blink-182’s ‘Take Off Your Pants and Jacket’ turns 20 — the tense turning point of their peak era
Enema of the State is the album that quickly and unexpectedly turned blink-182 into superstars (they were on tour opening for Lagwagon when they first found out how much of a hit it was), and it's the album that marked a sea change for the entire genre, away from the Green Days and The Offsprings of the world and towards the candy-coated sounds of New Found Glory, Sum 41, and Fall Out Boy. It was the band's first album with Jerry Finn, whose production style shaped the entire sound of mainstream punk in the 2000s. Finn would go on to work with Sum 41 as well, and he'd help give similar makeovers to AFI, Alkaline Trio, and more.
As pivotal and monumental as Enema of the State was and will always be, the album that really solidified blink-182 as punk superstars -- and doesn't always get enough credit for doing so -- is Enema's 2001 followup Take Off Your Pants and Jacket. It's considered the first punk album to have ever topped the Billboard charts, and it proved Enema of the State was no fluke. For all the digs you might have at blink-182's juvenile humor or not-punk-friendly glossy production, TOYPAJ cemented the fact that Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge were natural-born songwriters, even when they quite literally weren't trying.
Enema of the State took blink-182 from opening for Lagwagon to headlining amphitheaters, and it became such a hit, that they immortalized the Enema tour in 2000 with the live album The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show (The Enema Strikes Back!), which featured a typical blink setlist from that era, plus one instant-classic Enema studio outtake ("Man Overboard") and literally 30 tracks of stage banter. It's hard to think of many live albums from the 21st century that left an impact like live albums in the '60s, '70s, '80s, and even '90s did, but The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show was one of them. Even if you hadn't seen blink-182 live, the album introduced you to blink-182's potty-humor stage banter, which -- for better or for worse -- was a major part of who this band was at the time. And since Enema of the State -- the band's third album and first with drummer Travis Barker -- made blink-182 a drastically bigger band than they were on their first two albums, The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show was a way of familiarizing their new fans with a handful of the Dude Ranch songs and a couple Cheshire Cat songs. It also gave blink-182 a new CD to have in stores and keep the momentum going as they spent time on the road and continued to rise. (Including the release of blink-182 side project Box Car Racer's album in 2002, blink put out a blockbuster a year for five years straight, from 1999 to 2003.)
When blink-182 finally returned home from touring in support of Enema and began writing their next record, changes within the band's direction started to develop, as did the tension that eventually led to their 2005 breakup (and that resurfaced in 2015, when Tom was replaced by Alkaline Trio's Matt Skiba, who remains in blink-182 today). As Mark wrote in the liner notes for the 2013 vinyl reissue of Take Off Your Pants Jacket, he "loved everything about Enema of the State - the music, the videos, the live show, everything. [He] wanted to do it again, make it bigger, better, and louder. Tom wanted something different. He was striving for something heavier, more guitar-driven, dirtier. He was listening to a lot of post-hardcore bands" -- like Fugazi and Refused -- "and their influence showed in what he wrote. Travis, never simply a punk rock drummer, wanted to challenge himself, as well as the band. During that time he was listening to a great deal of hip hop and heavy metal."
"So there you have it," Mark continued, "the creative struggle, the tension, the push and pull of Take Off Your Pants and Jacket. Pop punk meets post-hardcore meets hip hop meets heavy metal. For the first time, the three of us worked in opposition to one another. We weren't starting from the same point or working toward the same goal. Sometimes the differences became contentious." Still, in spite of -- or because of -- all the tension, blink-182 finished their record and they were collectively proud of what they'd done. They invited their manager Rick DeVoe to hear it, hoping he'd like what they came up with too, but he told blink-182 what so many major label alternative bands have been told by industry heads over the years: there wasn't a hit. "I don't hear THAT thing," Mark says Rick told them, "that blink-182 good time summer anthem thing."
"Tom and I were furious," Mark said. "You want a fucking single? I'll write you the cheesiest, catchiest, throwaway fucking summertime single you've ever heard. I drove home, grabbed my guitar, sat on the floor, and wrote 'The Rock Show' in ten minutes. Tom drove home, grabbed his guitar, and wrote 'First Date.'" As we now know, those became the album's first two singles, and they both blew up, with videos that were in constant rotation on MTV. They massively increased blink-182's stardom, and quenched the thirst of any managers, labels, and fans who were craving more of Enema of the State's sugar. The success of those songs also helped convince the band's detractors that blink-182 hadn't matured -- or changed much at all -- since Enema of the State. That's a shame, because almost every other song on TOYPAJ showed a clear maturation from Enema. In hindsight, TOYPAJ looks less like "Enema part 2" and more like a transitional album between Enema and the far more experimental untitled album that blink released in 2003 before going on a four-year hiatus. Maybe their manager was right, that they just had to suck it up and release those creatively regressive, commercially viable singles in order to maintain the success that eventually gave them the leverage to pour everything into the untitled album. But it still makes you wonder if TOYPAJ would have been perceived as a more drastic evolution from Enema of the State if it was released the way blink-182 originally intended.
Take Off Your Pants and Jacket may have still had a masturbation pun in its title, but one look at the back cover let you know that blink-182 wanted to be taken a little more seriously this time around. The back cover of Enema shows the members wearing nothing but boxers, waiting for their injections from their porn star nurse, while the TOYPAJ back cover shows them all dressed in black, glaring at the camera, Mark with his arms folded and Tom with emo-swoop hair covering half his face. And once you click play, the first thing you hear is the most complexly-arranged song the band had released yet, "Anthem Part Two." The intro is like a pop punk orchestra, segueing between three ear-candy guitar riffs and an ever-changing rhythmic backdrop from Travis. Lesser pop punk bands would've based three different songs around riffs that picture-perfect; blink gives you all of it in a matter of 45 seconds. Vocals don't even kick in until halfway through the length of a typical Ramones song, and when they finally do, Tom isn't singing about girlfriends or crushes or sitting naked in a tree. He sings, "Everything has fallen to pieces/Earth is dying, help me Jesus" as Travis lays down one of the most chaotic drum patterns he's ever put to tape. Tom isn't exactly Bob Dylan or anything, but he goes on to voice the frustration of being a teenager and watching corporations and politicians ruin the world and not being legally able to vote or have any kind of say in it. Tom was 25 when he wrote that song, but if the band were going to become spokespeople for teenagers and preteens, at least they had begun addressing some of the more serious teenage issues. By the time the instruments drop out in the explosive chorus, Tom shouts "If we're fucked up, you're to blame!", speaking directly to the adults from the point of view of kids everywhere.
"Anthem Part Two" is a complex, mature pop punk song, but a pop punk song nonetheless. Other TOYPAJ songs, like "Story of a Lonely Guy" and "Stay Together for the Kids," began blink's path towards defying the genre the way they would on the untitled album. Both are power ballads by the standards of '90s blink-182. The melancholic "Story of a Lonely Guy" takes unexpected turns through quiet-loud dynamics with fidgety, shapeshifting rhythms from Travis, and it's kind of about a girl, but it's also an introspective song built around the anxious and depressive thoughts that plague your high school and college years. "Stay Together for the Kids" is a true collaborative effort, with Mark-sung verses and Tom-shouted choruses, and this time the quiet parts are even quieter and the loud parts are even louder. Like Enema of the State's "Adam Song," it became TOYPAJ's slower, sadder hit song, and it once again found blink-182 looking at the darker side of teenager years. "Adam's Song" was about losing a friend to suicide; this one was about living in a broken home as your parents go through a messy divorce. The alternative rock-driven "Stay Together for the Kids" owed even less to traditional pop punk than "Adam's Song" did, but the main difference is that, on TOYPAJ, this type of song didn't feel like an outlier.
"Stay Together for the Kids" concludes the first half of the album (it's the last song on side A of the vinyl release), and the second half of the album is where blink-182 achieve perfection. The first half is messy; it has "First Date" and "The Rock Show," it has the potty-humor song "Happy Holidays, You Bastard" that it really could've done without. (It also has "Online Songs," which -- while not as much of a maturation as some of TOYPAJ's other songs -- is one of the finest examples of blink-182's ability to mix high-speed, circle-pit-inducing punk with tender pop songwriting.) But side B doesn't have a single weak link, and it really shows how this was a transitional record between the spit-shined pop punk of Enema of the State and the experimental untitled album. Songs like "Roller Coaster," "Reckless Abandon," and "Shut Up" are every bit as catchy and high-octane as the Enema songs, but there's a greater sense of nervousness or dread. "Something's wrong, this is gonna shock them," Tom snarls in "Reckless Abandon," while Mark gets even more bleak in "Shut Up": "Now that all my friends left, this place is fucking dead... She said 'your life is meaningless, it's going nowhere.'" On "Give Me One Good Reason," Tom tries on a more typically punk sneer compared to his snot-nosed nursery-rhyming on Enema, as he sings about what attracted him to punk culture in the first place. Like the politics in "Anthem Part Two," it's all a little surface-level, but if you're a young, aspiring, misfit punk and you hear your super famous hero singing about the kids who "don't want to and don't fit in," it helps. Album closer "Please Take Me Home" flirts with some of the more off-kilter guitar melodies that Tom would explore further on subsequent albums, while Travis keeps things as rhythmically unstoppable and unpredictable as the friend-turned-lover that the song is about.
And then there's "Every Time I Look For You," one of the best-written songs not just on this album but in Mark and Tom's careers. Mark calls it "perhaps the most obvious Frankenstein monster of [each songwriter's] disparate elements combining into song." The disparity isn't as extreme as it is on the untitled album, but it's there. It's perhaps the sweetest, warmest sounding song on the album, but it's not a happy one; it's a song where "hearts are wasted" and "lives are broken." Travis' drumming is manic and constantly changing shape, Mark and Tom's overlapping vocals are full of the same thrilling tension that this entire LP was built upon, and Tom's post-hardcore-influenced guitar work in the bridge really helped put him on the path towards the music he'd write for Box Car Racer and blink's untitled album. This song was never released as a single (though it was memorably used in the opening of American Pie 2, a film franchise that's inseparable from blink-182's career, so it might as well have been), but if that pesky manager never made blink write "First Date" and "The Rock Show," maybe this would have been the followup hit to Enema of the State.
Just about every blink-182 album has come with at least one genuinely crucial outtake/B-side, but presumably to make room for "First Date" and "The Rock Show" at the last minute," TOYPAJ had three. The album was originally released as three different versions, "Take Off," "Pants," and "Jacket," each with two different bonus tracks: a joke song and a serious song. Those three serious songs, "Time to Break Up," "What Went Wrong," and "Don't Tell Me It's Over," all share the more mature edge that characterized most of TOYPAJ, and all hold up a lot better than "First Date" and "The Rock Show" (and "Happy Holidays, You Bastard"). "What Went Wrong" is a rare acoustic blink-182 song. Tom explored this side of him a little further in Box Car Racer, but even once blink-182 themselves got more experimental, they never really wrote another song like "What Went Wrong." It's melancholic, negative, frustrated -- a far cry from Enema of the State. "Time to Break Up" and "Don't Tell Me It's Over" (which were also available on the blink-182-curated Atticus... Dragging The Lake I & II compilations, respectively) fit right in with side B of TOYPAJ; radio-friendly but a little darker than what blink had been doing previously. (That said, "Don't Tell Me That It's Over" does share a little of the toxic masculinity problem that Enema songs like "Dumpweed" and "The Party Song" had.) Would all three of those songs definitely made the album if the band's manager never intervened? It's one of those great unanswered questions in rock history, and as much as I think a version of TOYPAJ where those songs replace "First Date," "The Rock Show," and "Happy Holidays, You Bastard" would be superior, the reality makes for a good underdog story. Enema of the State is the band's most influential and culturally important album, and the untitled is their most genre-defying, adventurous, and timeless. Take Off Your Pants and Jacket will always be right there in the middle, always getting slightly overlooked in comparison. It's, to quote Mark's liner notes one last time, "the permanent record of a band in transition."