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Bad Religion's Suffer at 35; A Quick Look at the Band's 1988 Breakthrough Record
The influential album redefined punk rock and continues to inspire bands today
Today we’re taking a quick look at Bad Religion’s “Suffer” as it turns 35.
Part of the appeal of the records we love lies in their novelty. We like familiarity, but we love originality. I liked punk, and I loved hardcore, but Bad Religion’s 1988 Suffer LP wasn’t like anything I’d heard before.
The riffs are scorching, and the melodies are surprisingly catchy. And it’s all played at 110 mph with a layer of what the band calls “oozin’ aahs” over the top. They would go on to become an institution and are still recording & performing today. In many ways, Suffer is the starting line for that trajectory.
And it almost didn't happen.
Suffer was technically their 4th release (and second comeback record) by the time I found it. They’d already released two LPs (1982’s How Could Hell Be Any Worse? and 1983’s prog rock experiment Into The Unknown) and 2 EPs (a self-titled one in 1981 and 1985’s cheekily titled Back to the Known).
Through all of that, they’d split up, gone on hiatus, and made an art rock/prog record (Into The Unknown) that was met with confusion and contempt by fans. Drummer Pete Finestone and bassist Jay Bentley left the band before it was recorded. Guitarist Brett Gurewitz would later describe it as a “terrible misstep.” Frontman Greg Graffin joked about having "[sent out] ten thousand copies and [getting] eleven thousand back." It was enough that the band split up after its release.
For most bands, that would’ve been the end. On top of that, Gurewitz was battling addiction and left to care for himself (being replaced by Greg Hetson of Circle Jerks fame). Together—and with Finestone back behind the kit—they recorded the Back to the Known EP, only to promptly go on hiatus.
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They returned in 1987, sharper and more solid than ever (Gurewitz was also back in the mix) and began working on what would become Suffer. In addition to getting clean, Gurewitz had been honing his skills behind the boards and taking his fledging Epitaph Records seriously. Suffer would be the first record to be released and distributed by the label. L7’s Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardener, and Jennifer Finch all played on the record as well, contributing guitar on “Best For You” and backing vocals on “Part II (Numbers Gmae), respectively.
Bad Religion holds its own musically. The music makes one want to run red lights. The lyrics make you want to reach for a thesaurus. BR showed everyone that you didn’t have to dumb anything down to be considered punk.
“I was starting graduate school and I didn’t want to be putting out songs that didn’t have some intellectual merit. I wanted it to have some meat. That started the tradition that most people came to know as Bad Religion. Mixing the style of music with themes of intellectual and philosophical inquiry defined the course of my life.”
The stock in trade of most hardcore lyrics is sneering at society. Graffin’s takes were no less scathing, but they’re smart, too. They’re cerebral. Graffin sounded less like a “normal” snotty punk—or at least what I was listening to, anyway—and more like a professor (which he eventually became).
How many hardcore records do you know that kick off with a verse like this from “You Are (The Government)”?
Hey, sit down and listen, and they'll tell ya when you're wrong
Eradicate but vindicate as progress creeps along
Puritan work ethic maintains its subconscious edge
As Old Glory maintains your consciousness
The record compresses a ton of fury into 26 minutes, but that’s more than enough time to see that this was punk rock’s future.
It only took a fraction of that for them to become one of my favorite bands.
Bad Religion | Suffer, 1988
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What are your thoughts on this record? Any favorite tracks or memories associated with it? At 35, does it still hold up? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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Ruland, Jim. Do What You Want. Hachette Books, 2020. Stereogum, https://www.stereogum.com/2095115/bad-religion-suffer-do-what-you-want-biography/columns/sounding-board/book-club/