“You’re not punk and I’m telling everyone,” sang Jawbreaker ’s Blake Schwarzenbach on Boxcar, from the band’s 1994 album, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. “Save your breath,” he countered in the next line. “I never was one.” It’s a line that feels incredibly apt to explain The Offspring’s headline set at Terminal 5 tonight.
The second of two gigs here, they’re playing Smash in its entirety. It was, of course, that album – also released in 1994, just a couple of months after Green Day’s Dookie – that helped send punk rock hurtling into mainstream consciousness. Neither were overtly political, something that presumably contributed to their success, but punk doesn’t have to be political, and the massive exposure that Smash’s fierce (if catchy and poppy) angst gave the genre still resonates today. Sadly, watching the band’s rather perfunctory performance of its songs two decades later only serves to highlight how much has changed. Ever since that record – and even on it, in the ridiculous lightweight jaunt of What Happened To You? – the Huntington Beach, California band have straddled the line between the ridiculous and the sublime, wilfully churning out what can only be described as some truly terrible novelty songs. Yes, they helped take punk into the mainstream, but they also ditched it at the same time in favour of something altogether more frivolous.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with goofing around. The Vandals (6), who also hail from Huntington Beach, made a whole career out of it, and they’re at it again tonight. And while they’re certainly old enough to know better, watching them prance and fool around is pretty amusing. A raucous, slightly annoying version of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now brings their set to an end in a frantic, feel-good fashion, but it’s hard to not smile. Pennywise (7), now with original singer Jim Lindberg, are a similarly entertaining, but much less silly, live prospect. Rather, their punk remains politically charged, and both Fuck Authority and Society are delivered with vigorous purpose. It feels like kid’s stuff compared to Bad Religion (8), though. The seminal six-piece blast through a no-bullshit set of edgy, challenging songs that take in the breadth of their 30-plus year career. Singer Greg Graffin cuts an imposing and commanding figure on stage, making up in charisma what the now-49 year-old is lacking in terms of visceral energy. And while Epitaph Records – owned by guitarist Brett Gurewitz – might have a couple of anomalies on its roster now (Falling In Reverse, Skip The Foreplay), questionable bands who seem somewhat anathema to the label’s vision of punk, Bad Religion themselves prove they’re still fire starters. Los Angeles Is Burning, Fuck You and New Dark Ages are rebellious anthems about the state of the world that are delivered with inspiring, hopeful conviction. Sorrow slows proceedings down slightly with its sad, touching sentiments, only for the vicious one-two punch of You Are (The Government) and 1000 More Fools to close their set with an enraged and empowered middle finger to an ever-decaying society.
Perhaps it’s Bad Religion’s sheer focused energy that dilutes the power of the headliners, but The Offspring (5) are just rather unconvincing from the off. It doesn’t help that Noodles – his hair dyed half-black, half-blonde – is wearing a shirt with a pink Anarchy symbol on it, either. It all feels a bit Avril Lavigne, a parody and pastiche of punk more than anything else. It extends to the music, too – those very songs that helped punk become better known stripped of most of their potency. Dexter Holland’s voice still sounds great, but there’s no spit or fire in the band’s performance. Rather, these are mainly limp replicas of the original artefact. Bad Habit does still blister – it’s hard to ignore the power of 3,000 people shouting, in unison, “You stupid, dumbshit, goddam motherfucker!” – and Self Esteem, which is played last, out of order, remains an anthem of disaffected, self-lacerating worthlessness, but it just doesn’t feel like they mean any of it, that they’re going through the motions and playing these songs just to play them. That’s odd, because The Offspring are both great entertainers and, usually, a solid live band. But tonight, they play that record as who they are – slick, humorous, millionaires who traded much of their credibility for novelty – instead of who they were. Ironically, the encore, which ends with a phenomenal version of The Kids Aren’t All Right, picks up the pace and the emotion, but that only serves to highlight what was missing earlier. The Offspring haven’t been a punk band for many years. That’s no secret and it doesn’t even matter – Smash remains an incredibly important record. But tonight it’s not punk, and it feels like maybe it never even was. The worst part is that they’re telling everyone.