It’s Been 20 Years Since ‘Dude Ranch’ Changed Pop Punk Forever
Blink-182's second album, with all its honesty and dipshit humour, caught the band right on the precipice of global fame.
Were you considered "cool" in high school? I resoundingly was not. All throughout puberty, my features jostled for room on a face that had not yet grown into itself. My skin was constantly flushed and riddled with acne. My teeth leaned into each other like an unstable wall of small bricks. Profoundly uncomfortable, every "own clothes day" brought with it a fresh hell: I crimped my hair, stuffed tissue paper in my unnecessary bra and glossed my lips in a piss-poor attempt to prove to the popular girls that I was "normal". I wore board shorts, vest tops and wallet chains in a desperate plea to convince the punk kids that I "could hang". I pierced my lip, smothered my eyes in black liner and let a boy two years above attempt to stretch my ears with a pencil.
Unsurprisingly, none of these efforts made me feel any more secure. I always returned to my default state – a bookish nerd with a mass of dirty blonde hair parted in the middle and a school uniform jumper with holes picked nervously into the sleeves – which I considered to be a "blank slate" at the time but in retrospect was just my personality. It's tricky, trying to navigate your identity when you are not yet a fully formed person. It's even trickier trying to find common ground with people when you're in your early teens and everyone is furiously competing to not be the biggest loser. A lot of music came out in the late early 00s that transcended the social hierarchies of high school: Eminem with The Marshall Mathers LP, Papa Roach's "Last Resort" (which appears on Now That's What I Call Music! 48 between Feeder and Planet Funk) and Blink-182, whose irresistible bangers about fancying girls, snogging girls and being rejected by girls were embraced by almost anyone with a libido.
Enema of the State and Take Off Your Pants And Jacket felt, and continue to feel, personal because all the songs are about being young, dumb and horny, which, like, aren't we all? But, easy as it is to feel like Blink-182 captured your own personal experience of puberty in which heartbreak and disappointment made regular appearances, the whole point was that they captured the most common experience of puberty – one of lust and insecurity and fart jokes – that rang true for popular kids, punks and weirdos who try to perform body modification on their friends at school alike. Blink-182 may be a pop punk band, but regularly spinning "What's My Age Again?" didn't say anything more about your personality than owning a Gameboy or watching The Simpsons. Their second album, Dude Ranch – which celebrated its 20th anniversary on Sunday – was a slightly different story.
I was seven years old when Dude Ranch was first released in 1997, so all I can tell you about its reception at the time is via reviews, of which there are very few considering it was their major label debut. Over the years it racked up praise from Billboard and Rolling Stone, but at the time one of the few bits of coverage came from a Kerrang! journalist who said it lacked "depth, passion, soul and even vaguely memorable hooks". Still, "Dammit" became massive radio hit in the US, "Josie" charted high in Australia – which really doesn't get enough credit for being the first country to pack out Blink-182 shows in the early years, put Dude Ranch in the top 40 and give the band some of their first live TV appearances – and by the end of the decade everyone else had caught on and Dude Ranch went platinum. So, to call it an "underground" success would be a bit of a reach, but it was a slow burner, commercially speaking. As for outside the charts, I think it might be their best album.
Most people would argue that Enema of the State, Blink's third album, is the most iconic – and for good reason: it was their first body of work that didn't sound like it was recorded in a bin, the songwriting is tight and refined and it's the first they made with Travis Barker. It's high-octane and crammed with pure pop melodies, without the slightly cornier takes that Take Off Your Pants and Jacket came with.
Their first album, Cheshire Cat, always felt more like a scrapbook of ideas more than anything else, with "Carousel" and "Strings" providing glimpses into the tag-team vocal dynamic that Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge turned into a signature sound despite the fact neither of them can really sing, while "Touchdown Boy" and "Does My Breath Smell" deliver the dipshit comedy that would prevail to offset any genuine feelings right up until 2003's self-titled. Dude Ranch is the perfect segue from one to the other, capturing Blink-182 right on the precipice of self-discovery. They nailed the formula that had been blueprinted on Cheshire Cat and taken to the next level on Enema of the State, without the confidence and validation of fame. They were still kids, and they were still deeply uncool ones.
The videos for lead singles "Dammit" and "Josie" are like self-contained teen movies in under four minutes. Low-budget ones, featuring Tom Green, that would barely scrape above 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. "Josie" is set in a high school where Mark is chided for kissing his mum goodbye in front of everyone at school and then pied off by a cheerleader he fancies. "Dammit" is a night at the cinema where Mark, Tom and Scott [Raynor, drummer before Travis Barker] piss off a stereotypically American Hot Couple until the dudes get in a fight, Tom teabags someone and the girl pies them all off. The dudes subsequently bond, because that was Blink-182's motif: pretty girls wielding their power in an allegedly evil manner and boys whinging about it.
Still, there's a youthful optimism contained within the hooks of both songs: "I know that everything's gonna be fine" and "Well, I guess this is growing up". When you turn the volume down on all the dumb shit, you'll find that what Blink-182 are actually good at isn't that thing that bad teen movies do, of reducing a selection of high school clichés into a boy-loves-girl narrative topped off with a fart joke, but finding simple mantras to cut through it all. Kind of like the emotional version of how Chris from Skins would look at the mess going on around him and just say, "Fuck it". Nowhere are those juvenile and unconsidered but also very honest moments more prescient on a Blink record than Dude Ranch.
In other merits: it has the audacity to open in double time with "Pathetic" and blow your face off in under 15 seconds. "Dick Lips" is probably one of Blink-182's best songs – with the worst possible title – about Tom being kicked out of school; completely unapologetic in its brattiness and the fact that its backbone is provided by an acoustic guitar strummed in a country rhythm. "Untitled" and "Emo" might as well be pages from your teenage diary, executed fast, frustrated and with the a 'full-on, minimal, full-on' dynamic that mirrors the loud-quiet-loud pattern favoured by 90s emo bands before them. And "A New Hope" is the most sincere example of punk Star Wars fanfiction in existence. Name another band to reference "drinking Colt 45's with Lando" in a song about being horny for a fictional woman and then go on to achieve worldwide acclaim and collaborate with Robert Smith, I dare you.
Back in 2014, Alternative Press named Dude Ranch the best Blink-182 album, with contributor Scott Heisel writing: " Dude Ranch is truly Blink-182 in its best form – they weren't rich or famous yet; all they were trying to do was write a killer skate-punk record", which pretty neatly summarises the authenticity of it all. By the time Enema of the State rolled around, Blink-182 found themselves smack in the middle of mainstream culture. Gone were the music videos in which they played hopeless rejects with badly dyed hair who played their guitars down below their knees in the school toilets; in were the music videos in which they parodied the culture of boybands and pop stars they now existed as a just-as-large antithesis to and ran naked through the streets flanked by Janine Lindemulder. They went from fumbling over a Mr. Potato Head on Australian TV to appearing in American Pie in less than a year.
For managing to prove their worth leagues beyond the niche they had created for themselves, self-titled is easily Blink-182's greatest achievement. But at twenty years old, Dude Ranch remains a formative and timeless classic. It's falling in love with a new person every week because you don't know what love is yet. It's every party you went to before you found out that they're all the same. It's a wrestling match with your own growing pains, expressed with a clumsy, reckless energy that not everybody felt. It's Blink-182 at their most natural, because they had youth on their side – and it's a real testament that it still holds up now that they, along with most of their listeners, don't.
Let's not talk about the artwork, though.
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