In Defense of Retiring the Band Name Sublime

Ready to feel old? Last week, as Americans far and wide celebrated the 4th of July holiday, an anniversary of epic (if not ignored) proportion occurred: On that day in 1988, So-Cal ska/punksters and resident alt rock radio mainstays Sublime played their first-ever show. Yep. Forget sparklers and fireworks — last Thursday marked exactly 25 years since lead singer Bradley Nowell and company first got together to bring their blend of boozy reggae-punk to the masses. 

The group was as much a part of ’90s teenage life as Pogs, TRL or mixed CDs. You couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a high school cover band that at least tried to cover “What I Got”. Remember: Learning the song’s acoustic guitar pattern fell directly in line with Fuel’s “Shimmer” and Tonic’s “If You Could Only See” on the list of Songs Every 16-year-old Knew How To Play. They made Jamaican music cool again. They liked smoking their pot. They liked drinking their beer. And, maybe most notable of all, they became the single coolest entity to celebrate a Dalmatian since a Disney movie did it in 1961.

But then it all ended. In one of the more ironically cruel moments of ’90s musical lore, Nowell died of a drug overdose in 1996, mere days before Sublime were about to take over the world and cross over into a permanent spot at the mainstream’s cool-kids table. “Wrong Way”, “Santeria” and the aforementioned “What I Got” were all bona fide smashes while such deeper cuts as “April 29, 1992 (Miami)”, “Pawn Shop” and even “Garden Grove” almost instantaneously earned fan favorite status among the group’s followers. Singing the chorus to “Santeria” at Karaoke night made you all right, but being able to recite that final city-heavy tirade in “April 29, 1992 (Miami)” made you … cool

“Sublime is something we play all the time in the shop,” Sonny McCollom, manager of an E.T. Surf store in California, told LA Weekly. “To this day it’s one of those things you listen to like Led Zeppelin that never gets old. Basically to us it’s like surf and roots culture. They bridged a gap that wasn’t there before, something like what Pennywise did. They mixed music into the surf community and created a kind of bond that hadn’t been there since the old days. Besides NOFX, Pennywise and a lot of the old school hardcore punk, that was what surfers were listening to.” (“Sublime Is 25! Fans Reflect on What the Band Means to Them”, by Kai Flanders, 18 June 2013)

It’s not an overstatement to say that the original incarnation of Sublime has worked its way into an odd version of iconic status since its demise. How they got there, however, is a much more interesting question to digest. Do we lionize the group for its untimely demise? Do we give them enough credit as artists because of the limited amount of work the core trio produced and subsequently released? Does the deluge of posthumous material cheapen the band’s legacy? Or does it add to their legend? Were they overrated? Were they underrated? If Nowell were still alive today, would Sublime be reduced to a side act on a ’90s nostalgia package tour? Or would they take the Pearl Jam/Red Hot Chili Peppers route and only further their heavy-hitter status by displaying a consistency in great new work and maintaining a presence among the most influential musicians of the past two decades? 

These questions came into focus more over the past handful of years when what’s left of the group decided to give the whole thing one more try. Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson, the trio’s rhythm section, recruited replacement singer Rome Ramirez to man the microphone and guitar duties, labeled it something as generic as humanly possible (Sublime with Rome), and essentially single-handedly offended thousands (if not millions) of long-standing Sublime die-hards by leaving even the slightest bit of tarnish on a name that most agree should have never been as much as grazed. 

“Yes, we all miss Brad,” J.R. Merlan, from the website Ear Hole, wrote as he outlined four reasons why Sublime with Rome is a viable replacement for the original formula. “His vocal style and freestyle lyrics were unprecedented. Brad, along with Sublime, spawned an entire sub-genre composed of a hybrid of reggae, punk and hip-hop. Rome doesn’t attempt to sound like Brad or replace him. He’s picking up where he left off while adding his own musical talent to the melting pot.” (“Haters Gonna Hate: Sublime With Rome”, by J.R. Merlan, LA Weekly, 19 November 2011)

The title of the reason at hand? “Bradley Nowell is dead. Sublime is not.”

False. In 1997, a year after the singer passed away, the Long Beach Dub Allstars surfaced. In it was a gang of people associated with the “What I Got” hit-makers, including both Gaugh and Wilson. Before the group’s 2002 would-be hiatus (they reunited in 2012 without the aforementioned Sublime alumni), they released two better-than-good records, Right Back and Wonders of the World. “We will never replace the greatness that Sublime did or what Bradley has done,” Wilson was quoted as saying around the time the band got off the ground. 

The key phrase: “That Sublime did.” As in, past-tense. As in, “We understand that Sublime does not exist anymore.” As in, “The formation of the Long Beach Dub Allstars — a band that explicitly rose from the ashes of what Sublime once was — proves that keeping the Sublime moniker was not a good idea for a band name.” As in, “We get it. The group was special and we don’t want to mess with the legacy of that special-ness by trying to cash in on its reputation.” As in, “Sublime, as we knew it, is, indeed, dead.”

Fans can say whatever they want about the most recent version of the California outfit. They can love it. They can hate it. They can accept it as a pretty good pop-reggae act. They can dismiss it as a money-grab. They can support it by purchasing records and concert tickets. They can shun it by never paying it any form of attention. Reactions to the entire exercise can run up and down the gamut of both fandom and critical analysis for years and years and years, but no matter what conclusions are drawn, one thing will forever remain the same …

With the absence of Bradley Nowell, the band name Sublime should be retired forever.

Part, if not most, of what has allowed the group to achieve the massive amount of cult status it has enjoyed over the years has dealt specifically with the image of that lead singer and the unlimited supply of don’t-give-a-fuck-ness he brought to both the band’s live shows and its studio recordings. Nowell wasn’t just the leader of a pack; he was an immortal living among mere mortals. There’s a reason no other musical act has been able to take that patented Sublime groove and turn it into success for a whole new generation of skanks and punks, and that reason has little to do with anything other than the band’s leader. 

Yeah, his soulful crooning was a signature element of the Sublime brand, but the truth is that his physical presence spoke far louder than any of his bluesy scatting ever could. Such is evident in the countless recordings that have crept from the vaults after his death, the most memorable of which being 1998’s Sublime Acoustic: Bradley Nowell & Friends, a well-meaning smorgasbord of off-handed material that paints the late singer in an affable light. From an endearing, if not shaky solo take on “Foolish Fool” to the relatively well-known stipped-down rendition of “Rivers of Babylon”, it’s evident that Nowell’s role within not only his own band, but the entire sub-genre with which it was associated, went far beyond his musical instincts and candid demeanor. 

He was that single beam of sunlight that actually made a room brighter. Never mind the communal nature of his artistic output — Brad Nowell was the face, the voice, the attitude, the body and the soul of the band Sublime. To argue otherwise would be akin to saying that the Beatles could have been so legendary without John Lennon or the Rolling Stones could have gained iconic status without either Mick or Keith leading the charge. There are certain figures in music history who have have been essential to the medium’s evolution (however small or large those strides can be), and to think that the guy didn’t play at least a tiny part in the advancement of popular music in the ’90s is an indicator of an abysmally small mind. Was he on the same level as Mozart? Of course not. But did he leave more of an impact on the stuff than, say, Save Ferris ever did? 

Well, duh.

Therefore, the following must be said: Seeing the name on the front of records released by a band that isn’t even close to being what it says it is anymore (I mean, my god — even Gaugh left this latest lineup, leaving only one original member in tact) is a lesson in legacy. Eric Wilson and Rome Ramirez can make music for the next 500 years if they want to, but to bring the Sublime imprint into the equation isn’t just disrespectful to Nowell, his memory and all the band’s fans; it’s an insult to the very honest and very hard work the group put in to reach the level of success it reached before the singer’s untimely passing. At its core, the move is sad, a desperate play for current relevance in a world more than happy to lament its celebrated past. Call it lazy. Call it greedy. Call it whatever you want. But you can’t call it Sublime.

“Sublime endures because of the way, lyrically, that Brad would make you feel,” said Miles Doughty, of Slightly Stoopid, a band that itself owes a lot of its success to the roads Sublime helped pave in the mid-’90s. “People can relate so much to that Southern California culture that he spit out. It was refreshing because it was new. Just like Nirvana helped change from the hair-metal stage into the grunge rock of the ’90s, Sublime did the same thing, changing the whole grunge sound. … When you’re a musician like that, it’s timeless, it’ll last forever.”

And so should the memory of what Sublime truly was — not the creation of something so far from its genesis that it barely even has liberty to evoke its own history. The spirit of the band will continue to live on as a collection of records, bootlegs, videos and memories will serve as artifacts from a cherished time for fans who remember exactly what Sublime was meant to be. The soul of the band, however, came to an end on May 26, 1996, when its one-of-a-kind singer passed away, leaving a library of artistic output that should be reserved for reflective commemoration, not cheap imitation. Yes, Bradley Nowell is indeed dead. He has been for years now. And as anyone who has ever listened to the classic lineup of his band could probably attest to, he earned the right to take the Sublime name with him when he succumbed to the evils of this world a little less than 20 years ago.  

No matter how badly his former friends want to use it. No matter how ageless its legacy will forever be.