On July 5th, 1983, Venice Beach skate punks Suicidal Tendencies released their self-titled debut album, a 28-minute blast of rough and raucous SoCal punk shot through with streetwise attitude and a decidedly irreverent sense of humor. Now considered a proto-thrash classic, the album staked its claim to greatness with such raised-middle-finger missives as "Suicide's an Alternative/You'll Be Sorry," "I Shot the Devil" (originally titled "I Shot Reagan"), "Memories of Tomorrow" and the cartoonishly gory "I Saw Your Mommy…" (as in, "…and you're mommy's dead"). But there was another track on the record that managed to achieve a life of its own, if not several.
"All I wanted was a Pepsi — just one Pepsi — and she wouldn't give it to me!"
Quite possibly the greatest song ever written about growing up frustrated and alienated in the Reagan Era, "Institutionalized" somehow transcended its humble beginnings to become one of the most enduring and well-known hardcore songs ever recorded. It's been covered by artists ranging from Senses Fail to Amanda Palmer to Ice-T's Body Count; it's been included in the video games Guitar Hero II and Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX 2; and it's appeared in several films, including Iron Man, The Brady Bunch and (most crucially) Repo Man. In 1994, Suicidal Tendencies' re-recorded version of the song was even nominated for a Grammy for Best Metal Performance.
But beyond all that, "Institutionalized" is a song that somehow everyone seems to know, even if they've never heard another Suicidal Tendencies song, don't even know the title of the song itself, or have no interest in punk rock whatsoever. If you grew up in the 1980s, odds are good that even the most clueless jocks and cheerleaders at your high school could recite the song's "All I wanted was a Pepsi" refrain, word for word; if you're in high school now, the likelihood of that being the case today is equally high. "Not to brag or anything like that, but it is a timeless record," Suicidal founder and frontman Mike Muir told SCENEzine earlier this year. "I think it is a viable record to this day."
It absolutely is. Written by Muir and bassist Louiche Mayorga, shortly after the latter joined the band in 1982, "Institutionalized" is less a traditional song than a rant that slowly (and then suddenly) picks up steam; it's the internal monologue of a bummed-out kid who might have a decent shot at sorting out his issues, if only everyone would just get out of his face for a second. But that's not gonna happen: Misinterpreting the natural moodiness and distractedness of their teen as symptom of a drug problem, his mother refuses his request for a Pepsi, and then packs him off to an institution where he's pumped full of psychiatric medications. "They say they're gonna fix my brain/Alleviate my suffering and my pain," he rages. "But by the time they fix my head/Mentally, I'll be dead".
In a 2012 interview with Songfacts, Muir recalled that the song was inspired by the anti-drug hysteria of the early 1980s, when First Lady Nancy Reagan was preaching "Just Say No," and mainstream America took a hard turn to the right — a period in which outsiders, nonconformists and disaffected teens were seen as "problems" that required harsh solutions. "At the time, there were a lot of those 'boot camp' things where parents would get their kids taken at four in the morning and send them off to these camps in Arizona or Idaho or wherever," he explained. "What I thought was, here are people that were parents for 14 or 15 years, they can't brag about their kids at a party so there must be something wrong with the kid. Then they send them off [to these camps] and stuff…
"They used to have commercials: 'Does your kid get angry when things don't go their way? Do they do this and that? If you answer yes to three or more of these, they might have a drug or alcohol problem. And you're not alone, we can help.' And I'm sitting there going, Dude, I've never done drugs, I don't drink, and yeah, I get angry when things don't go my way. It's called being human. I'm not a machine. I think it made an easy scapegoat for kids to be the problem."
The song resonated with just about everyone who heard it in 1983 — and "Institutionalized" soon reached a lot more listeners the following year, thanks to its inclusion on the Repo Man soundtrack. Alex Cox's cult sci-fi comedy featured the music of a number of West Coast punk acts, including Black Flag, Circle Jerks and Fear, but none of them enjoyed the kind of boost from the soundtrack that Suicidal did, or wound up on MTV as a result. Directed by Bill Fishman, the video for "Institutionalized" played up the song's comic elements, without diluting its edge or the band's street cred. Along with a note-perfect performance from Muir, the video co-starred Mary Woronov, who'd previously played the fascistic principal Miss Togar in the Ramones film Rock and Roll High School; the clip became the first hardcore video to get any kind of regular play on MTV — and it caught the attention of the producers of Miami Vice, one of the most popular TV shows in the U.S. at the time.
"I got a phone call, and [someone said] Miami Vice called and they want you to call,'" Muir told Westword in 2013. "I was like, 'Pht, yeah. All right.' Our friends were joking all the time, and at that time Miami Vice was the most popular show ... I think someone thinks they're funny and have nothing to do. So this person says, 'Hey Mike, I'm the production manager of Miami Vice, and we would really love to get you on an episode.' And I say, 'Oh, yeah, we would love to be on that, too. That sounds fabulous. How's Donnie [Johnson] doing?'
"They say, 'Will you be available? We can get the tickets to you and have a messenger bring them over. You'll fly out Thursday morning.' A little while later, someone comes with a delivery. What the fuck? I look and go, 'Either someone's got fucking deep pockets to do an elaborate trick and they're really trying to get us. Or wait, this might be legit.' The tickets were in there. You couldn't really go on the Internet and check things out back then. So I went, 'Hey you know what? I think this is real!'"
The band appeared in an episode called "Free Verse," which ran late in the show's second season, and which featured Suicidal performing in a punk-rock nightclub sequence. The song they played? "Institutionalized," of course.
By the time the band re-recorded it for 1993's Still Cyco After All These Years (which featured Muir as the only remaining original member), "Institutionalized" was already considered a classic, its status further reinforced by Cypress Hill, who quoted from it in their 1991 smash, "How I Could Just Kill a Man." Limp Bizkit also referenced the song with "Stuck," a track from their 1997 debut Three Dollar Bill, Y'all, as did rapper Sage Francis in his 2004 track "Slow Down Gandhi." Senses Fail recorded a cover of it the following year for Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, and Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra covered it for the 2012 collection A Tribute to Repo Man. But perhaps the ultimate tribute to the song was the one recorded by Ice-T's metal band Body Count in 2014; titled "Institutionalized 2014," the track featured new lyrics reflecting the everyday hassles of the 21st century world — including forgotten passwords, unresponsive customer service reps and spouses who complain that you play too much Xbox.
"We did 'Institutionalized' to pay homage to Suicidal because they were the first band out of the west coast rocking the Dickies, the bandanas and having that west coast look," Ice-T told Metal Hammer in 2015. "When we first came out, most of our fans were Suicidal fans. They migrated to our shows. So we did their song and we were happy that they liked it. Nothing but respect for Suicidal.
"I liked the record because it was more of a rant than a song," he continued. "With a lot of punk rock back in the day, you always tried to get some kind of point across. Michael was kind of just saying, 'I'm just going through it as a kid. Mom is telling me I'm on drugs, all I want is a Pepsi.'"
Indeed, since the teens of tomorrow will inevitably experience the same kinds of frustrations as those of today (and those of 35 years ago), there will probably always be an audience for "Institutionalized." And Mike Muir, for one, couldn't be happier about it.
"A couple of years ago we played — I think it was in Detroit — and one of the DJs out there started playing the song, and it became the most requested song on the radio," Muir recalled to Songfacts. "I went out there and he goes, 'People are like, Whoa! What's that song and that new band, what are they called? I love that song, that Pepsi song!'" And I think that's kind of the thing ... you don't sit there and go, 'Wow that sounds like it came from the early Eighties.' People, when they hear it for the first time say, 'God, I love this song.' Even a lot of my friends, when they have their kids or their cousins or whatever, and they're 13, 14 and you've known them for years, they come up and go, 'Hey Mike, duuuude, that's a badass song, man!'"