Every weekend they make the pilgrimage: Hundreds of primarily teenage punks, all dropping in to pay their respects to 924 Gilman Street, an all-ages, cooperatively run club that morphed from a simple warehouse to the undisputed mecca of Bay Area punk rock. It's a place where anything goes, apart from a few simple rules: No drugs or alcohol. No stage diving. No violence. No racist, sexist, or homophobic crap. And no major-label acts.
The do-it-yourself club has spawned countless imitators and still draws touring bands from all over the globe. But its legendary status arose mainly from who used to play there during the late-'80s-to-mid-'90s East Bay punk renaissance -- and probably will never play there again.
Gilman's spawn included several vastly influential punk bands, most notably Crimpshrine, Operation Ivy, Green Day, AFI, and Rancid. Of these bands, only the last three still exist, and all have outgrown their scrappy roots. Green Day and AFI eventually held their breath and jumped into the shark pool of corporate music with great success. Rancid was another story. All four members -- singer/guitarists Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen, bassist Matt Freeman, and drummer Brett Reed -- were born, raised, and trained at 924 Gilman Street, both musically and ideologically. The band crafted its entire identity around the club's DIY, indie-for-life ethos -- ranting about the mainstream and promising fans on many an occasion that it would never commit the mortal punk sin of "selling out."
Right about now, some angry fifteen-year-old somewhere is undoubtedly ripping the Rancid patch off his studded black leather jacket.
Yes, Rancid has signed to a major. The band's sixth full-length album, Indestructible, bears the Warner Bros. logo -- or rather, it doesn't, which may indicate something about the band's insecurities. True, it could be a simple, if unprecedented, oversight. But some industry watchers suspect the logo's absence was a deliberate move to help the band save face among its more anticorporate fans. Regardless, neither Warner Bros. nor the bandmembers themselves are willing to explain it.
Rancid is slated to play the Bay Area Thursday night as part of its monthlong tour to support Indestructible. But the band won't be playing Gilman Street, but rather the Warfield in San Francisco. Though the distance between the clubs is only about twelve miles, for Rancid it measures the span of a career -- from down-and-out street punks to major-label rock stars.
Gilman kids may use the dreaded phrase "selling out" to describe an indie band's jump to the mainstream, but evoking it in Rancid's case is pretty disingenuous. The term is essentially bogus, a black-and-white generalization that newly minted punks cling to without acknowledging the nuance, complexity, and reality of trying to form and maintain a successful band, and make a reasonable living, playing the music you love. Rancid's contract with Warner Bros. shouldn't really surprise or offend anyone. What is suspect, however, is the band's apparent refusal to stand up for its own decision. Instead, it seems inclined to avoid it, play it down, even cover it up. Sellouts? Not really. Hypocrites? Now you're talkin'.
"Don't ask me about Rancid," sighs Hilary Okun, a member of Epitaph Records' PR staff, before she's even asked. Because everyone asks. In fact, Okun says that employees at the Los Angeles-based label, home to Rancid's first five full-length releases, had earlier been instructed not to discuss the band and its new record.
"It's kind of something we just don't talk about," she says. "It's a big, sad gulp in our throats."
Formed in 1980 by Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz, Epitaph remains one of the most successful labels in punk history, largely because of two specific bands: Orange County pranksters the Offspring, whose 1994 album Smash reached meteoric heights eclipsed only by Green Day, and Rancid. The glory has undoubtedly cost the label some cred. Though technically an independent, Epitaph boasts the sales, distribution, and influence of a major. At the very least, the pipeline is open -- the Offspring left Epitaph two years after Smash and joined Columbia's roster. Gurewitz' own Bad Religion left Epitaph for a brief stint on Atlantic before returning. After plugging into the "neo-garage" movement with the Hives' Veni Vidi Vicious, Epitaph signed the Swedish rockers to a distribution deal with Sire Records, a Warner Bros. subsidiary that gave the Hives greater visibility and promotion than Epitaph could provide or afford. Just this summer, Epitaph's most successful new band, the Distillers, fled for Warner Bros. as well.
But when rumors about Rancid jumping ship to a major began swirling on the Internet in early June, fans greeted them with extreme skepticism. If Rancid were just one of the thousands of bands begging for a deal at the gates of a record label in New York or Los Angeles, the signing wouldn't matter. But Rancid's legacy is much bigger than that, and its status as an "independent" act far more important.
Rancid formed in September 1991, releasing its first seven-inch on Berkeley indie label Lookout!, and unveiling its self-titled debut -- the first of five full-length records spanning more than a decade -- on Epitaph. Following the pop-punk boom that exploded with the unimaginable multiplatinum success of Green Day and the Offspring, Rancid also caught a tidal wave of success with 1994's Let's Go and the following year's ...And Out Come the Wolves. MTV made hit video singles out of the songs "Salvation," "Time Bomb," and "Ruby Soho." Meanwhile, vastly influential LA radio station KROQ dropped those tunes into daily rotation, compelling hundreds of stations nationwide to follow suit. All told, Let's Go and Wolves sold more than a million and a half copies -- not bad for a young band on a rebellious indie label.
Thus, Rancid reportedly entertained several multimillion-dollar recording contracts with majors in the mid-'90s, including Maverick (Madonna's label) and Epic. Along with the offers came scores of rumors as well: Rancid allegedly convinced an Epic A&R man to shave his head into a dyed-blue Mohawk, and Madonna reportedly sweetened the pot with naked pictures of herself. But regardless of what the labels specifically offered, Rancid ultimately turned down everything and stuck with Epitaph.