Cynics may dismiss the Bay Area’s Rancid as “not the Clash, but an incredible simulation!” On the other hand, hyperbole-prone supporters might consider them the Stones to Green Day’s Beatles. (Which, if you were wondering, makes Offspring the new Herman’s Hermits.) The truth about Rancid lies somewhere in between. Yes, the quartet spends too much time playing dress-up and excavating riffs that are decades old — which is especially ironic, given their forebears’ assertion “no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977” — but the street-smart, guttersnipe outlook that invests their short, sharp songs is seldom short of exhilarating.
From 1987 to 1989, bassist Matt Freeman and singer/guitarist Tim Armstrong were in Oakland’s Operation Ivy, the East Bay scene-setting quartet that blended hardcore’s aggression with ska’s joviality; Operation Ivy broke up after releasing an album in 1989. The pair subsequently hooked up with drummer Brett Reed and launched Rancid. Rancid unveils the pugnacious sound of a band wearing its influences — which range from Joe Strummer to Mick Jones — on the sleeves of its torn T-shirts. A few songs in, however, it’s easy to find yourself caught up in the surge of Ricochet Rabbit energy with which Armstrong bounces aggro note clusters off Freeman’s pulsing bass (which, often as not, carries the songs’ melody lines). The class-conscious snottiness of “Rats in the Hallway” is more realistic coming from kids with the certifiable prole credentials of these guys, who were raised in the drab factory towns that surround San Francisco, not the big city itself. Most of these sentiments (like those espoused in “Unwritten Rules”) were clichés by the time the band was in kindergarten, but a few spins through “Hyena” and “Whirlwind” leave little doubt that they mean it, maaaaan.
Other than the arrival of ex-UK Subs guitarist Lars Frederiksen to complete the four-man lineup (which debuted with the four-song Radio Radio Radio EP), Let’s Go doesn’t add much to the equation — if anything, it’s something of a regression, from the identikit bashing of short-but-formless thrashers like “Burn” and the utterly idiotic “Nihilism” to Freeman’s shabby affected British accent. It’s encouraging to note the better integrated use of ska elements, a style that Rancid deploys in much the same way the Clash did reggae: Only occasionally does the quartet dive headlong into bluebeat — more often, the skanking is limited to isolated breaks and middle eights (as in the nostalgic “Radio,” co-written by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong). The odd clever twist is a paltry payoff, however, for having to endure a stream of assembly-line constructions — like the wannabe yobbo anthem “The Ballad of Jimmy & Johnny” and the strangely saccharine preachfest “Dope Sick Girl.” Perhaps they misunderstood what the Sham in Sham 69 stood for.
…And Out Come the Wolves is more fully-formed than its predecessors, but there’s still no denying the kleptomaniacal glee with which Rancid treats its Clash (and, by extension, Mott the Hoople) collection. This time around, the most blatantly nicked riffs turn up in “The 11th Hour” and “Maxwell Murder,” which appropriates a good bit from “London’s Burning” (including a “dial 999” reference that makes little sense in 911-equipped America). Even so, Rancid’s songs provide a pretty nifty stars’n’stripes rejoinder to the working-class punk of British bands. As “Lock, Step & Gone” and the piercingly memorable “Olympia WA.” prove, the quartet’s members are well versed in the three B’s of downmarket culture: beer, bus rides and boredom. These songs differ from their previously generic punk plaints, thanks in large part to the subtle lyrical detailing (folks as diverse as East Bay junkies and ska great Desmond Dekker get regular namechecks) and the still-rudeboy-after all these years ska beats that burble through “Time Bomb” and “Ruby Soho.” They might have been punk’s Sha Na Na at one point, but …And Out Come the Wolves casts Rancid in an utterly natural light.
…And Out Come the Wolves surprised everyone by selling over a million copies. So, having broken big with its third album, the Bay Area quartet continued to follow the example of its biggest role model and decided to explore new musical ground on its fourth. The self-produced Life Won’t Wait (previous discs were produced by Epitaph head Brett Gurewitz), offers plenty of Rancid’s trademark gritty punk anthems, such as “Bloodclot” (one of whose “Hey! Ho!” chanters is Marky Ramone), “Warsaw,” “Leicester Square,” “The Wolf,” “Something in the World Today” and “1998” (in which the group sings about “hanging out with Sid yet again in the U.S.A.”), and stripped-down ska numbers like “Cocktails,” the soulful “Corazón de Oro,” the shout-out-laden “Wrongful Suspicion” and “Hooligans,” recorded with members of the Specials. But the group adds elements of reggae, dub, rockabilly and soul to many of the album’s 22 songs. The title track is dancehall reggae done Rancid style, with guest vocalist Buju Banton decrying “a new world order.” “Crane Fist” and “Coppers” (recorded with guest vocalist Dr. Israel) deliver the roots-reggae grooves as well. “Backslide” deploys soulful organ, a horn section and a rockabilly-flavored guitar solo over a Motownish beat. Rancid shows off a few more rockabilly moves in the intro to “New Dress” and in “Lady Liberty” (which includes an incongruous line about “shouting Sandinista,” as if to underscore the album’s reference point). The musicians play the opening verse of “Who Would’ve Thought” as if they’d checked out a few old Van Morrison records before recording the song. Rancid doesn’t go nearly as far afield on Life Won’t Wait as the Clash did on Sandinista! (In its stylistic reach, Life Won’t Wait actually is closer to being the band’s London Calling.) But the disc flows well from track to track, and includes plenty of good songs. And it shows that Rancid’s admiration of the Clash includes that group’s willingness to experiment and change.
Change, though, can come as a rude shock to the hardcore fans — almost as much as a favorite group’s unexpected success. That applies to the East Bay punk crowd as seriously as it does to any other music scene on the planet. Jello Biafra was assaulted and severely injured at Berkeley’s infamous 924 Gilman Street club by a group of punks who derided him for being a “sellout rock star.” The members of Green Day received death threats for signing to a major label, warning them never to set foot in the club again. (The group faced down those threats successfully, performing a well-received surprise set at the venue in 2001.) Rancid’s second self-titled release (usually called “Rancid 2000” by the group’s fans) sounds as if the band hoped to appease the hardcore contingent that might have been put off by the success of …And Out Come the Wolves or the experimental scope on Life Won’t Wait. With Gurewitz back at the board, the quartet races through 22 songs in 39 minutes, without a single guest musician, ska riff or reggae riddim. An echoey wah-wah guitar drives “Let Me Go”; the song also includes some light percussion in the break. Freeman’s truly fierce melodic bass propels “Not to Regret.” “Radio Havana” is an anthem in Rancid’s (by now) classic style, distinguished by a shortwave-radio static intro and what sounds like a theremin. “Black Derby Jacket” (bellowed by Freeman) includes a chiming guitar opening and a surprising rhythm-change break following the chorus. Those four songs offer pretty much all the variety on this disc; they’re also the only ones (along with the album-closing “GGF”) that exceed the two-minute mark. Most of the remaining tracks rush by at breakneck tempos, with blurred, abrasive guitars and nearly tuneless shouting. It’s as if the group had rediscovered Minor Threat. Following that path sacrifices most of what made Rancid’s last two albums such stand-outs: the eclecticism, the organic sound, the melodies and the anthemic uplift.
After a 2001 tour, the group took a break. But Rancid is a tight-knit crew: When one band member undertakes a side project, the rest of the guys pitch in. Frederiksen was the first to branch out, with his band the Bastards, but Armstrong produced the group’s self-titled debut and co-wrote all its songs (apart from two covers). On this album, Frederiksen looks back at his roots, both musical and personal. The disc opens with the bracing hardcore blast of “Dead American,” but the Bastards give tribute to the UK Subs in such tracks as “Campbell, CA,” “Vietnam” and a cover of the Holland-Dozier-Holland standard “Leaving Here.” The Clash returns as a sonic touchstone on the topical “Wine and Roses” (“You don’t want to be the one who’s got to go to jail / If you’re lucky, IMF will hook you up and you’ll make bail”), “Skunx” (whose guitar riff echoes “Safe European Home,” although its lyrics side with the gang members that the Clash’s protagonist were so afraid of) and an excellent cover of Billy Bragg’s “To Have and to Have Not.” The lyrics take an apocalyptic tone on “Army of Zombies,” “Ten Plagues of Egypt” (in which he compares ancient Egypt’s corrupt culture to our own), “Anti-Social” (“An heir apparent to a heathen nation…A nomad walking, I’m the son of Satan”) and “Subterranean” (“I’m the Anti-Christ, a poltergeist / I demand a sacrifice…I’m the pariah that brings the Rapture / And the seals I’ve opened wide”). Hey, bad times usually bring the best punk rock, so why shouldn’t Frederiksen look forward to Armageddon?
Armstrong’s musical talents attracted the interest of Gwen Stefani, Kelly Osbourne and Pink (Armstrong co-wrote and produced more than half the songs on her 2003 album Try This). The guitarist also started a side project with Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker and rapper “Skinhead Rob” Aston. Frederiksen and Freeman provided musical backup on Transplants, along with Slackers keyboardist Vic Ruggerio (who has lent his skills to Rancid in the studio as far back as …And Out Come the Wolves) and Distillers frontwoman Brody Dalle (Armstrong’s then-wife). On “Tall Cans in the Air,” Armstrong sings, “Here we come again with our original style.” But nothing about Transplants’ music is original. (Neither is anything about Rancid’s, of course, but never mind.) The group presents a fairly standard-issue hybrid of rock and rap, with Aston’s hoarse bellow dragging the whole enterprise down to near-Limp Bizkit levels on tracks like “Romper Stomper,” “Quick Death,” “One Seventeen” and the dim-witted chorus of “Tall Cans in the Air” (“Tall cans in the air, let me see ’em! / Fuck you!”). “D.R.E.A.M.” swipes from the G-funk sound of the previous decade, right down to the Wu-Tang reference of the title; “We Trusted You” bites the Beastie Boys badly. “Sad but True,” “Weigh on My Mind” (co-written and sung with Dalle), “California Babylon” and “Down in Oakland” get by on their springy rhythms and Armstrong’s distinctive, laconic drawl, but they aren’t enough to hang a whole album on.
The 2002 split CD on BYO Records features Rancid and NOFX covering each other’s songs. The latter’s pogo-punk tunes are a good match for Rancid (at least their most recent group effort): “Moron Brothers,” “Stickin’ in My Eye” and “Don’t Call Me White” are dispatched with hardcore élan. (The cover of “Bob,” on the other hand, shows Rancid’s reggae instincts to be thankfully alive and well.) On the flip, Fat Mike and the guys cover most of their Rancid selections pretty faithfully, although they filter nearly all the reggae out of “Corazón de Oro,” performing it as a straight-up punk number — and turn the effort around to render “Radio” as solid reggae.
Returning to the studio with Gurewitz on Indestructible, Rancid reclaims and consolidates the traits that set it apart from the punk pack. Armstrong re-affirms his band’s deepest musical influence in the disc-opening title track: “I’ll keep listening to the great Joe Strummer.” From there, Ruggerio’s stirring organ intro leads the band into the magnificent “Fall Back Down,” a jubilant anthem of loyalty and gratitude, with lyrics that reflect on Armstrong and Dalle’s divorce (“I’m very lucky to have my crew / They stood by me when she flew”). Rancid adds a few more top-notch anthems to its catalogue with “Start Now,” “Ghost Band,” “Back Up Against the Wall,” “Spirit of ’87,” and the shout-along “Born Frustrated”; the terrific “Red Hot Moon” and the almost lounge-worthy “Arrested in Shanghai” prove that the band’s command of ska is as strong as ever. “David Courtney” recasts the “Maxwell Murder” story, adding a Dirty Harry-worthy monologue to the bridge. “Memphis” is a road song in the “Olympia, WA.” vein. “Out of Control,” “Travis Bickle,” “Ivory Coast,” “Roadblock” and the album-closing “Otherside” show that Rancid still has the hardcore urge displayed on its previous studio LP, but chooses to articulate it more clearly this time around. And Ruggerio’s musical support just keeps getting better. He adds exactly the right classic touches throughout, such as his organ playing on “Fall Back Down,” “Red Hot Moon” and “Tropical London” and his clavinet break in “Stand Your Ground.” Indestructible may seem like a retrenchment after the adventurous spirit of Life Won’t Wait, but it’s a durable, satisfying album that will still be getting spins when the last copy of “Rancid 2000” lands in a used CD bin somewhere.
During another, much longer hiatus, Frederiksen and Armstrong revisited their respective side projects. The Bastards recorded their second CD, Viking, again with Armstrong on board as producer and as co-writer of all its new songs. The album sounds pretty much the same as the Bastards’ first disc. The group revisits Frederiksen’s UK Subs influence on “Bastards,” “Skins, Punx and Drunx,” “1%” and “The Kids Aren’t Quiet on Sharmon Palms,” and blurts out such seconds-long hardcore blasts as “Fight,” “Blind Ambition” and “Gods of War.” The Bastards also give “Maggots” a cow-punk sound, and play their cover of the Blasters’ “Marie, Marie” with an impressive Clash-meets-rockabilly flair. (The album’s other cover tune is a straight-up rendition of the Anti-Nowhere League’s “For You.”) Armstrong duets with Frederiksen on “My Life”; Freeman and Reed lend their musical support on the album-closing title track. Aston’s hoarse shout adds no discernible improvement to “Switchblade.”
Haunted Cities does offer a few advances on Transplants, thanks in part to guest rappers with genuine skills. (Freeman, Reed and Ruggerio help out as well.) Members of Cypress Hill lend their voices to “Not Today” and “Killafornia,” which boast better-than-average rhymes (“We roll the dice / Life is a gamble / Make me a million dollars / Make you an example”). The Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. makes “What I Can’t Describe” a stand-out, as does the chilling contrast between its nihilistic gangsta lyrics (“They say money can’t buy me love, and that’s true / But money can buy me drugs, so that’s cool”) and its gorgeous Stylistics-style groove. Rakaa from Dilated Peoples mixes it up with Armstrong, rapping on the album-closing “Crash and Burn.” Perhaps these esteemed guests rubbed off on Aston; he raps with a lot more restraint than he did on the debut, and finds something akin to an actual style. Armstrong’s voice and sense of groove carry such songs as “Doomsday,” “Madness” (not the Prince Buster tune), “Pay Any Price,” “Gangsters & Thugs” (“Some of my friends sell records / Some of my friends sell drugs”), the bouncy “I Want It All” and “American Guns,” which sounds like the Clash with a guest rapper. (Been listening to Combat Rock, eh, Tim?) DJ Paul Wall’s “Screwed and Chopped” remix was released five months after Haunted Cities, apparently to promote the group’s music to the cough-syrup-addict market.
Armstrong digs deeper into his Jamaican inspirations on his solo debut, A Poet’s Life. Working primarily with LA-based reggae group the Aggrolites and co-producing the album with John Morrical, Armstrong takes a much rootsier approach than Rancid does to ska — more Trojan than 2-Tone. (Interestingly, this is the first side project by a member of Rancid with no input from any other member.) “Wake Up,” “Translator,” “Oh No” and the harmonica-enhanced “Lady Demeter” present wonderfully soulful takes on old-school ska. Young Canadian pop singer Skye Sweetnam’s coy vocal on the chorus of “Into Action” brings a playful touch to the Aggrolites’ frisky ska, as does the song’s Duane Eddy-tinged guitar solo. “Take This City” also adds some tasty twang to the rock steady. “Inner City Violence” is a doom-laden number with dancehall-style vocals in the chorus. The protagonist of “Hold On” pledges his devotion to his girl, no matter where the road may take them. (“Just like the Mississippi / Our journey begins in Minnesota / Take Interstate 35 to 90 / Sioux Falls, South Dakota” is a pretty surprising reference point for a California punk or a reggae musician — even one as well-traveled as Armstrong.) “Cold Blooded,” a melodica-laced dub track with stirring female soul vocals, closes the album in fine style. Fans of Armstrong’s previous work will enjoy A Poet’s Life; fans of ska and reggae in general will find plenty to appreciate here, too. (The CD is packaged with a DVD of promotional videos.)
B Sides and C Sides gathers 21 Rancid originals, about half of them from the backs of singles. The others appeared on various compilation albums. There are plenty of good Rancid anthems here plus a few enjoyable twists and turns on the band’s style, from the unalloyed rockabilly of “Devil’s Dance” to the surf-inflected guitar-picking of “100 Years” (not to mention “I Wanna Riot,” which fuses ska and surf to good effect). Check the frenetic bass drive of “White Knuckle Ride” and the horn-enhanced ska of “Stop,” “Brixton” and “Things to Come.” And “Ben Zanotto,” “Sick Sick World,” and “Dead and Gone” — the B-sides from the three “Rancid 2000” singles — are better than most of the tracks on that album. (All five songs from the 1992 Rancid EP are appended to the Japanese edition of B Sides and C Sides.)
With ex-Used drummer Branden Steineckert replacing Brett Reed (Rancid’s first personnel change in more than a decade) and Gurewitz and Ruggerio both reprising their established roles, the long-delayed Let the Dominoes Fall gets off to a generic start with the punk of “East Bay Night” and “This Place.” But then it kicks in with “Up to No Good,” an excellent ska song that includes horns, organ by Booker T. Jones and even a string section! “Civilian Ways” is even more surprising: a veteran’s lament (“Civilian ways are now what’s foreign to me”) played as a stirring back-porch blues on dobro, fiddle and mandolin. Having painted a picture of someone who’s come home from the war, Rancid later salutes “The Bravest Kids” (“…are the ones who gotta go / Fighting over there”) and eventually brings the picture full-circle in the surf-inflected “Lulu” (“War time now in the U.S.A. / And her husband goes far away / Afghanistan to Iraq / Her husband now ain’t comin’ back”). The group addresses other serious topics, such as Hurricane Katrina in “New Orleans” and censorship in “Liberty and Freedom,” but also makes room for hedonistic fun in the stripper-infatuated song “Skull City.” Frederiksen, Armstrong and Freeman hand off lead vocal lines in “You Want It, You Got It,” “Disconnected” (“…from the country I love”), “L.A. River” (which squeezes a surprising amount of juice from its “Boom-shaka-laka-boom / Shimmy-shimmy-shake” chorus) and the twitchy haunted-house ska tune “I Ain’t Worried.” Armstrong’s rap in “Dominoes Fall” shows that he’s brought some of his Transplants experience back to Rancid; likewise, the rock-steady style and dub effects of “That’s Just the Way It Is Now” hark back to A Poet’s Life. And “Last One to Die” and “Dominoes Fall” both join the list of classic Rancid punk anthems. The disc closes with “The Highway,” a touring musician’s story sung over acoustic guitars and harmonica. A vigorous, exciting album, Let the Dominoes Fall was well worth the wait. (The Japanese edition includes the bonus track “Outgunned.” That song, along with eleven others from the album, is featured in the American deluxe release on a bonus CD of acoustic performances.)