The day Rancid released their third album …And Out Come The Wolves — 20 years ago tomorrow — I was on vacation with my family, staying in a rented house in North Carolina. That day, I begged my mom to drive me around until we found a store that was selling the album. I think I finally found it in a small electronics store with an even smaller CD section. And for the next five or so days, I had no way of listening to it. There was no CD player in the rented house and none in our minivan. Didn’t matter. I had to have it right away. Instead of listening to it, I spent the next few days obsessively studying the CD booklet — reading the lyrics again and again, combing through the names of the bands in the thank-you list, internalizing the image of Lars Fredrickson on those stairs in the Alec MacKaye-on-the-Minor Threat-cover pose. I came up with my own ideas of how the songs might sound based on what little information I found in that booklet: “‘Junkie Man’ has a Jim Carroll poem and DJ scratches! That sounds crazy!” And when my family finally made it home to suburban Baltimore at the end of the week, I zipped straight from the van into my room and played the album over and over. The version of the album that had existed in my head was not an easy thing to live up to. The version of the album that existed in reality was better.
I wouldn’t have bugged out that hard for a new album from any other band. I wouldn’t have needed to have possession of the thing for days before I had any way of hearing it. But I think my 15-year-old self sensed something about the moment: That was it for Rancid. It was their time. And I think Rancid sensed the same thing. The year before, Rancid had blown up in sort of a minor, low-key way — riding to cult stardom in the wake of their friends in Green Day and the Offspring, who’d found actual stardom. Just as grunge was fading, these scabby California punk kids had stormed alt-rock radio, bringing ferocious hooks and bouncy rocketship tempos, capturing millions of teenagers’ imaginations. Rancid came along looking like their scuzzier, more dangerous cousins. They wore gutterpunk uniforms — mohawks, tattooed necks and fingers, torn-up Agnostic Front shirts, menacing dirtbag grins. They played faster and rougher. And while Rancid’s songs, “Salvation” in particular, sometimes made it onto the radio, they never had anything like the heavy rotation of those other two bands. Let’s Go, the album that Rancid had released in 1994, was a huge album for a bunch of squat-house veterans who’d presumably never imagined coming within spitting distance of mainstream success. But it wasn’t an omnipresent part of the culture. And to the kids like me who did find it, it felt like we’d stumbled across something powerful and forbidden. Rancid weren’t just a band; they were emissaries from an underground society. And as such, they changed a whole lot of lives, including mine.
Rancid were a thing in 1995, and …And Out Come The Wolves was their first album since becoming a thing. In making that album, they had to figure a lot of things out. They had to figure out what to do with the fact that they were now the face of punk rock for a lot of impressionable kids like me. They had to figure out what to do with the idea that bigtime success was there for them if they wanted it. They had to figure out if they did want it. They had to figure out whether being a punk and being a star were mutually exclusive. They had to figure out what to do with all those businessmen, coming to shake their hands, showing them numbers that they understood. That sort of pressure could destroy a lot of bands. In fact, Operation Ivy, the band that Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman were in before Rancid, was destroyed by a whole lot less than that. Op Ivy were a massively influential band, the band that more or less invented what American ska-punk would sound for decades after. They released one album and toured the country in a car (not even a van) once. And that was it. That was too much for them. Armstrong sings about it on the Wolves song “Journey To The End Of The East Bay”: “Too much attention unavoidably destroyed us.” If that was too much attention, then what the fuck were Rancid facing in 1995? The level of scrutiny they faced — from their own underground, as well as from outside — could’ve easily splintered the band. Instead, they stepped the fuck up and made the album of their lives.
Rancid knew people were listening now, and you can hear that in the choices that they made on Wolves. Let’s Go was a glorious careening pileup of an album, one 90-second song crashing headlong into the next. There were hooks for days, but everything was so fast that new fans like me had to acclimate to the speed. Wolves is slower and slicker and more focused. It’s still fast — 19 songs rocket by in 50 minutes — but they give their songs a little more structure and the hooks a little more room to breathe. There’s a real sheen on the production. The band co-produced the album with Jerry Finn, who’d mixed two Green Day albums (including Dookie) and who’d just produced one for Rancid’s relatively cleaned-up labelmates Pennywise. (In retrospect, it’s sort of weird that Pennywise never blew up the way those other bands did. They were basically already jocks! Jocks would’ve loved them!) Later on, Finn would become a go-to pop-punk producer, working for Blink-182 and Sum 41, and you can bet that the work he did on Wolves helped him get those jobs. Rancid got a mixing job from Andy Wallace, who’d done the same job on Nirvana’s Nevermind and Rage Against The Machine’s self-titled debut. He knew how to make hard bands sound big and clean and radio-ready. Wolves gleamed, but it never sounded overproduced. Instead, the band’s attack was thicker and fuller.
Rancid also took a bit of a risk when they reintroduced ska into their sound, something they’d previously only done on the great B-side “I Wanna Riot.” Armstrong and Freeman had done it before, of course, but this wasn’t the hectic, jerky ska-punk of of Operation Ivy. Instead, the ska songs on Wolves are sweet, full-bodied things. The organ on those songs just glowed with warmth, and they never rushed the tempos. One of those songs, “Time Bomb,” turned out to be the band’s first real hit, and maybe their biggest, too. But “Time Bomb” wasn’t just Rancid’s first big hit. It was the first real success for American third-wave ska, a scene that had been doing just fine for itself on alt-rock’s periphery. Before “Time Bomb,” ska’s biggest ’90s pop-culture moments were the Mighty Mighty Bosstones opening up the Lollapalooza ’95 main stage and making a cameo in Clueless. “Time Bomb” resonated in a way that nothing else had, though, and it opened up the door for a lot of things — some good, many bad. A whole lot of people owe Rancid for that: No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, Goldfinger, the Suicide Machines, the surviving members of Sublime, the entire Moon Records roster, bomber jacket and newsboy cap manufacturers, Vespa dealers, high-school marching-band trombone nerds who were suddenly being invited to join punk bands. In fact, thanks to “Time Bomb,” it’s easy to hear Wolves as something similar to that first Rage Against The Machine album: A great thing that blew the door open for a whole lot of terrible things.
But it’s a whole lot more than that. Wolves mattered on a deeper level, and it mattered for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s so fucking good. I can’t overstate this enough. Nobody released a better album of straight-up, down the middle punk rock in the ’90s. (It’s possible that Rancid themselves released a better album, but Life Won’t Wait, the album that followed Wolves wasn’t straight-up, down-the-middle punk rock.) The band didn’t waste any time in making Wolves; it came out just over a year after Let’s Go. But they didn’t rush it, and they didn’t halfass it. Instead, they let the momentum of the moment carry themselves to something larger.
There’s not a single bad song on Wolves, and the album doesn’t even flag as it gets toward the end. Late-album songs like “As Wicked” and “Avenues And Alleyways” are among the greatest, fiercest, most anthemic things the band ever wrote. And the confidence of this band is just staggering. The same guy whose band broke up because it couldn’t handle the pressure of a shitty nationwide punk-house tour was now belting out these songs that felt absolutely universal and vast in scope. The songs on Wolves sound bigger and cleaner than the ones on Let’s Go, but they sound more quintessentially punk, too. Every song is a singalong. Scratch that: Every song is a shoutalong, a song to grab your friend and bellow the lyrics directly into his or her face.
The Rancid of Wolves sounded larger than life. They’d learned dynamics and drama, when to let the drums give way to handclaps and when to let the drums come booming back in, where the ahh-ahh backing vocals go, when to go with na-na-na and when to go with oi-oi-oi. And as musicians, they were on fire, too; Matt Freeman’s bass solo on opener “Maxwell Murder” was just an astonishment. Tim Armstrong’s voice, a broken and loopy and slurry thing — meant that the band could never fully join the ranks of the radio-ready punk bands; it was so weathered and beat up that what he was doing could only charitably be described as “singing.” But Fredricksen, who was still new to the band, stepped into the co-leader role in a big way, and his ragged triumphant howl made a great contrast to Armstrong’s passed-out-on-the-floor gurgle.
All of this mattered — the songs, the production, the image, the history. But I think the real reason Rancid struck a chord with me and with people like me is that their whole thing was about being proud. It was about standing up for yourself and for your friends. This was a moment when virtually all popular guitar music was about self-pity, self-hatred, self-disgust. Nirvana, of course, cast a tremendous shadow over the entire universe, and the stars that rose in their wake were all depressive grumps. That whole self-laceration thing was about as widespread as it could be; it extended, to various degrees, to Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails and Tool and the Smashing Pumpkins and Hole and Soul Asylum and even Green Day and the Offspring. It didn’t extend to Rancid. Rancid spoke in big, vague, sweeping statements: “Give ‘em the boot,” “I’m a battering ram coming through to you,” “destination unknown.” They sang about hard times and heartache, but those were things to overcome. And they sang about specific things, depicting scenes as concretely as possible and conjuring whole worlds in the process. I’d never taken the 60 bus out of downtown Campbell, and I didn’t know who Ben Zanato was, but the scene in “Roots Radicals” still sounded like a cool place to be, and I had my own mental image of it. In that way, they took hyper-specific local details and made them read universal. These were things that rappers had been doing for a long time, but Rancid are still one of the only rock bands to figure out how to project that sense of pride. And as a 15-year-old who didn’t know where to go and who was going through tough times at home, it was exactly what I needed to see.
A few months after Wolves came out, I saw Rancid at D.C.’s Capitol Ballroom, a cavernous concrete building that still ranks as the coolest-looking club I’ve ever been inside. It had all these different dark rooms, all these things projected on the walls. I think there may have been a DJ tucked into a side room playing ska all night, but I might also be thinking of the NOFX show I saw at the same venue a few months later. I went by myself, since none of my close friends could go. But there were all these people I knew there a little bit, people I’d seen at parties around Baltimore. Some would go on to become really good friends. The Lunachicks opened, and they were pretty bad, but I tried hard to like them anyway. I asked a really cute punk girl in the line outside for a cigarette, but she was on her last one. Later when I was inside the venue, someone passed me a beer and said it was from that girl over there — the one who didn’t have a cigarette for me but who wanted to do something nice for me anyway. I had no idea how to react, pretty much just offering an awkward shuffling “um, thanks” and then going back to the people I already knew. (What the fuck was wrong with me?) When Rancid came onstage, we didn’t get that whole ritual of lights going down, house music stopping, entrance music starting. Or at least, that’s not how I remember it. I remember them running onstage, with no warning, and suddenly launching into “Roots Radicals” before saying a word to the crowd. By the time Fredricksen got to the second line of the song, everyone in the venue was singing along. That was a visceral, important moment in my life. That was a moment when I felt like I belonged. There hadn’t been that many moments like that before Rancid. There would be a whole lot more after.