feet above, offers a glimmer of hope. "Cool photo," says Welty as we descend the back stairs, above which it looms. "Yeah," says Holland. "Who is that?"
Yet today's California punk scene has more in common with the Summer of Love than the punks may realize. Members of Rancid and NOFX, two Bay Area bands on Epitaph, attend the Fillmore shows and dance on the side of the stage throughout the sets. Backstage the beer starts flowing early, and the party lasts through dosing time and into the early morning hours back at the hotel. All the anger and malevolence stay onstage; after that, it's catching up with old friends.
Kamala, who also booked the Offspring's first tour, remains close to the band but yearns for the old days before the crowds and backstage passe. "It used be that the audience was half of the show — heckling dancing" she says. "The reason why there's no backstage at Gilman is so the bands can't be separate from the audience."
And while few dispute that the Offspring have come to success honestly, some insiders do snipe that the band is disarmingly comfortable with playing the industry game. They note that the Offspring's set list never changes, and the band refuses to perform songs from its first album for fear that few newer fans will know them. It has even hired Mike Jacobs, a big-league radio promoter, to ensure maximum radio play.
But the Offspring warn against reading too much into their way of doing things — including choosing to stick with Epitaph (they have one more album due in a three-CD contract). "At the time we signed it was never really an issue," says Wasserman. "Independents were the only ones signing punk bands." Still, echoes of the band's decision have already been felt. In the final weeks of December, Rancid, a Clash-style punk band hotly rumored to be signing with major-label Epic, decided instead to renew with Epitaph. Closer to home, Holland and Kriesel are bankrolling their own Nitro label; Guttermouth, their longtime buddies, are Nitro's first act. "On our old label we got totally screwed," says Jamie Nunn, Guttermouth's drummer. "So we needed someone who we knew was fair."
Of course, membership in a club that includes Madonna and Mariah Carey has its privileges, but new and unexpected culture clashes arise every day. When Holland and Welty visit San Francisco's Live-105 modern-rock radio station for a studio appearance, the beach-bum DJ accidentally introduces them as members of Green Day. Holland lashes back by asking listeners to send in the most vulgar faxes they can think of for free pairs of tickets to the next night's show — then he details the winners' entries on the air.
But Holland bristles when he senses that stereotypes are dictating mainstream impressions of his band. 'I liked running cross-country and getting good grades in high school," he says. "And I liked listening to punk music. Getting good grades was setting yourself apart — it was kind of cool to me that I was different in that I could do this as well as have my own music and my own identity."
Yet even Kriesel, who campaigned for Clinton and still plans to attend law school, laments that tomorrow's young loners will be far less likely to find solace in punk. Not that he's about to draw a line. "Some people are saying things about all these uncool people liking the music and coming to shows," he says. "But who are we to say who's cool and uncool, and who are you to say that these people can't like this music?"