Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Man Overboard: Can Blink-182 Survive Without Tom DeLonge?

Ah, Blink-182. Poway, California’s most famous sons. Finest purveyors of breathless three-minute, three chord songs played with ridiculously upbeat melodies and puerile lyrics that seemed to revolve around lines about the male anatomy and what most teenage boys want to do with it. Or, as critical purists would call it, pop punk. Originally an underground success, they burst into mainstream consciousness in the late nineties with mega-platinum selling album Enema of the State, bolstered by genre-defining anthems in the shape of What’s My Age Again? and All The Small Things. Just after the turn of the century, they were arguably one of the biggest bands in America and to an extent the world. Fast forward fifteen years and it’s not all sunshine and rainbows anymore. Dysfunctional by their own admission, it took skin cancer and a-near-fatal plane crash for its members to re-emerge from a hiatus, but even then, in 2009, their brand of toilet humour was faded from public consciousness. Pop punk was on the way out. Fall Out Boy had gone on indefinite hiatus; Green Day and Paramore had both departed the genre to mainstream alternative rock and found success there. Blink-182, reunited or not, were effectively a nostalgia trip, something they did not shy away from in live performance. Their lone reunion album Neighborhoods was mixed in its reception, and despite a strong placing in charts around the world, didn't really do anything to extend their legacy.

And so, it has come to pass that whatever goodwill brought from tragedy couldn't last forever. Earlier this month, bassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker issued a statement that guitarist Tom DeLonge had left the band. DeLonge responded quickly that this was the first he was hearing of this, and ultimately, it evolved into a war of words through press releases in Rolling Stone and letters on Facebook. The current state of Blink-182’s membership is up in the air; the only thing apparently set in stone is that Hoppus and Barker will play shows later this year with Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio filling in the dual role of guitarist and singer vacated by DeLonge. Even then, with DeLonge as a founder and principle songwriter of the band, legal issues may only be around the corner should Hoppus and Barker continue on permanently.
Tom DeLonge of Blink-182 at Reading, 2014
It is a shame that one of pop punk’s most influential and successful exports should have to come to this, airing their dirty laundry in public. They may have never had a UK Top #3 Album, but their music is still instantly recognisable in this country. Their headline set at the Reading and Leeds Festival in 2010 was the most rapturously received of the weekend; it resulted in them making a swift return only four years later. For fans of the genre, they are considered Genesis; nearly all pop punk bands of the genre’s second and third waves cite them as a primary, if not the, influence for them. I once attended a show by pop-punkers We Are the In Crowd at Leeds’ old Cockpit venue, and in between support acts, What’s My Age Again? was played over the PA system. With the exception of my good self, every single person in the crowd bellowed along in time. Never before have I seen such a sing-along with interim music at a gig.

And perhaps it is wrong to immediately condemn Blink as a nostalgia act, rooted in a single genre. Of their nine Top #40 singles in the UK, three are culled from their 2003 self-titled album, a stylistic departure that saw the ballad I Miss You chart in the top ten with its Cure-inspired rhythms. Down and Always, the two follow up singles, both represented a sharp turn away from typical pop punk structure and the band’s signature immature lyrical content into more straightforward alternative rock. The same album spawned the acclaimed All of This, drawing on its Cure influence so much that the band stole Robert Smith to sing on it. They may not have deviated from the recipe as much as other artists, but Blink have certainly proved a level of flexibility, able to implement their ability to nail a catchy hook out of their immediate pigeon-holed sound.

And then there’s Hoppus and DeLonge; pop punk’s McCartney and Lennon. A combative relationship since the band broke it in the big time, they have undeniably written some of the genre’s strongest songs in Damnit, First Date and Feeling This amongst others. The band is their baby; they are the original members, with drummer Barker a latter-day replacement for original sticksman Scott Raynor. Their on-stage chemistry and off-stage drama has helped to cultivate the legacy around the band, to build their story with sufficient twists and turns, such as friction over reality TV shows and side-projects, the latter of which seems to be one of the key issues in the latest inter-band issues.
Blink-182 headline Reading 2014.
And that brings the story up to the final few months. Blink’s headline set at Reading and Leeds 2010 had been considered a triumph, particularly against the art-rock elements of fellow headline act Arcade Fire and the shambolic timings of the current incarnation of Guns N’ Roses that hadn't translated well. Their 2014 shows went some way to sabotaging those memories. DeLonge looked uncomfortable, shadowed by the peak of his cap; vocally, he was inconsistent and drastically out of key on occasion and musically, seemed half a step behind Hoppus and Barker’s rhythm section. Sex gags seemed scripted, typical; few moments in the show stood out, the most notable high being Hoppus’ verse on I Miss You and a euphoric Damnit in the encore, mainly propelled by crowd reaction. Nostalgic longing and the strength of songwriting pulled them through ultimately, but unlike 2010, they were outclassed by fellow headliners Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys and former pop-punk protégés Paramore over both legs of the weekend. It was frankly embarrassing.

Reading and Leeds were not the final shows of the band whilst DeLonge remained, but they were certainly the largest in that final run; as a result, they will be viewed by fans and critics as the trio’s curtain call, two shows that failed to truly impress even the hardcore and, if anything, further spread the seeds of dissatisfaction within the band. If DeLonge truly is gone though, questions certainly remain over Blink’s longevity as both a studio act and a live performer. Both have complicated paths to tread; DeLonge is one half of Blink and as such must surely have a claim over the band name and its use. Unless he consents to Hoppus, Barker and whoever fills his shows after Skiba returns to Alkaline Trio (the latter have shows booked across the summer) using the name, there’s a chance that an already messy situation could spill out even more into the public domain, a sad way for any band to hash out differences. In terms of new material, DeLonge could certainly not stop Hoppus and Barker from writing and recording with an alternate vocalist, if at all; but again, under the Blink brand, he has every right to halt proceedings. The live arena too; the remaining members can perform Blink songs without threat of potential lawsuit, but only under an alternative name. For all intents and purpose, despite their bold claim to continue as Blink-182, Hoppus and Barker’s future rests either with DeLonge, a man who claims he was unaware of his redundancy from the band, granting them an unlikely blessing after the ongoing saga or facing extensive legal fights.

And even if Hoppus and Barker succeed, by gentleman’s agreement or court order, what then? Hoppus may be the most famed and recognisable of the three, the one to clown around at the front of photo-shoots in the magazines, but DeLonge is effectively the band’s frontman – he is the lead vocalist on many of their hits, even when engaging in a battle of tones with Hoppus. The bassist has only a handful of big hits fronted solely by his own voice; most of the time, he’s second to DeLonge’s iconic angst-sneer that spoke volumes of adolescence perspectives and helped tap into a generation of young Americans. And whilst Skiba may be a talented replacement (and based on DeLonge’s performance at times at Reading and Leeds, possibly better live), the fact remains he is not DeLonge. Hoppus and Barker could record new material as a duo, with either session musicians, guests or solo, but what’s to differentiate it from a +44 record, their side-project in the original Blink hiatus whilst DeLonge was focused on his solo endeavour Angels and Airwaves?
Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 at Leeds, 2014

So, Blink-182 could technically continue. They could technically record new material. They could technically extensively tour the world in support of it. But would it really be Blink-182 without Tom DeLonge? He may have been apparently pushed from the band rather than quit outright in this instance but the fact remains that he is no longer currently part of the lineup. And, to draw comparisons, that’s a bit like The Beatles continuing on without John Lennon. With Skiba in place, they may be (and I imagine they will) a better live act for the small number of shows they will play this spring. And, there certainly seems to be a drive from Hoppus and Barker to continue under the name. But will the fans really want to see them when one part of its dysfunctional beating heart has been ousted, and the songs they love sung by a rank outsider? Will it, more to the point, tarnish their legacy? One would think that ensuring legal battles, if they come to pass, may do more than tarnish; it may raze it to the ground. So yes, Blink-182 can survive without their founding member, guitarist, vocalist and one focal point. Whether they should survive… that is another matter entirely.

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