Slam Dunk Festival 2023: The Big Review
Running down the best of the best from Leeds and Hatfield as Slam Dunk 2023 kicks off the most jam-packed UK festival season ever…
From 1989’s self-titled LP to Ixnay On The Hombre and beyond, we rank the Californian punk-rock legends’ biggest tunes…
So ubiquitous have The Offspring been as mainstream punk heavyweights over the last three decades that, when reminded that latest album Let The Bad Times Roll is their first in nine years, many fans would struggle to believe they’ve been away at all. That’s largely due to the strength of a back-catalogue whose songs somehow feel simultaneously ageless and emblematic of their specific moments in time. Every rock fan worth their tattered T-shirt will instantly recognise the spring-loaded slapstick of Pretty Fly (For A White Guy) or Come Out And Play’s weird Eastern-inflected riff. Hell, even obscure deep-cuts like Kill The President and Get It Right (neither of which make this list) have a habit of cropping up as notable milestones in conversations surrounding punk’s re-emergence as a mainstream force in the 1990s.
The Offspring’s story goes even further back than that, of course. Originally formed as Manic Subsidal in 1984, they pressed on from the ignominy of finishing last in a high school battle of the bands in their early days to crashing the mainstream with breakout third LP Smash a decade later. Frontman Dexter Holland (also an accomplished scientist) and guitarist Kevin 'Noodles' Wasserman are the outfit’s mainstays, with long-serving bassist Greg K having been replaced by Todd Morse following his split from the band in 2018, while Pete Parada is the latest in a revolving line-up of drummers. It’s their unbending adherence to old principles, though – high energy, sharp humour, emotional honesty – that’s ensured The Offspring are every bit as listenable and loveable now as they were as angry young men.
This list reflects that decades-long consistency. But, if you’ve got any corrections for the comments? Well, give ’em to us, baby! Uh huh, uh huh! (We’re so sorry.)
The title of the second single from sixth album Conspiracy Of One makes for a sly double-entendre. Sure, Dexter is singing about how desperately he wants the object of his affections, but he’s also teasing how much he’d like to see that nice girl’s naughty side. Hitting listeners with a full-throttle riff from the first second, it’s peak pop-punk, delivering constant high-energy and an air-punching chorus that still haunts playlists over two decades down the line: ‘I want you / In a vinyl suit / I want you bad / Complicated / X-rated / I want you bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad.’ Spencer Susser’s foam-strewn music video ups the innuendo with PA, drum-kit and countless Offspring-branded cans blowing their loads over a host of photogenic party-goers.
When The Offspring re-recorded Beheaded as part of the soundtrack for 1999 Seth Green-starring horror comedy Idle Hands – in which they also made a cameo – newer fans would’ve had little idea that the song actually first appeared on their self-titled debut a full decade before. With its arch horror-punk vibe (‘Beheaded, watch you spurt like a garden hose / Beheaded, bloody mess all over my clothes’), the band were doubtless taking cues from their idols in the Misfits and T.S.O.L., but their own mischievousness and intelligence shines through. Beheaded was the earliest indication of quite how huge The Offspring would be, and it’s lost little of its urgency in the decades since.
With its title a play on that of Ice-T’s 1991 classic O.G. Original Gangster, and loaded with samples from Low Rider by 1970s funk heroes War – as well as of the “You can do it!” line from 1998 Adam Sandler comedy The Waterboy – the aptly-titled lead single from Conspiracy Of One came as proof that The Offspring’s sense of humour was still present and correct as they cruised into the new millennium. Rapper Redman also weighs in throughout, drawling the title line while the band’s springy composition nudges away like a playful elbow in the ribs. Dave Myers’ off-the-chain music video remains equally unforgettable, having originally been banned from MTV for its lurid shots of a school principle in a compromising position with scantily-clad students, and of a kid serving his dad a (literal) dogshit sandwich.
The Offspring had moved into the major label big leagues by 1997’s fourth LP Ixnay On The Hombre, working with Jane’s Addiction / Alice In Chains / Anthrax producer Dave Jerden, but a handful of grittily soulful, sub-two minute bangers ensured that the spirit of Smash was very much still alive. Leave It Behind was a masterwork of straddling the underground and the big time, revelling in its slicker sound while keeping pedal to the metal for an urgent, 100mph delivery.
There’s something of a misconception that Smash was an overwhelming switch for The Offspring, moving from edgy underground punk rock to mainstream-courting semi-pop-punk second only to Green Day. In fact, their potential was there for all to see on 1992’s Ignition. The excellent Get It Right (the song that convinced Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz to sign the band to Epitaph) is an equally important pick from that album, but we’re going for lead single Kick Him When He’s Down. Packing an earworm melody and a chorus custom-built to be sung back by crowds of thousands (‘Here alone I'll put up and fight / Kick him when he's down / Beat me all the way I'll take it all night / Kick him when he's down’), it still feels radio-ready almost three decades later.
The sixth track and second single from 2003’s Splinter felt like throwback proof that The Offspring could still go hard as they veered deeper into the new millennium. ‘Deep inside your soul, there's a hole you don't want to see,’ Dexter sings, making the point that there’s often a thin line between teenage angst and adult obsession. ‘You're covering it up, like a cut, with the likes of me / You know I've really tried / I can't do any more about you.’ All the while, the track’s 132-second composition refuses to let up. Joseph Kahn’s iconic 125-fixed-camera video was also referred to by the band as “the ultimate performance video”.
Another of those Smash-centric, sub-two-minute Ixnay On The Hombre cuts, the album’s lead single matches everything that Leave It Behind does with just a little more verve. Apparently composed by Dexter as part of a tongue-in-cheek ‘Bad Religion songwriting competition’ at Epitaph, aping that band’s characteristically OTT vocabulary, the track being overlooked by (label head and BR guitarist) Brett Gurewitz saw it reinvented as a 100 per cent Offspring classic. From that ‘YAH YAH YAH YAH YAH’ intro through a tidal wave of reminiscence for their SoCal upbringing, it’s a supercharged nugget of what makes The Offspring band great. All we want, indeed.
What was it with the crushing bleakness bleeding through alternative rock’s early ’90s mainstream pomp? The tellingly-titled Genocide is full of the rocket ship tempos and earworm melodies that saw The Offspring break out as popular punk heavyweights, but there’s a pervasive fatalism that bleeds right into its shout-along chorus: ‘Dog eat dog / Every day / On our fellow man we prey.’ Chuck in that runaway beat and undercurrents of thrashy desperation and it hammers home as one of their heaviest ever hits. And let’s not forget the wry, self-deprecating sign-off that poked fun at do-good mainstream rockers and the apathetic music industry establishment: ‘Mmmmm… I especially enjoyed that one. Let's see what's next.’
Already two decades down the line, The Offspring were eager to tackle difficult themes and more challenging music by the time they reached 2008’s Bob Rock-produced eighth album, Rise And Fall, Rage And Grace. Lead single Hammerhead was a perfect showcase of that. Provocatively mixing righteous military imagery into the tale of a deluded school shooter (‘I am the one / Camouflage and guns / Risk my life / To keep my people from harm’) while powering through a deluge of riffs and time shifts, it is both sonically and thematically one of their most ambitious latter-day offerings, becoming only more and more relevant as the gun-control debate wears on.
Although it was released as the third single from 2000’s Conspiracy Of One, Million Miles Away continues to feel like one of The Offspring’s great underrated bangers. ‘Each passing day / Every passing face / Seems like such a gloom,’ go Dexter’s self-explanatory, disconnected lyrics. ‘I long to be / Home silently / Lying next to her.’ There’s little odd or unexpected on offer here, but delivered on a wave of effervescent oh-oh-ohs and six-strings set to stun, this feels like proof that the Californian veterans can conjure solid gold good times even when reverting to formula.
‘My friend's got a girlfriend / Man, he hates that bitch / He tells me every day / He says / Man, I really gotta lose my chick in the worst kind of way.’ 1998’s Americana found The Offspring upping the polish and cranking the attitude for an all-out assault on the mainstream, with their wry humour allowed to push to the fore as they examine the more rotten elements of modern American existence. Telling the story of two broken relationships where one half has come to leech off the other for financial support, Why Don’t You Get A Job deploys melodies from The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da and Simon & Garfunkel’s Cecilia, Caribbean steel drums and a brass section for full-colour sonic assault. Directed by Hollywood star McG, the classic music video even sees Dexter hang-glide in to confront the wrongs of soured suburbia.
Based on the song Cogs the band had recorded back when they were known as Manic Subsidal, and inspired by the pressure to complete third album Smash after having spent weeks at Track Record Studios in north Hollywood, there is a palpable tension and paranoia pulsating through Gotta Get Away. Greg K’s bass and the thumping drums of Ron Welty get us going before Noodles and Dexter pile in with the riffs that really starts to roll. It’s those layers of angsty self-loathing that still echo all these years later, though, with the frontman’s unequivocal, self-loathing determination: ‘I gotta get away from me!’
Although it’s impossible to believe that The Offspring would ever be comfortable with the idea of becoming mainstream rock elder statesmen, the title-track from 2012’s Days Go By unfurls with the easygoing radio-ready assurance of peak Foo Fighters. That’s no bad thing, either. There’s a soft romance to the lyrics, but it’s easy to imagine the band ruminating on time, legacy and reliance on old habits as we listen: ‘Days go by and still I think of you / Days when I couldn't live my life without you / Days go by and still I think of you / Days when I couldn't live my life without you.’ Another nine years have slipped past since the record came out, yet Let The Bad Times Roll still has high standards to live up to.
Ixnay On The Hombre opens with the tongue-in-cheek Disclaimer featuring ex-Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra reassuring/warning listeners that “this American apple pie institution known as parental discretion will cleanse any sense of innuendo or sarcasm from the lyrics which might actually make you think”. Immediately afterwards, The Meaning Of Life proves that The Offspring are very much of the ‘if it offends you, just don’t listen to it’ mindset. Powered by high-octane riffs and blasts of whoa-oh-ohs, it is one of their most sweeping and (appropriately) affirmative compositions. Kevin Kerslake’s brilliantly unhinged music video – featuring a turbocharged wheelchair race through the desert and Dexter hanging out of a tree with a capuchin monkey – perfectly matches up.
The second single from 2008’s Rise And Fall, Rage And Grace fleshed out another of The Offspring’s great characters. The unnamed protagonist this time, though, is a manipulative sociopath hellbent on twisting others to his will. ‘Another clever word sets off an unsuspecting herd,’ Dexter sings, with malevolent relish. ‘And as you step back into line, a mob jumps to their feet.’ Although the song characteristically hints at a youthful high school setting – going as far as specifically referencing Lord Of The Flies – Dexter has emphasised that it could as easily be about a politician or a head of industry. A socio-political war cry that’s every bit as urgent as the song’s runaway sound.
‘Leaving flowers on your grave / Show that I still care,’ Dexter laments on Ixnay On The Hombre’s seventh track and second single. ‘But black roses and Hail Marys can't bring back what's taken from me.’ The Offspring have generally been at their best when dealing in broad satire or charged gallows humour, but Gone Away is a straight-faced shot from the heart. Dealing with the memory of Dexter’s girlfriend, who died in a car accident, there is a pain and openness here that is above and beyond. ‘Heaven's so far away / And it stings / Yeah it stings now / The world is so cold / Now that you've gone away.’
Come Out And Play feels like it was thrown together with the sort of frivolity its title suggests. That iconic recurring phrase ‘You’ve gotta keep ’em separated!’ is a callback to Dexter’s time handling bacterium in medical school. It’s delivered by friend of the band Jason 'Blackball' McLean whose Scottish heritage and Hispanic upbringing gave him one-of-a-kind pronunciation. Hell, even the iconic twisting riff was reportedly inspired by a trip to the Middle East. Beyond the hijinks, however, there is an important message about gang and gun violence in their native California that adds a cutting edge. The track was strikingly resurrected for the COVID era, with its central hook replaced by a new message: ‘YOU GOTTA GO GET VACCINATED!’
Even in a back catalogue overloaded with sarcasm, Pretty Fly (For A White Guy) stands head and shoulders above. Skewering the wave of white youth who rushed to appropriate urban culture in the late ’90s, the tale of a young man who ‘may not have a clue’ and ‘may not have style’ absolutely did not hold back with the razor-sharp piss-ripping. Borrowing Def Leppard’s faux-German intro to Rock Of Ages, kicking the riffs into overdrive and loading on the imagery of a hopeless wannabe for whom Ice-T and Vanilla Ice are interchangeable, its broad stroke approach was as impactful to giggling pre-teens as it was to mischievous social commentators. McG’s brilliantly colourful music video ensured it would go on to be a worldwide mega-hit.
‘I guess, I should stick up for myself / But I really think it's better this way / The more you suffer, the more it shows you really care.’ Dexter reportedly wrote this Smash stand-out based on the experiences of a female friend whose passivity saw them stuck in a toxic relationship, but the perspective he deploys in Self Esteem’s lyrics feels no less vital or authentic. Musically, it’s an obvious tribute to grunge supremos Nirvana, with a probing bassline, gravelly guitars and a whinier-than-normal vocal delivery that perfectly fit the subject matter. It’s the fans who’ve made it an all-time classic, though, embracing it as an anthem for those who’ve been walked all over for far too long.
The pop-punk cliché of musicians hating their hometowns feels somewhat old-hat nowadays, but this exceptionally bleak cut from Americana drills deeper into the tragedy of small-town suburbia than virtually any of The Offspring’s contemporaries ever dared. Inspired by a trip Dexter took back to his childhood stomping ground of Garden Grove, California, and with a title that plays on The Who’s infamous 1979 documentary (The Kids Are Alright), we’re whipped through a series of vignettes that find old friends having fallen victim to drug addiction, car accidents and nervous breakdowns, and left asking with the frontman ‘How can one little street swallow so many lives?’ Delivered with a sense of wounded urgency, authentic nostalgia and sorrowful resignation, The Kids Aren’t Alright has stuck with The Offspring’s fanbase more than any other, as the years wear on and they too find themselves faced with the traumas of youth’s clean edges worn away by the ever-swirling sands of time.
Running down the best of the best from Leeds and Hatfield as Slam Dunk 2023 kicks off the most jam-packed UK festival season ever…
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