Song: "Sound System"
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Though every band preaches "keeping it real" and not wanting to "sell out," when faced with a large record deal, nearly every band compromises in some way, shape, or form. The few bands that don't cave to such pressure often find difficulty in gaining notoriety, as such a move is sure to incur the wrath of those whom they scorn. Yet in at least one case, such a move stands as the defining moment of the band, and their subsequent album stands as nothing short of legendary for a number of reasons. After quickly becoming one of the most talked about local bands, EMI offered a recording contract to ska-revival, hardcore icons, Operation Ivy. Instead of signing the contract, the band decided to break up, and in that same month, their masterpiece of an album, 1989's Energy was released. Nearly every song on the album has become an absolute classic, and the band members went on to various other projects, though they never lost sight of the sound this group created. Bringing together the foundations of punk and hardcore, along with a heavy dose of ska and dub, Operation Ivy have had a massive impact on nearly every band that has formed since. Depending on the mood of the listener, each song on the album can be considered the "best" at one time or another, but there is no way one can overlook the amazing mood and sound found on Operation Ivy's 1989 song, "Sound System."
With the opening notes of the song, all of the influences of Operation Ivy immediately become clear, as traces of punk, hardcore, dub, and ska are all quite evident, and one cannot overlook the songs' title being a direct reference to the legendary block parties in Jamaica where both ska and dub where born. "Sound System" instantly brings an amazing bounce and mood, and the band perfectly blends it into their far more aggressive musical approach. This sound and mood are largely due to the playing of the man called Lint, who is better known as Tim Armstrong. As the song progresses, Armstrong seems to be trying to push the song faster and faster, and it is why one cannot help but get caught up in "Sound System." The bass playing from Matt McCall is nothing short of deadly, as he flies all over the fret-board, bringing a fantastic groove to the song. The more aggressive strains of the song, marking the punk and hardcore influences of Operation Ivy can most clearly be heard via the drumming of Dave Mello, and his speedy playing and fills became the blueprint for an entire generation of players that followed. The combined sound has the distortion and drive of the classic punk rock sound, and yet it retains the light energy that defines the ska sound. While many bands attempted to blend these styles, none did it as perfectly as one finds on "Sound System."
As much as the musical portion of "Sound System" is a mixture of many styles, the vocals from Jesse Michaels are as classic punk as one will find anywhere. In both the tone in his voice, as well as the way in which he delivers the lyrics, would have fit in just as perfectly in 1977 as they did in 1987. While there is a growl and grit to his voice, there is also a far lighter and almost inviting sound to his singing that is lacking from a majority of punk and hardcore singers, and this can be seen as one of the few links his vocals have to the mood which the band sets on "Sound System." The drive in Michaels' voice forms a fantastic parallel with the music, and it is also due to the upbeat, if not inspiring nature of the lyrics that his sound becomes so distant from that of his peers. The song itself largely speaks to the power of music, and the idea that even at the worst of times, "...sound system gonna bring me back up, one thing that I can depend on..." For many music lovers, especially those within the punk and hardcore scenes, it is a common thought that it is music that has "saved" their lives, and it is lyrics like this that perfectly echo that sentiment. Furthermore, the raw and straightforward manner with which Michaels sings the words make it quite clear that he, as well as the entire band, have shared this feeling. The fact that it is such a universal feeling is one of the keys to "Sound System" being such a phenomenal song, and the idea of shared experience is, in many ways, what the punk/hardcore scene in which Operation Ivy existed was "all about."
The fact that even with an album full of brilliant songs ready to be unleashed on the world, Operation Ivy decided to end their career as opposed to sign to a major label is the most impressive and clear embodiment of "keeping it real" that has ever existed in music. It is this act that has left the bands' legacy and the Energy album as two of the most sacred entities in music history, and at some level, the bands' vision and integrity are completely beyond reproach. While any band doing a similar act would certainly be worthy of note, the fact that Operation Ivy did it whilst having an unquestionably legendary album at their fingertips makes the act all the more admirable. It was this act that proved that the "true" punk rock spirit was still alive and well, and one can not only see it in their dissolving the band, but the roots can also be heard throughout every song on Energy. The way in which Operation Ivy blends together this sound with their clear love for ska and dub music remains largely unparalleled, as there is not a moment on the album that seems forced, and the sincerity with which they play each note makes every song nothing short of anthemic. Almost every song on Energy has been covered a number of times since its release, and this makes it difficult to pick a single song as the "best" to represent the band. However, in terms of both musical influences, as well as the spirit of the band, one would be hard pressed to top the mood and sound found on Operation Ivy's 1989 song, "Sound System."