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The Boston Phoenix Combat Rock

The rousing punk battle songs of Rancid

By Matt Ashare

JULY 6, 1998:  Rancid's Life Won't Wait, the California punk band's fourth CD on the Left Coast indie label Epitaph, opens with an "Intro," as if suddenly, five years into their career, something important needed explaining. "The phenomenon you are about to witness could well revolutionize your way of thinking/We are presenting startling facts and evidence that take up where other explanations leave off . . . ," intones a cold, automated voice against the furious air-siren blare of a blues harmonica, a walking-bass line sped up until it sounds as if it were running for cover, rapid-fire staccato guitar chords and churning distortion, and a high-velocity backbeat. In the rushed confusion, the sensory overload of the 46-second moment, you sense that some important battle line is being drawn in the sands of time, that a rag-tag squad of guerrilla warriors have established a crucial beachhead for an assault on your senses -- because clearly all this intense activity has an important purpose. And then, after only a second's pause, the smoke clears and you're greeted by the familiar punk sound of four guys digging their heels into the slippery slope of revolution rock. It could have been the Clash back in '78, '80, or even '81, but instead it's Rancid in, to borrow the title of one of the new album's 22 songs, "1998." And it still works.

Back in the day, which is now two decades and a Cold War away, the Clash could proclaim themselves to be "The Only Band That Matters" -- and even the cynical old rock critic Lester Bangs, who really thought he'd seen it all before in '77, could be made to believe. There's no such thing as The Only Band in 1998. Period. There are just too many goddamn bands doing too many things, too many infotainment channels, too many people jumping each other's trains, too much guarded cynicism and too many fragmented demographics for any one group of four guys even to dream of being The Only Band That Matters. And so even before the first shot is fired it's clear that Rancid, who have made a career out of sounding like the Clash, will never be as important -- as groundbreaking -- as the Clash. No degree of righteousness (and there's nothing more righteous than fighting a losing battle), of revolutionary fervor, of humanism, of anything, really, is going to change that, even if singer-guitarists Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen have now moved on from sounding like Joe Strummer and Mick Jones to, well, somehow embodying the camaraderie of the two Clash captains in their raw-throated call-and-response testifying.

That doesn't mean that Rancid can't be a better band than the Clash in their too short career ever were. In fact, the realities of 1998 and the incalculable benefits of hindsight may be two of Rancid's biggest allies. For starters, where the Clash had to contend with the implicit and explicit philosophical dilemma of waging war against the powers that be through the auspices of CBS Records, Rancid have found a powerful friend in Epitaph, the multi-million-dollar indie-label that has given Armstrong his own imprint (the ska-punk label Hellcat) and his band the distribution network to sell a lot of albums. Rancid's third CD, 1995's . . . And Out Come the Wolves (Epitaph), marked the sort of victory that the Clash never achieved, as Armstrong and Frederiksen celebrated their decision to turn down the deals they were offered from Epic (the Clash's old label) and at least half-a-dozen other biggies. In a sense, the war had been won, leaving Rancid with only hundreds of smaller battles to be fought, but freeing the band to focus more on music than on the politics of making music.

So it's back to the trenches for Armstrong, Frederiksen, bassist Matt Freeman, and drummer Brett Reed on Life Won't Wait, which finds them expanding their once East Bay-centric world view to include LA ("Backslide"), New York ("Wrongful Suspicion"), and the world ("Warsaw" and, in "New Dress," Bosnia). Produced by Armstrong and Frederiksen, who push Freeman's muscular bass way up in the mix and employ all sorts of additional instrumentation (from piano and organ to glockenspiel and handclaps), at studios in San Francisco, LA, New York, New Orleans, and, of course, in keeping with the Clash motif, Jamaica, the disc invites a number of the band's friends and acquaintances to participate in a skirmish or two. Bosstones boss Dicky Barrett shows up to lend his bulldog growl to "Cash, Culture, and Violence," members of Hepcat add some crooning to the bittersweet junkie tale of "Hoover Street," three members of the Specials (Roddy Radiation, Lynval Golding, and Neville Staples) bring some of their ska expertise to bear on the jaunty "Hooligans" (with its "Last Gang in Town"-style Rude Boys-versus-Skins vignettes), Agnostic Front dude Roger Miret does some representing for the East Coast punks on "Wrongful Suspicion," and, where the Clash once allied themselves with Lee Perry for some reggae cred, Rancid hook up with Jamaican dancehall star Buju Banton for the reggaefied "Life Won't Wait." None of which distracts from the spirited back-and-forth of Armstrong and Frederiksen, who, come to think of it, are sounding more and more like two Joe Strummers rasping their way around loaded multisyllabic words like "propagandists," "conglomerates," and, yes, "Sandinistas" with tongues so full of Novocain and throats so full of phlegm that a lyric sheet really would have been a good idea. Armstrong and Frederiksen even slip into something approximating a British working-class accent, which was a put-on to begin with when middle-class Joe Strummer did it 20 years ago. They're so good at it, you may have to remind yourself that Rancid are indeed an American band.

And while I'm drawing Clash parallels, might as well throw caution to the wind and postulate that since the band's 1993 Rancid was recorded before Frederiksen and his magenta mohawk joined in, it's not too much of a stretch to consider Life Won't Wait this line-up's third proper CD, which by Clash chronology would make it Rancid's London Calling. (By this system of measurement, Rancid was the 101ers, Joe Strummer's pre-Clash outfit, which is fitting because Armstrong tends to play Strummer to Frederiksen's Jones. If you're wondering where this leaves Armstrong & Freeman's previous band, the Bay-area ska-punk sensation Operation Ivy, well, I haven't figured that out yet.) Life Won't Wait certainly has enough material (22 tracks) and is long enough (64 minutes and 13 seconds) to qualify as a London Calling, though after fiddling for hours with my CD player I've yet to find an unlisted track à la "Train in Vain." Rancid go so far as to drop their own Spanish bomb, a song called "Corazón de Oro," which in view of its apolitical lyrics about a girl sort of qualifies as a "Train in Vain."

Life Won't Wait even has the breadth of a London Calling. Often the best punk rock doesn't sound like punk rock at all, and that's a lesson Rancid have learned well from the Clash. It can sound little like R&B, as on Life Won't Wait's groovy, horn-laced "Backslide," or rockabilly ("Lady Liberty"), or ska, which Rancid do better than the Clash ever came close to on five of the new tunes, including the dub-inflected "Crane Fist." But the Clash were always so quick to march forward in an effort to cover new ground -- almost as if they knew they weren't going to last more than five years -- that they often jettisoned too much of their firepower. Each Clash album sounded so different from their last -- the raw guitars of The Clash giving way to the metallic thunder of Give 'Em Enough Rope and then to the dub-, reggae-, and funk-inflected pop of London Calling, Sandinista, and Combat Rock -- that the overall effect was never as cumulative as it might have been. In the end there never was one Clash album that summed up everything the Clash were capable of, that brought it all together.

Rancid have more or less remedied that situation with Life Won't Wait, which manages to encompass the first three Clash albums and the first three Rancid albums. Like London Calling, it branches out to master genres previously only alluded to -- reggae and R&B -- and address situations on the other side of the world (the juxtaposition of a working-class girl saving up for a new dress while Yugoslavia gets blown to bits on "New Dress" is a particularly poignant, Strummer-esque bit of punk poetry). But Rancid haven't given up on the dirty, snarling junkyard guitars and rousing shout-along vocals that made their anthemic hit "Salvation" the "Clash City Rockers" of 1994. "Bloodclot," the first single from Life Won't Wait, is "Salvation" all over again, with its dive-bombing guitars, scruffy second-hand hooks, and righteous chorus of "Now my guns are blazing" serving as one more reminder that the Clash weren't the last gang in town, though they were gangsta before there was even rap on the West Coast. Which is just another way of saying that punk rock -- great punk rock -- no matter how righteous and earnest its ends is almost always a put-on, an act, a career opportunity predicated on turning rebellion into money. The Clash were a textbook case of postmodern mythmaking in action, no more or no less than Rancid are when Armstrong becomes the downtrodden coal miner listening to the whistle loudly calling out his name in the working-class anthem "Black Lung." (Armstrong sure sounds as if he'd got it, but I'm pretty sure he's never mined coal for a living.)

Lester Bangs opened his 1977 New Music Express feature on the Clash by quoting Richard Hell's adage that "Rock 'n' roll is an arena in which you re-create yourself." And in defense of the Clash he opined that "all this blathering about authenticity is just a bunch of crap. The Clash are authentic because their music carries such brutal conviction, not because they're Noble Savages." Ditto for Rancid, even if they're actually more working-class than the Clash. A lot has changed in 20 years, but rock and roll is still an arena in which you re-create yourself, and if that means Rancid's fashioning themselves in the image of the only band who ever had the audacity to call themselves "The Only Band That Matters," then so be it.

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