May 25, 2021 is the 25th anniversary of Sublime frontman Bradley Nowell’s death. This piece was originally written in 2013 but has since been updated. Optional music accompaniment can be found here.
Up-strokes on the guitar, but not as slow as reggae and not as fast as ska.
A bass line that had tinges of funk and hip hop in it. The bassist was usually the talented one.
Drums held together by sixteen notes on the high hat and high-pitched snare drum hits.
It’s the sound of Sublime. Or more specifically, The Sound of Sublime or That Sublime Sound or Sounds Like Sublime. You know what I’m talking about.
Since a whole generation of musicians got turned on to the short-lived southern California band, you’ve had the pleasure of hearing that distinctive sound at clubs, patio bars, beach bars, frat houses, and skate parks. That sound, The Sound of Sublime, supplanted punk and then grunge as the go-to sound for young bands in the late ’90s and early 2000s. It was easy at first glance, easy enough to latch onto and make your own. Even though you really weren’t making it your own. You were making it your own in the way stealing someone’s lunch and putting your name on it makes it yours. It’s what bands do before they’ve found a sound of their own. No shame in it. It’s just how the game goes.
You are your influences before your influences become your jumping-off point.
I was in the trenches, out there among these bands, and was one of these bands when that Sublime sound became dominant and increasingly prevalent. The Nirvana-style three-piece had faded into the distance and now it was the Sublime-style three-piece. The sound, the mash-up of reggae, ska, and rock was similar to punk in longevity. Punk was a part of it if you were so inclined. Hip Hop was as well. The tent where it all lived was the upstrokes of the guitar and under that tent it all made sense. It didn’t all make music, but it all made sense.
Back in 2013, 3 Ring Circus: Live at the Palace October 21, 1995, a Sublime live album, was released. The show took place seven months before lead singer and guitarist Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose and nine months before the release of the band’s breakthrough album, Sublime. The live album features at least two songs from Sublime (“Caress Me Down,” “Garden Grove”) and is much more cohesive and features significantly better sound quality than the band’s other live album, Stand By Your Van, which was released back in 1998.
3 Ring Circus was released to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the band’s first show which was on July 4, 1998. The album serves as a great reminder of who Sublime really was and where that sound of theirs, and subsequently the sound of thousands of other bands, came from. It’s pure, it’s loud and it’s fast. Bradley Nowell sang and played with a keen determination as if he was attempting to exorcise each and every one of his demons with every song.
The album also brings up the Sublime Question again: what if Nowell hadn’t died when he did?
In some ways, it’s a more complicated question than The Nirvana Question (i.e. what if Kurt Cobain hadn’t died when he did) because of how Sublime got popular after he had died whereas Nirvana was already massively popular when Cobain took his own life. Sublime started gaining momentum with their second album, 40oz to Freedom, which featured the first song I ever heard from them, “Date Rape.” But it was Sublime, with the better production and super catchy singles like “Santeria,” “What I Got,” and “Wrong Way” that really catapulted the band to stardom. I just don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like that before; a band getting so popular after they were essentially no longer a band.
An album like 3 Ring Circus resonates with fans of the bands so much because Listening to it brings back so many thoughts and memories of the band and those related to the band. As a fan of music, Sublime will always be one of those bands I listen too and as a musician, Sublime was a huge influence on me, especially once I got serious about music when kicking around early incarnations of Sidecar Radio back in sunny Portland, Maine in 2002-03. I think so much of the appeal of playing music like Sublime’s comes down to the fact that statistically speaking, everyone loves reggae. However, those same studies show that reggae can sometimes get boring to play. Sublime breathed new life into reggae and at the same time, allowed a band to dabble in punk without having to look the part. You could dress like a normal dude and rage the fast parts with the best of them.
And a lot of bands did.
During my time with Sidecar Radio, we played with a lot of bands who embraced the Sound of Sublime, some of who did so much more closely than others and also some that were more successful than others. At the time it seemed completely normal to have that sound. But now, well over a decade later, it just seems unfathomable that a band with a career like Sublime’s has been able to have such a lasting legacy. When we talk about legacies in music- it’s always the heavyweights we talk about- Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Nirvana, Bob Marley, etc.
We don’t talk enough about Sublime and Sublime’s legacy and that seems wrong; it seems like we’re ignoring a very real trend that occurred in music for almost a decade. Instead of scoffing at Sublime or diminishing their accomplishments, shouldn’t we be talking about Sublime with more reverence, with more appreciation, and with more admiration for their apparent massive sphere of influence?
I think we should.
Yes, they were a crazy southern California party band and their songs could be the soundtracks to douche-paloozas everywhere, but Sublime was and is much more than that. Only paying attention to the negatives that come with them doesn’t seem fair, even if those negatives can be pretty damn annoying at times.
The truth is that Sublime was a wildly influential band that created their own sound that was a catalyst for thousands and thousands of bands that hit the stage long after they were gone. Not many bands can say that and the ones that should deserve to be celebrated, whether you like them or not.
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