What's My Age Again?

by Ricky Birmingham

I, like many kids of the 90’s growing up in Australia, became a fan of blink-182 at a young age. I was hooked from the very first moment I heard that opening guitar riff in the intro to Dammit. It was 1997, it was my go-to form of sex ed and the soundtrack to my teenage angst. For the next 10 years I wore nothing but Dickies shorts, checkered vans and any black t-shirt I could get my hands on. I had drunk the kool aide, bought the tube socks and dreamed of rocking up at a Taco Bell for a burrito (and no Taco Bill is not the same thing mum).

In the late 90s CD albums had peaked at $29.99 in retail stores and getting tickets to a show meant lining up for hours out the front of an actual Ticketmaster store, or pulling a sickie from school to ensure you were able to phone in at 9am sharp – from a landline. I did it all.

Believe it or not, this all went down at a time when the Internet was still in its infancy. Few may remember that to get a Blink fix back then meant trawling through Napster for hours to locate bootlegged recordings taped from live shows half a world away. These recordings would be passed around the schoolyard as we took turns reciting dick jokes.

Relentless touring in the early years meant that the band made it to our shores seven times within a five year period. If you know any Blink songs they will no doubt be from their 1999 Album Enema of the State. It was the release that took them from the ABC’s Recovery to Channel [V], the Corner Hotel to Rod Laver Arena, and from Offshore to the main stage at the Big Day Out.

I had to wait until 2001 for my first chance to see Blink in the flesh. “Hey, I just had diarrhoea” were the first words I ever heard from Tom DeLonge’s potty mouth for real. Travis Barker was like lightening, his shirtless torso revealed frenzied tattoos and a freshly shaven head shimmered among the brilliant finish of his oversized Zildjian cymbals and glass sparkle kit. He never missed a beat. Mark Hoppus bounded around the drive-in movie themed stage like a kid hyped up on way too much sugar. Both DeLonge and Hoppus with respective mint green Fender guitars dangling down to their knees for optimum cool. These were good times to be a kid going through puberty, flanked by the likes of The Offspring, Green Day and The Living End, Blink sang songs that resonated with me and were a gateway to other amazing bands like Unwritten Law, NOFX, Frenzal Rhomb and No Doubt.

That was then. This is now.

Last Friday blink 182 released their seventh album, California, 20 odd years since their first. The guys are older, and so am I.

The first time I heard the new album was in our boardroom, under lock and key from the band’s Australian label. Working a desk job, saving for a house deposit, and watching all my friends tie the knot and have babies in the last 12 months….. I had high hopes for ‘California’ to sound like 90s Blink. I craved a sugary nostalgia trip and a chance to feel like a kid again.

Cynical opens the record and straight off the bat the double time energy is there and I’m stoked that there’s seemingly no emo hangover from a very public spat that played out between Mark, Tom and Travis just over a year ago.

Tom Delonge has parted ways with the band, replaced by Matt Skiba, which was a proposition that equally frightened and excited fans of the band. What could we expect? Skiba who is best known as the front man of Illinois alt-rockers Alkaline Trio, is almost a like-for-like replacement for DeLonge complete with backwards cap and Hurley t-shirt. Peak 90s.

Greeted with an energetic burst bringing the intensity and urgency of early material, the first cab off the rank is littered with double time rhythms that have been absent for the best part of fifteen years. Bored To Death sits comfortably at second drop on the record. For the first time in a long time, it feels like all three members are on the same page. It meshes the best of the band from the Enema of the State [1999] days right through to their critically acclaimed Untitled release [2003].

Blink would probably be the first to admit that their best records have been created with a producer on hand to harness their creative intentions, something that lacked on the scattered offering Neighborhood (2011). The band suffered a tough blow during their first hiatus in 2005 – 2009 when long time friend and cherished producer Jerry Finn passed away.

Finn was hands down the closest thing to a fourth member that Blink ever had, and finding someone to step into his shoes on their latest release would be no mean feat. A chance Twitter convo between Travis Barker and Goldfinger frontman John Feldman who has earned the reputation as one of the best contemporary producers of pop-punk (5SOS/All Time Low/The Used) cemented his place as their producer and was the spark the guys needed to set their creative minds abuzz to pump out a new record.

Other moments of note on the release include She’s Out of Her Mind – a clear hark back to Enema of the State complete with sing-along chorus, and Rabbit Hole which features moments of stream of consciousness poetry that seems as though it was produced under pressure, perhaps in a moment when Feldy walked in and pushed the guys to get the job done.

It wouldn’t be a true Blink record if it didn’t feature a couple of joke songs. Clocking in at under a minute between them Built This Pool which is essentially about naked dudes and a pool, and Brohemian Rhapsody which closes the record with it’s hilarious one-liner “There’s something about you that I can’t quite put my finger in” help breathe a youthful energy into the release.

…and before you start thinking this is just a mid-life crisis come back, there are also some authentic untried songs where the guys break new ground in search of their future sound. Acoustic ballad Home Is Such a Lonely Place could be a dark horse for a I Miss You style radio single with it’s sweet sentiment that is sure to appeal to younger listeners and No Future which features a chorus of gang vocals, not something Blink has traditionally worked with in the past.

Sixteen songs in total make it a generous offering, and its feels as a whole to be a complete and considered collection of songs that compliment each other as a coherent body of work. It gives fans a good mix of familiar sounds as well as some new ones, keeping them out of the sad sphere of 90s acts that have made recent come backs cashing in their nostalgia credits in order to pay for expensive drug habits or messy divorces.

This feels likes a genuine effort to come together and write something with purpose and rekindle old friendships, with respect for both the past and the present. It’s an album for both the guys in the band as well as the fans, feeling neither self-indulgent nor tragically desperate.

On balance California is certainly a better listen than I had at first anticipated, with loads of hooks and some genuine standout moments. The drumming is equally intricate and incredibly brutal with Travis’ iconic breakneck fills –because he can! Mark’s dulcet vocals and poetic sing-along lyrics are ear-porn for this 90s SoCal tragic. Skiba’s harmonies blend with comfort, and the pleasure of hearing down strokes and straight-up open power chords on a Blink record again, gives this release a massive tick.

However, the record doesn’t have the groundbreaking aura of their 90s and early 00s hey-day albums. With the departure of Tom DeLonge, there is a noticeable absence of the band’s unique nasally goodness and thoughtful lyricism.

To me, blink-182 has always been about three dudes who love hanging out and playing music together. In the beginning it was Mark, Tom and Scott, then it was Mark Tom and Travis… and now it’s Mark Matt and Travis. And to be perfectly frank, it really feels like the shackles are off. They seem happy and the energy is infectious again. Like it used to be.

It’s not the blink-182 that you grew up singing along to, but it’s a pretty sweet adaptation and one that will no doubt earn the band new fans just as Barker did when he first joined Blink back in 1998.

The music industry has changed a bunch in the 20 odd years since blink-182 first gathered in Tom DeLonge’s shed in Poway. Should we be surprised that this has had an influence on California? Let’s cut these dudes a break and loosen up a little. It’s time to fall in love with Blink all over again and remember what it was that made us love these dudes in the first place. Fun times, good songs and dick jokes.

FFS, grab yourself a copy and turn the bloody thing up.