Sometimes I wish that I could go back and hear the intro to “Maxwell Murder” for the first time.
Twenty-five years after its release, the song that kicks off Rancid’s …And Out Come the Wolves still has an indelible effect: Ten seconds of ambient city sounds, a far-off churchbell, a mournful wind whooshing through an alley—all before bassist Matt Freeman’s four-count riff gives rise to what may be the most vicious song to come out of the mid-’90s. By now, that riff is Pavlovian to me, inducing a reaction as visceral, iconic and meaningful as the opening to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On,” or George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone.”
And then some days I wish I hadn’t heard that riff at all. Maybe I’d be better adjusted, more socially adept and blissfully ignorant of the world’s indifference if I never bought the CD. The moment I hit play, however, my brain cracked open, unleashing bigger emotions than what’s probably healthy for an impressionable 11 year-old.
I was not aware that I could feel the ennui that I did after listening to Wolves for the first time. I wasn’t quite old enough to understand the lyrical content, but the impressions were there. These weren’t Green Day’s songs about teenage troubles; Wolves felt like waking from a lucid dream that forever alters your perception of the world which, in this case, is how cruel it can be. For all intents and purposes, Wolves might as well have been my first emo album.
It wasn’t just the emotions that scared me. Everything about Rancid was scary. The first time I saw the video for “Ruby Soho,” I was genuinely freaked out. How could such scary-looking guys with mohawks and neck tats produce something so heartfelt? Beyond repulsion, however, there was attraction. I could recognize Rancid as outsiders during a time when I was beginning to feel like an outsider, myself. While my peers were still playing sports and sectioning themselves off into the preteen friend groups that precluded cliques, I was developing a preference for reading and being alone. Following along with lyrics to songs like “Olympia WA” and its mention of “cars passing by, but none of them seem to go my way” felt relatable in ways that I wouldn’t fully understand until a few years later.
Without a doubt, Wolves is Rancid’s best album, easily earning its place among the greatest punk albums of all time. In terms of scope, cohesion and delivery (and because the band could never escape the Clash comparisons) this is the band’s London Calling. It’s big, anthemic and powerful. No track is wasted.
But what a lot of people ignore is just how goddamn sad the album is. It’s a quality that’s easy to forget due to the fact that the band helped usher in third wave ska with their massive hit “Time Bomb” and the accompanying images of rude boy punks skanking with mohawks and wallet chains. Tacit sadness permeates Wolves, seething under most moments of triumph. It’s a feeling so lived-in that it’s barely acknowledged. This explains how singer Tim Armstrong could write an upbeat hit like “Ruby Soho” that begins with the solemn image of a man sitting alone while a party’s raging next door.
Or take “Old Friend,” which opens up with the line, “Look up, you’re in Cleveland again.” Armstrong’s distinct growl has the disgruntled weariness of an untethered wanderer who will never make it home. By the chorus, we know that this downtroddenness goes hand-in-hand with everyday living: “Good morning, heartache. You’re like a good friend, come and see me again.” It’s also easy to miss the horrors documented on “As Wicked” (dead junkies on the pavement, homeless five-years-olds, an old man who moves like “a dying machine”) because it’s so catchy.
This brand of grimumentary wasn’t new for Rancid. Until that point, the band built their career on earnest tales of street life, urban blight and hard times—all of which I have to believe are authentic given Armstrong’s documented troubles with alcohol after his time playing in the hugely influential ska-punk band Operation Ivy. Suffice it to say, Rancid’s music isn’t the same as, say, Social Distortion’s general meat-and-potatoes songs about being down on your luck or Green Day’s tales of being a frustrated teen; the stories on Wolves are specific, imbued with a verité that’s almost too earnest for comfort, like finding pages torn out from a diary or a faded Polaroid.
The album has also inadvertently become an ode to a Bay Area that can no longer exist. Because of this album, I knew Oakland, San Francisco, and Campbell before stepping foot in any of those cities. I could close my eyes and ride the 60 bus with Ben Zanotto (whoever he was), or wait for the Daly City train with other down-on-their luck artists. But can you imagine any of these songs written in the feudal technocracy that the Bay Area has become? Sure, living back then wasn’t easy, but at least there weren’t thousands of techbros pricing you out or inventing apps that will ultimately exploit you. How can anyone even feel Rancid’s on-brand existential disconnectedness when everything’s so connected?
What makes Wolves truly transcendent, though, is the band’s ability to take the hard-knock life and turn it into a palatable package of polished punk. Despite the attitude and grime, Rancid are quite self-aware and, I imagine, very savvy businessmen. By positioning themselves as outsiders, they were able to capitalize on punk’s mid-’90s popularity while retaining their street cred, a notion that’s baked into the album title—is a middle finger to the “wolves” that made Green Day and Offspring millionaires. While Offspring was courting major labels, Rancid was shouting out all the bands on the then-small Epitaph Records on Saturday Night Live. Even Wolves’ album cover—guitarist Lars Frederiksen sulking on a staircase with his head bowed—is a direct homage to DIY pioneers Minor Threat, whose seminal self-titled EP featured Alec MacKaye in the same position.
Despite its simplicity, punk music—at least the kind that sells records—is largely cerebral. Politics, indoctrination, irony, humor, clever wordplay and other genre characteristics are snacks for the mind, even if they’re pumped up to eleven and spat out at breakneck speed. Rancid, on the other hand, creates music for the heart. They’re not the only ones who did it (Jawbreaker does it better, IMO), but they’re the only band who sold a million albums doing so.
Now, 25 years later, …And Out Come the Wolves proves that Rancid’s heart is a muscle: simultaneously strong and vulnerable. Toughened by sadness. Bleeding and perfect.
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