It should have been a joyous occasion, but July 30, 1996 Sublime enjoyed a bittersweet taste of success when they released what would become their biggest album – their self-titled release.
Sadly, frontman Bradley Nowell’s growing heroin addiction took his life just two months before the album’s release. But his final musical statement connected with fans across the board more than any of the band’s previous releases and proved that the group was poised for major success.
The band primarily recorded Sublime album at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio in Austin, Texas between February and May 1996 with Austin-based Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers fame serving as producer on the album. “They were the nicest bunch of guys,” Leary recalled Rolling stones“[but] it was chaos in the studio. There were times when someone had to go into the bathroom to see if Brad was still alive.” Eventually it got so bad that Nowell was sent home before filming was finished. “It took him three days to recover foot again.” recalls the singer’s father Jim. “It was the worst I had ever seen him.
But while drugs may have taken an increasingly prominent path on the singer, the musical vision was clear. Using a mixture of punk, reggae, ska, dancehall, hip-hop and dub musical elements, Nowell and his bandmates Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson blended it all together with highly personal lyrical content into a pleasing blend that captivated millions of fans and garnered critical acclaim .
Sublime, “What I Got”
The disc had a slow build, starting with the breakout single “What I got.” The upbeat track capitalized on the ideal of having a positive outlook on life even through hardships, and it’s a sunny disposition that certainly connected with listeners. The song shot to No. 1 on the Modern Rock Chart, No. 11 on Mainstream Rock Chart and even enjoys crossover success, hitting the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 29. And Nowell’s own life is all over the song, including a line about his dog running away.In the documentary video Sublime – stories, tales, lies and exaggerations, Nowell’s widow, Troy Dendekker reveals that Lou Dog disappeared for a week and that Nowell spent a good portion of that time crying on his couch. When his dog eventually returned, Nowell Camper covered Van Beethoven’s song “The Day That Lassie Went to the Moon” and changed the lyrics to “Lou Dog Went to the Moon.” His cover would appear on the bootleg Firecracker Lounge.
As for the “What I Got” video, with Nowell dead, it made promotion difficult. But a video collage of archived footage, photos of Nowell and photos of his home base served as a fitting tribute, and like the song, the video achieved great success.
In early 1997, the Sublime album really began to take off, and another single, “Santeria,” was released. The song borrowed a bass line and guitar riff from the older “Lincoln Highway Dub” from the band’s 1994 record Robbin’ the Hood. The track told the story of a man who was ready to take revenge on the guy who stole his girlfriend. Like “What I Got”, the song shot up the charts. “Santeria” hit No. 3 on the Modern Rock chart and No. 43 on the Billboard Hot 100. It remains one of the band’s most popular tracks, having been used in films such as Empty hands, Made pregnant and This is 40 and covered by Aimee Allen, Meg & Dia and AVAIL among others. The video for the song once again incorporated Nowell, this time as a ghostly figure, with his persona inserted from stock footage.
In May 1997, Sublime released the third single “Wrong way” from the album. The track, about a young girl pimped out by her family into prostitution, also became a popular song on alt-rock radio, hitting No. 3 on the Modern Rock chart. The song features a trombone solo from John Blondell featuring an interpolation of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The track also borrows a melody and rhythm from The Specials’ “It’s Up to You.” Actress Bijou Phillips starred in the video for the song, which also included a guest appearance by extraordinaire bassist Mike Watt.
Sublime, “Wrong Way”
And finish off the album’s singles, “Doin’ Time” arrived in November 1997. The Gershwin influence came through again as the track heavily sampled a cover of “Summertime” done by jazz flautist Herbie Mann. To release the song with the Gershwin sample, the band had to change a line to include “Summertime,” but since Nowell had already passed, it’s Sublime mate Michael Happoldt who sings the line. “Doin’ Time” follows the story of a guy who feels trapped by his cheating girlfriend and the bad way she treats him on The song peaked at No. 28 on the Modern Rock chart, but has remained one of their more popular radio songs.
Although not released as singles, two other tracks from the album have also received significant airplay over the years. The bass tongue”Caress me down” draws from Wayne Smith’s Sleng Teng riddim and borrows lyrics and melody from the Clement Irie ’80s single of the same name. Meanwhile, “April 29, 1992” was written after the 1992 Los Angeles riots and provides pointed commentary on the acts of arson, looting and vandalism that occurred following the acquittal of the four police officers accused of beating Rodney King. The track contains a example of an actual Long Beach Police radio communication at the beginning of the song.
Sublime, “April 29, 1992”
When all was said and done, the Sublime album spent 122 weeks on the chart, eventually peaking at No. 13 and going five times platinum. It made many a “Best of” list, not only for the year 1996, but also for the decade of the 90s. But unfortunately, Nowell wasn’t around to experience it.
“I wanted to kick his ass,” Gaugh recalled to Rolling Stone. “I mean, I had been there and was still struggling with it. So I was all I could be for him during that time. I tried to be his conscience; I tried to be his nurse. I even tried to be his drug buddy ; I mean we got loaded together a few times.”
Nowell’s widow summed it up, telling Rolling Stone that even though he died young, he still achieved everything he had hoped for: “He always wanted a baby: ‘We’re going to have a baby,’ he said. He wanted his family back because he had hurt them so badly with his drug use. And he did. He wanted to write this album, and he wanted it to be the best he ever wrote. And he did. He wanted his band to have glory. And they did.”
But she adds: “I’m not saying it’s okay that Brad died, because it is does not OKAY. So many things have happened that I wish he could see – Sublime being nominated for awards and their videos being on MTV all the time and their songs being played on the radio. Otherwise things will happen to me and Brad is the first person I will tell because we were best friends. I want to see his reaction to all this. What is OK is [that] there is no more fighting, no more war. That fight took a lot of our energy and our time, and it was terrible. He is at peace now.”