Offspring's 'Smash' retrospective: Does the record hold up 30 years later?

'Smash' was released on April 8, 1994.
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Because not every guitar player gets a nickname, what I am about to say doesn’t always hold true. But for today’s purposes, it does. A guitar player’s name can tell you a lot about a band’s rep. If you’re The Edge, your band is considered to be on the – you guessed it – cutting edge of the music industry, blazing new ground with each release. If you’re Slash, you shred for a no-holds-barred rock & roll beast. And if you go by the name Noodles …well, then you’re the Offspring.

The Offspring – the Scootie Pippin to Green Day’s Michael Jordan, or, maybe an even more accurate and extended metaphor – the Dennis Rodman to Green Day’s Pippin to Nirvana’s Jordan. Screw it – just call them Rodney Dangerfield. The band that don't get no respect. But thirty years ago today, these Rodneys or Dennises, or whatever you want to call them, released Smash, their third studio album, and helped change the course of modern music. It’s about time to give them some love.

Let’s do a little timeline. Green Day released their monster breakout Dookie on February 1, 1994. Smash came out ten weeks later. In between the two releases, the music world was dealt a massive blow with the death of Kurt Cobain. He died just a few days before Smash’s release. Though the long-term impact was impossible to predict, everyone recognized there was suddenly a huge hole in the pop music universe that was going to have to be filled. Grunge was still in full bloom and it wasn’t going anywhere. But Nirvana’s fingerprints extended well beyond Seattle. Down the coast in SoCal, punk bands of all shapes and styles had taken notice.

How well does Smash by the Offspring hold up?

Pop punk was frowned upon by hardcore disciples but it really was a natural progression. There was only so much screaming and smashing you could do. At some point, a more melodic version of punk had to evolve. Billie Joe Armstrong may have understood that as well as anyone. Dexter Holland was right there with him – you know, the way Pippin was right there with Jordan.

In 1984, the Offspring were comprised of Holland, who sang and played rhythm guitar, lead guitarist Noodles (AKA Kevin Wasserman), bass player Greg K., and drummer Ron Welty. They came out of Orange County and soon built up a name for themselves in and around L.A. They released a self-titled debut in 1989 and an EP two years later. On the strength of those records and their strong live presence, Brett Gurewitz signed them to Epitaph Records, one of the most influential indie producers of the time. That led to a major upgrade in their sound on their second full studio album, Ignition, in 1992.

Ignition is a very good album, and if you like the Offspring’s later, better-known releases, you’d enjoy giving it a listen. But Smash, two years later, was a major step forward. Part of this was a natural progression. The band was getting better. Dexter Holland’s songwriting, already better than most of what passed for punk in the early ‘90s, was getting sharper. In 1993, they toured Europe with Epitaph label-mates NOFX, and the experience seemed to invigorate everyone. Fat Mike and the boys would release their masterpiece Punk in Drublic in the Summer of 1994. And The Offspring would create Smash.

Smash opens with a non-musical invitation to kick back and relax, recorded by voice actor John Mayer (no, not that John Mayer). It was not the only time the band would enlist someone else to record a line for inclusion on the record. Then Welty’s drums blast off into “Nitro,” and we’re off and running. The pace will barely lag for the next 45 minutes.

“Nitro,” subtitled “Youth Energy,” gets right to the point. “Our generation sees the world – Not the same as before – We might as well just throw it all – And live like there’s no tomorrow.” This is an evolution over the track “Elders” from their debut, with a stronger melodic line, and more complex harmonies. That is one of the major reasons that Smash pushed the band to the forefront of pop music. You could find tracks that still flirted with grunge’s more ponderous pretensions on each of the first two albums. By the time they reached Smash, Holland was writing gems – both musically and lyrically. Holland would pick up the theme of “Nitro” on the machine-gun plea for hope “Something to Believe In.”

Smash is filled with better versions of songs found on the first two albums. Part of this was due to their growing maturity and the good fortune of being with Epitaph. They recorded Smash at better facilities and Epitaph gave them the freedom to do it. The improved sound is apparent. Everything is crisper and more potent. You can hear it even on the frivolities. “Killboy Powerhead” may be a childish bit of nonsense, but its sound is so much fuller and richer than the debut’s “Beheaded,” an equally juvenile fantasy.

And Holland’s writing was getting better as well. Ignition’s “Hypodermic” is a decent song about the dangers of escaping to drugs, perhaps a tad preachy and melodramatic. On Smash, he turns the tables by writing an earworm that sprinkles humor and frustrations into its condemnation in “What Happened to You.” “I might be sympathetic or cut a little slack – If I thought that you were willing to give a little back – But you do it in the morning, you do it in the night – You lie to refrain from just facing your life.” The Offspring were far from straight-edge, but they clearly were expressing a rejection of the type of co-dependency in which so much early punk enjoyed wallowing.

For the most part, Holland and the Offspring avoided bragging about how roughshod and downtrodden they were, which was fairly common in generic punk. When they did admit to character flaws, they made it work by maintaining perspective. On “Bad Habit,” Holland’s warning about his tendency toward road rage, there’s more recognition that his behavior is actually a problem.

He pulls this off even more effectively on a later track.

Smash improved on a pretty good formula established in the first two albums by offering consistently better songs. “Gotta Get Away,” is a more sophisticated examination of inner demons and paranoia than “Session” or “Burn It Up,” from Ignition – two pretty good songs in their own right. When they reach on a song from Ignition, as on the swampy, grungy “Dirty Magic,” they get it about half right. Like the rest of the album, it is pretty good. To paraphrase David St. Hubbins, the difference between a song like “Gotta Get Away” and “Dirty Magic” reveals that there is a very fine line between kick-ass and ponderous.

The Offspring were already mostly there on their first two albums. Smash pushed them all the way to kick-ass.

There were two other specific reasons that Smash would take its place alongside Dookie as the album that kicked the door open for pop punk. They were the two hit songs that came dead center in the album.

On Ignition, Holland had penned an angry protest track about police brutality called “L.a.P.D.” It’s a decent enough number, though it can be hard to invest huge interest in an angry diatribe written by an outsider. This isn’t exactly an Ice Cube firsthand account.

On Smash, Holland took a different angle on the brutality he saw every day traversing the city’s more dangerous neighborhoods from the relative safety of his car. “Come Out and Play,” is an outsider’s account of the Bloods and the Crips. It couches the entire blood sport of gang violence as a game – from its almost singsong musical hooks to the terrifyingly simple chorus – “Hey, don’t pay no mind – You’re under 18, you won’t be doing any time – Hey, come out and play.”

When it came time to deliver the song’s soon-to-be iconic hook, Holland recruited a friend from the actual inner city – not from the burbs of Orange County. Jason McLean, AKA Blackball, recorded the line “You gotta keep ‘em separated,” and the song exploded.

If “Come Out and Play” kicked open the door for Smash, it was the second single, released at the end of 1994, that would ultimately have the most impact. “Self Esteem” may be the greatest emo-rock song of all time. Radiohead had scored with “Creep” two years earlier, and then Beck had a hit with “Loser” in 1993. Tortured self-flagellation was all the rage.

Dexter’s take on this theme begins with a comical “la-la-la” that you might have heard coming from any band of drunk teens on any given Friday night before the power chords intrude. And then Holland’s just-short-of-whiny vocals – “I wrote her off for the tenth time that day – And practiced all the things I would say – But she came over and I lost my nerve – I took her back and made her dessert.” The song goes on to chronicle how much of a sucker he is, and how he fully realizes this fact. He is being used and cheated on. But he concludes with this – “I know I should say no – But it’s kind of hard when she’s ready to go – I may be dumb but I’m not a dweeb – I’m just a sucker with no self-esteem.”

In that one verse, Holland shifts the color of the entire emo-centric universe. The Offspring may have been dumb – (Bryan Keith Holland, for the record, has a Ph.D. in molecular biology. He got the nickname Dexter – not from the serial killer, but from the math nerd cartoon genius) – but they were decidedly not dweebs.

“Self-Esteem” would be a clarion call to a lot of young artists who saw themselves also navigating that line. Trivium’s Matt Heafy performed it at his middle school talent show, and it seems that every several months, another reference to some young kid doing the same will pop up. I can’t think of any band since the Beach Boys and The Knack that nailed this particular brand of teenage angst quite as well.

1994 was an exceptional year for a lot of forms of pop music. Pop punk didn’t exactly come to dominate the airwaves the way hip hop would. But it provided a necessary evolution. Soon after Dookie and Smash, bands like Rancid, MxPx, and Blink 182 would take massive leaps forward. Dexter, Noodles, and the gang would keep putting out good-to-great albums throughout the next decade, only to be met with the same kind of critical shrugs that they had been receiving from their inception.

Not that it really matters. I guarantee you people are still listening to them and will be for a long time to come.

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