Major Label Debut: Punk’s “Sell Out” Albums Revisited
A look back on some of the punk albums that got major label releases. The good, the bad, and the stranger than fiction.
Though it seems petty and dumb in retrospect, “selling out” was a thing people cared about once. The quickest, most surefire way for a punk band to piss off its loyal fanbase was to put their Herbie Hancocks on a contract with a major label. The resulting outrage was real. DIY venues like 924 Gilman in Berkeley refused to book any major label acts, countless songs have been written on the subject, and hell, Reel Big Fish even ironically made a hit single out of it.
The move was never received well, and always seen as an affront to those who had launched the bands out of the basements in the first place. Whether the band’s major label debut was a commercial success or a flop, a critical darling or panned piece of trash, many fans stuck a middle finger to the whole thing, as if to say, “We support you, but not enough for you to be able to quit your job at Whole Foods!”
Eventually the internet came along and made everything popular and nothing profitable. But before the music industry’s bubble burst, punk snuck a few past the goalie. (For the benefit of any punks reading this who are not Propagandhi, that was a hockey reference.) (Hockey is a sport.) Here is a look back on a few records—good and bad—that got a chance at the big time.
Drive Like Jehu - Yank Crime, Interscope (1994)
Punk Outrage Level: 4/10
Rumor has it that when Rocket from the Crypt got signed to Interscope (god bless the musical hubris of the 90s that allowed those words to just seem rational, by the way), frontman John Reis insisted that they take his post-hardcore side project Drive Like Jehu as well, which explains the major label release of Yank Crime. It’s unlikely that a framed copy of this album is hanging on the walls of the Interscope offices among all those gold Eminem and Maroon 5 records, but it should be. Yank Crime may just be the wildest, most pioneering album ever to slip through the major label cracks. Light years ahead of its time. Staying true to the dreaded major label curse, Jehu broke up the following year and two decades later, bands are still trying to catch up to whatever the fuck they were doing.
Green Day – Dookie, Reprise (1994)
Punk Outrage Level: 7.5/10
Dookie was the one that ruined it all. Punks love to throw this one under the bus and for good reason. It has sold a jaw-dropping 20 million copies, making it one of best selling albums of all time, just under Prince’s Purple Rain and Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall. Let that sink in for a second. An album named after a pile of shit sold roughly as much an Academy Award-winning Prince soundtrack.
But the larger problems stemming from Dookie’s success wouldn’t surface in punk until years later. It paved the way for future waves of radio-friendly pop punk like Blink-182 and New Found Glory. It also created the climate for majors to sign punk acts like Jawbreaker who would ultimately meet their demise under the major label pressure. And on a personal level for the band, it served as the bridge for three unkempt Berkeley kids to transition to the Broadway musical-producing middle-age men in guyliner you see before you today. [Dave Chappelle as Rick James voice]: They shoulda never gave you punks money!
But all that aside, fucking hell if that drum intro to the album isn’t the start of something special. You’ve gotta give it to ‘em. Green Day managed to walk a perfect line between Cali pop punk and 90s alterna-rock and made an indisputable classic in the process. The band’s discography would then dwindle down from 1995’s passable Insomniac to the album of say-nothing mass-market politics, American Idiot, to the subsequent and completely superfluous three-part concept albums that followed. Truly, they flew too close to the sun on wings made of D4 riffs.
Bad Religion – Stranger than Fiction, Atlantic (1994)
Punk Outrage Level: 9/10
Story time: Once at a small New York hole-in-the-wall venue in the late 90s, there was a kid leaned up against a wall with a Bad Religion patch on his jacket. On top of the band’s name, with a marker, he had written the word “OLD.” That’s how much Bad Religion fans hated their major label recordings and the second phase of the band’s career. They would only cop to listening to old Bad Religion. And Stranger Than Fiction was a particular object of scorn. After all, it was the band’s first with Atlantic, having jumped from Epitaph. (That must’ve been a pretty sweet deal if they were willing to leave a label that one of the dudes in the band owns.) It also featured the band’s most well-known singles, “Infected” and “Stranger Than Fiction.” But again, hindsight being 20/20, this album holds up as some of the band’s catchiest work while only picking up a hint of alternative radio rock influence of the time.
Jawbox – For Your Own Special Sweetheart, Atlantic (1994)
Punk Outrage Level: 6.5/10
Jawbox owe a debt of gratitude to Jawbreaker for taking the hit as the “band who people instinctively associate with selling out and whose name starts with ‘Jawb.’” But that doesn’t make their punk crimes any less egregious, especially since they were making the jump to Atlantic from Ian Mackaye’s über-DIY label, Dischord Records. They were one of only two bands, along with Shudder to Think, to ever make the Dischord-to-major leap. As you can probably imagine, as progressive as the record was, the band didn’t go over super well with a mass audience. Shortly after being dropped by Atlantic, Jawbox disbanded. Let that be a lesson. Much like you can’t just dump a fish into an aquarium, Dischord bands can’t just drop themselves into the major label waters. Ease into your selling out.
ALL – Pummel, Interscope (1995)
Punk Outrage Level: 3.5/10
ALL were the poor bastards who could never catch a break. In the eyes of the punks, they were always the band guilty of not being Descendents. So when they miraculously sneaked their way onto Interscope, they put out the decent albeit forgettable album, Pummel. While not their best work (although there were some good songs on it like "Million Bucks," "Long Distance," and "Breakin' Up") the members did use the money they made from it to open the Colorado recording studio, The Blasting Room, where drummer Bill Stevenson has produced numerous punk records, including Descendents’ Everything Sux. So… that’s something, right?
Jawbreaker – Dear You, Geffen (1995)
Punk Outrage Level: 9/10
After Green Day had mega-success with Dookie, record labels rushed to Kinko’s and photocopied million-dollar record contracts in bulk and started handing them out at the doors of West Coast punk venues like they were show flyers. Jawbreaker were fresh off a tour with Nirvana at the time, which many fans worried would get them attention from major labels and guess what the fuck happened. They got attention from major labels.
Instead of breaking up, which they were on the verge of doing, they infamously signed a million dollar contract with DGC Records (owned by Universal Music Group) to release 1995’s Dear You. Fans of course criticized the album for sounding “more polished” than their previous works. “Polished” is punk code for “I am angry, fuck you, band I like!” Jawbreaker’s audiences were said to have sat on the floor and turned their backs to the band when they would play songs from the album.
Now that we can all look past our anger of Dear You like sane, rational human beings, unangry about the fact that it doesn’t sound like it was recorded over the phone through a tin can, it’s time to face the fact that this is Jawbreaker’s smartest, most mature record. Blake really let his gift for dark poetics fly here and songs like “Accident Prone” and “Jet Black” set early benchmarks in the burgeoning emo scene alongside bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Texas Is the Reason. “Million” reads like a self-effacing dig at their whole relationship with their label. And “Sluttering (May 4th)” is the best song about the date May 4. Hands down.
But as good as it was, it was no alt-rock MTV darling like Dookie. Think about how many times you’ve seen the “Basket Case” video versus the one for “Fireman.” Exactly. Dear You sold 40,000 copies, just several kabillion copies short of the mark Green Day had set a year earlier. A huge failure for the label. The band broke up shortly after and their shirts are worth a lot on eBay.
Less Than Jake – Losing Streak, Capitol (1996)
Punk Outrage Level: 5/10
In yet another testament to the musical hubris of the mid-90s, Florida’s Less Than Jake cashed in on America’s brief, fleeting fling with ska which included The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and uh… that one Reel Big Fish song. They left Asian Man and No Idea for their third release, Losing Streak, which was released on Capitol. But surprise, disgruntled 90s ska nerds! You might’ve had to pay a few more dollars for it at Tower Records but you actually got a killer album out of it.
The Offspring – Ixnay on the Hombre, Columbia (1997)
Punk Outrage Level: 3/10
The Offspring’s third album, Smash, sold a stupid number of copies. Eleven fucking million copies, making it the best-selling independent album of all time. It pumped so much cash into Epitaph Records, where it was released, that it cemented the label’s financial security for years to come. But in the process, it also almost destroyed founder Brett Gurewitz who left Bad Religion to focus on the label. He also divorced from his wife and picked up some pretty nasty addictions to crack and heroin.
So three years later, for their next album, Ixnay on the Hombre, The Offspring moved on to Columbia, a departure which Gurewitz has admitted to taking personally at the time. Since the band had already made enough money at that point to fill a swimming pool (or at least to hire people to tell them their white dude dreds were a good look), it wasn’t exactly seen as “selling out” so much as a non-idiot business move.
Ixnay sold well—three million copies—but wanes in comparison to Smash’s 11 million. Ten million of which are sitting at the bottom of used CD bins across America.
Blink-182 – Enema of the State, MCA (1999)
Punk Outrage Level: 10/10
Boy oh boy did people have their mohawks in a twist over this album—and this band in general—around this time. Everyone had a fucking opinion about Blink after their second album Dude Ranch (which technically was a split release between indie label Cargo Records and major, MCA), from the longtime fans who called them sell outs, to the Maximum Rock’n’Roll crowd who had no use for this clownish, embarrassing side of punk to begin with.
The issue of whether or not Blink-182 was killing punk hit such a critical mass by Enema of the State, their first true major release, that even Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten was asked what he thought about the band. To which he responded: “Isn’t that that bunch of silly boys? They’re an imitation of a comedy act. They’re so bad they should be permanently featured on Saturday Night Live, which, as far as I can see, is the ultimate insult.” Harsh words from the butter representative.
At this point, it’s been over 15 years. Can we now look at this album about enemas and diarrhea like rational adults please? Maybe it’s because there have been much more heinous crimes carried out in the name of punk since this album’s release (partly due to Blink leaving the door open behind them), but Enema seems tame in comparison to the Sum 41s and Avril Lavignes of the early 2000s. Or maybe it’s because looking back through our Ghost of Blink-182 Present, knowing this band would eventually devolve into grown men bickering over petty legal issues, that this era seemed like simpler, blissful times. But whatever it is, objectively, there’s nothing really “wrong” with it aside from it sometimes bordering on petty misogyny in its sophomoric humor (“I need a girl that I can train”). But, like… it is pretty catchy.
H2O – Go, MCA (2001)
Punk Outrage Level: 2/10
H2O put out the same album three times in a row. Then they made it a fourth time and released it on a major label. No one noticed or cared.
Rancid – Indestructible, Warner Bros. Records (2003)
Punk Outrage Level: 8/10
Rancid is sort of an anomaly. Looking back at their career, you’d think their “sell out” period was that time in the mid-90s when they were playing “Roots Radicals” on SNL and MTV was constantly running their punx-in-a-box music videos like “Salvation” and “Ruby Soho.” And you could argue that it was. But the band held firm to their home of Epitaph Records through that decade. Which isn’t to say major labels didn’t want a piece of them. They did. So much so that Rancid supposedly convinced an A&R guy at Epic to shave his head into a blue mohawk and got nude photos from Madonna to sweeten a deal with her label, Maverick. In fairness, nude photos of Madonna were America’s national currency in the 90s.
After a long, five-album run at Epitaph which took them all the way through their criminally underrated self-titled 2000 album, Rancid did what they very vocally always took a stand against: They signed to a major—Warner Bros. Records. Or at least, they were distributed through Warner, anyway. They were kinda murky about the details as you can imagine and their first record with them, Indestructible, did not bear the Warner logo.
Wouldn’t you know it, fans didn’t care for this album. Cameos from Kelly Osbourne and the Good Charlotte dude in the video for their single “Fall Back Down” probly didn’t win any cred points with the Gilman Street crowd either. Punks gave Rancid the business for this move as they are wont to do, saying the album’s poppier sound was a direct influence of Warner. In reality, an album distribution deal with a major label probably didn’t have any effect on the band’s songwriting process. It just wasn’t a very memorable album.
Label outrage around Rancid has more or less died down given that most people who listen to the band are around 45 at this point. The band has released all subsequent releases via Epitaph, frontman Tim Armstrong has since tattooed his head, and still has yet to actually strum his guitar a single time.
The Distillers – Coral Fang, Sire (2003)
Punk Outrage Level: 6/10
Love makes you do weird shit. Take Rancid’s Tim Armstrong. He stayed away from major labels his whole life. Then he got a divorce from his wife Brody Dalle in 2003 and she and her band The Distillers went and signed to Sire Records that year. Rancid also happened to sign with Warner the same year, releasing an album laden with break-up references. Maybe this whole thing was just a passive aggressive post-break-up career success war. And maybe we were all just pawns in Tim and Brody’s punk game. We may never know. But one thing’s for sure: Somewhere on some Sire’s sell sheet, some idiot sales rep most definitely described The Distillers as “Rancid for girls.”
The Ataris – So Long, Astoria, Columbia (2003)
Punk Outrage Level: 0/10
Hey, The Ataris put out a major label record too. Good for them.
Saves the Day – In Reverie, Dreamworks (2003)
Punk Outrage Level: 7/10
Saves the Day were already in hot water with their core fanbase by the time In Reverie came out. After winning over both pop punk and hardcore kids with their first two releases on Equal Vision, they smoothed a bit of their edge over for their third record, Stay What You Are, an album that landed them appearances on The Late Late Show and Conan. After that, they made the jump to Dreamworks for their poppiest album yet and, were it not for their pedigree, you’d be hard pressed to call this a punk album. They drifted towards straight-up pop melodies. (Frontman Chris Conley said he got real into The Beatles around this time.) Dreamworks didn’t seem to give much of a shit about the album given that they were a few weeks away from being sold off to Interscope and Saves the Day were dropped in the move. Ten years later, they returned home to Equal Vision. Pop punk is a flat circle.
Cave In – Antenna, RCA (2003)
Punk Outrage Level: 3.5/10
If there’s one thing Cave In have proven, it’s that they literally could not give a fuck. They will make an insane, totally out-there hardcore record like Until Your Heart Stops, the first ten minutes of which are the most ridiculously punishing snippet of hardcore ever committed to tape. But then two years later, they’ll follow it up with Jupiter, a trippy space-rock album from another planet (Jupiter, probably), completely unrecognizable from their previous work. So when RCA signed the band for their 2003 release, Antenna, they had to have known they were rolling the dice on these Boston dudes. What the label got was an imperfect experiment from an ex-hardcore band reaching for some semblance of radio-friendliness. The album got a good promotional push but ultimately fell flat at the hands of a label who didn’t know how to market these weirdo geniuses. RCA and Cave In split thereafter and the band was welcomed back into the loving indie arms of Hydra Head Records where they released two often forgotten albums of absolutely bonkers technical aggression, Perfect Pitch Black and White Silence. And all was right in the world.
AFI – Sing the Sorrow, Dreamworks (2003)
Punk Outrage Level: 7/10
AFI have gone through a long, weird wave of changes over their two decades as a band. Starting out as your generic, run-of-the-mill hardcore band, they eventually morphed into the grayscale uber-goths you see before you. But somewhere in the middle, they hit their sweet spot. Around their Black Sails in the Sunset era of the late 90s, they asked their punk fans to venture out into darker waters, which a lot of them did. The band filled the void for punk-goth aesthetics left by The Misfits. But then frontman Davey Havok parasoled too far out there when AFI released 2003’s Sing the Sorrow on Dreamworks. It was the album that broke the band out to a more mainstream audience, but lost them a lot of their core fans who suddenly sobered up and realized they were wearing guyliner and painting their fingernails black.
Thursday – War All the Time, Island (2003)
Punk Outrage Level: 7/10
In the early 2000s, the music industry must’ve been so hard up for fresh acts that they started sifting through the VFW halls of New Jersey. One act they found while doing so was Thursday. Thursday was just off their hit sophomore release with Victory Records, Full Collapse, an album which perfected the basement hardcore sound of its time and which frontman Geoff Rickly has noted as being the band’s best work.
Much like every band who has ever been on Victory Records, Thursday were desperate to get the fuck off of Victory Records. So when an opportunity came along with Island Records, the band jumped on it, taking advantage of a clause in their contract that said they could leave Victory for a major. They released two albums on Island, one of which sold 45,000 copies in its first week. If you told any of Thursday’s fellow New Brunswick basement dwellers like You & I that it was possible to sell 45,000 copies by singing out-of-key emotional hardcore, they might’ve stuck it out for more than two records. But it was a flop in the eyes of a major label. The problem was that they were still on the hook for three more records. According to Rickly, he met personally with the president of the company and asked if they could peacefully part ways. The two shook on it, and that was that. No harm done. Except for the thousands and thousands of Island dollars lost by the investment in Thursday, but who was counting? You know, besides Island’s accountants.
Rise Against – Siren Song of the Counter-Culture, Dreamworks (2004)
Punk Outrage Level: 3/10
Rise Against sound exactly like the kind of band who would tickle the punk fancy of a major label A&R person, which is not a compliment. So it made total sense for Dreamworks to pick up their 2004 album, Something Vague About Revolutions or Whatever.
Anti-Flag – For Blood and Empire, RCA (2006)
Punk Outrage Level: 3.5/10
There’s always something inherently goofy about seeing a politically charged punk record on a major label. It’s like, “Hey look at us, we want to change the world but we also don’t really wanna have five roomates when we’re 40!” But if you asked most punk fans, they’d be hard pressed to name an Anti-Flag album that isn’t Die for the Government anyway. So after a decade of paying their dues and spreading their anti-corporation message across various indie labels, they did this one for RCA. Good for you, Anti-Flag. Get what ya worth, dawgs.
Against Me! – New Wave, Sire (2007)
Punk Outrage Level: 12/10
Against Me! have pissed fans off incrementally over their career. After releasing a few rough EPs on smaller labels like Crasshole, Plan-It-X, and Sabot, they made a slightly bigger jump to Florida staple No Idea Records for their debut album, Reinventing Axl Rose. All good so far, punks? Cool. Let’s move on…
Then came the jump to Fat Mike’s label Fat Wreck Chords, which you wouldn’t think would be a big deal but for some reason was. To show the band what they thought, fans supposedly once dumped bleach on their merch. Since people were already good and riled up anyway, the band said fuck it and signed to Sire Records, a division of Warner. People started questioning how far Against Me! had strayed from that sweaty band playing DIY anthems in Florida basements they knew and loved. This went on for a few more years until last year when Against Me! made the minutia of record labels a completely moot point and shut any remaining contrarian idiots up with Transgender Dysphoria Blues and, well… the rest is history.
Sell out with Dan Ozzi on Twitter, oh yeah - @danozzi