Combining powerful guitar riffs with optimistic lyrics—a form of skate-punk popular in the Southern California hardcore punk scene of the late 1980s—Pennywise embraced the same calculated sound to become one of the most well-known punk acts of the 1990s. Often compared to bands such as Bad Religion, NOFX, and the Gorilla Biscuits, all of which served as influences, Pennywise has also earned a reputation for their energetic live performances.
Pennywise formed in 1988 when former high school classmates and surfing enthusiasts Jim Lindberg on vocals, Fletcher Draggeon guitar, Jason Thirsk on bass, and Bryon McMackin on drums decided to quit their various fledging punk bands in their hometown of Hermosa Beach, California, in order to create punk music together. In 1989, Pennywise released an EP on the local label Theologian Records entitled A Word From the Wise. Shortly after the group released the EP, Lindberg left the band to settle down and marry. To compensate for the loss, Thirsk moved to vocals, and new member Ray Bradbury substituted on bass.
Members include Randy Bradbury (bandmember from c. 1990-1992; rejoined in 1996 to replace Thirsk), bass; Fletcher Dragge, guitar; Jim Lindberg (left group 1989; rejoined in 1992), vocals; Bryon McMackin, drums; Jason Thirsk (d. 1996 from a selfinflicted gunshot wound), bass.
Formed band in Hermosa Beach, CA, 1988; signed with Epitaph Records; released debut Pennywise, 1991; released Unknown Road, 1992; joined Vans Warped Tour for first time, 1994-1995; released About Time, 1995; released the self-examining Full Circle following Thirsk’s death, 1997; released Straight Ahead, which contained “Alien,” a song written about Thirsk, 1999.
Addresses: Record company—Epitaph Records, 2798 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026, (323) 413-7353, fax (323) 413-9678.
Although A Word From the Wise received some unfavorable reviews, the EP managed to make an impression on Brett Gurewitz of the punk band Bad Religion. Subsequently, Pennywise signed with Bad Religion’s label, Epitaph, and the reformed group recorded their first full length, self-titled album in 1991. This time around, critics applauded the band’s effort. Most tracks on Pennywise focused on advice for surviving high school; “Rules,” “Living for Today,” and “The Secret” tackled ways to repel peer pressure and defy conformity, while “Come Out Fighting” and “Side One” took a different stance by calling for punk-scene unity. However, one song, “Homeless,” called attention to more grown-up issues through lyrics that urged government to aid the less fortunate before spending dollars overseas.
The following year, Thirsk, McMackin, Bradbury, and Dragge persuaded pal Lindberg to rejoin the band. With the original lineup intact, except for Bradbury’s substitution for Thirsk on all but two tracks, Pennywise returned to release Unknown Road in 1992. Like Pennywise, the group’s follow-up album bore similarities to Bad Religion, exemplified most notably in the title track and the song “Homesick.” Yet Unknown Road also saw Pennywise developing an identity of their own. First, Thirsk and Bradbury, alternately joining drummer McMackin, added a throbbing foundation to the group’s machine-gun tempos. Second, Pennywise experimented with feedback of a d rug dealer, and the self-depreciating “Perfect People” showed Pennywise displaying an uncommon sense of humor and other electronic effects. Third, Dragge, showing a more skillful playing technique, provided a wider range of guitar riffs. And finally, although most songs again aimed at adolescent concerns, Pennywise nonetheless exhibited an obvious maturity with fuller and more poetic lyrics. For example, “City Is Burning,” a song about race riots that plagued inner-city Los Angeles, directed anger not at the rioters, but at complacent suburbanites who hide themselves away in comfortable homes from such problems. Unknown Roada\so marked the band’s first commercial success, selling over 200,000 copies, a substantial number for an independent-label release.
Pennywise’s growing popularity was driven largely by constant touring and appearances inskateboarding videos. Moreover, the band joined the first installment of the Vans Warped Tour in 1994-1995. The Warped Tour featured bands playing a range of music from metal and punk to progressive hip-hop and swing. Considered a catalyst for propelling bands to greater fame, the Warped Tour boasted future well-known outfits such as No Doubt, Sublime, Limp Bizkit, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. In addition to music, festivities at the concerts included skateboarding, BMX bike racing contests, and famous snowboarders. Introducing the extreme sport lifestyle and music to countries abroad as well, the tour regularly traveled to Europe, Asia, and Australia. Over the years, Pennywise has never lost their touch at the festival. As Charles R. Cross of Rolling Stone noted, “Warped ’99 belonged to our-time tour vets Pennywise, who drew the biggest crowd…. This was punk undiluted by the past decade: furious drums, rage-driven guitar riffs and unintelligible vocals.”
Around 1994, Green Day, closely followed by the Offspring, led punk music back into the mainstream. Thus, several major labels started inquiring about signing Pennywise. However, Pennywise opted to stay with Epitaph to release their next album, 1995’s About Time. In the wake of Green Day’s success, the album revealed a more confident, radio-friendly side of Pennywise. Produced by Epitaph executive Brett Gurewitz, About Time included songs with a driving, metal rock-sounding guitar and bass, while Lindberg’s vocals completed each track with a popmetal swagger. Though the album continued to preach positive thinking to teens, Pennywise also found new ideas to sing about. On “Freebase,” for example, the band recites a cautionary drug story from the point of view of a d rug dealer, and the self-depreciating “Perfect People” showed Pennywise displaying an uncommon sense of humor.
In the summer of 1996, Pennywise started work on their next album. In July of that year though, devastating news took the band by surprise; Thirsk, who had taken a leave of absence to deal with an alcohol problem, killed himself with a shotgun. Although his death was first reported as an accident, authorities later ruled Thirsk’s death as a suicide. Despite the tragedy, the remaining members of Pennywise, with Bradbury filling in on bass, held on to complete Full Circle, issued in the spring of 1997. Forced to re-evaluate their priorities following Thirsk’s suicide, the once reckless, carefree punk act spent nearly a year of self-examination to finish songs for the album. On the track “Date With Destiny,” Pennywise summed up their new philosophy, asking “What would you do with just one more hour?/Live that hour out everyday/Like it was your last, you’ll live much better that way.” Overall, the album received favorable criticism and again drew comparisons to Bad Religion, Pennywise’s longtime mentors. “A full-throttle metallic punk album that revolves around themes of mortality and rebellion, Full Circle attacks with the ferocity and survival instinct of a wounded Doberman,” concluded Jon Wiederhorn in Rolling Stone. “But no matter how frenzied the guitars or frenetic the drumbeats, the band’s melodic vocals keep the tunes from becoming a meaningless blur.”
In the summer of 1999, Pennywise released Straight Ahead, the band’s fifth album and the second since the death of Thirsk. However, Straight Ahead made little impression on music critics. For example, Rolling Stone’s Neva Chonin wrote, “To their credit, Pennywise infuse their lyrics with a sense of hope rare in Southern Cali punk…. But too often messages are lost in a dense dogma pudding. Pennywise may still rock hard and fast, but their ham-fisted rhetoric is beginning to drag them down.” Nonetheless, the single “Alien” stood apart. Unlike StraightAheads othertracks, the song displayed more experimentation than Pennywise’s usual fast and vicious punk anthems. “We are getting older, and it is important as a creative person to move forward and experiment. Not that this is too much of a stretch for us. It is still punk,” Lindberg told Carrie Bell in Billboard magazine. “Most of our songs go 100 miles an hour, and this one clocks in at about 50. Every song can’t be angry or extremely fast. That wouldn’t convey all the emotions a person feels.”
In fact, Lindberg wrote the song, sitting alone in his garage, to explain the emotions he dealt with during the months following best friend Thirsk’s death. “I didn’t even mean for it to be included on a Pennywise album. It was written a year an a half ago, when I was still dealing with what went on with Jason,” said Lindberg, as quoted by Bell. “I certainly never pictured it being on the radio. It’s very strange for me to hear it, because it is so dark and serious and personal.” But when the other members of the band heard Lindberg play an early version of the song, they insisted on including the piece on Straight Ahead. “I think the message really hit them,” explained Lindberg. “When your best friend, who always had a love for life, kills himself, things get blown apart. Your reality is shaken up. It’s a cruel world, but you have to maintain a sense of hope. Hopefully pointing it out will help people realize they need to make changes.”
A Word From the Wise, (EP), Theologian, 1989.
Pennywise, Epitaph, 1991.
Wildcard, (EP), Theologian, 1992.
Wildcard/A Word From the Wise, Theologian, 1992.
Unknown Road, Epitaph, 1993.
About Time, Epitaph, 1995.
Full Circle, Epitaph, 1997.
Straight Ahead, Epitaph, 1999.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Billboard, August 28, 1999.
Boston Globe, July 25, 1997; July 31, 1997.
Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1997; August 23, 1999.
Rolling Stone, May 29, 1997; September 4, 1997; July 8, 1999, p. 155; August 19, 1999, p. 38.
Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.tunes.com (December 5, 1999).
"Pennywise." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/pennywise
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