One Step Beyond: How Rancid, Sublime, No Doubt and a generation of US ska-punks spread the Two Tone gospel to the world

Rancid's Tim Armstrong, No Doubt's Gwen Stefani, Sublime's Bradley Nowell
(Image credit: Tim Armstrong and Gwen Stefani - both Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images / Bradley Nowell - Steve Eichner/Getty Images)

Record launches aren’t meant to also be farewell shows, but Operation Ivy didn’t do what other bands did. And so, on May 29, 1989 at famed Berkley punk mecca 924 Gilman Street, the forefathers of modern ska punk released their debut album, Energy, and split up that same evening.

In a late 1980s scene dominated by thrash and hair metal, Operation Ivy had shown up playing a pissed-off mixture of punk and ska. It was a gamble - they were regularly heckled by crowds early on – but Gilman Street was the perfect hothouse for this unlikely fusion of sounds.

“It was a great climate to be creative and do some cool shit,” Operation Ivy guitarist and future Rancid frontman Tim ‘Lint’ Armstrong recalled. “Gilman was a climate where you could play punk rock and ska and not get moshed on.”

It was indeed, and something about what they were doing struck a chord with people. Early 80s British 2-Tone filtered through contemporary California punk had ended up turning Op Ivy into California punk’s most exciting underground band – and one of its hardest working. They played show after show after show, touring in a beaten-up 1969 Chrysler Newport, surviving on cheese sandwiches and sleeping on floors.

But recording Energy was too much, and they went out in a blaze of glory at their home-from-home, two years to the month since they got together. That night, the 300-capacity Gilman Street was sold out four times over as the Bay Area punk crowd gathered to say farewell to their heroes. There would be one more private show in a friend’s garden, but that was it. Operation Ivy had come and gone, and the world hadn’t noticed. But, without meaning to, they’d started a revolution.

Ska has had three separate phases. It started in Jamaica in the late 1950s, mixing elements of Caribbean and American music together. Exported to the UK by Caribbean emigrés, by the late 70s it morphed into 2 Tone, taking on elements of punk and directly addressing the politics of the time – racial inequality, civil unrest and general downtroddenness. Then in the 90s, across the Atlantic in the US, came the third wave: ska punk.

Dicky Barrett, frontman with ska punk linchpins The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, has a theory that ska pops up in troubled times. “I think ska is some sort of a musical super hero,” he told Punk News. “When people need to feel good, it seems to show up at just the right time. I think that whatever was going on in Jamaica in the 50s, with all the turmoil, it needed ska then. And it needed it in Margaret Thatcher’s England and we need it now. Do the math – when people are feeling down, they want to feel good. Ska is the thinking man’s way of enjoying himself.”

When Operation Ivy’s Tim Armstrong formed Rancid in 1991, one of their founding principles was: “We don’t play ska.” They stuck to it on 1992’s self-titled, straight-up-punk debut, but ska was very much present on 1994 follow-up Let’s Go. Punk had replaced grunge as the next big thing thanks to Green Day and The Offspring, and Rancid found themselves being courted by Madonna’s label, Maverick. Instead, they stayed where they were, on punk label Epitaph.

“Ultimately, we decided it would dumb not to stay with [Epitaph owner and Bad Religion guitarist] Brett Gurewitz, a real record guy, a punk rock record guy,” Armstrong later recalled. “Madonna’s cool, but she’s an international superstar. She’s not a punk rock record guy.”

Rancid’s decision was borne out when their third album, 1995’s …And Out Come The Wolves, sold more than a million copies. More than half a decade after Operation Ivy’s demise, there was money to be made in ska punk.

While Operation Ivy were burning themselves out, 400 miles down the coast, ska was being reinvented in a different way. Formed in Long Beach in 1988, Sublime were a band that brought a party with them wherever they went. Where the Berkeley scene was filled with angry men in leather jackets, Sublime were sunsoaked beach bums in wraparound shades who filtered the sound of Jamaican ska through the Californian sunshine.

The trio of singer and guitarist Bradley Nowell, drummer Bud Gaugh and bassist Eric Wilson – plus their constant companion, Nowell’s dalmatian Lou Dog – had a good thing going, partying up and down the Southern California coast and getting paid for it. They played raucous shows at house parties with hundreds of people that inevitably got out of control, resulting in the police showing up pretty much every time.

Despite the popularity of a surfy, summery, stoned sound that combined ska with punk and hip-hop influences, Sublime couldn’t convince record labels to sign them – so they began their own, Skunk Records. Their 1992 debut album, 40oz. To Freedom, was partly recorded by breaking into the studio at night and using the equipment for free. When the bluntly-titled anti-abuse song Date Rape belatedly became a radio hit a full three years later after being picked up by tastemaking LA radio station KROQ, MCA signed Sublime (in the interim, they had released the messily experimental Robbin’ The Hood, featuring guest vocals on one track from Gwen Stefani, singer with then unknown Orange County ska punks No Doubt).

Signing to a major label and booking a co-headlining slot on the first Warped Tour did nothing to calm Sublime down. Bud Gaugh later told Time magazine how they got booted from the tour: “Basically, our daily regimen was wake up, drink, drink more, play, and then drink a lot more. We’d call people names. Nobody got our sense of humour. Then we brought the dog out and he bit a few skaters, and that was the last straw.”

But it was Bradley Nowell’s drug use that was really out of hand – what started as a dabble with heroin, a drug he perceived as having a kind of rock’n’roll romanticism to it, had spiralled into a fullon addiction. Recording their self-titled major-label debut, the singer’s partying was getting out of control. Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary, who produced the album, told Rolling Stone: “There were times where someone had to go into the bathroom to see if Brad was still alive.”

“He got this elitist attitude because he was a junkie,” Bradley’s wife, Troy, later told Spin. “He always used to say, ‘You guys don’t understand because you don’t do heroin.’ A lot of junkies are like that. They think they’re doing the most hardcore thing, sticking needles in their arm. We could say anything – ‘We understand what you’re going through’ – but we really don’t, and they know that. They like that.”

Nowell tried to quit after the birth of his son Jakob, but relapsed every time. He died of an overdose on May 25, 1996, his body found by his hungover bandmates. He was 28. He’d got married just one week earlier, and Sublime’s self-titled album was still two months away from release.

On the back of singles such as What I Got, Doin’ Time, Santeria and Wrong, the album became a massive hit, shifting six million copies but leaving behind countless unanswered questions about what might have been. Where would Nowell be today if he’d beaten his demons? Still hanging out in a van with his dog? Or would he be a huge star? That’s what happened to one of his friends, after all.

No Doubt formed in Anaheim, California in 1986, setting out to treat their sun-soaked Californian surroundings how their beloved Madness treated Camden Town.

“When I discovered ska music in the late 70s, it was all about unity and antiracism, good skinheads and bad skinheads,” Gwen Stefani told Stereogum. “We were trying to imitate this other generation and they were so vocal about their message. We heard that.”

After their 1992 self-titled debut album came out, the band were assured by an executive from LA’s KROQ that it would take “an act of God” for No Doubt to be played on the radio. While the world was embracing grunge, they were making cartoony ska-pop. Their followup, The Beacon Street Collection, was named after the location of the house the band shared. However, as the process of creating a third album began, the band started to fall apart. Keyboardist Eric Stefani, Gwen’s older brother, had always been the leading creative force in the band, but had a crisis of confidence when asked to collaborate with others, and left to pursue a career in animation. Meanwhile, the relationship between Gwen Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal was coming to an end.

Gwen began writing lyrics, something she had never done before, and looked to her own life for inspiration – the way her parents treated her differently to Eric due to her gender, her former relationship with Kanal, and more. The resulting songs – including Just A Girl, Spiderwebs, Sunday Morning and Don’t Speak – led to Tragic Kingdom, the title a pun on the shadow of Disneyland the band had grown up in. It was one of the most successful albums of the decade, leading to a stratospheric rise to global fame.

In August 1995, on the first ever Warped Tour – the same one Sublime’s dog was biting skaters at – No Doubt were billed tenth, their name printed smaller than the proclamation that the festival would feature a “huge climbing wall”. One month later, Just A Girl came out, equal parts poppy and angry, impossibly catchy and unapologetically livid. Stefani began bombarding radio stations with phone calls, calling KROQ a hundred times a day, but it soon became clear that doing so wasn’t necessary as the song was an immediate hit. A month after that, the album dropped, going on to sell a staggering 16 million units.

The tour promoting Tragic Kingdom ended up circling the globe three times, playing larger and larger venues as the band’s fame grew. They were meant to be on tour for two months, but it ended up lasting two and a half years. Don’t Speak, which detailed Stefani and Kanal’s breakup, became the most-played song of 1996 on US radio and a crossover hit, its catchy anguish appealing to every demographic. While not in itself a ska song, its runaway success sparked massive interest in the scene the band had come out of. No Doubt were certified megastars, and surely there were more in the making.

No Doubt’s explosion led to a gold rush, with labels clamouring to sign ska punk bands, confident the hits would come. Save Ferris told Billboard their signing was a direct result of Stefani and co’s success, with guitarist Brian Mashburn saying, “I’d be kidding myself to think we got here all by ourselves.”

And the hits did come. Reel Big Fish, fronted by bequiffed, sharp-sideburned Aaron Barrett, enjoyed a bona-fide chart hit with the 1996 single Sell Out. “When Sell Out came out, that was like in the movies,” Barrett recalled in a documentary about the ska punk scene, Pick It Up! Ska Punk In The ’90s. “They do a montage of playing a small show and then they get bigger and bigger and then they pan up the charts, going to Number One.”

Reel Big Fish did make an appearance in South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s cult 1998 comedy BASEketball, performing a cover of A-Ha’s Take On Me and their best song, the phenomenally good Beer. Nonetheless, their brush with chart success cast quite a shadow over their subsequent career, sometimes dealt with jokingly (as with the compilation album Greatest Hit… And More) and sometimes with a feeling of real bitterness. On their fifth album, a cover of Morrissey’s We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful has an extra line inserted: “Especially if you’re No Doubt – that makes it so much worse”.

The other properly giant hit was The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ The Impression That I Get, which hit the Number One spot on the Billboard Modern Rock chart in 1997, 14 years into the Bostonian nine-piece’s career. That same year, some bands started questioning how sustainable the ska punk explosion was. Less Than Jake drummer/ lyricist Vinnie Fiorello told Billboard: “Labels start signing copycat bands, and fans say, ‘Not another girl that sounds like Gwen. Not another guy with green hair and a suit. Not more guys jumping on crowds during horn solos.’”

LTJ themselves were frequently accompanied on stage by Skullman, a tuxedoed dancer in a rubber mask. According to guitarist Chris Demakes, retiring Skullman was a practical decision after he gained some weight – struggling to get into the tuxedo was one thing, but then on a particularly hot Warped Tour day the less-bony-than-before Skullman “passed out and nearly died”.

Ska punk was an integral part of the mammoth touring festival, and Less Than Jake played the Warped Tour a record 13 times. Reel Big Fish managed 11. Bands like Mad Caddies, Dance Hall Crashers, Voodoo Glow Skulls, Suicide Machines, Save Ferris and the Aquabats – the latter a superhero-themed family-friendly eightpiece who counted a pre-fame Travis Barker in their number – were mainstays. The idea a lot of people have of what a ska punk band is – a too-large group playing fairly samey, trombone-heavy songs and ironic cover versions to a parking lot of fans in identical checkerboard Vans – came out of Warped Tours featuring, well, bands exactly like that.

Beyond the juggernaut that was Warped, one of the biggest platforms in making ska punk huge ended up being video games. Skate legend Tony Hawk inadvertently gave the genre a huge leg-up via the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game series. The games’ soundtracks were more diverse in terms of genre than the collective memory has decided, featuring hip-hop, metal and classic punk but their ska punk tunes are the ones that have become most associated with the franchise. Goldfinger’s singalong anthem Superman is the unofficial theme tune to the whole series.

“It would never be the song it is today without Tony Hawk’s help,” Goldfinger frontman John Feldmann told Loudwire in 2020. “I don’t know if it was a marketing person who suggested that Goldfinger was having success and you should put them in your game or if he just really gravitated toward the song. I’ve never met Tony, but I’m really grateful that he chose us to put in his game.”

By the first few years few years of this century, the ska punk bubble had burst. There was never a point when touring in a nine-piece band was economically viable, and the novelty value of a ska cover of a pop classic just wore off over time, as pretty much every signed ska punk band jumped on that bandwagon – Save Ferris doing Come On Eileen, Goldfinger doing 99 Luftballons, Less Than Jake covering the Grease soundtrack… Everyone got the joke.

At the same time, the music on the Warped Tour diversified, with hip-hop and metalcore featuring heavily. Nu-metal and pop-punk bands sold in the millions. The big ska punk names continued to tour almost constantly, but no new bands seemed able to break into that small group – or maybe the bands ambitious enough to do so were ambitious enough to play something other than ska punk. Either way, the glory days of ska punk were over. Dust gathered on trombones and moths feasted on checkered Vans. But ska punk’s lifers play on.

“We love our songs,” says Less Than Jake’s Lima. “We love playing our songs, we love what we do and it’s cool that there are people out there still dancing around.”

Freelance writer

Mike Rampton is an experienced London-based journalist and author, whose writing has also featured in Metro, Maude, GQ, Vice, Men's Health, Kerrang!, Mel, Gentleman's Journal, NME, and Mr Hyde. He enjoys making aggressively difficult puns, drinking on trains and pretending to be smarter than he is. He would like to own a boat one day but accepts that he probably won't.