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O.C. Pop Music Review : What Price Glory for Offspring? : Irvine concert is a dandy but leaves questions about the status of punk.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Something is happening and I don’t know what it is.

The Offspring, who hail from Orange County, returned from their platinum-plated road trip Saturday night and played most of their million-selling album, “Smash,” in UC Irvine’s packed, steamy Crawford Hall. The band played well on its homecoming, had some fun, and even managed to get the best of the echoey gym and its miserable acoustics. Most of the songs were nifty. The crowd of more than 2,000 people went generally bonkers. But I’m confused.

Were we seeing the triumph of punk rock, and, in particular, the fruition of Orange County’s distinguished, 15-year contribution to it? Or were we witnessing punk’s death knell?

Hasn’t punk rock always been music that lives in opposition to the mainstream, a music of outcasts and misfits shouting warnings, mockery and vilification at the comfy, self-satisfied majority? How does that jibe with an album that sells a million copies in four months, with who knows how many units still to move?

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Wasn’t punk rock supposed to be music that required a special commitment on the part of its audience as well as the band? Then why were some fans--not a lot, but more than a few--heading for the exit after the Offspring played its career-making hit, “Come Out and Play,” as the ninth song in a 13-song set?

(Simple good sense, you say: Who wouldn’t want to get out of those sweaty, airless precincts? Yes, but since when did punk fans, those slam-dancing zealots, let good sense get in the way of their devotions? Just three nights before, nobody had budged from the even more packed and humid Troubadour in West Hollywood as Social Distortion, an original Orange County punk band still a step short of massive commercial acceptance, played a stirring concert with several hundred overheated human sardines straining to take in every last note.)

Why did the maniacal response to “Self Esteem,” the second Offspring song to get substantial airplay on KROQ, seem so discomfiting? And don’t such misgivings put me uncomfortably close to some of the most narrow-minded, contemptibly clubby college-rock tastemakers, who will repudiate good music for the sole reason that it can be appreciated by more than a small coterie of the superior elect? Shouldn’t we be rejoicing that the music-industry machinery is finally grinding in favor of a worthy local band and an important, unfairly neglected style?

Perhaps the crowd’s response to “Self Esteem” was just a normal reaction to an exceptionally crunchy, catchy song, rather than a programmed response to radio programmers’ king-making.

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I know, this is supposed to be a concert review offering not confused questions but ostensibly illuminating observations. So, before we sink back into confusion, a few direct comments on Saturday night’s proceedings.

The basic elements of the Offspring’s success are not that baffling. Young rock fans have always loved loud, aggressive music that they can sing along to. Bryan Holland, the band’s singer-songwriter, has been honing his ear for melody over the course of the three albums the Offspring have released since 1990. “Smash” marks his full-blown maturation, and with his leathery, foghorn yelp, with a touch of anxious reediness on top, he has a memorable, insistent instrument for putting that catchy stuff across. “Self Esteem” (coming soon to your living room via MTV) isn’t the only song that sounds like a hit successor to “Come Out And Play.” “Gotta Get Away,” “Nitro (Youth Energy)” and maybe “It’ll Be A Long Time” are also strong candidates. With punk suddenly, improbably salable, “Smash” could turn out to be the “Rumours” of the genre.

With bassist Greg Kriesel’s backing vocals accenting the melody, Ron Welty drumming with the concentrated look of a jazz player, and guitarist Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman pogoing himself into a sopping sweat, the Offspring played cohesively and energetically.

The set lasted just 55 minutes, and, even given punk’s hit-'em-quick and hit-'em-hard ethic, the band should have extended itself more. Why not play the lighter, ska-flavored “What Happened To You?” for an off-beat change of pace? Where was the Nirvana-ish “Dirty Magic,” a highlight of the band’s 1992 album, “Ignition?” What about the irresistible anthem, “Smash?” Maybe the Offspring think that playing the song, with its sure-fire, obscenity-laced, crowd-rousing, fist-throwing chorus, would be unfair play, like shooting fish in a barrel. On the other hand, including “L.A.P.D.,” a routine piece of hard-core thrash, was a waste of time.

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The Offspring once more showed their pride in local punk tradition, as Holland took time to invoke such Orange County precursors as the Adolescents, T.S.O.L. and the Vandals. Later, after noting that the band is sometimes mistakenly identified as a Los Angeles act, he led the audience in a cheer of “F--- L.A.”

Despite the occasional cussword, Holland came off as the sweetest-natured front man in punk history, a tall, fresh-faced, fair-skinned, smiling fellow who, if not for long blond hair worn in braided cornrows for a touch of the exotic, would look exactly like the prototypical All-American kid. In the gritty world of punk rock, these would seem debits rather than assets. Musical value is behind the Offspring’s ascent, not a fashionably dark or obstreperous image which, if Holland attempted it, would make him and the band look ridiculous.

The rest is questions.

Hasn’t punk always self-destructed in the face of mass-acceptance? That’s what happened to the Clash, soon after it became the first punk band to score a million-selling album (1982’s “Combat Rock”). And, with more finality, it’s what happened to the late Kurt Cobain, who may not have played punk per se, but who embraced punk ideals. Suicide is an ineffably complex and, in the young, an ultimately inscrutable act. But Cobain’s inability to truly accept that music can be both artistically uncompromising and massively popular was an apparent factor in his unhappiness.

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The Offspring have not shown any signs of a dark side that will sabotage their success. On the surface, the biggest threat would come if Holland should get a hankering to return to the USC and the Ph.D research in microbiology he had to set aside in May when fame and fortune began to beckon. With set-for-life riches a real possibility (in true punk fashion, bless them, the Offspring spent just $20,000 to record “Smash,” a mere 10th of what major labels consider a routine price for an album), Holland might decide to go back to his test tubes. Does this guy sound like a punk?

Very much so, if you pay attention to his lyrics, which he claims to knock off casually at the last possible minute before the Offspring record them.

The songs are intelligent, outraged about the present, guarded about the future, confronting the world with a combination of anguish, irony and sardonic humor. Amid deep disillusionment there is a determination to have fun, and to press on, as “Nitro” puts it, “like there’s no tomorrow.” Morose defeatism is for grungenicks. Musical and thematic hyperbole, coupled with displays of titanic instrumental prowess, is for metal bands. Good punk music is about everyday reality, and everyday survival skills, as filtered through the minds and talents of players who stay close to everyday living, yet catch a special creative spark.

Rock stardom on a massive scale eventually robs musicians of their ability to connect with everyday concerns. The often-hollow lyrical charading of the Rolling Stones’ latest album is one example. John Lennon opted out of the machinery, saved his sanity, and restored his creativity. Neil Young, bless him, has always done something to throw a spanner into the machinery’s works, switching styles in a way that keeps his popularity from growing too massive or, as he has with his new album, simply refusing to have any part of the touring or promotional limelight.

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Can punk rock survive massive success? The proposition has never been fully tested, and the partial returns say it can’t.

But we have hit a moment of great national nervousness, in which anger and suspicion run high, along with uncertainty over whether the promise of American life envisioned by the Progressives of a century ago is being irretrievably broken. Most of the original Orange County punks of 1979-80 were an openly disgusted, worried minority of malcontents living in a place where most people seemed to be secure, comfortable and self-satisfied.

Times have changed. The world is a scarier place for individuals and their immediate communities. The most widely heard punk voice of the moment is that of Bryan Holland, the honors student, the dimpled, good-looking All-American kid from the epitome of suburbia, whose career-making hit is a sour account of the unstoppable insanity of reflexive street-violence, whose most recurring theme is distrust of leaders and their verities and pieties. In his 28-year lifetime those pieties haven’t come close to measuring up to the punkers’ reality test.

More than a million copies are in circulation of the Offspring album that contains this refrain, and most of its buyers are probably nodding as they sing along:

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When will the world listen to reason?

I have a feeling it will be a long time.

When will the truth come into season?

I have a feeling it will be a long time.

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Maybe the question isn’t whether punk rock can survive success, but what we can do about an America in which anxiety and disillusionment are so widespread that punk rock can succeed as never before. Punk rockers have always told us in the most stark terms that something is happening, and we don’t know what it is. Perhaps it is a good thing that they have finally gotten through.


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