Let’s Go Turns 20
Let’s Go, the sophomore album from the Berkeley punk band Rancid, is not my favorite album ever. Most days, it’s not even my favorite Rancid album; that distinction bounces back and forth between …And Out Came The Wolves and Life Won’t Wait. But Let’s Go is something else: It’s the album that changed my life, and quite possibly saved it. I try not to get too myopic when I write these Anniversary pieces, but this time around, it can’t be helped: Without the existence of Let’s Go, I would be a vastly different person, and probably a shittier one. At the time in my life when I needed it the most, this album introduced me to a vast new world of possibilities and friendships, and to the idea that I did not have to be some quiet sad nerd all the time. Let’s Go came out when the world was deep in the grunge era, when tortured self-pity was what we’d come to expect from our transcendent rock stars. Rancid brought something else: Speed and hooks and life, and also the idea that you could fall in with the right group of friends and build a world for yourselves, that confidence and validation were real things that you could find if you worked hard enough at them. It became a totem for me, a roadmap. For two or three years, I stopped buying albums from bands who weren’t thanked in the Let’s Go liner notes, or who weren’t thanked in those bands’ liner notes, to the point where I very quickly had an opinion on whether Skankin’ Pickle was better than Against All Authority. (For the record, they were not; AAA were great.) I got so invested in the idea of being punk, a quality that Rancid embodied for me even after I encountered the idea that Rancid were soulless sellouts for being on the radio, that I was doing things like quitting basketball and living in mortal fear that I’d lose the key for the chain I kept padlocked around my neck. This looks, on paper, like lemming-mentality stuff, like I learned to be myself by watching the way these other guys represented themselves. And maybe that’s what it was. But that deep investment in subculture, that sense of becoming what you wanted to be, was pretty much the best thing I had going for me during my teenage years. And that all starts with Let’s Go.
The album’s backstory goes something like this: Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman had been bandmates on Operation Ivy, the band who pretty much invented ska-punk, in its American form. (Don’t hold that against them; they were awesome.) Op Ivy had kickstarted a fast-thriving Berkeley punk scene; Billie Joe Armstrong has spoken about going to see them as a kid and getting his mind blown. But they only managed to make one (incredible) album and get through one American tour before splintering. Armstrong and Freeman started a bunch of bands afterward, but none of them took, or they only took after Armstrong and Freeman left the band. (That was the case with the new-wavey ska-pop band Dance Hall Crashers, who went onto major-label semi-success years after those two bailed.) Rancid started out as a trio, released one self-titled album on Epitaph, built a little bit of a name for themselves. When they decided to add another member, they reportedly offered the spot to Billie Joe Armstrong (no relation to Tim), who turned it down to focus on Green Day and thus caused me to spend too much time imagining the what-ifs. They ended up with Lars Fredricksen, a guy way younger than Armstrong or Freeman, who’d just come off of a stint with the British street-punk institution UK Subs.
With Let’s Go, intentionally or not, Rancid banged together a blueprint for American gutter-punk life, knocking out 23 songs in 44 minutes, most of them about living punk life in economically stratified America, its liner notes stuffed with thank-yous to random regional punk bands and reproduced punk-show fliers. And in the wake of Green Day and the Offspring taking off out of nowhere during the summer of 1994, Rancid suddenly emerged as the grittier, realer cousin of those two bands — albeit the grittier, realer cousin who still wrote catchy-enough songs to get on the radio. The black-and-white video for “Salvation,” which Armstrong directed himself, went into light MTV rotation, and the album eventually went gold. This being the era of the major-label bidding war, Rancid naturally became the subject of their own, but they fended off all advances and stayed with Epitaph — at least until the moment that the ’90s pop-punk boom had died down completely and it made no sense for them to sign, at which point they promptly signed. They were perma-drunk scuzzballs who remade themselves as patron saints of lost causes, and they somehow stumbled into something like stardom in the ’90s, a time when stories like that happened with shocking regularity.
I knew none of this when I first encountered the band: A blurry photo of Armstrong onstage in the middle of a Spin cover story about punk’s takeover of the alt-rock airwaves. You couldn’t see too much of Armstrong, but you could see what mattered: The towering pointy red mohawk, the massive Gibson hollowbody guitar, the studded leather jacket worn like a suit of armor, the general overwhelming sense of motion. I remember thinking to myself: Holy fuck, people actually look like this? He looked like a cartoon character, or like one of the henchmen from Robocop 3. Picking up Let’s Go in a record store shortly thereafter, I flipped over the CD to find a photo of Armstrong, one hand resting atop a classic muscle car, the other extending a chipped-black-polished middle finger to the camera, a lopsided Skeletor grin across his face. This was maybe the coolest photo I’d ever seen.
I don’t remember what I expected Let’s Go to sound like, but it turned out to be exactly what I wanted it to sound like, whether I knew it or not. Let’s Go had no indie rock obliqueness to it; it had no desire to prove that it was smarter than you. Instead, it hammered you with hooks, one after another after another. There’s not much tonal variation on Let’s Go; that’s a trick the band would pick up later. They’d score their real radio breakthrough a few years later with “Time Bomb,” a straight-up ska song, but there’s no ska on Let’s Go. Instead, each song is a rocketship, vrooming between choruses with amped-up sugar-fried impatience, unable to wait to get from one peak to the next. The songs were too catchy and finely structured to qualify as basement-amateur blasts, and especially in Freeman’s frantically ping-ponging rockabilly basslines, they had a serious musicianship that was impossible to overlook. I remember reading one review that compared the band’s style to bluegrass, and with all the careening precision at work, that comparison makes more sense than it should. But there was also a sort of campfire-singalong aspect to what they were doing: They wanted you to be able to howl along by the second chorus, and they more or less made it impossible to not do that.
That urgent ebullience went a long way toward making being a punk sound like a really, really fun thing to do with your life, but all the songcraft in the world didn’t have the same impact as Tim Armstrong’s voice. That voice is a sort of weaving broken-toothed slur, a knocked-sidways wino-trickster Bugs Bunny thing, the voice of a guy who would charm you into giving him $10 if you both happened to be in a bus station in the middle of the night. Even in his early ’20s in Operation Ivy, Armstrong sounded impossibly grizzled; he had that same old-before-his-time broken-but-strong quality that Shane Macgowan emanated, like whiskey stink from pores, on those first few Pogues albums. One album later, Fredricksen would ascend to co-frontman status, but on Let’s Go, the focus was clearly on Armstrong, and Fredricksen’s relatively un-ravaged vocals mostly served as a palate cleanser. (I always wished Freeman, with his amazing lumberjack growl, sang more than a couple of songs per album; his lead vocal on the Let’s Go song “Black & Blue” was so badass.)
Armstrong sang about workers’ struggles and economic inequality, but most of the time, that stuff hung in the background, waiting to be discovered. His more immediate concerns were detailed everyday things, songs about skulking through rich neighborhoods or even-more-hard-luck girls ripping him off. “Sidekick” is about Armstrong dreaming that he’s friends with Wolverine, that he’s helping Wolverine kill all the cops who busted up a squat. (It’s about comic-book superheros and killing cops; I can’t overstate how much this impressed 14-year-old me.) “The Ballad Of Jimmy & Johnny,” meanwhile, makes it sound impossibly exciting to have skinhead friends who fight too often, even though it’s really about how much of a pain in the ass those friends can be, and even though I’d learn how much of a pain in the ass it was soon enough, when I got my own skinhead friends who fought too much. Whatever he was singing about, Armstrong carried himself with an overwhelming sense of confidence, and that confidence meant all the more when you could hear the cragginess in his voice and feel safe knowing that, whatever bullshit you’d been through, Armstrong had been through worse.
Here’s something that didn’t occur to me until much, much later: Armstrong was, and is, a rapper. He damn sure wasn’t a singer; that voice had William Hung range. And the way he crammed sing-song cadences into way-too-fast music isn’t much different from the way a rapper would do it. But what made Armstrong a rapper was less his actual vocal delivery and more his sense of attitude, his beaten-down-but-unfazed sense of self. He radiated that sense of authority, of being able to live large in squalor, of laughing in the face of oppression. He knew he was, at all times, the coolest motherfucker in the room, and knowing that was enough to let him be that. Look at that “Salvation” video again: That’s a rap video, complete with its fisheye-lens video and its goofy badly-acted running-from-the-cops plotline. Armstrong didn’t look like a rock singer. In all matters unrelated to skin pigment or fashion sense, he looked like T.I. Years later, Armstrong would make that connection way more apparent when he started the sometimes-great, sometimes-terrible punk-rap side project the Transplants. And for a second at this year’s SXSW, I just about had a coronary when I thought I saw Armstrong wandering around in Yelawolf’s entourage. Turned out to just be some other bald white guy with tattoos on his scalp.
That confidence, in retrospect, is probably why Rancid immediately became my favorite band, which they still are today even though they haven’t made an album in years. It’s why Let’s Go holds up better today than anything Rancid’s peers were making at the time, or any of the pop-punk albums that would conquer radio in its immediate wake. I can’t call the album a timeless classic or anything; my own personal situation, my memories, are way too tied up in it for me to judge it on that front. But I can say that, if Let’s Go hadn’t entered my life when it did, I would’ve been out of motherfucking luck. I was searching for something that summer, and Let’s Go turned out to be that something. Now, let’s watch a couple of videos.