Rancid’s ‘…And Out Come The Wolves’ is punk rock’s saddest masterpiece

Rancid And Out Come the Wolves sad masterpiece

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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View Comments (54)
  • This article reads like it was written by someone who’s only heard the album yesterday. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read something that’s more obviously poser than this in my entire life.

    Also, it’s Ian MacKaye, not Alec. Really, get your sh*t together.

      • LOL.. i knew some joker was gonna say that was Ian just as certainly as i knew some other guy was gonna clown on him for it.
        Ahhh.. Punker Than Thou never gets old huh fellas…?

    • Actually, it is Alec on the cover of that minor threat album. Alec Mackaye is the younger brother to Ian and also played in numerous DC bands during the 90’s. You’re welcome, glad I could clear that up for you.

  • So glad we have all the punk police here to tell us what is and isn’t. Please tell me what bands I can like so I can be a good little robot also. Good article I listened to that album every day going to and from high school for about a year straight. 20 some years later Its still one of my favorites

    • I literally listened this every single day walking to and from school 15 or 20 minutes every morning and every afternoon.

    • I agree, Joe. For me, the essence of “being punk,” is being a non-conformist. People that try to define what is or is not punk, especially as it relates to fashion and appearance, don’t even see the irony of their actions as a “gate keeper.” Punk is a mindset, an attitude and a question everything way of living. It has nothing to do with how you dress or if you “sell out.” Personally, I’m glad bands are finally making the money that they deserved to make during the late 70’s, 80’s and part of the 90’s. Punk rock is not some exclusive club that only “you” know about. It also doesn’t make you “cool” to be the only one listening to it so you call bands sell outs when other people like “your band.” Get over yourselves, you’re not special. It’s a damn shame, that we claim to love these bands, but would deprive them of making a living and refuse to spend money to listen to their music. If you don’t financially support “the band,” then don’t cry when they break up to get “real jobs” because everyone has to pay the bills. Just my 2 cents.

  • I was 15 when this album came out. I had just started getting into punk rock and ska both. That music Felt Like Home to me. This album in particular felt like it was almost speaking directly to me. This article had a big smile on my face from start to finish because everything you described is everything I felt when I listened to it. I had heard op ivy and has heard of rancid. I told my mom that instead of my allowance for those two weeks I wanted her to buy me the album. She did and I was instantly hooked. Since then I’ve been a huge Rancid fan. When I was younger I went to concerts all the time and I got to check out Rancid four times. They are amazing live and again it always made me feel like I had a place that I belonged and people that felt the same as I did. Everything these guys do is absolutely superb. From the Transplants to Tim Armstrong or Lars Frederiksen’s solo projects, and anything else they’re involved in, it all just speaks to me. Thank you for this article. Now I’m going to go listen to this full album since it’s been a minute since I’ve played it in its entirety. I just know it’s going to transport me back but that 15 year old kid for just a little while

  • Extremely well written.
    .kudos to you.
    Seems to be more difficult to find something written at an adult level

    Fuck the haters you got your absract points across with little ambiguity.
    Most importantly I’m listening to “Old Friend” right now!! And the bass that begins ” Journey to the Center” should have been rnentioned!!

  • What’s with all the hipster haters? You all sound ridiculous. This a heartfelt piece by someone who obviously loved the album as do I. Chapeau monsieur

  • Great article, made me smile. I always enjoyed this album and their others as well. Punk police….go shove it… it’s rock and roll and that has many forms. Punk rock is rebellious whether its polished or raw sounding. If you disagree, don’t listen to it. Don’t preach your opinions as truths… they only truths to you. Rancid always put on a good live show as well. Happy to have these albums and thanks fellas for good material and good memories!

  • Saw rancid play at festival on the wolves tour. They were the best band, most energetic, and unique. When I left, i couldn’t stop thinking about this great band. Then, I realized, punk rock changed my life. It’s all I wanted to listen too. It was 1995, and I still feel the same way today. Punks Not dead!

  • Great record. Fine writing. Can empathize with the sentiment. Being in my 20s when it came out living in Olympia. Transplanted temporarily from Boston. Back home after some time. Songs still stays with me.

    Sad how people came on here just to try to falsely correct a friggin photo.

    Carry on

  • Nice job Ryan- really enjoyed this.
    AOCTW is a top ten album for me. Phenomenal song writing & just about every track is catchy & memorable. This will get me mocked I’m sure, but my second favorite Rancid record is the criminally underrated Let The Dominoes Fall. Every song on that is solid & 100% different from the previous one.

    • So glad you love Let the Dominoes Fall too. Like most of my favourite albums it took a while for it to hook me in. Rancids discography is pretty solid and I pretty much like all the albums equally except for Indestructible being a bit of a dip in my humble opinion

  • I have always assumed that the cover photo on that Minor Threat E.P. was Ian as well. Perhaps a parenthetical added to this article explaining that it was Alec featured on there, not Ian as many people assume it to be would help clear the issue up? Also, this may be a bit naive of me, but maybe such an addition would help to curtail all of the shitty comments trying to erroneously correct the author of the article about that particular fact? Maybe not. Just a suggestion.

    Also, I mostly agree with all of the sentiments shared in the article regarding “…and Out Come the Wolves”. Such an important album in my own adolescence. I especially liked the description of Rancid as being scary or terrifying. As a 12 year old kid, they both frightened and enticed me with the videoes for Ruby Soho and Time Bomb. I would often stay up late in hopes of catching either video on MTVs 120 minutes in that pre-internet world of the mid nineties.

  • I liked Rancid, but they pissed off a good hundred of us when they showed up at Coney Island High to play a “surprise” set. LES Stitches got bumped up a few hours, so did a few other bands. Plus, the $8 door turned into $15. It was the total opposite of what the Ramones used to do. The Ramones (or if they were broken up that week, “The Remains with special guest Joey Ramone”) wouldn’t charge extra, and they’d actually surprise people playing last (without messing with the times.)

    • What in 1998? You haven’t realized by now that they have to pay the musicians? Wouldn’t more musicians = higher ticket price? Also seeing another entire band (especially one you say you liked?)

      Doesn’t sound like the other band even got canceled. Sounds like an even more fun day that you clearly still have vivid memories of.

      Please stop complaining so loosely. It literally spreads negativity all around. It is contagious. Think of the bright sides and be understanding. Not just inconvenienced.

  • Was hard to accept as a true punk album. When it was getting airplay on the Maimstresm radio stations. Turned out to be a great one from start to finish.
    Not to be a nerd but that is Ian’s brother on the cover of minor threats first album.

  • Good article and I appreciate you taking the time to write it. Love this album and haven’t thought of it in a while so thank you.
    To give some constructive criticism you kind of started to lose me earlier on though. “Some days I wish I never heard it at all cause I’d be more adjusted” that obviously isn’t true, you love the album, and I’m sure you love the path it sent you on. You love punk, that is clear. So adding that bit in seemed like you were reaching to be deep or something. Not trying to pick on you or be shitty just wanted to point out what you may not have realized.

    Anymore I notice people write about and talk about themselves so much more. Maybe I’m just noticing more. Its really bad with YouTube. Every other video starts with “I’ve wanted to make videos since i was 6 and my mom got me a camera etc” But with youtube it seems more like narcissism. Idk when and why but this idea was created at some point that people enjoy feeling like they now relate better to someone once they tell you their own story that was worse. I hate when I need advice or talk about something serious and the friend says “oh trust me I understand, because this one time” and I just internally sigh because they never helped or cared to empathize.

    TLDR I’m sick of people always having to talk about themselves so often. Talk about the album. I mean give your opinion but not your back story. Sorry if this was mean. It’s just everywhere.

    Either way you’re the man and sorry again if rude. Take care

  • Good article. Rancid’s my fav punk band. Always loved their storytelling in songs, know almost all the lyrics because of it. 25 years playing bass, cant play that solo from Maxwell yet, but few can. Journey to the End! So nostalgic. Love it.

  • Great article, thanks for writing it. I was 15 when Wolves came out and I can safely say it changed my life. Big thanks to Lint, Matt, Lars, and Brett. Fucking love you guys.

  • I can’t stand you so called punk rockers who say that this pop. Grow up and quit trying to put something in a category and act like you don’t like it because you want someone to think you are hardcore…. The same as the kids who love the 90s stuff, don’t act like you were at the Dead Kennedy’s First show…. This music is about being who you are/ just in case you commented and never heard the lyrics to Wolves. That album could be played in a dirty alley or could be made into an Opera.

  • I live in rural Ohio and am the only “punk rock” guy in 30 fuckin miles so I’m always really stoked to read articles like this and remember there are other people into the same stuff I am. Great article.

  • Got turned on to Rancid by a total stranger I sat next to on a Greyhound from Norfolk to Fredericksburg while in the Navy. He literally gave me the cassette of their debut album. Made an instant impression on me. These weren’t generic songs, they written from the soul about real people, places and experiences. To me, those first three albums reached a crescendo with Wolves. When I got out of the service, I was a drunken mess and found myself almost living many of those songs. Friends and acquaintances going to jail or dying. Living in a horrid apt in a mess of a neighborhood. Having people touch your life and then one day they are gone. Life is different for me now, thank God, but of all the albums I’ve owned, this one brings me back to those places and times with those people like no other.
    “All those bands and all the people, all the friends and we were all equals. But watcha gonna do, when everybody goes on without you?” Great article, my friend.

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