In 1994, punk rock infiltrated the mainstream. Due to a strange confluence of events, pop-punk stalwarts Green Day, originating in Berkeley, Calif., had found a way to turn a profit without straying from its well-constructed formula. It was no surprise that major labels began looking to the Bay Area in an attempt to find the next Green Day. The place many started looking was 924 Gilman Street, a collective based in Berkeley, giving punk, hardcore, metal and a myriad of other independent acts a place to play. For a membership at $2 a year, the rules were simple: No drugs, no alcohol, no violence, and perhaps most importantly, no major labels. If a band signed to a major, they were banned.
Obviously, the irony was lost on the label execs.
When the punk explosion of ’94 proved profitable for major and indie labels alike, it is hard to say who came out on top. Underground punk saw attention from mainstream audiences, allowing bands to make music their career, yet higher profile acts called up to the big leagues often floundered before they were released from their contract or broke up. The worst hit of all came from the Bay Area’s premier punk-pop trio, Jawbreaker.
Jawbreaker, despite originating in New York, helped define the area’s sound by mixing the visceral emotion of Rites of Spring with grittiness and pop-punk of Crimpshrine. The band’s debut album Unfun perfectly encapsulated this, and displayed the trio—comprising vocalist/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach, bassist Chris Bauermeister and drummer Adam Pfahler—as an overall force in the scene.
For a hugely popular band with a sound diverse from its counterparts, it may have seemed inevitable for Jawbreaker to catch the eye of major label reps, though the band was outspoken in its DIY, anti-major label approach.
Schwarzenbach was known to espouse derogatory sentiments toward corporate labels while on stage, and much of Jawbreaker’s work was released by small, independent labels. Despite the band’s ability to transcend the genre, it appeared that Jawbreaker would always be a staple of underground punk culture. Of course, that all changed the day the band signed with DGC Records, a subsidiary of Geffen.
It was a shock to community that helped Jawbreaker get its start. The group was banned from Gilman, as per the club’s rules, and saw instant backlash in its fanbase. Considering the staunch anti-major label sentiments the band was known for, it’s hard to blame those that were outraged at the time. However, it has been well-documented that Jawbreaker was already suffering eternally after the release of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. The band was considering breaking up, but instead, the band decided to see what they could do when not having to rush through the recording process.
The result was Dear You, an album that was the cleanest sounding recording the band had done, and it saw Schwarzenbach abandon his signature vocal style for something much more palatable. Evinced by the album’s first single, and only song to receive video treatment, “Fireman.”
From a sonic standpoint, the song’s production would have had it fit alongside any other on commercial rock radio. The song’s chorus was catchy enough to get stuck in your head, and there was little about the song’s sonic elements that made it anything but accessible. Schwarzenbach’s lyrics were as strong as ever, but “Fireman” was never embraced.
In a landscape where Green Day popularized neuroticism with tracks like “Longview” and “Basket Case,” it’s hard to understand why “Fireman” never found an audience.
“Fireman” leaned heavily toward indie-rock and incorporated element of Dischord Records post-hardcore, but it certainly filled the void between Nirvana’s moody grunge and Green Day’s triumphant pop-punk.
Perhaps, it was Schwarzenbach’s lyrical approach that made “Fireman” inaccessible. While Kurt Cobain’s quasi-mumble helped keep his lyrics partially hidden, and Billie Joe Armstrong’s self-assessment never went beyond playful, Schwarzenbach’s lyrics were in the forefront. “Dreamed I was a fireman/I just smoked and watched you burn,” opens the track, and it only gets darker from there. “But you’re not here/And I can never sleep/Come home so I can be a creep,” ends the song’s chorus.
It seemed as if everything was lining up for the band. Jawbreaker made the record it wanted, had a powerful lead single and was opening tours that should have launched it into stardom. Instead, the band burned out before any of this could materialize. Since then, Dear You has found an audience, but the members have all moved past Jawbreaker, and mainstream success has too.