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Dusting ‘Em Off: Rancid – Rancid

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rancid1993 Dusting Em Off: Rancid   Rancid

In this week’s edition of Dusting ‘Em Off, staff writer Ryan Bray, News Editor Chris Coplan, and contributing writer/photographer Ted Maider look back 20 years on Rancid’s 1993 self-titled debut. The three discuss its role in the punk rock genre, the album’s grimy, raw edge, and how Tim Armstrong strung together a band of brothers.

Ryan Bray (RB): There’s something about punk rock that feels eternally youthful. It’s been 37 years since The Ramones crawled out from the bowls of Queens to unleash their prototypical debut, but even today you’d never guess it by giving it a spin. The same can be said for countless other punk landmarks, be it The Clash’s 1977 self-titled debut, Black Flag’s Damaged, or Stiff Little Fingers’ Inflammable Material to name but a few. When it comes to punk, age is but a number.

So while the 20th anniversary of Rancid’s 1993 debut seemed to creep up out of nowhere, it’s not surprising that the record’s 16 surly blasts of street toughened aggression still hold up after all this time. We might be here to dust off Rancid, but in all honesty it doesn’t feel as though much has collected. From “Adina” all the way through to album closer “Get Out of My Way” there’s hardly a false note, and the record feels as fresh and raw now as ever. Maybe that’s due in large part to the fact that Rancid’s sensibilities haven’t changed too much over the years, but it’s cool in retrospect to see how on point the band was from the very beginning, even before the pivotal addition of Lars Frederiksen just one year later. What say you guys?

Chris Coplan (CC): I think the first thing that really kinda caught me off guard was the whole absence of Lars Frederiksen. I haven’t spun this LP in a while, but I sort of had this whole notion that when Lars finally joined the band in the middle of touring for Rancid, that he was this massive catalyst that began the band’s development into the ballsy legends they’ve become. But even without Lars, their whole aesthetic/sensibility is pretty much intact. I think maybe on this album it’s a little closer to the more mainline punk of Operation Ivy, and is without the latter-day influences of The Clash or ska and whatnot, but the band is pretty much the same on this album as it is on, say, …And Out Come the Wolves (which I love to pieces). They’re just as intense and grimy, but there’s also this sense of spontaneity or reckless abandonment that I think may be missing from subsequent albums. Lars is really important to the band’s canon, but there’s something really endearing about the Tim-Matt-Brett triad.

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Ted Maider (TM): What I feel we have with this album is the sense of a band getting to know itself. For Operation Ivy, they didn’t have enough time to be a fully realized band. Essentially, they spawned the whole idea of East Bay (EB) punk, giving it both a sound and (arguably) a look. Rancid’s self titled debut is like Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman testing out the waters to see how they can push their style. In a way, this changed the format of EB punk. With this album, Tim’s voice found a bit more melody, and Matt Freeman was able to truly showcase his ability as a bassist. This all was essential for them to get their footing to make the next couple albums, all of which display their signature sound.

RB: So true, Chris. I love the diversity showcased on Wolves and Life Won’t Wait, but there’s something refreshing about how hardened and chiseled the band’s earliest work is. Tough luck tunes like “Hyena” and “Another Night” are written with the kind of world-weary experience you really can’t fake. And to your point Ted, Rancid is most definitely a starting point like most any other debut, and while they honed their style over subsequent releases, it sounds remarkably cocksure for a first shot out of the gate. It’s got all the cornerstones, from Brett’s renegade drumming to Tim’s patented raspy slur and Matt’s rumbling bass lines. The chemistry within the band, not just as musicians but as a band of brothers, has always been one of Rancid’s strongest assets, so maybe it’s not that much of a surprise that they got their shit together so quickly.

CC: I think that whole band of brothers point really hits the nail on the head. There’s such cohesive interplay and a really tight, focused dynamic between the band members. Even so early on, they know how to balance each other’s skills and strengths and really blend them all together to make something that is so reminiscent of Operation Ivy but that is its own beast entirely. Still, I think I was surprised about how few growing pains their are, The whole album is full of really solid numbers like “Detroit” and “Trenches”, which was not always true of subsequent LPs (Let’s Go is a great record, but it’s got some dead weight from being like 25 or so tracks).

Part of that, like Ryan said, is how skilled every musician is. Matt Freeman, in particular, is probably the best punk bassist of the last 20-ish years, maybe of all time. Again, I forgot just how impactful he was so early on; he busts out some really crazy, complex licks, like “Adina” which is probably one of my favorite bass lines on the entire LP. I don’t want to give him all the credit, because Brett’s drumming is gonzo and Tim had all but perfected his nasally snarl, but I think they recognized early on that Matt’s bass playing is going to be the thing to build off of. The crux to their entire remaking of the East Bay sound. And with him so skilled and dedicated, that’s what I think makes them so confident right off the bat.

RB: Yeah, at the risk of flogging a dead horse, you really can’t say enough about Matt Freeman’s contributions. I think a lot of people look at Tim and Lars sort of as the core of the band, seeing as they share front man duties. But Freeman is like the silent partner who really makes the band’s musical machine run. One of my favorite elements of the Rancid sound has always been the prominent bass that pumps wildly over everything else. Other bands might be content to just let the bass anchor things on the low end, but the way Freeman’s bass jumps all over tracks like “Rejected” and “Climb In” gives the songs on Rancid a gruff texture that’s always been at the heart of the band’s distinct style. And when the bass isn’t at the forefront, it still rumbles menacingly beneath the surface.

It’s also interesting in retrospect to see how present he was on the vocal front. Before Lars joined up to split lead vocal duties with Tim, Freeman’s sandpaper bark was the rugged foil to Tim’s mush mouthed speak-sing style. Matt and Tim have more or less been inseparable for what feels like forever, and i think that shows in how well they compliment each other.

CC: Oh, please, flog that dead horse all day. This whole album is like a master class in punk bass playing. How to be fierce and driving and unrelenting, but to also be able to expand beyond the confines of being, as Ryan so eloquently put, a mere anchor by adding something complex and intricate to the song’s structures. So much of Rancid’s attitude and general sense of gruffness stems from Freeman’s playing, but I think he’s also their heart and soul to an extent. Tim may be perceived as the personality and energy of the band, but musically speaking, that all stems from what Freeman busts out on the bass. “Rejected”, in particular, is just a great example of how he forms a huge part of the skeleton, at which point Tim gets to swing and do his Joe Strummer-esque deal.

I’m not quite sold on his vocals, though. I like Ryan’s bit about how he and Tim compliment each other, but I still prefer Tim’s voice alone. I think he not only does the “mush mouthed speak-sing style” damn well, but the album’s filled with moments where he sounds pretty frayed and ragged. Matt’s vocals sound almost sort of like an act, a bit, and I think Tim should be the sole voice of the band. Even subsequent LPs where Lars takes a crack at singing, though entertaining, feel flat and uninspired compared to Tim.

TM: The thing about the first Rancid record is that is definitely more intense. Sure Lars’ vocals are not present, but Tim’s snarl seems more raw than ever. The guitar isn’t nearly as happy as latter-Rancid; it’s more sludgy and filled with riffs that sound like banging one’s head against a wall. The bass continues to be all over the damn place, as Freeman showcases the fact that he will go down in history as one of punk’s best bassists ever (“Union Blood”, are you serious?). And the rhythm of the whole album is far more mosh pit-inducing than anything the band would ever do again. I can’t imagine there being circle pits to Life Won’t Wait, but I can see a time period here where Rancid pits were not something for your average Vans-wearing chum.

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To go back to the playing of Mr. Freeman, all of you are right. Nobody could ever say enough about how he has revolutionized his respective instrument. People like Flea, Mike Gordon, and Fieldy should be bowing down to this guy, because he comes up with stuff that puts some of their work to shame. What happened later was that the band capitalized on how Freeman’s fingerwork could be the most memorable part of the song (think, “Maxwell Murder” and “Journey to the End of the East Bay”). His licks became catchier, and faster. Here his licks are probably some of the fastest, but they pop out as something more sinister than anything before, or after.

Rancid’s latter material is definitely what hooked me, but their darker material always stirred up some interesting feelings.

CC: I think Ted makes a damn fine point about the whole griminess. I think we all agree by now that their consistency and camaraderie were pretty spot-on right from the start, but this has got to be one of their most grimy, sludgy records to date. I don’t think it’s in any particular songs, but more as a whole, a kind of dirty, nihilistic approach that totally belies the more punchy, “upbeat” parts of records like “Journey to the End of the East Bay”.

I think, if anything, that is all powered by a sense of dissolution perpetuated by the abrupt end of Operation Ivy. I definitely get the sense that they’re pissed off and ready to prove a point that they’re not, as Ted so eloquently put, for every Vans-wearing chum, that they’re here to scorch earth and break skulls. That’s not to say they softened with subsequent releases, it’s just that this LP captures a very angsty time for the band that they’d never (fully) return to. Like Ted, I think I got in on latter-day stuff, but this early material is just so poignant and direct.

RB: It’s interesting that Operation Ivy’s breakup is brought up as a precursor to the album’s rugged edge. I think there’s definitely some truth to that, but I also think there are a bigger issues at play, some that sort of transcend music altogether, that helped inform Rancid’s desperate, go-for-broke attitude. It’s been said that Rancid (the band) came together with no real goals or aspirations on becoming huge, or even a full time band for that matter, but rather as a way of Matt and Brett helping Tim out of a tough streak of drug and alcohol abuse. And listening to the record, which lyrically is locked into a world of broken homes, shattered dreams and hard-nosed street living, you can see the band wearing its perceived lack of direction on its sleeve.

This record in a lot of ways saved Tim’s life, and that’s fitting coming from a band who has always treated its music as an all-or-nothing thing rather than simply a way to make a living. Even after they became punk superstars just a few short years later, Rancid have never strayed too far from their blue collar East Bay roots. But I’m in full agreement that this was as untamed and volatile as the band gets.

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