Rancid – …And Out Come the Wolves (1995)
Jeff: What, you might ask, is the prestigious and well-esteemed SWR blog doing reviewing a derivative 90’s pop-punk-revival album? The answer is multifaceted but the first component of it is that it’s an amazing album. Another part of that answer is that I for one first began coming of age in musically the mid-’90s–the major labels were well into their signing spree of “alternative” bands, and MTV was playing music that was like nothing else I’d ever heard (it’s not Debbie Gibson, it’s not Guns ‘n’ Roses, it’s something else entirely). Weezer, Green Day, the Offspring, and Hole seemed like a breath of fresh air to a kid who wouldn’t hear indie music for another four years. It was an exciting time to be a 7th grader.
I first heard about Rancid via the “Salvation” music video from their previous effort, “Let’s Go”–a mostly-skate-punk, 23-track romp with some pop-punk and heavy oi influences that had for one reason or another caught on. I picked up that cassette immediately and memorized every song (including where to turn the volume down so my parents didn’t hear the swears and confiscate what had quickly become my dearest earthly treasure). There was a song about helping Marvel superheros prevent soup-kitchen closures in your dreams, a couple songs about going to hell for some reason, the classic “Radio,” co-written by Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong, and mostly a bunch of character sketches about the groups friends and the shit they did for kicks. So much about this record was instantly appealing — Matt Freeman’s always busy (for pop-punk) walking, blues-influenced bass riffs (Mom & Dad had just bought me my first electric bass for Christmas), the rockabilly-style guitar solos, fast tempos, gang vocals on the chorii — this record had it all.
A few months later, Rancid released another album that I still own (the CD I borrowed so often from my brother that he gave to me, that is — I lost the tape) and listened to at least monthly for a solid two or three years. They had largely ditched the skate-punk of their first two albums and instead dove whole-heartedly into ’70s punk, pub-rock, and street-punk/oi songs. The clearest influences on their “new” style in my mind are the Sex Pistols, the Clash (who the band are oft-accused of ripping off entirely–but there’s too many chunk-a-chunk-a eighth-note guitars [a la “I Wanna Be Sedated”] to really sound like the Clash whose guitars are much sparser and staccato), and perhaps most importantly, the bluesy pub-punk of the UK Subs and the early r’n’r harmonic palette of Social Distortion. As for the lyrics (and this was always the best thing about Rancid for a teenager), they again told stories of people the group knew, places they’d been hanging out forever, and observations about both their city and their cultural scene.
That last part is important. Nothing can be understood about Rancid without knowing that the group was founded by ex-Op Ivy members (that band is still legendary) who’d been drifting around the ska-punk scene at 924 Gilman St in the Bay Area since ’87, forming bands and leaving them to form other bands. They had mostly the same friends who were all in punk bands and they toured together, went to the same shows, traded roommates, traded girlfriends, and shared their lives together. THERE ARE TWENTY BOOKS OUT RIGHT NOW (see the Merge Records & Dischord books as examples–fuck! there’s even a 924 Gilman book apparently) about this exact same experience through the glorious beginnings of some home-grown indie scene and how deeply cemented those years are in the lives of the participants as the best they’ve seen, the most energetic, optimistic, and idealistic they’ve been, etc. And of course some “scenes” get a lot more critical cred than others — usually the older ones (“yeah man New York in ’74 was REAL punk,” “no no Detroit in ’68 — so much hash, free love, etc.,” “no way man, how about living in fucking Clarksdale, MS in 1925? Everybody was an inch above slavery and starvation and people still got polio all the time! Those were the days!”) But the interesting thing about Rancid is this scene they sing about — interesting to me anyway.
Growing up 5 hrs north of Detroit, 6 from Chicago, in Northern Michigan meant that I would never see a rock concert unless it was “1964 — The Tribute” at the annual Cherry Festival at some outdoor stadium. I didn’t even live close enough to our 100,000 person tourist town to know if there was or would ever be a punk rock scene (I found out in high school that there was one at least by then), and my friends who liked “alternative” music mostly didn’t play instruments. Kids in my grade didn’t like Rancid (in a way that gave them even more appeal because they were “mine”) yet the music was all about something that I desperately wanted and didn’t know where to find.
“Roots Radicals” begins with Lars Friedricksen (who had actually been in a later incarnation of Charlie Harper’s UK Subs before signing on with Rancid) singing “Took the 60 bus out of downtown Campbell/Ben Zanoto he was on there he was waitin’ for me…” about hanging out with his childhood friend, drinking downtown, running out of cash, etc. The song continues with Tim singing about riding the bus drunk while somehow listening to Desmond Dekker on the radio (was it his radio? Does BART have radio playing on the bus? How many reggae/ska stations are there in the Bay Area?) — it’s just a song about some shit that happened one time when they were hanging out.
This sought-after community reinforced my already latent desire to be a touring rock musician and I think in many ways still underpins the angst I feel for not having stuck with it — when you listen to this record you don’t hear ANY loneliness, urban isolation, self-pity, or anything else out of fuckin’ Durkheim or Weber (they do sing about poverty, drug-addiction, alcoholism, political hypocrisy, and racism) — you hear friends singing about people they know, about “hanging on the corner,” or about meeting someone downtown and when I hear it I think of every day I’ve had with best friends when no one had to work and we were just gonna walk to the record store and then go get drunk in the park — no agenda, no responsibilities, just friends. Interestingly, my favorite track on here is both about the nostalgic glory days of the 924 Gilman scene and the difficulty people in such a scene or community can find when it changes or unravels.
“there wasn’t always a place to go
but there was always an urgent need to belong, yeah
all these bands and all these people
all these frieds and we were equals but
what you gonna do
when everyone goes on without you?
…man came from far away from New Orleans into the East Bay
he said this is a Mecca
I said this ain’t no mecca man
this place is fucked.”
I seem to have turned this record review into some Blake-esque bullshit about lost innocence. Maybe Glenn can discuss the actual songs.
Glenn: Sure, Jeff. I’ll bite, though I’m not sure I can come up with anything more eloquent or accurate about this record’s very particular (yet very broad) appeal. It’s a part of my favorite type of rock record — one that conjures a specific time and place. But the songs…
You say that, on …And Out Come The Wolves “you don’t hear ANY loneliness, urban isolation, self-pity, or anything out of fuckin’ Durkheim or Weber,” but I must beg to differ. There is something lonely — not existential despair, but simple loneliness — all over this record, and that’s what gives it it’s charm.
Take my fave song, “Olympia WA.” It’s about “something burnin’ deep inside” of Tim “Lint” Armstrong, the song’s speaker (drawler? moaner?), and that something is loneliness, nostalgia, wanting to be somewhere, anywhere but where he is (which turns out to be NYC, with Puerto Rican girls, at “a funhouse/where we played a lonely pinball machine,” a pretty exotic and awesome place to a coupla Michigan boys like you & me). That feeling is fucking universal, and the song, with its pleading vocal captures the pathos of all bored teenagers perfectly. And without too much sorrow — I mean, try not to sing along with this shit.
Elsewhere, …And Out Come The Wolves tackles the isolation and sorrow of marginalized (“Junkie Man,” “Time Bomb”) with perhaps a little bit of cheese (Jim Carroll?) but also real understanding. You get the sense from the lyrics that despite the expensive guitars and tats, the slick production sheen (which has in fact aged well), the white skin (this guys are friends with skinheads, just sayin’), these are guys who are singing about real friends of theirs, with real problems, real struggles. You get the sense that these aren’t just bohemians but people who’ve had to live on the streets.
My argument here is that if Rancid really wanted to pull the ol’ heartstrings on, say, “Daly City Train,” they would’ve thrown in a sappy minor-key bridge, maybe a key-change, maybe linger on the vi chord or something. They keep up the positive skankin’ vibe while singing “Jackal was one a the ones who perished, yeah.”
Somewhere I read a review that compared Wolves to mid-’60s Dylan, and I think, in a very general sense, that it’s a fair comparison. Both artists draw on friends and a particular scene to paint pictures of various feelings: sorrow, nostalgia, romance (great love songs on this one), art, and, above all, as Jeff mentions, joy. This is a portrait not just of the San Francisco punk underground but of the wide range of human emotions. “Wide range of human emotions” sounds ridiculous in what is supposed to be a review of a mid-’90s pop-punk album that got heavy rotation on MTV, but it’s true. Wolves transcends its context to become a real work of art. And yet, like all the best art, its feeling depends absolutely on that gritty, concrete context.
Of course I was surprised to much later find references to some of the same places (East Bay, the Mission, the Tenderloin, Daly City) in the work of William T. Vollmann, where underground SF comes off much less romantically.
Jeff: I think I meant to say there’s none of the immaterial problems out of Durkheim/Weber (Rancid sings about poverty, homelessness, drug-addiction, racism, political hypocrisy, etc. — definitely), but of course there are those immaterial things too, I just don’t feel them on this album — at least not very for very long. Or the way I feel them is that they are acknowledged as part of what human life has to offer, but the sadness in them is used to say something celebratory about experiencing as much as one can from life.
The best example I can give I think is the end of the bridge to the ska-influenced “Old Friend”: everything cuts out except the organ and in a song in which Tim has been characterizing “heartache” as his old friend, he finally admits to himself that “it was gonna be alright” and then thrashes his way through the most joyful rockabilly guitar solo I’ve ever heard. While kind of cheesy redemption doesn’t happen all over the record in such an obvious fashion, I think elements of it are there throughout, and the very choice to put this stuff in what is essentially hang-out/drinking music makes that same statement. Bill Callahan this ain’t.
4 Essential Tracks:
“Journey To The End Of The East Bay”