Last year, Lana Del Rey released a cover of Sublime’s ‘Doin’ Time’ in a move so exciting to me (and seemingly only me) that I could barely contain myself. Sublime are hardly an underground band – their self-titled album went five times platinum. Get into any LA taxi even now – some twenty-four years after the death of the band’s lead singer, Bradley Nowell – and you only need to sit in traffic for a moment before one of their songs comes on the radio. But in the UK, they didn’t quite permeate the consciousness as they did in the US.
For a teenage, skateboard loving, SoCal culture stan, Sublime in the late 90s represented everything that London didn’t. Their mashup of reggae, ska and punk provided an antidote to the distinctly British sound that had dominated the charts for close to a decade. By the time I was into them – as is true for most of their fans – Bradley Nowell, had died from a heroin overdose, aged 28. Much like Kurt Cobain and Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, he left behind a partner and baby. In many ways, their stories are eerily similar, all three gone within two years of each other.
Nowell would never know the huge success that came with the release of Sublime’s self-titled third album, released posthumously. Its singles are the ones that are still played on Los Angeles’ KROQ FM now – the impossibly 90s ‘What I Got’, sweet-but-problematic love song ‘Santeria’ and Lana’s favourite: the ‘Summertime’-referencing, ‘Doin Time’.
Even now, when I hear these songs – and so many more from their back catalogue (‘Pool Shark’, ‘Scarlet Begonias’, ‘Romeo’…) – they take me back to a time, sitting through endless nu-metal videos on MTV2 for a rare, once-a-day glimpse of Bradley and his dalmation, Lou Dog, longboarding up the Long Beach boardwalk in the video for ‘What I Got’.
Nostalgia is a trip – but some things are best left in the past.
There has been many an instance over the last decade or so where I have tried to introduce Sublime to friends who went straight from Britpop to indie landfill with no California detour. This usually happens late at night, when playing Pass The Aux at someone’s house and typically, it goes badly. The jovial ‘Date Rape’, a comedy-cautionary tale about a man who date rapes a woman at a bar, really has not aged well. The view that some things shouldn’t be joked about seems particularly pertinent here.
Then we have ‘Mary’, a song about sex with a minor, which includes the line: “Fifteen years old plus one/ Hotter than a microwave oven“. Oh, and there’s ‘Wrong Way’, a tale about a child prostitute who is “rescued” from her pimp dad by some sort of protagonist (Nowell, perhaps?), who then goes on to fuck her all the same.
“A cigarette pressed between her lips/ But I’m staring at her tits/ It’s the wrong way
Strong if I can but I am only a man/ So I take her to the can/ It’s the wrong way“
It’s dark, dark stuff all tied up in a neat reggae ribbon, which quite frankly, seventeen-year-old me had no business listening to. If you can get past the messed-up lyrics – hey, it’s hardly a first in rock music – then perhaps, the blatant cultural appropriation will give you reason to leave Sublime off your next ‘ULTIMATE 90S’ playlist. Three white dudes from LA covering Bob Marley is not something anyone needs. Three white dudes from LA singing in what sounds like Jamaican accent? No. Just no.
When stripped back and writing about his own experiences of drug addiction and relationships, there are moments where Nowell’s beautiful tone shines through in songs that are simple yet deeply affecting (‘Badfish’, ‘Pool Shark’). But though there is a little gold, it’s tarnished by too many deeply problematic tracks.
I always thought of myself as having “good taste” (read as: loved Blur) from a young age, so the internal revelation that I liked this really-quite-shit and gross band, is deeply troubling to me. Also, sad! ‘Santeria’ is still a bop. I covered ‘What I Got’ in my first band. Are these memories, I now need to be ashamed of?
Maybe I get a pass: teenagers aren’t famed for their excellent choices. But as sad as it might be to never hear the Gwen Stefani-featuring ‘Saw Red’ alongside ‘Parklife’ at my next living room disco, it is perhaps time to accept that Sublime are best enjoyed in the confines of my mind – or the relative anonymity of an LA Uber ride.