Highs and Lows is a feature in which we chronologically track the peaks and valleys of an artist, band, or filmmaker’s career. This time, we take a look at a punk band who made growing up optional.
You would think that if a band had 20 years, they would figure things out. They would learn from their mistakes, patch up their imperfections, and continue on an upward trajectory until that fateful day when they mutually decide to call it quits. But bands are made of people, and people don’t work that way. People experience life as a jagged trajectory of highs and lows, twists and turns. We hope that we’re building toward some grand finale in which everything makes sense, but that’s really all we can do: hope.
(Read: Blink-182’s Top 10 Songs)
When we decided to roll out a new series that traces the highs and lows of careers, Blink-182 seemed like a logical choice to start. Maybe that’s because there’s nothing inherently logical about Blink-182. A trio of men trapped in a state of permanent adolescence shouldn’t be allowed to rewrite the rules of an entire genre. They shouldn’t be allowed to turn punk away from politics, to move it out to the suburbs, to buy it a new house built on an unstable foundation of hormones, dick jokes, and juvenile punnery. But that’s exactly what Blink-182 did, transforming from SoCal punk also-rans into a bubblegum-fueled juggernaut that steered punk closer to the mainstream than even Green Day ever could.
The rise and fall (and rise and fall) of Blink-182 is a story of kids who never grew up but tried, desperately at times, to escape the baggage of their past. Now that founding member Tom DeLonge has parted ways with bassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker, the band is set to embark on yet another new chapter, this one coming more than two decades into its existence. It’s hard to say where Blink-182 will go after releasing California, their first album with guitarist Matt Skiba and their strongest in years. If their past is any indication, the future is impossibly hard to predict.
August 1992 — Blink forms in Poway, San Diego
Blink weren’t the first juvenile delinquents to work songwriting into their full schedule of skateboarding, skipping class, and playing pranks on mall security guards. Hailing from the middle-class suburb of Poway, just outside of San Diego, their music and their entire aesthetic began to take shape as a reaction to the climate around them — politically conservative, perennially sunny. It’s no wonder that SoCal’s pop punk bands, a group exemplified by the Descendents but also by younger acts like Tiltwheel and Unwritten Law, favored melody slightly over mayhem. Aside from the typical frustrations of adolescence, they had nothing to be particularly mad about. Blink didn’t initially stand out among this crop of bands, but Mark Hoppus, Tom DeLonge, and Scott Raynor were just getting started.
1993 — Flyswatter demo
If you ever need a reminder of Blink’s bona fides as a snotty skate punk band that listened to way too much Descendents, grab a hold of the Flyswatter cassette. The band’s only true bedroom recording features eight songs of loud, fast, tinny punk very much in the vein of NOFX, whose “The Longest Line” is thrown in as a cover on the back end of the album. Dinosaur Jr. also gets the cover treatment with “Freak Scene”, proving that early Blink didn’t really have their mission statement or aesthetic pinned down yet; these were three guys who just wanted to crank up their solid-state amps and piss off the neighbors.
January 1994 — Buddha
The version of Buddha most people are familiar with is the remastered Kung Fu Records release from 1998, which does a bit to save the demo’s reputation as a standalone collection of songs. Make no mistake about it, though: Buddha is a demo, with all of the warts and raw, unfocused energies the word implies. Though not an “essential” Blink release, it does feature the earliest versions of “Carousel”, “TV”, “Fentoozler”, and several other tracks that would eventually make their way onto the band’s proper debut in re-recorded versions. Buddha oozes potential, but it’s the work of a band still figuring themselves out (and having fun doing it).
February 1995 — Cheshire Cat
The crown jewel of early Blink-182 starts off with one of the band’s biggest hits in “Carousel”, a tune fueled in equal parts by angst, adolescent heartbreak, and Scott Raynor’s hyper-caffeinated drum fills. Blink-182 would never sound truer to themselves than they do here, bopping along and completely unaware that they were on course to rewrite punk history. The same is true for much of their debut album, which finds the band identifying less with some platonic ideal of punk rock than with the things they know best: teenage boredom, raging hormones, and plenty of dick and fart jokes. The sum of Blink-182’s ambitions at this point can be found in the lyrics to lead single “M+M’s”, in which Hoppus can’t look beyond candy, cigarettes, true love, and trips to Madagascar. A large part of Blink-182’s brilliance lies in their ability to make all of that seem like enough.
February 1996 — They Came to Conquer … Uranus EP
A step down from Cheshire Cat in scope as well as ambition, They Came to Conquer … Uranus functions mostly as a placeholder between the two major releases of Blink-182’s early career. With three songs and a total runtime of less than eight minutes, it was too slight to meaningfully expand on the success of Cheshire Cat, though it did offer a bright glimpse into the future with “Waggy”, a tune that would be re-recorded for Dude Ranch the next year. Along with the Lemmings / Going Nowhere split the band did with Swindle, it marks the last chapter of pre-MCA Blink-182, an era defined by goofiness, growing pains, and charmingly lo-fi production.
November 1996 — Blink-182 signs to MCA
Though it wasn’t greeted with the same sense of outright betrayal that accompanied Green Day’s signing with Reprise two years earlier, Blink-182’s deal with MCA didn’t do them any favors with the local punk scene. They could hardly have cared less. By late 1996, Mark and Tom knew what they were and had an inkling of where they were going. If that meant being ostracized by their scene counterparts, so be it. While a step forward for the band in terms of exposure, the signing may have spelled the beginning of the end for Scott Raynor, who came from a slightly different school of thought than his bandmates.
June 1997 — Dude Ranch
Welcome to the next stratosphere. Blink-182’s major-label debut rewrote the book on just how successful this band of merry pranksters could become, starting with a lead single (“Dammit”) that continues to warrant regular airplay to this day. It wasn’t totally unprecedented for a pop punk band to achieve this level of success — Green Day had already done it twice by this point — but Blink-182 seemed even less interested in staying within the rough outlines of punk than Billie Joe and Co. Their songs were unabashedly about girls, girls, and girls, and they happened to arrive just as the boy-band craze was working its way into full swing. The time and place were ripe for a band like Blink-182, and they had songs like “Josie” and “Dick Lips” to help them seize the moment.
Mid 1998 — Scott Raynor fired. Travis Barker takes over.
Blink-182 fans will tell you they swear by either Scott or Travis, but both drummers bring their own style and personality to the table. When Raynor was kicked out and subsequently replaced with Barker (then drumming with ska punks The Aquabats), it was the end of an era and the beginning of an entirely different one. Who’s to say if Blink-182 would have reached their absolute peak without Barker’s quiet, steady, heavily tattooed presence behind the kit? Rather than speculate aimlessly, it’s best to give both drummers their due.
April 1999 — “What’s My Age Again” Music Video
Stupid. Juvenile. Tasteless. All of the above. Whatever you think of the image of three twentysomething dudes running naked through the streets of Los Angeles, it’s impossible to imagine the late ‘90s music landscape without it. For better or for worse, what started out as a funny video concept — something very much along the lines of what Mark and Tom might’ve done in high school — became the symbol for the next wave of pop punk. This one would be sillier, catchier, and less concerned with making political statements. In other words, it was the perfect way to package pop punk for the mainstream marketplace.
June 1999 — Enema of the State
As tied as it is to the sound of a particular era (and not a very flattering era, at that), it’s crazy how well Enema of the State holds up today. The songwriting remains solid, the riffs punch hard enough to leave black eyes, and the daydream of neverending high school remains, well, neverending. But Enema is just as important for what it represents as what it actually is. As we wrote in our survey of Blink-182’s top 10 songs, “If you’re a socialist looking for Ground Zero — that time when the 20s shifted from a life stage of ‘emerging adulthood’ to one of ‘prolonged adolescence’ — an album called Enema of the State isn’t the worst place to start.” The album isn’t just youthful — it’s exuberantly youthful, self-consciously youthful. It’s also the blueprint for a literal decade of pop punk, most of it terrible, but all of it a product of a cultural symptom that Blink-182 noticed and captured first.
Late 1999 — “All The Small Things” Music Video
Blink-182’s most memorable video (and that’s saying something) features the group play-acting as various boy bands, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they had become one themselves. Nevertheless, it’s a near-perfect satire of a trend executed at the very height of that trend, and potentially responsible for the reallocation of its various lusts and energies. In the 2000s, the line between pop punk bands and boy bands would become irreversibly blurred (see: Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, and the entire Drive Thru Records discography), but Blink-182 somehow anticipated this and treated it with the proper amount of seriousness. It’s hard to picture dick jokes and sharp social commentary sharing the same platform, but such is the world of Blink-182.
November 2000 — The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show and “Man Overboard”
There’s no band more suited for a hilarious live record than Blink-182, if only because you can only fit so many dick jokes into an actual song. The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show offers the band plenty of opportunities to get their rocks off, so to speak, with banter that ranges from hilarious to weirdly homophobic. The single that accompanied the album, “Man Overboard”, is arguably stronger than anything that would follow on 2001’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket.
June 2001 — Take Off Your Pants and Jacket
Take Off Your Pants and Jacket finds Blink-182 doubling down on their adolescent shenanigans, and the temptation to do so is understandable. One of the biggest rock bands in the world at the time, they had built their reputation on rude puns and juvenile takes on sexuality. Why not make an album that essentially functions as the platonic ideal of both? Though it spawned some of the best songs of the band’s career — “The Rock Show” and “Everytime I Look for You”, to be specific — Take Off Your Pants couldn’t quite recapture the magic of Enema. The ballads are especially bad, with “Story of a Lonely Guy” paling by comparison to the far more devastating “Adam’s Song”.
April 2002 — Pop Disaster Tour with Green Day
The Pop Disaster Tour in 2002 found pop punk’s two biggest bands meeting, but headed in opposite directions. Green Day would soon revitalize their stagnant career with the release of concept album American Idiot, while Blink-182 would begin their long, slow process of fracturing into various other inferior groups. Consider this the three-chord swan song for the band as a cohesive unit, operating at the height of their powers.
May-October 2002 — Box Car Racer and Transplants
With tensions running high but the band determined to stay intact, DeLonge enlisted Barker to help him record a side-project inspired by his interest in Fugazi, Jawbox, and other post-punk groups with few musical or philosophical connections to Blink-182. The result is a tepid record that lands somewhere between Blink-182 and the artists DeLonge was aiming to emulate; its most grievous offense might be its near-total lack of humor. Barker also spent some time in the Transplants, a punk/hip-hop supergroup that also suffered from not knowing what it was.
November 2003 — Blink-182
Blink-182’s self-titled album came out of nowhere, a dramatic pivot in sound and style that — unlike Box Car Racer — still sounded definably like a Blink album. Maybe paradoxically, it also sounded like a grown-up Blink-182 album. That’s not to say the lyrics are particularly profound (That Nightmare Before Christmas reference in “I Miss You”? Yeesh.), but the dick and fart jokes are noticeably absent, and the sonics are far more inventive than anything Blink had shown they could do in the past. To make a somewhat absurd comparison, Blink-182 is kind of like The Beatles’ Abbey Road in the sense that it’s the band’s boldest and best record, made at a time when their relationships were at their most fragile.
February 2005 — Tom leaves and forms Angels & Airwaves; group goes on indefinite hiatus
It’s hard to get lower than a breakup. The resentment and differences that had been simmering for quite a while finally came to a head in 2005. DeLonge left the band and immediately redirected his creative energies to Angels & Airwaves, a prog-emo “supergroup” more interested in making stilted space operas than decent rock songs. Like many of Blink-182’s fans, he felt that he had grown past the band and the scene itself. Hoppus and Barker were left to pick up the pieces and try to move forward, a couple of Lost Boys minus their pierced-lip Peter Pan.
November 2006 — Mark and Travis release debut as +44
Rather than follow Delonge’s lead and shoot for the exact opposite of Blink-182, Hoppus and Barker teamed up with a couple of pinch hitters and tried to see if they could have as much success without their co-frontman. 2006’s When Your Heart Stops Beating isn’t an especially bad album, but its mediocrity seemed to hammer home the fact that there’s no such thing as a non-key member in Blink-182.
July–October 2009 — Reunion Tour
When Blink-182 stood on the stage together at the Grammys and confirmed their reunion, the news was met with excitement as well as a heavy dose of skepticism. DeLonge had already poisoned the well a bit with Angels and Airwaves, while Hoppus and Barker already seemed comfortably on the train to irrelevance. Yet the group’s reunion tour kept the doubters at bay for at least a little while, thanks to a setlist heavy on fan favorites and the appearance of harmony on stage.
September 2011 — Neighborhoods
Well, this wasn’t the comeback album so many had hoped for. Part of this is Blink’s responsibility, as many of the songs on Neighborhoods come across as half-written sketches or parts of several different tracks Frankensteined together. Others come across as morose and melodramatic, the antithesis of the happy-go-lucky trio we grew to love in the early 2000s. And that’s the real problem with Neighborhoods; it just wasn’t the album we wanted. All doom and gloom, it seemed to revel in its own world-weariness instead of offering us an escape from our own.
December 2012 — Dogs Eating Dogs EP
Following the disappointment of Neighborhoods, the half-assed Dogs Eating Dogs EP put a final nail in the notion that Blink-182 was ever truly, actually back. One listen to the album is enough to conclude that the hooks are nearly absent, none of the chord progressions stick, and the joy has been completely sucked out of the proceedings. No amount of experimental flourishes could hide the fact that, by this point, Blink-182 was running on reserves of their reserves.
January 2015 — Tom leaves to chase UFOs
DeLonge’s newfound inability to write a decent pop hook coincided neatly with his expanding interest in UFOs — an interest he had harbored, admittedly, since middle school and one that he addressed specifically on Enema’s “Aliens Exist”. Feeling compelled to pursue his new “national security” project, he left Hoppus and Barker to their own devices again. In layman’s terms, we call this going off the deep end.
March 2015 — Matt Skiba joins band for California
On the surface of things, Matt Skiba seems like an ideal replacement for Delonge. The Alkaline Trio frontman already has experience touring the world in a pop-punk band, and his own inclinations toward gothic imagery betray the fact that he, also, never really grew past high school. The reconfigured band’s new album, California, sounds more energized than anything they’ve done in years, though its lyrics remain rooted in the stuff of teenage diaries. There’s no telling where Blink-182 will go from here, but they’re in better hands than they could have hoped for.