Ska punk’s sublime purveyors
Had he not died of a heroin overdose in 1996, Bradley Nowell would have turned 50 later this month. Nowell who? That is an understandable reaction. Nowell fronted Sublime, a Southern California (SoCal) band that started in the late 1980s as part of the then rising garage punk genre, and soon acquired a cult-like following among fans who loved the way they fused elements of punk and garage rock with ska and reggae. Initially, Sublime’s fans were California’s surfers and skaters, who then made up a sizeable community in SoCal, but soon their popularity grew among others as well. Their shows were unruly and boisterous—an early gig is said to have sparked off a mini riot—yet their fans loved them.
But critics, especially the purists among them, didn’t. White musicians who try to appropriate Jamaican genres such as ska, reggae and dub, often meet with scepticism and Sublime were no exception. They began by playing at small venues where audiences were loyal but hardly numerous. It took time for the band to get mainstream attention and by the time they did, with the release of their third self-titled album in 1996, lead singer Nowell, who had been part of that recording, was dead and the band’s life was over. Yet, more than 20 years later, Sublime’s legacy lives on, albeit among a niche of diehard aficionados who thrive on intermittent releases of live recordings, compilations, and at least one tribute album on which musicians from genres as diverse as hip hop, funk, indie and Latin music, have contributed.
So what is it about a nearly forgotten trio (Nowell sang and played guitar; Eric Wilson was on bass; and Bud Gaugh on drums) that merits rediscovery? For a quick answer, sample some of their music. While their self-titled 1996 album may have won them radio play and good reviews, I would recommend starting with their debut album from 1992, 40oz. To Freedom. On the 23 songs, most of them short ones, the band demonstrates its trademark ability to blend ska beats with punk rock style guitar riffs and Nowell’s striking and versatile vocals. There are six covers of songs by other bands on the album. Among them are versions of 54-46 (That’s My Number) by Jamaica’s Toots & the Maytals; We’re Only Gonna Die by punk rockers Bad Religion; and Hope by another punk rock band, the Descendants. But there’s also Grateful Dead’s song, Scarlet Begonias, originally a tender song about a silent encounter with a beautiful woman with rings on her fingers, bells on her toes, and begonias tucked in her hair who passes by on the street, but which Sublime take, eviscerate and remake into a ska-reggae version that would jolt the purists.
Sublime’s version of Scarlet Begonias begins innocuously. But after sticking to the first couple of original verses, the lyrics take a crazy detour: It’s the Summer of Love and the protagonist sells off all his property, buys a microbus, and, together with the woman with the scarlet begonias, sets off on a wild journey selling mushroom tea, ecstasy, nitrous oxide, opium, acid, heroin and PCP (a drug aka phencyclidine). The song ends with the police coming after them. It’s that kind of anarchic irreverence which Sublime’s songs frequently exude. That’s also what possibly puts off mainstream reviewers and critics. Some of them have found the lyrics of Sublime’s songs such as Date Rape, a single from their debut album which got a lot of radio play, to be lacking in depth and trivializing serious matters. Others have detected hints of homophobia in Sublime’s lyrics and accused Nowell of frat-boy sensibilities.
Still, Sublime’s live performances drew loyal audiences that were undeterred by the fact that their gigs were usually unruly, rowdy affairs that occasionally turned violent. But this did not take away from the fact that Nowell was a brilliant guitarist and talented singer and Sublime were able to easily boost the adrenalin and rip up the spirit at any venue that they played. The band’s mascot, a pet Dalmatian named Lou Dog, would generally be present at gigs and can frequently be heard on recordings, adding his bit to the band’s ska-punk pastiche.
Sublime enjoyed a brief period of mainstream success, radio play and brisk record sales. Their third album went on to sell nearly five million copies on the back of songs such as Santeria and What I Got, which became big hits.
After his death, Nowell’s lyrics attracted fresh scrutiny. Some of them were sad and confessional and referred to his losing battle with addiction. Pool Shark, from their second album, Robbin’ The Hood, is widely believed to be a kind of suicide note in which he predicts that he will lose the war against drugs.
Yet Sublime are a fun band to listen to. Their upbeat music and irreverent lyrics can be mood-lifters. And in the niche genre of ska-punk, which witnessed its best years in the 1990s, their music influenced other bands such as No Doubt and Goldfinger. Post-Nowell, the remaining members of Sublime tried to form new bands, including the Long Beach Dub Allstars, and also enlisted a new singer, but none of these were big successes. Sublime’s three studio albums remain at the forefront of ska-punk and for anyone who wants to rewind the decades and go back to that genre’s anarchic peak years, they’re essential on a playlist.
The lounge list
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘Pool Shark’ by Sublime from ‘Robbin’ The Hood’
2. ‘Scarlet Begonias’ by Sublime from ‘40oz. To Freedom’
3. ‘Santeria’ by Sublime from ‘Sublime’
4. ‘Smoke Two Joints’ by Sublime from ‘40oz. To Freedom’
5. ‘Rivers Of Babylon’ from ‘Sublime Acoustic: Bradley Nowell & Friends’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets @sanjoynarayan