Talkhouse Contributing Writer Zachary Lipez is the former singer for Freshkills and the current singer of Publicist UK. He writes the “Adult Problems” column for Noisey/VICE. He also contributes to Hazlitt, MySpace, and Vol.1 Brooklyn. His most recent book, with Nick Zinner and Stacey Wakefield, is Please Take Me Off the Guest List (Akashic Books, 2010). He tends bar at 124 Rabbit Club. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Rancid inhabits a Clash world where London Calling never happened. At the formation of this world, this Rancid-topia, there was the declarative guitar clamor of “What’s My Name” and “White Riot” (oh, sweet Clash Jesus… SO much “White Riot”) and, right from the start, the wistful memorializing of “Stay Free.” Then, in this odd-duck parallel universe where the American Clash rejects the UK Clash’s double-album tribute to American Rock History 101, there was no London Calling (1979) or, god forbid, Sandinista (1980) (Sorry, punx, 1998’s very-fine-but-not-as-experimental-as-you-remember-it Life Won’t Wait doesn’t count). There was just a spirited existential defense of Combat Rock (1982) and, fuck it, Cut the Crap (1985). And why not Combat Rock? If you hate the popular, then you hate the mob, and Rancid loves the motherfucking mob.
Relegating Rancid to “Clash Tribute Band” status is hardly fair, though. The band is also a tribute to the Ruts, Chelsea, the Redskins and all the other extremely fashionable street kids who get that jaunty pop tunes, romanticizing yer dad’s union days and hella tight footwear can go hand-in-hand with solid-as-fuck results. But at this point, having existed since 1991, Rancid is more a tribute to itself than anything else. And the lifestyle of a Rancid is very romantic, full of fists a-flying and friends a-dying and a-born to a-losing and whatnot. If I still like their first seven-inch the best, it’s probably because I was 16 and bought it the same day I bought the first Quicksand seven-inch and I’m as relentlessly sentimental as they are.
Rancid’s latest album …Honor Is All We Know shares some of the plusses and minuses of the last couple albums by fellow nostalgia-lovers, but not to the point of completely sucking, Sick of It All. Aging punks with talent make extremely likable aging street punk. The songs on Rancid’s eighth album are catchy, the vocals strong, and the whole affair has a surprisingly effortless feel (especially considering the four years put into its writing/recording) that I can only hope to emulate as I get older. On the shared negative tip, the bro-love can feel a bit toxic, and there’s a lack of specificity in the lyrics that can at times be infuriating.
Rancid were, not too long ago, explicitly left-of-center, talking Bakunin and Rwanda and doing songs with the always wonderful Dr. Israel. Now they rage against authority and power and “them,” but there’s a general feeling that any naming of names might alienate some of their more, ahem, libertarian skinhead and punk fans. Like Sick of It All, I suspect that there are members of the band from both sides of the political spectrum, so there’s a sense of philosophical compromise. But I don’t look to punk bands for a fair representation of the wide and wild diversity of viewpoints that is punk. There are riots in the streets. Police are killing black men and women with impunity. Our president is continuing the war, imprisonment and torture of Muslims worldwide. Having no access to any of the members’ diaries, I have no idea if Lars Frederiksen’s love of Oi culture and 15-year alignment with DMS (Doc Martin Skins, Dirty Money Syndicate, Droppin’ Many Suckers etc.… and if you think I’m gonna make DMS jokes then you have me confused with a braver/dumber man) has produced …Honor Is All We Know’s reliance on odes to the working class, crews, honor, fighting being bad (but also kind of neat) and other subjects that would be hard for any tough guy to disagree with. But the result is Rancid’s fist being raised in the general direction of general injustice and the “people” being asleep. Agreed, the “people” (whoever they might be) really ought to wake up for sure, and general injustice is very, very bad. But a wee mention of the prison-industrial complex and endless racist war would have been top-notch too.
Now, mind you, the aforementioned criticism only really matters within the context of politics that Rancid formerly espoused. As a non-specific, anti-authority, world-weary, end-times party band, Rancid still excels — …Honor Is All We Know never overstays its welcome. The lil’ speed demon of the skapocalypse, “Evil’s My Friend,” is already one of my favorite songs of the year. I sing the refrain “Evil is my friend again!” in the mirror and feel wicked good about my tattoos. (I know I’m making it sound corny, but it really is a fucking awesome song.) On tracks like “Back Where I Belong,” Tim Armstrong’s voice especially sounds wonderful, now in full pre-total dissipation Shane MacGowan mode (though, because I love the youth, I pretend that Iceage’s Elias Rønnenfelt is an influence as well), while Frederiksen makes with the hardcore shouts (I think it’s him, anyway — having dropped out of Rancidatonik U, I may have the band’s two singers reversed). But really, the whole band sounds energized and comfortable but not, you know, too comfortable. If some of the songs seem a bit thrown together, the same was true of Operation Ivy and I didn’t mind it then and I don’t mind it now. Hell, a couple of the songs (“Face Up” and “Already Dead” in particular) are as rough as the track by Downfall (bassist Matt Freeman and Armstrong’s pre-Rancid band) on the greatest music compilation ever made, Maximumrocknroll’s 1989 release They Don’t Get Paid, They Don’t Get Laid, But Boy Do They Work Hard!. When your band’s entire existence is predicated on the difficulty of life, “rough” is hardly an insult. If or when Rancid enters its Style Council phase we can revisit the issue. But I wouldn’t recommend that — neck tattoos and nice suits can get real Bosstone real fast.
I don’t get a world where Blink-182 gets critical reassessment, and citation as a profound influence on shit-tons of (admittedly usually pretty bad) bands while Rancid is relegated to an afterthought. Is it because Rancid sounds so much like the Clash? So Blink-182 gets rewarded for its own singular awfulness? That hardly seems fair. I mean, there’s not much like losing your mom in a fiery submarine accident, but we don’t say that’s better than a commonplace hot fudge sundae. Rancid is like a delicious hot fudge sundae, a delicious hot fudge sundae whose revolutionary fervor is based not on its being thrown at a cop but by being offered to said police officer by an inked-up skate rat who then — psyyyyyche! — eats it himself. Off(er) the pigs (a delicious treat but don’t mean it).
Anyway, Rancid has a new album. It made me think about the beach and cool cars and every fight I didn’t lose as badly as I could have. It also made me think of the old rumor of Social Distortion’s Mike Ness sending photos of himself performing auto-fellatio to every girl he’s slept with. I don’t think that last one is true but, true or not, I value California punk’s tendency towards self-romance. And, from the boys in cars to the non-specific calls to revolution to the reassurance that we’re all gonna die, man, but the bastards can still get fucked, ain’t nobody more romantic than Rancid.