SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Hard-Core Idealists : Pennywise, a South Bay punk rock band, finds success with a thrashing style and uplifting lyrics.
Punk rock has been on the attack ever since Johnny Rotten started sneering about anarchy, no future, and how the queen ain’t no human being.
Born in opposition and suckled on bile, most punk bands come naturally to mockery, ire and scorn. Like good guard dogs, they are inclined by breeding to greet whatever comes their way with a snarl and a show of fangs.
Playing like a tuneful chain-saw, the South Bay beach cities band Pennywise has established solid credentials and impressive sales tallies on the hard-core punk scene, where the body-slamming aficionados like their music fast and frenzied.
But in its message, the band is more like Ben Franklin than Johnny Rotten, dispensing earnest words of advice that are less concerned with tearing down enemies than with inspiring fans to find a positive, self-reliant path through life.
It’s hardly a primrose path. The songs on Pennywise’s two albums confront the souring of Southern California life (“Homesick”), the hatred and mindlessness unleashed in the 1992 riots (“City Is Burning”) and the anguish of seeking, but not finding, the key to a meaningful life (“Nothing”).
But at every turn, singer Jim Lindberg, who shares the task of writing lyrics with bassist Jason Thirsk, can be heard urging listeners to stay alert and engaged with life, to think independently, and to avoid despair.
Consider Pennywise’s advice to a morose slacker in “Give And Get,” from the 1993 album “Unknown Road”:
Get with the program, there are so many fun options
Waiting outside your front door.
Think of what you have, not what you don’t
‘Cause in the end there’s no one who really gives a (expletive) any more.
What you give is what you get
And what you’ve been giving, you’ve been getting.
Lindberg, Thirsk, guitarist Fletcher Dragee and drummer Byron McMackin became punk fans in the early ‘80s after listening to the hard-core rantings of such home-grown South Bay bands as Black Flag and the Circle Jerks.
Speaking in a phone interview from his house in Manhattan Beach, Lindberg, at 29 the oldest member, said he sees the value in punk bands that instinctively tear down targets rather than trumpeting positive ideals.
“I think both approaches have merit and they both have their place,” he said. Pennywise’s decision to accentuate the positive “relates to the type of people we are. The band was originally called P.M.A., which stands for Positive Mental Attitude,” he said.
“To some it can sound pedantic, as if we were preaching to people. Although we’re an easy target for cynics, I don’t think there are enough bands out there on the positive tip.”
The beach cities’ surf scene has much to do with the postive energy that flows through the band’s music. Lindberg and Dragee are die-hard surfers who grew up riding the waves off Hermosa and Manhattan beaches, and Lindberg believes both members channel their creative energy from surfing into music.
“You’re out there in nature and you get amped up for other creative outlets,” he said.
Pennywise named itself after the demon dressed as a clown in Stephen King’s story “It.” But the band members weren’t trying to garb themselves in commonplace horror-rock trappings.
“It’s more of a metaphor,” said Lindberg. “The clown in the book would turn into whatever scared you the most. In order to eventually kill the entity that was Pennywise, they had to confront their fears.
“A lot of the hate in people is based in fear and jealousy. For us, it was a great metaphor for the band: here’s a band that’s loud and scary and full of what sounds like venom, but it’s bringing you a change, something to bring yourself up, instead of something loud and scary, and that’s all it is.”
Lindberg, who went to Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach with Dragee and Thirsk, joined Pennywise in 1989, about the same time he received his bachelor’s degree in English at UCLA. He cites Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as influences on his thinking; Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”’ is credited as the inspiration for the title song on “Unknown Road.”
At the same time, Lindberg cites the influence of Bad Religion, the long-running Los Angeles punk band known for its melodic hard-core style and didactic lyrics.
“People say we were heavily influenced by them, and it’s true to an extent,” Lindberg said. “I’d never heard a punk band with lyrics like that that are kind of heady. You’d have fast, pulsing rhythms with lyrics that are pretty thought-provoking. (Bad Religion’s) lyrics opened my eyes as much as any literary hero.”
It all sounds high-minded, but nothing is clean and simple with such a contradictory and volatile art form as punk rock.
Lindberg says that Pennywise, for all its positive preaching, became a magnet for some of punk’s worst demons as it gained popularity after the release of its self-titled 1991 debut album.
“We were labeled a white-power band,” Lindberg said. “It goes to show you how stupid people are. We had a logo with a ‘p’ and a ‘w,’ and they said, ‘That stands for white power.’ We made it very obvious in our shows that people should take pride in who they are, not because of their skin color. Hate is so diametrically opposed to everything we stand for, but that kind of thing is going to happen.”
Lindberg said that small but disruptive groups of racist and violence-prone punks began frequenting Pennywise’s shows in 1991.
“The whole violence scene around this style of music got too much for me. We played a horrendous show in Hollywood, and the place got thrashed. It just turned into a big fight, with one or two guys yelling, ‘white power.’
“I took a look at myself and said, ‘What am I doing here? I have such an aversion for this type of behavior, violence and hatemongering, and I’m stuck in the middle of it as if I’m the spokesperson for it.’ It happened at more than one show,” he said. “It was becoming a trend, and we got slapped with this reputation that every time we play a riot was going to break out.”
Lindberg quit the band. Besides the mayhem from outside, the singer also was unhappy with what he saw as a lack of seriousness and commitment from within.
“I was wanting everything to sound perfect, and practices would end up as big beer fests. Twenty to 30 people would show up bringing cases of beer, and we could never get anything done. I knew we had the potential to be a great punk band and it (angered) me . . . when I wasn’t getting the same dedication from the other members.”
Lindberg said a tour of Europe, with Dave Quackenbush of the Vandals as the replacement singer, helped the other members see the same possibilities he did: “It galvanized them. They’d have 1,000 people at shows. When you see you have worldwide acceptance, it hits home: ‘We could make something of this if we give it a shot.’ ”
Pennywise began working on “Unknown Road” in 1992 with Thirsk switching to vocals, and One Hit Wonder’s bassist, Randy Bradbury, coming in as a session player.
Lindberg, who had had a hand in writing the songs, liked the players’ musical development, which led to sharper melodies and more varied song structures than on the debut. They, in turn, thought his singing could do the songs more justice than Thirsk’s. So a reconciliation was reached, and Pennywise returned to its original lineup, although bass tracks Bradbury laid down were used on all but two of the songs on “Unknown Road.”
Both of Pennywise’s albums have sold more than 100,000 copies, according to a spokesman for the band’s label, Epitaph--a total that until punk’s commercial explosion of ’94 would have qualified as a mega-hit.
Pennywise was the first of several Epitaph bands, including the Offspring, to forge links with surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding fans by getting its music used on the soundtracks of popular films and videos on those sports.
During a recent tour, which included stops in Southern California, as well as dates in Hawaii and Florida, Pennywise continued a mutually beneficial relationship with film director Taylor Steele, whose new wave of surf movies use punk as a sonic backdrop. Steele’s new film, “Focus,” was premiered at the concerts.
The “thug factor” at shows has declined, Lindberg said: “When you play large venues, the potential for that is less, and the element that was haranguing us have moved on to other bands to torment.”
As it works on its third album, which Lindberg says is about half written, Pennywise is well aware that the commercial possibilities for punk have been ratcheted upward more than tenfold since the release of “Unknown Road.”
Just last winter, Pennywise was the headliner on a joint tour with label mates the Offspring, whose subsequent album, “Smash,” has sold more than 2 million copies and set records for a punk or alternative release on an independent label.
“I don’t think (the Offspring’s success) is going to (induce) any Epitaph band to write a radio-friendly album,” Lindberg said. “People know exactly what they’re getting from an Epitaph band--melodic hard-core--and that stuff catches on. The bands aren’t going to change their style; nothing’s going to change on our end. If the music industry and radio comes around, that’s great.”
At the same time, Lindberg said, there may be a natural evolution toward sounds that are more accessible--the same sort of progression the Offspring made before striking it big on its third album.
“I think it’s just the factor of playing so much that you become tighter and better musicians,” he said. “We’ve always had a pretty good sense of melody, and as the albums continue I think you’re going to get a stronger sense of melody and song structure.”
Lindberg admits there is a contradiction at the core of Pennywise’s music: a clash between the furious hard-core sound, with its rage-filled traditions, and Pennywise’s attempt to harness the thunder and make it a medium for uplifting messages.
“It’s kind of a crapshoot” whether the messages get through, Lindberg said. “But I get unbelievable letters that show we are getting across. People write me saying, ‘Your band and your lyrics helped me get through one of the most difficult parts of my life.’
“To be in New Jersey and have a kid come up to me and say--and this has happened on more than one occasion--that he was down and depressed and he wanted to kill himself, and a song I wrote helped him recover--I could have sold just (that) one album and it would have made me happy.”
Pennywise’s lyrics are edgy enough to provoke debate. One of the band’s key themes is the Nietzschean idea that people should live by their own rules rather than bowing to handed-down codes of belief. That can be tricky even in the hands of good-willed people; it has been disastrous in the hands of some of this century’s self-proclaimed Zarathustras.
And when, in “Side One,” the band’s call for punker solidarity holds up “homogeneity” as a positive value, one can’t help shudder thinking of the horrors wreaked in the name of homogeneity of blood and homogeneity of creed. From here, the song sounds like a hard-and-fast “Tomorrow Belongs To Me.” If racist punks crept unwanted into Pennywise’s picnic, maybe it’s because “Side One,” from the 1991 album, “Pennywise,” smelled like their kind of morsel.
Lindberg says the band’s follow-your-own-rules advice is all that seems logical to some of today’s disaffected youth: “As far as looking to other people for your solutions, you had divorced parents and the whole Me Generation. All these neglected kids out there had no idea where to go for the answers, and they have to start from scratch. It’s a way of saying you have to start over and look to yourself.”
But Lindberg welcomes the prospect of debate being stirred by the pronouncements in Pennywise’s songs. “The good thing about all of it is that maybe we’re provoking discussion among all these kids who have been holding it in.
“If they were to open up to their friends and discuss things more,” he said, “they’d have a better time dealing with it, rather than keeping it in because they’re going to be perceived (he mimics a stoner’s dismissive drawl): ‘Oh, you’re so deep, man.’ ”
Times correspondent James Benning contributed to this story.