Taking Back Sunday’s ‘Tell All Your Friends’ turns 20 – a look back on the emo landmark
As the '90s came to a close, pop punk and nu metal ruled the airwaves, and as the new millennium began, urban-centric music critics were applauding The Strokes and their NYC peers for "saving rock" from those very things. But amidst all that, there was a new generation of (mostly suburban) kids who wanted something they could call their own, a new version of punk rock that was more intimate and personal than the stuff on TRL and less overtly retro than the Meet Me in the Bathroom scene. That thing was third wave emo, and one of the most pivotal albums to usher in emo's third wave was Taking Back Sunday's 2002 debut LP Tell All Your Friends, which turns 20 this Saturday (3/26).
Emo began in DC, it took on new life after spreading to the Midwest, and the first emo band to have a hit song were from Arizona, but the third wave's epicenter was Long Island, and the bands who emerged from that scene had a distinct LI flair rooted in their hometown's rich, underground hardcore history. Things had been bubbling up on the island for a while; Silent Majority brought melody to LIHC with their 1997 album Life of a Spectator, which more or less spawned the entire Long Island emo boom, and Glassjaw, The Movielife, and Brand New had all released albums that helped bring national attention to the LI scene before Tell All Your Friends was released. Over in the spiritually similar region of New Brunswick, NJ; Thursday had broken out of the underground with 2001's Full Collapse, an album that fused basement screamo with palatable clean singing and a whole lot of melodrama, and left the world thirsty for more bands that scratched a similar itch. The timing was ripe for someone to come along and really blow this whole thing up, which is exactly what Taking Back Sunday did.
Despite being a new band, Taking Back Sunday had some Long Island Hardcore royalty in their ranks. Guitarist and co-founder Eddie Reyes had already done time in Mind Over Matter, Clockwise, and Inside, and he had also co-founded The Movielife, but left shortly after their formation. When Eddie formed Taking Back Sunday in 1999, the band's initial lead vocalist was former One True Thing bassist Antonio Longo. They put out two EPs with Antonio that gained some attention on a local level but not much else, and eventually Antonio and TBS parted ways. Without a lead singer, guitarist John Nolan and new bassist Adam Lazzara -- who had moved from North Carolina to Long Island to join the band -- each started writing songs for the band and planned to split vocal duties, but Eddie had other ideas. "Eddie was kinda like, 'Adam's gonna be the singer, we need a frontman and Adam can do it,'" John told us in a recent interview. "He just knew that was the way it should be."
Eddie made the right call, and the band noticed the results immediately. "Even when we recorded [the 2001 Tell All Your Friends demo], we knew something had really clicked, and we had taken a big step forward," John said. "And the response was pretty quick as well." With Adam as frontman and John assuming the role of secondary vocalist, Taking Back Sunday developed a dual vocal approach that would become a huge part of their appeal, and a massive influence on bands who came in their wake. Other emo/hardcore bands had used dual vocals before, but Taking Back Sunday had developed a style that didn't really sound like anyone else, and it added a lot to the melodramatic, heart-on-sleeve songwriting approach that masses of kids would latch onto. Sometimes they sang in a call-and-response fashion; other times they just sang two competing parts at once. And each lyric out of their mouths was adolescent poetry at its most dramatic, with enough one-liners to fill the most emo yearbook ever.
John cites short-lived Midwest emo greats Cap'n Jazz as one of the influences on TBS' vocal approach. "They would have some stuff where the other guy was just yelling over the singer at the same time, and it wasn't even really intertwining, and I was sorta like, 'Oh wow, you can do that?,'" he said. "'Like you can just kinda yell and have another guy doing a whole separate thing?'" But more than anything else, he says it was born out of necessity. "Adam had already been a songwriter and he had notebooks full of lyrics, and I did as well... so we had all these words that we had both written, and so [we thought] we might as well be using as much of these as possible and both sing whatever we can at any time we can."
Making Adam the frontman proved to be crucial, as did finally solidifying a rhythm section with drummer Mark O'Connell and bassist Shaun Cooper. They became the backbone of the band, and they helped shift the sound too. Mark was writing guitar parts for the band at the time, and Shaun -- who was into punk but also had an ear for jazz -- brought a groove that separated TBS from their peers. Armed with their now-classic five-piece lineup, TBS recorded the Tell All Your Friends demo, spread it around town like crazy, and quickly had kids at their shows who knew every word.
Label interest ensued, and TBS ultimately went with Victory Records, who had released Thursday's Full Collapse a year prior. Victory hooked TBS up with the same producer who helmed Full Collapse, Sal Villanueva, and they headed to Sal's NJ studio Big Blue Meenie to record what would become Victory's next emo success story. Given the multiple connections, it's hard not to compare Tell All Your Friends to Full Collapse, and the albums had some definite shared DNA, but Tell All Your Friends was a force of its own, an amalgamation of influences that stood out from anything you could accuse it of sounding like. They had a hardcore side due to Eddie's years in the LIHC scene, but they also had a pop punky emo side that drew upon bands like The Get Up Kids, the lyrical melodrama of (and lyrical references to) The Smiths, some hip hop influence on their cadences and overly wordy verses, and a prettier side that they embraced with clean guitar arpeggios, piano, and (fake) strings. They relied on chord shapes and drum patterns that departed from traditional punk song structures, but they also knew just when to go for something streamlined and crowd-pleasing. It's no wonder that Taking Back Sunday were able to latch onto the mainstream pop punk craze, retain hardcore cred, and (eventually) be embraced by the indie rock community too. All of those ingredients are there on Tell All Your Friends, and they're combined in a way that still feels innovative 20 years later.
Taking Back Sunday's unique combination of influences perfectly captured and embodied a moment, and proved to be exactly what coming-of-age punks and emo kids were looking for. It may have taken notes from Midwest/second wave emo, but this was something distinctly different. It wasn't your older sibling's band, there was no passed-down wisdom about their importance; they were new, they were exciting, and they were yours. They sounded fresh, but what really put them over the edge for so many of their fans was the deeply emotional, instantly quotable nature of their lyrics. For the past twentysomething years, pop punk and emo has been innately tied to social media, and this was the AIM era, when away messages, profiles, and primitively animated icons were full of one-liners from Tell All Your Friends. "So sick of being tired and oh so tired of being sick" is the very first line on the record, and it just did not stop from there. If you need a refresher, here are some others:
* "Your lipstick, his collar/Don't bother, angel/I know exactly what goes on"
* "And will you tell all your friends/You've got your gun to my head?"
* "Best friends means I pulled the trigger/Best friends means you get what you deserve"
* "You always come close but this never comes easy"
* "Don't hold your breath because you'll only make things worse"
* "She said 'don't let it go to your head/boys like you are dime a dozen'"
* "Maybe I should hate you for this/Never really did ever quite get that far"
* "The truth is you could slit my throat/And with my one last gasping breath, I'd apologize for bleeding on your shirt"
* "If I'm just bad news, then you're a liar"
Like I said, melodramatic. (Those last four are all from "You're So Last Summer." People really liked quoting that one.) On one hand, these types of lyrics are exactly why this album spoke to so many people during adolescence, when it feels like your world revolves around getting someone to like you and you feel EVERYTHING so deeply. On the other, third wave emo has been frequently criticized for being largely made up of boys singing about girls, the often-cruel nature of their lyrics, and the lack of representation from women, and Tell All Your Friends was not above this ("All of this was all your fault," "You're so guilty it's disgusting," etc). The band has since denounced some of that, and to their credit, there was always a flamboyant, gender-bending side to this album too. It's not flawless, but it wouldn't have resonated as strongly as it did if it totally lacked perspective.
And, though it was a girl they were fighting over, much of Tell All Your Friends was about the dissolution of male friendship too. Specifically John Nolan's friendship with Jesse Lacey, the now-disgraced frontman of Brand New, who played bass for Taking Back Sunday before Adam joined. As emo lore has it, Jesse and TBS parted ways after John allegedly courted Jesse's girlfriend at a party. It led to Jesse forming Brand New and taking shots at John with the biting pop punk of "Seventy Times 7" from their 2001 debut album Your Favorite Weapon, and John fired back by referencing the "best friends means..." line on "There's No 'I' In Team" and using the exact same lyrics from the song's bridge in his own song's bridge. And Jesse's equally verbose lyricism becomes the target of a line in "Timberwolves at New Jersey" ("Those words at best were worse than teenage poetry"). The feud extended beyond the music too, as both bands released tee shirts that took shots at each other. (Jesse also joined TBS on stage in August of 2002 to perform a mashup of "There's No 'I' In Team" and "Seventy Times 7" so one wonders at what point the feud became more about publicity than anything else, though Adam Lazzara did say "I think Jesse Lacey is just a dick. He just sucks. He’s not a good person" in a 2015 interview, two years before Jesse was publicly accused of sexual misconduct.) The feud is intrinsically tied to this album, and it's hard to talk about this album without mentioning it, but it's also ancient history that Tell All Your Friends has already outlasted and will continue to do so. Even without knowing the context of emo's most famous feud, the emotions conveyed in songs like "There's No 'I' In Team" and "Timberwolves At New Jersey" remain timeless.
Tell All Your Friends blew up faster than anyone involved with making the record thought it would, and Taking Back Sunday spent the following year touring like crazy, rolling out videos for four of the album's songs (including the iconic Fight Club-inspired video for "Cute without the E"), and getting bigger and bigger at every turn. But it wasn't built to last. John Nolan and Shaun Cooper left the band at the height of their success in 2003, and formed a new band, Straylight Run, with John's sister Michelle (who had sung backing vocals on TAYF) and Breaking Pangaea drummer Will Noon. Meanwhile, Breaking Pangaea frontman Fred Mascherino took over for John in Taking Back Sunday, and Matt Rubano became TBS' new bassist. By 2004, both bands had new albums; Taking Back Sunday continued down their emo/punk path with Where You Want To Be, while Straylight Run showed off a lighter, more piano-driven, more indie rock side with their self-titled album, suggesting that the members' differences were not just personal but creative as well. A lot of great music came from both Straylight Run and Fred/Matt-era Taking Back Sunday, some of it even stronger than Tell All Your Friends, and John and Shaun ultimately rejoined the band in 2010, reuniting the classic lineup and releasing three more albums together throughout the 2010s, with a fourth in the works as we speak (sans Eddie, who left the band in 2018). As good as all of it may be, Taking Back Sunday never tried to recreate Tell All Your Friends. A whole lot of other bands did over the years, but TBS knew better. It was a moment in time, they said what they needed to say, and though the flaws are there, it's also sort of perfect for what it is. It's hard to imagine the album having come out any other way, under any other circumstances.
20 years after its release, Tell All Your Friends is still directly influencing new bands -- it's easy to hear traces of it in rising bands like Anxious and Koyo -- and it's indirectly influenced too many bands to count. So many punk, emo, and indie rock musicians from the past decade-plus found their way to those genres through this album and others like it. It has moments that feel very dated to 2002, not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but listening to it 20 years later, it holds up and at times feels almost surprisingly fresh. But what's most remarkable about it today is that it feels just as relevant as it did in 2002, if not even more so. John Nolan himself said he "kind of thought it was gonna be a trendy kind of thing that would kind of die out in a couple years or something," but these songs just kept living and growing. If you attend any Emo Nite, or any Taking Back Sunday show, or really just hear these songs at any kind of social gathering, it's clear that the reactions that they elicit in people are just as strong and inhibitionless as they were 20 years ago. Nostalgia is obviously part of it for a lot of people, but nostalgia alone isn't enough to establish the kind of legacy that this album still has. What started as a relatively low-budget album from a hungry Long Island band eager to break out of their local punk scene has become a classic that stands tall next to high-budget, major label masterpieces from established icons. The band and their longtime fans may have outgrown some of the album's sentiments, but as long as there are young people trying to make sense of friends, lovers, and other relationships in their lives, Tell All Your Friends will keep impacting new generations. And 20 more years from now, it'll come as no surprise if we're all still singing.
Tell All Your Friends is also getting a new reissue for its 20th anniversary, and you can pick it up on standard black vinyl (with a bonus 10"), white cassette, or CD here.