The Offspring's 'Smash': The Little Punk LP That Defeated the Majors

Twenty years ago today, Epitaph Records released what would become the best-selling independent album ever. The band and label look back at the mortgages, fall-outs, accusations, and triumphs

April 8, 2014 11:15 AM ET
The Offspring
The Offspring
Courtesy The Offspring

In 1994, two young, fast, loud and snotty bands took California punk to new melodic heights and unheard of levels of international exposure – and went multi-platinum in the process. In the year punk broke (again), Bay Area's Green Day ultimately sold more records, but it was Orange County's the Offspring who actually set records. Their Smash was, at the time, the best-selling album ever released on an independent label.

The Offspring's Dexter Holland on why album 'Days Go By' is a "message of hope"

In the early Nineties, Epitaph Records, founded by Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz more than a decade earlier to release his own band's music, had established itself as ground zero for the new wave of West Coast punk, putting out discs by speedy, skatey So-Cal acts like NOFX, Pennywise and mohawked Berkeley street urchins Rancid. But it was the Offspring that would prove to be the imprint's breakout stars. Smash, the band's second album for Epitaph and third overall, was released on April 8, 1994, in the waning days of grunge. For a brief moment it seemed as if the sound of buzzsaw guitars, caffeinated rhythms and tweaked, anxious vocals would inherit the aggro-rock earth, and the Offspring – singer/guitarist Brian "Dexter" Holland, lead guitarist Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman, bassist Greg K. and drummer Ron Welty (who left the band in 2003) – were on the front lines, leading the charge. In just its first year of release, Smash, fueled by two massive MTV and radio hits, "Come Out and Play" and "Self Esteem" (as well as a minor third single, "Gotta Get Away"), sold more than five million copies in the U.S. alone. Today, it has moved upwards of 10 million units worldwide.

Not long after Smash rearranged the indie landscape, the history-making relationship between the Offspring and Epitaph soured, leading to an acrimonious, and very public, split. Both parties, however, went on to experience further success – the Offspring have had a run of successful albums, most recently 2012's Days Go By, on major label Columbia, while Epitaph has expanded to include sister imprint ANTI-, home to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees like Tom Waits, Mavis Staples and the late Joe Strummer.

But Smash still remains the Offspring and Epitaph's greatest victory – individually or together. And this year, in recognition of the album's 20th anniversary, Epitaph is releasing an expanded reissue while the Offspring are launching a summer tour that will see them perform the album in its entirety. Holland, Noodles, Gurewitz, and others look back about the making of Smash, as well the gigantic reverberations – the good, the bad, and the ugly included – that resulted from its surprise success.

Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman: The Offspring played punk rock, and by 1994 had been doing it for about 10 years. And punk rock had always been played in out-of-the-way clubs in bad parts of the city. We weren't allowed to do the Sunset Strip. We weren't allowed to play the Roxy or the Whisky. We were relegated to the back-alley places in the industrial parts of town. But all that was changing.

Brian "Dexter" Holland: Nirvana definitely blew the doors open. All of a sudden you were seeing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on MTV, and that video looked like a punk rock show. It looked like when we played Gilman Street in Berkeley. It made everything kind of seem possible. Because from that video it was just one little step to Henry Rollins or to the Smashing Pumpkins. It just got closer and closer and by '94 people were ready for it.

Noodles: Smash was our third record. And it was just another record. It wasn't like all of a sudden we were doing our Sgt. Pepper's. Though some of the songs seemed a little different, certainly.

Holland: Even on [1992's] Ignition we had a relatively slow song called "Dirty Magic." So we had been stepping out of the box a little, and maybe we did it a little more on Smash.

Noodles: When we were first writing "Self Esteem" I didn't get it all. The song structure just seemed weird to me. We were used to playing everything really fast – as fast as we could. And here was a song that was a little slower.

Brett Gurewitz: "Come Out and Play" was a sort of stunningly original track. It has that "magic something" that hit songs sometimes have. It has an unusual mid-tempo groove for a punk song. There's a surf vibe. There's the Middle Eastern sounding guitar part. And at the same time it has this sexy darkness to it. It was very, very unique and extremely infectious.

Noodles: Really the only thing that seemed different to me about that one was the catch phrase: "You gotta keep 'em separated." When I heard that line it just made me laugh.

Holland: It cracked me up. But I knew if I tried to explain it to the guys they'd be like, "What the fuck are you talking about?" So I just kind of told them, "Don't worry. It's something that's really good. It'll be cool." I left everybody wondering until the last minute.

Noodles: We had this friend, Jason "Blackball" McLean, who had kind of a distinctive voice. He grew up in a Mexican neighborhood, all his friends were Mexican, he had the slang down, the accent. He was a Scottish cholo from Whittier. [Laughs.] So we asked him to come in and do the line. He wound up doing it in the video, too.

Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty Images

Holland: The lyrics for "Come Out and Play" and most of the other songs were just about whatever was happening in front of me. Back then I was a grad student and I was commuting to school everyday in a shitty car, driving through East L.A. Gangland central. I was there the day of the L.A. riots. So I was very aware of that part of the world, and a lot of that gun stuff came out in songs like "Come Out and Play." But there was also some humor to it, like with "Bad Habit." There was a lot of freeway violence and road-rage at that time. And my car was so shitty that people used to literally throw things at me on the freeway because I wasn't going fast enough. So I decided to write a song about it.

Holland: We were at Track [Record Studios] in North Hollywood with [producer] Thom Wilson, and we were writing up to the last minute. We didn't have a lot of time to finish the record and we didn't have a lot of money. Somebody added it up once: It cost us $20,000 to record Smash. That's a pretty tight budget for that time. And we cut it close. The last two nights I still had four songs left to do. I'd go in, spend a few hours writing a lyric, then a few hours singing it. Then I'd do it again. I remember "It'll Be a Long Time" and "Smash" happened on those days. I was there until five in the morning trying to get everything done.

Gurewitz: I don't know if it was clear to everyone that "Come Out and Play" should be the first single. But it was definitely clear to me.

Noodles: Right away KROQ [in L.A.] started playing it, and that sort of sparked everything. I think it was Jed the Fish playing us as his "Catch of the Day." And then the song made it onto the Furious 5 at 9. It was in heavy rotation, for sure. It got a really good response from listeners. I know I was calling every time I heard it! I remember right around that time we were playing a snowboarding contest in Valdez, Alaska, opening for Pennywise. And all our friends were saying, "The song is going off on KROQ!" I was with Byron [McMackin, drummer] from Pennywise and he said, "Jeez, are we gonna have to open for you guys next time?"

Holland: We started getting a lot of strange attention. I was living in this tiny apartment in L.A., and I remember one morning I went into the kitchen to rinse out my bowl of cereal. I'm standing there in my boxers and I look out the window at the apartment across the way. There's a guy standing on his porch with a cordless phone and I can hear him talking through the glass. And he's going, "Yeah, dude! I'm looking at him right now!"

Noodles: Up until Smash I was a janitor. Head custodian at Earl Warren Elementary School. Actually, when Smash came out I was still there. The record was released in April and I didn't quit until the middle of June. I promised my boss I would finish out the school year! We had a song on the radio in heavy rotation and I was still sweeping up after little kids.

Holland: I was pursuing a Ph.D. in molecular biology [at University of Southern California]. And then I put it on hold. My mom wasn't too happy about that! My professor thought I was making a terrible mistake. But it wasn't just like I was saying, "Fuck it." We could tell this was going to be something. And we had to see it through.

Gurewitz: Up until that moment I didn't really think any of our bands would truly break through. We had some groups on Epitaph that were bigger than others, but none of them had ever crossed over into mainstream acceptance. Not even close. What the Offspring did was leapfrog over everybody.

Noodles: We did the "Come Out and Play" video with Darren Lavett for, like, $5,000. Which was unheard of. Guns N' Roses were spending millions of dollars making their videos, but we shot ours at some guy's house in the L.A. suburbs. We all crammed into his garage and covered the walls with mylar, like what you see in helium balloons. It was a million degrees in there. Then we brought in a big fan. So this reflective plastic was kinda blowing around while we played. I think most of the budget was spent on beer and meat for the barbeque after the shoot.

Holland: So then it was like, "Okay, you're on MTV, you're on the radio, go hit the road." So we played all the 500-seaters across the country. And by the time we got back home from doing that, "Come Out and Play" was over and "Self Esteem" was hitting and it was, "Now you've gotta go out and do the small theaters." So we did the whole country again, this time the 1,500-seaters. By the end we were playing 5,000-seaters. I think we did over 200 shows for that record.

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