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Friday, September 9, 2011

An Albany Kid Reflects on Hometown Punks Rancid: "That's My America"

Posted By on Fri, Sep 9, 2011 at 8:51 AM

  • Rachel Tejada
  • Rancid

It's probably no coincidence that it began two years ago, when I was living in New York and constantly homesick for the West Coast. Someone would put a Rancid song, generally "Roots Radicals" or "Time Bomb," on the odd punk-heavy bar jukebox, and a wave of pure, adolescent nostalgia would smack me upside the head. Depending on how far into the night we were, I might turn to the closest of my bar-going friends and announce that "THEY WENT TO MY HIGH SCHOOL" with a sense of pride that might be more appropriate for, say, announcing that one of the band members was my child.

Sure, Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman graduated the year I was born. No, they weren't exactly pals of mine. But the thing to know about Albany, California -- the awkward chunk of land, just north of North Berkeley and south of El Cerrito/Richmond, on which I grew up -- is that no one is from there. Nothing ever happens there. With a population of 18,000, the biggest event of the year is still a street fair featuring a parade full of Boy Scouts, "art cars," and a decades-old dunk tank. The police blotter is known to feature teenagers stealing potted plants off front porches. Almost 70 percent of the city's five square miles is actually underwater.


All of which is to say, the first time the music video for "Ruby Soho" was played on MTV in the summer of 1995, the night Rancid appeared on Saturday Night Live -- looks of disoriented, unpolished disbelief on their faces during the closing credits -- something shifted in the universe of the average, bored Albany youth. Nevermind that ...And Out Come the Wolves, Rancid's breakout album, is actually, musically, a classic. (Really, though, check it out. All 19 tracks, jammed into an adrenaline-fueled 49 minutes and 39 seconds: they're all still catchy as hell. Matt Freeman's basslines, especially, still make your head spin.)

But at the time, the important thing was that this East Bay band was making it big by sounding -- by Tim Armstrong, in his stuffed-up, drunk-sounding way, singing about -- exactly how we felt. No one had reaffirmed our experiences on such a large scale before. This is, I believe, why people from New Jersey love Bruce Springsteen: That right there, what he's talking about, they can say. That's my America. Dammit.

For us, back then, there was malt liquor, there were parents who didn't get it, and there was catching the 43 bus into Berkeley to dick around, simply because there was nothing else to do. The earnestness of it all is almost devastating in retrospect, but the music still sounds great. Sixteen years later, there's really nothing dated about matching the hope and alienation and energy of a disgruntled teenager turned loose from school.

Matty came from far away

from New Orleans into the East Bay

He said this is a mecca

I said this ain't no mecca, man, this place is fucked.

It's helpful, perhaps, to note that the best-selling albums of 1995 were by Coolio and Shaggy. Two of the year's biggest hits were the Macarena and "Cotton Eye Joe." Against this backdrop, Rancid's sudden popularity was a sweet, authentic, freakish anomaly. Widespread nostalgia for classic '70s punk wasn't quite a thing yet; it would be another few years before Urban Outfitters started selling pre-distressed reprints of Ramones T-shirts. And while much has been made of Rancid's sound being derivative of the Clash (yes, the end of "Ruby Soho" does sound exactly like the end of "Safe European Home"), does any real fan of good, melody-driven punk care? I wish more bands these days were derivative of the Clash. Are there new ones? Who are they?

In recent years, through a slew of books and documentaries, the five-year period that saw Green Day, the Offspring, NOFX, Sublime, and Rancid first getting national attention has taken on a certain gloss (aided, no doubt, by the movement of most of them toward more radio-friendly pastures). But at the time, they were all just doing what they'd been doing as friends, in basements and at 924 Gilman, for years. Sprung from the wreckage of Operation Ivy -- the fiercely loved ska-punk outfit that lasted two years and whose mythology has now lasted 22 -- Rancid started as a project to help keep Armstrong sober. Four years later, Madonna was trying to sign them to her label.

The 43 bus line was, of course, discontinued several years ago, and Rancid, over the course of seven albums, has never quite duplicated the successes of the mid-'90s. (Though I would argue they did better in other regards than some of their counterparts, ahem, Offspring-post-Smash: the pain lessens but it never completely goes away.) Half a dozen side projects later, as of 2009's Let the Dominoes Fall, the guys don't always sound quite as spritely as they used to -- but they certainly don't sound like they're getting sick of doing this. They're still getting new tattoos; they just also have toddlers. Last year Lars Fredriksen was in the news for donating a bunch of electric guitars to Larkin Street Youth Services.

As for the fans, I'd be willing to bet there are a lot of us in semi-hiding with a Rancid-shaped soft spot, especially in the Bay Area. It'll be interesting to see the age range of the crowd this Saturday at the Warfield. I should say "See ya in the pit" here, but I can't, because I won't -- some things have changed since I was 16. I will, however, be the one getting embarrassingly emotional over the opening notes of "Journey to the End of the East Bay." And in that regard, I kind of doubt I'll be alone.


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Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is SF Weekly's former Music Editor.


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