Best Band Ever: Sublime

Today’s installment of “Best Band Ever” is the first in a weekly Clutch series highlighting bands that have come to rest on the wrong side of public opinion. Sure, they might suck. But at the same time, they might just be the greatest thing to ever happen to music.

The facts faded long ago into a puddle of malt liquor, vomit and the settled ashes from some twice-burned pot, but the best remaining guess is that seven people were arrested in the melee that broke out on July 4, 1988, on the streets of Long Beach, California.

Allegedly, a police helicopter and almost four dozen officers were called to the scene, where 400 or so revelers greeted them with Roman candles and broken bottles for breaking up the moment. The occasion? The first-ever gig for a brand-new band out of the LBC that combined funk, ska and tremendous amounts of chemicals. And that’s how Sublime introduced itself to this earth. And depending on whom you talk to, it only went downhill from there.

Sure, Sublime was great when you were growing up. As millions of teenagers were discovering that you could fake cool by listening to what was cool, Sublime was there for them. And when you needed somebody to convince you to finish that 40, Sublime was there too.

The band did go platinum more than a dozen times over, the majority of those sales after lead singer Brad Nowell died in 1996 of a heroin overdose. But after Nowell passed, the band broke up, and outside of a few songs that come up at karaoke bars and High Times board meetings, Sublime hasn’t really left much of a legacy. They were fun. They captured a moment. And they stayed there.

But it’s too easy to write off bands as artifacts–as nothing but chum for VH1 specials and ’90s radio stations to dangle in front of listeners hungry for some tasty nostalgia.

So, fresh off the band’s first release in 15 years–this time under the name “Sublime with Rome” to accommodate new guitarist/singer Rome Ramirez–we thought it was a perfect opportunity to look back on the boys from Long Beach and see if Sublime really is The Best Band Ever.

Reason No. 1: They Were Indie Before Indie Was Cool

Today, it’s never been easier to get your music out there. Granted, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace (sorta) and the internet as a whole mean that you’ve got to sort through a lot more stuff, but eventually, you’ll unearth a masterpiece like Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” But back in 1990, you pretty much had two options if you wanted to really sell records: sign on a major label or include free Crystal Pepsi with every purchase.

So when Sublime’s first effort, 40 Oz. to Freedom, was ready for the presses back in 1992, Nowell didn’t shop it around. He just released it under his own label, Skunk Records, that he’d founded with his friend Miguel Happoldt. Eventually, the big names came calling after KROQ started giving the single “Date Rape” serious play, and MCA picked up the album for a larger distribution. But not until the band spent two years selling discs out of the trunks of cars.

Reason No. 2: They Gave Us Lou Dog

Lou Dog was the unofficial mascot of the band from the moment Nowell plucked him out of a shelter in 1990.

Lou might as well have been the fourth member of the band. He’d walk around the stage during shows. He appeared on album covers. And those parts of the songs everybody shouts during sing-alongs? Lou. Lou. Lou. Remember that line about how Nowell has a dalmatian and can still get high? Or how he doesn’t cry (lies, by the way) when his dog runs away? Or how living with Lou’s the “only way to stay sane”? Same. Friggin. Dog.

Reason No. 3: They Were Moneyball Before Moneyball Existed

Back in 1992, Nirvana and the rest of the grunge movement might as well have been the Yankees. Nevermind had come out in September and then sold like Cheetos at a Phish concert until pretty much forever (it’s at almost 9 million copies worldwide right now). It even toppled Michael Jackson from the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts. Couple the success of Nevermind with established acts like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, and it was clear that grunge had taken over, sauntering into the mainstream and just kinda looking around at stuff. Sonically, nobody else really had a chance–just like how teams felt playing against the Bronx Bombers in the 2000s. But somebody had to try.

And as grunge cast a shadow over the American musical landscape, then-tiny Sublime shined a light that was equal parts the color of California blondes and bottles of Olde English. While Nirvana was talking about the total, systemic disillusionment of youth culture, Sublime was hoping that “itchy rash will go away.” While Kurt Cobain was writing stuff like”throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back,” Nowell was singing “Me gusta mi reggae, Me gusta punk rock, Pero la cosa que me gusta mas es panochita.” (Drop it into Google Translate)

Reason No. 4: They Knew Gwen Stefani First

Granted, both parties had a head start, hailing from SoCal and having a mutual interest in appealing to white people with dreadlocks. But from the time Nowell and Stefani became friends in the late ’80s until his death in 1996, they grew up together.

In early 1992, both bands were still struggling. Sublime’s first album still hadn’t quite taken off, and No Doubt had just released a self-titled album that nobody bought. But still, Nowell asked Stefani to sing with him on a track. It was called “Saw Red,” a song that eventually made it onto Sublime’s second album, Robbin’ the Hood–a pretty great song on a pretty terrible album that, allegedly, was recorded in a crack house.

Three years later No Doubt‘s Tragic Kingdom came out. And from then on it’s safe to say you knew who Gwen Stefani was.

Reason 5: They Got You Laid…And Will Still Get You Laid

Even if you weren’t the guy strumming out “Santeria” outside your freshman dorm, there’s a good chance that at some point, at some party, in some basement, you used a plastic bottle of tequila like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band used a microphone and sang “I’d spend it all” with a girl who you later came to know as Last Saturday. And for that, we owe Nowell & Co. a debt of gratitude.

This contribution might be Sublime’s crowning glory. Musicians pretty much get into the business solely to intrigue female followers. But only a select few have had the stuff that made it easier for the rest of us. Just think: He does just fine for himself, but what’s Justin Timberlake ever done for your game? Or the boys from Mumford & Sons? And don’t get us started on Gavin Rossdale.

Now, Frank Sinatra, Sublime is not. But the famous words from Gay Talese’s epic profile of Ol’ Blue Eyes aren’t completely off-base when you’re talking about the Long Beach crew: “Undoubtedly the words from his song, and others like it, had put millions in the mood, it was music to make love by…in all places where Sinatra’s songs could be heard were these words that warmed women, wooed and won them, snipped the final thread of inhibition and gratified the male egos of ungrateful lovers.”

OK, fine, that is completely off-base. But there’s something about virtually any song on Sublime, the album, that goes really well with the art of keg party seduction. Just don’t blame us when your piercings get tangled together.