One of the perks of going to high school in an affluent (aka: safe, white and wealthy) Long Island suburb was the "Open School" policy. What this meant was that you were allowed to leave campus during your lunch period, and, after you freshman year, anytime you had a free period. For the first three years ,this mostly meant you got to eat pizza instead of cafeteria food; unless you were cool enough to know someone in a higher grade who could drive, something I never had to worry about. However, your senior year you were allowed to take off, which meant you leaving campus to go smoke cigarettes. This policy became our teenage Emancipation Proclamation. Freed from the bonds of the classroom, we could spend up to forty-five minutes sitting in someone's car smoking cigarettes and listening to punk rock. While there were bands like Jawbreaker and Green Day who captured our attention, none held us as completely as Operation Ivy did. Operation Ivy's frenetic marriage of hardcore punk and ska provided an instantaneous escape from our immediate surroundings. Instead of being bored with nowhere to go, we could sing of revolution in the streets. More importantly, we had music for hours of couch moshing and basement skanking.
Of course, by the time we came to know Operation Ivy, they were long gone. After receiving an offer to leave indie label Lookout Records for EMI, they broke up, refusing to compromise their morals for a larger stage. Their legacy would be any band that added Jamaican skank to Berkeley punk skronk. Guitarist Tim Armstrong and bassist Matt Freemen went on to form Rancid, drummer Dave Mello joined Schlong, and vocalist Jesse Michaels became a myth (rumor has it that he became a Buddhist monk or a missionary). With Rancid, Armstrong stripped Op Ivy of their ska leaning and replaced it with oi-tinged, street punk. Similarly, he left behind Michael's utopian lyrics for a harsher look at the world, often the view of someone without a home, money or a job. On Rancid's second album, Armstrong announced his love for the Clash to the world, by attempting to pick up where the English sound rebels left off. Despite the harsher name, and somewhat harsher music, the East Village as well as the mall crowds embraced Rancid, and they became one of most well known punk bands. While Rancid were playing to stadiums, nary a word was heard from Jesse Michaels. The spotlight shining on Rancid was blotting out his legacy, as well as Operation Ivy's.
Fortunately for Operation Ivy (and Lookout), despite all of their rebellious leaning, punks tend to be more nostalgic about their music than most. Always on the prowl for a re-union or band featuring ex-members of, Op Ivy devotees were constantly searching for word of Mr. Michaels. In 1994, he formed the band Big Rig, who would release the EP Expansive Heart on Lookout. Big Rig, flew under the radar of fans happily imbibing Rancid, while still enjoying Op Ivy hits like "Sounds System" and "Knowledge". In 1999, Lookout announced the release of an album called Last Wave Rockers by Common Rider, who were fronted, by one, Jesse Michaels. Unlike Big Rig, Common Rider was going to be a real band, which would do more than just release an EP and disappear. (Unfortunately, Common Rider just broke up.) Joined by ex-members of Screeching Weasel and Squirtgun, Michaels was poised to set the youth of the world straight with more songs of dissatisfaction and promises of a better tomorrow.
Emphatically ending any debates of who put the ska into Operation Ivy's sound, Common Rider are closer in sound to the Wailers or the Skatalites than Minor Threat or Sham 69. On This Is Unity Music, Op Ivy fans may be disappointed to see Common Rider moving further away from the energy that made Operation Ivy an instant staple of the punk scene. It's as if Michaels is trying to distance himself from Operation Ivy's atrocious legacy (see the entire ska-punk phenomenon of the mid-'90s), by removing almost all traces of punk from his music. While Michael's lyrics touch upon many of the same themes as they did over ten years ago, the perspective of someone who has seen the world now tempers them. Like the picture of a man holding a baby that adorns the CD cover, Michaels seems more concerned parent than back alley revolutionary. It's refreshing for a person to understand his place in the punk scene, rather than the aging surf punks who try to 'relate' to kids half their age. Unfortunately, the music seems to be a bit too thirty-something for its own good. The pacing of the album remains static, with a few roots-reggae tracks thrown in to break things up. As a result, it's hard to pay attention after the fourth or fifth song, as Common Rider quickly fades to background music. It's not that they need to resort to inserting cheap punk riffs into the album, but even the Skatalites changed pace from time to time.
The hardest thing about listening to Common Rider is that, because of their roots, it is too easy to hear what they aren't, as opposed to what they are. Operation Ivy were irresistibly inescapable. Rancid, too, could crank out raging street anthems overflowing with virility. Common Rider are the antithesis of all of that. While Michaels' dedication to leftist politics is admirable, as is his refusal to compromise his sound, there's a certain something missing from This Is Unity Music. It's been awhile since I've driven through the back streets of Long Island, but I still listen to Op Ivy. And, while there are moments of nostalgia, Op Ivy's songs still seem fresh and relevant, even as my teenage years get further behind me. Not only did Op Ivy make you get up and stand up, they made you believe. Common Rider sound too resigned, too old, too much like everything Op Ivy stood against.