RANCID
by Blair Boyer

The punk fraternity is a notoriously fickle one. Like a tabloid newspaper it delights in seizing bands from the underground scene and breaking them with outrageous headlines that usually include the words 'savior' or 'messiah'.

But there is nothing the 'punk purists' enjoy more than tearing these bands down with a passion that is unleashed at the slightest suggestion that the 'new big thing' has contravened the ever-shifting and ill-defined punk commandments.

Rancid, the veteran East Bay quartet, fronted by the unintelligible Tim Armstrong, are a study in the effects of living with the overbearing and often unreachable expectations of the punk community. 

As they prepare to release their seventh LP, and in the wake of Armstrong's first solo effort and two strong records from Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards, it is an interesting time to take a look at Rancid and what remains of their once formidable reputation after almost twenty years in the music.

For Armstrong and virtuosic bass player Matt Freeman (then under the pseudonyms 'Lint' and 'Matt McCall') it began in Berkeley, California in May 1987 with Operation Ivy, an influential ska-punk outfit that broke up on the verge of major success in 1989.

This rapid demise, coupled with an innovative sound - and the fact that Rancid was born from its ashes - have conspired to give Operation Ivy an enviable legacy that ensures it is cited as an influence by bands like Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake and Green Day, the latter of whom continue to cover 'Knowledge', one of Op Ivy's most loved songs.

The story of Operation Ivy provided the subject matter for 'Journey to the End of the East Bay', a Rancid number that is a live staple and fan favorite. Its lyrics explain the origins of Rancid's tireless touring ethic:

"4 kids on tour, 3000 miles in a 4-door car not knowin what was goin' on

we got a million years tourin' out like this

hell no no premonition coulda seen this"

Although Armstrong and Freeman were both briefly involved with other East Bay bands, the former was also fighting alcoholism, and as a means of occupying his friend, Freeman suggested they form a new band. After adding Armstrong's roommate, Brett Reed, on drums, Rancid began playing live in the area and released their first EP on Lookout! Records (then home to Green Day) in 1992. This EP caught the eye of Brett Gurewitz, bass player and founding member of Bad Religion, who quickly signed the band to his Epitaph label. Rancid's self-titled titled debut appeared in 1993 after which they embarked on their first significant tour.

At this point in time, Rancid were - in some ways - the very epitome of punk. They had risen from the ashes of an influential and respected group that disbanded on the most punk pretense imaginable: unable to reconcile the prospect of commercial success, they decided to call it a day rather than fall into the hands of a major label.

In true punk fashion Armstrong was writing from personal experience when he sang of alcoholism and drug addiction on tracks like 'Rats in the Hallway', and his slurred, rasping delivery evoked memories of Joe Strummer - a likeness for which Armstrong was later criticized. The band's DIY attitude even extended to recruiting Reed on drums despite that fact that, by his own admission, he "…hadn't even played drums for…five months." "I had just bought a shitty kit off of some junkie kid," said Reed "…and I learned my favorite songs in the basement. I totally sucked. Everyone hated Rancid for…the first year of the band's existence…but those guys stuck with me and taught me." 

Later in 1993, Rancid added another East Bay local – Lars Frederiksen – to the line up as a second guitarist and vocalist. Frederiksen had an impressive punk pedigree; briefly a member of the legendary UK Subs , he was playing with Slip when Armstrong and Co extended their hands. Frederiksen first appeared in Rancid's 1994 EP 'Radio Radio Radio' 

1994 also saw the release of 'Let's Go', which quickly gained momentum on the back of a punk revivalist wave that also brought bands like the Offspring and Green Day to shore. For these reasons Rancid suddenly became a hot commodity, and when MTV selected first single 'Salvation' for heavy rotation a bidding war ensued that inspired the title for the band's breakthrough album, 'And Out Come the Wolves…'.

Although Green Day were quick to sign with a major label, the Offspring released the multi-platinum 'Smash' with Epitaph, which gave Rancid all the reasons they needed to honor Gurewitz's faith.

In an online interview with In Music We Trust in 1997, Brett Reed commented that "Epitaph…proved, by making that Offspring record happen and getting all the records shipped and distributed properly, that Epitaph can do anything a major label can do and you don't have to deal with fucking A & R people. Nobody was imposing on our creativity." Frederiksen goes a step further and insists that "And Out Come The Wolves… I don't think…would have been possible with a major...it would have been a completely different album."

So how does Rancid make sense of the industry and the deals that take place behind closed doors? "Our motto," declares Lars "…is: don't give a fuck and do what you wanna do. That's the only way to handle it." It could be the chorus to any number of Rancid songs; to the point and lyrically simple, but endearing in its candor and conviction.(Gabriella of NYrock.com in 1998)

Skeptic's would suggest that this attitude has simply evolved as a means of the band rationalizing its own mainstream success - something that the same skeptic's would argue is an almost sure-fire way of killing off any grass roots credibility. As diabolical as it sounds, history shows that although many 'punk' bands have compromised their sound in order to achieve widespread popularity, even those who have achieved the impossible and gained mainstream recognition, whilst retaining the core sound that made them 'punk' in the first place, still lose much of that street level support by virtue of the fact that they are no longer 'underground' but embraced by the average music consumer as well. 

It is an established fact in the music industry that a special place is reserved for acts that shun the mainstream and instead choose to survive on the slim pickings offered by a small, devoted fan base. It is also an established fact that this position of heightened credibility evaporates instantly when the act hits the big time. In other words, cult bands are cooler. In the punk fraternity, a cult following is sacred; in fact it would seem to be an essential ingredient in make up of a truly 'punk' band and those acts that market themselves as 'punk' will have their credentials questioned by the omnipotent moral majority as soon as they achieve any success outside the independent charts and cliquey punk world.

With the release of 'And Out Come the Wolves…' in 1995, any chance the band may have had to shun the spotlight and prevent Rancid from ultimately outgrowing the resources of its independent label vanished abruptly thanks to heavy rotation on MTV and a slot on Saturday Night Live performing a memorable version of 'Roots Radicals'. Although Green Day and the Offspring went on to release further multi-platinum selling albums that saw those bands well and truly cross over into the mainstream, Armstrong and crew opted to stick with Epitaph, ensuring that, for the time being at lest, their core fan base was retained. This was particularly important in light of the fact that by 1998, and the release of Rancid's fourth LP - 'Life Won't Wait' - the 90s punk revival was losing steam.

Although Rancid still retained much of its street capital, the success of 'And Out Come The Wolves…' had inevitably robbed them of some of the vicarious 'cool' that accompanies underground bands. Where their heroes The Clash had been at the forefront of what was in some respects a social and musical movement, Rancid became flag bearers for a generation of MTV punks that embraced the music on a superficial and aesthetic level with scant regard for the underlying messages of anarchy, banality and nihilism. 

Undoubtedly, the band members themselves were privy to the change in attitude towards them from the punk community, and in 2000 they returned with their second self-titled album - often referred to as '2000' or 'V' - which saw them trade ska for a more hardcore approach that was welcomed by fans and critics. Although it only peaked at 68 on the Billboard Charts (whereas their previous albums had peaked at 45 and 35 respectively), it was a sharp message to the doubters that Rancid were in for the long haul and could not be lumped in with Green Day and the Offspring who, by this stage, were the subjects of vitriolic message board tirades decrying their musical deceit. 

By 1998, and the release of 'Americana', there was no arguing with the fact that the Offspring had made significant changes in musical direction. The production was slick and Columbia Records was shelling out money hand over fist for commercials and elaborate music clips. On the other hand Green Day had scored a major hit with 'Time of Your Life', an acoustic number that featured a string section so heart-tugging it was used on the credits of the Seinfeld finale. 

But by 2002, Armstrong - now chief songwriter of side-project Transplants - was coming under fire for his decision to allow shampoo company Garnier to use the catchy piano refrain from the single 'Diamonds and Guns' in a commercial. The punk judiciary were aghast at what appeared to be blatant double standards from the Rancid front man and it provided almost inexhaustible fodder for the cyberspace snipers who took careful aim with admonishing posts and 'I told you so' blogs. Even today, close to five years after Transplants' decision to give Garnier rights to the song, passionate debate still accompanies 'Diamonds and Guns' wherever it can be downloaded. For example, some of the comments posted on YouTube where the video clip can be viewed give an insight into fans' reactions to the decision. 'Redneckbob' complains that "the shampoo ad stole the greatness of this song i hate the media...i love this song no matter what", to which 'chosenfro68' replied "I'm sure the commercial helped them financially, which is good, pays for more albums, and most of all their life." 'Jencendiary' agrees and adds "musicians have to eat, too. Most of you complaining about the commercial deal are still living at home, or crashing on a friend's couch. But there's something to be said for getting paid for what you love." Other, similar, posts on websites such as www.punknews.org and www.punksite.com echo this dichotomy between what a band must do to survive and what it must do to retain its integrity. 

However, the issue is not so straightforward when it comes to Rancid and Transplants: Armstrong, as a successful songwriter and founder of Hellcat Records (a subsidiary of Epitaph) hardly fits the mold of a struggling artist sleeping on his friends' couch and begging record labels to accept his shoddily produced demos. In fact, the formation of Transplants is not your typical punk-rock fairytale (see 'friends meet at high school, discuss mutual dislike of everything, drop out of high school and make number 1 record'). In this case, Armstrong was the record label, and simply invited Travis Barker (Blink 182, Boxcar Racer) and Rob Aston (a long time roadie with Rancid) to jam in Armstrong's home studio and, after being impressed by the results, pitched the idea to Gurewtiz who was happy to distribute their eponymous debut in 2002. So why the decision to renege on a previous commitment made by Rancid to deny corporations the rights to use their material in advertisements? 

Perhaps Armstrong, Aston and Barker gave Garnier the green light purely out of a desire to see the album receive the kind of attention that they felt it deserved and, if so, did this contravene any punk 'rules'? Although there is no clear answer, it is hard to see how Armstrong, the musician, can so easily differentiate between his projects in terms of what is ethical for Rancid and what is ethical for Transplants. One thing is certain, Rancid's reputation suffered as a result, and it signaled the beginning of a backlash against the band that culminated in 2003 with the release of 'Indestructible', an album whose ironical title would become self evident in light of the misfortunes the band members were about to face.

The first signs of smoke appeared in June '03 when fan sites and message boards were set alight by rumors that Rancid had signed with Warner Bros. Popular sites like www.drownedinsound.com ran articles that moved to confirm the rumors and were met with familiar cries of disgust and disbelief from critics and fans respectively. When 'Indestructible' finally surfaced in August, specifics of the deal struck with Warner emerged. Due to the success of first single 'Fall Back Down', which reached number 15 on the modern rock charts, Epitaph were unable to meet worldwide demand and it was agreed that Warner Bros. would be engaged as a distributor to ensure this demand was met. To make matters worse, the music clip for 'Fall Back Down' featured, amongst others, Kelly Osbourne and Benji Madden of Good Charlotte who were already targets of criticism from those who believed that they were punk pretenders and unworthy to be featured in a Rancid video clip. 

The album itself was deeply personal in much of its content. Armstrong had just split with wife Brody Dalle, front woman of the Distillers (now Spinnerette) and was baring his bruised soul on many of the tracks. Musically, 'Indestructible' was an eclectic mix of the styles that had appeared on their previous records: there were flash backs to the speedy skater punk of '1993' and 'Let's Go' on the title track and echoes of the classicist 1977 sound of 'And Out Come The Wolves…' on 'Memphis' and 'Fall Back Down'. The ska so prevalent on 'Life Won't Wait' was revisited on second single 'Red Hot Moon' and 'Back Up Against the Wall', and even the hardcore punch of '2000' returned on tracks like 'Out of Control' and 'Spirit of '87'. In addition, the band included some poppier songs, like the anti-war number 'Start Now' and lovesick lament 'Tropical London', which dealt explicitly with Armstrong's split from Dalle.

Commercially, the album was a great success and peaked at 14 on the Billboard charts, twenty-one places higher than their previous best of 35 with 'Life Won't Wait'. But despite this success, it felt as if Rancid were on the verge of irrelevancy and resigned to formulaic songwriting that echoed Armstrong's best work on 'And Out Come the Wolves…' but never fully recaptured it. Even the excellent sophomore release from Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards ('Viking', 2004) failed to reverse this impression. As preposterous as it sounds, the future of the band was in doubt due to a significant backlash from the punk community that reached a crescendo with the Warner deal and celluloid fraternization with Osbourne and Madden, two figures the punk purists could never accept no matter how many tattoos or piercings they may acquire. On top of this, the health of the band member's appeared to be failing.

The irony of 'Indestructible' was brought into sharp focus in June 2005 when Matt Freeman was diagnosed with lung cancer. Shortly after the announcement, Freeman underwent successful surgery to remove what was described as a non-life threatening growth in his chest. In August, Transplants, having just released second album 'Haunted Cities', canceled a co-headlining tour with Pennywise citing exhaustion on the part of Armstrong. Rumors circulated that Armstrong had multiple sclerosis and that the futures of both Transplants and Rancid were in jeopardy. To make matters worse it was suggested that Frederiksen was suffering from a degenerative back condition that would soon put a stop to any touring. Within six months of the band releasing an album that focused on their ability to weather all that life threw at them, Rancid had seemingly imploded.

What followed was a hiatus of sorts, although Armstrong never stopped writing and in 2006 the rumors of Rancid's demise were quashed by a blog posted on the band's website announcing a swathe of new projects including a summer tour (followed by a new album in 2007), a collection of their music clips on DVD and Tim Armstrong's first solo record, 'A Poet's Life'.

The tour proved a great success even without a new album to promote and anticipation steadily grew as Armstrong began to release 'A Poet's Life' track by track on MySpace. Midway through the tour, however, Frederiksen collapsed on stage in Montreal after experiencing a seizure and several dates were postponed. Shortly after recommencing the tour, Brett Reed unexpectedly announced that he was quitting the band after 15 years, and was quickly replaced by Brandon Steineckert, formerly of The Used. This move attracted criticism on two fronts: Rancid had famously claimed on more than one occasion that the band was a family and would disband rather than limp on without the original line-up. No mention of this pledge was made upon Reed's departure, although critics were quick to remind them in posts on various websites. The band's choice of replacement was also reason for criticism; The Used were perceived as 'emo' by many fans and the recruitment of Steineckert was seen as further fraternization between Rancid and pseudo pin-up punks like Good Charlotte.

So, in 2007, 15 years after the release of their first EP – and at the cusp of their seventh LP – where does Rancid stand in the punk community? 

At 40 years of age, Armstrong is as prolific a songwriter as ever and shows no signs of slowing down. His ability to continually write quality songs not only for Rancid, but for his own side projects and the side projects of others, will ensure that Rancid outlast the newer and more fashionable punk bands to which they are constantly compared. As for the alleged acts of treason that have so enraged the purists, well it would be untruthful to simply dismiss these acts as misperceived or misinterpreted. Questionable decisions have been made by the band and I do not refer to the video clip featuring Madden and Osbourne, for Rancid has the right to associate with whoever they see fit, and their disregard for the backlash that they would have undoubtedly anticipated is a very punk act in itself. But the 'sale' of 'Diamonds and Guns' to Garnier is harder to reconcile. Perhaps the temptation grew too great? Maybe Armstrong felt obligated to his new band mates to make Transplants a viable and long term prospect? Or perhaps the stories are true and the band simply wanted to ensure that the song received the attention it deserved? Whatever the reason, it flies in the face of the commitments made by Armstrong, as founding member and chief songwriter of Rancid, to deny corporations the rights to their music. 

The distribution deal struck with Warner is another grey area. For many punk bands, a signature on a major label contract was their last act as a punk band, at least according to their fans. The Clash were famously referred to as 'the last gang in town' before signing to CBS in 1976 after their peers had sold their souls to the majors. The day Strummer and Co. put their signatures beneath the CBS letterhead was called 'the day punk died'. Rancid need no lessons in the origins of punk and what it means. Their sound is steeped in 1977 to the point that it has been called derivative on more than one occasion. Surely then, they would appreciate that the importance placed on staying independent is not just about refusing to relinquish creative control, but it is also about refusing to let companies - who often have no vested interest in the music beyond its commercial appeal - get fat off the profits of other people's originality and creativity. These multi-national corporations, that get narrower and narrower in their catalogs with each merger, generally only sign bands once thousands of fans have already discovered them, thereby providing Sony BMG or Warner, or whichever label it may be, with a ready made audience. 

This approach to art - whether it be music or any other form of art - is an anathema to the punk ethos. The subjugation of free expression should be something that bands like Rancid reject in every way possible. Having said this, much misreporting has blown this story out of proportion; Warner had no creative control over the album and in some respects the band may have seen it as an opportunity to 'use' a major label to distribute what they saw as a truly punk album. 

As for the music itself, regardless of what is written by the revisionists, Rancid's sound has barely altered in the 16 years since they released their first EP. 'Indestructible' was an inconsistent album, but '2000' proved to critics that they can capture a sound uniquely theirs. Although the band's commitment to forge ahead without Brett Reed would seem to undermine past commitments, it underlines Rancid's determination to go on. 

It is a remarkable thing for a band to achieve its greatest commercial success 12 years after first recording together. Some would argue that Rancid compromised their ethics to achieve this success, but the truth is not so clear cut and Rancid are more than capable of hitting back in 2007 with a harder and faster record in the vein of '2000' that will again have critics ducking their heads. Whatever the result, LP number seven is guaranteed to reignite the debate about their punk credentials, and many critics will be waiting to dig up old graves in a bid to convert the legions of new fans who will undoubtedly discover Rancid later this year.

But the question so rarely asked is, does Rancid care about the fickle opinions of music fans and the music press? Not if you believe Lars Frederiksen, who has spoken passionately on the issue in several interviews. "That's what I call the kiddie punk approach," says Lars. "We get accused of not…being punk anymore and all the mags…have the self-righteous approach…like they're the ones who invented punk. Big fucking deal, we don't give a shit about it. Why should we? To add some unnecessary complication in our lives? Who needs it? Dealing with the press is a double edged knife. You know, if you believe their euphoria and you get a high…then a couple of stupid rumors get you down. So the best thing is to ignore it all." 

BLAIR BOYER

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