The first words uttered on Blink-182’s second full-length LP, 1997's Dude Ranch, are spit out with a self-protective speed. “I know I’m pathetic / I knew when she said it,” bassist Mark Hoppus hisses. His partner in crime, guitarist Tom DeLonge, chimes in with his own sad-sack line before Hoppus can take a breath: “A loser, a bum’s what she called me when I drove her home.” They share in the inadequacy. It’s the self-deprecating Beavis and Butt-Head dynamic of a certain kind of friendship, two pop-punk delinquents managing to laugh at how much they’re always fucking up, and how they’re probably the last people you’d ever want to date.
The song, aptly titled “Pathetic,” exemplifies Blink-182's self-aware bad boy tendencies — taken to another level if you believe the folklore that the song was written about how disappointed DeLonge’s mom was when he was, allegedly, kicked out of school for attending a basketball game drunk. The PG-13, romance-less tale makes the song all the more capital-P Pathetic, which is exactly the stuff that breeds pop-punk canon. On Dude Ranch, which was released 20 years ago this month, Blink-182 found a subversive way to embrace lameness as something to be commended — a language all outsiders could understand. Maybe mediocrity isn’t so bad.
The cultural lines that divide punk and pop-punk now weren't as clear in 1997, or in the five years prior, when DeLonge, Hoppus, and original drummer Scott Raynor met in Poway, California, a San Diego suburb, to form Blink-182. (The band was originally called Duck Tape; later, Figure 8; later Blink, adding the “182” after being threatened with legal action by an Irish band of the same name.) In their earliest days, the trio bonded over a shared admiration for all kinds of underground music, from poppy California punk acts like the Descendents and Green Day, to potentially surprising indie rock — the band’s first demo tape, Flyswatter, includes a cover of Dinosaur Jr.’s “Freak Scene,” a hybridity of interests that would carry onto their 1994 demo, Buddha, and in 1995, the shockingly successful debut full-length, Cheshire Cat. A combination of impossibly catchy hooks, a successful stint on Warped Tour, endearing personalities, and a modernized approach to palm-muted power chord punk songwriting made Blink a buzzy band. There was major-label interest, and the group eventually signed to MCA, now Universal Music Group, for Dude Ranch. It would become the record right before they skyrocketed into mainstream fame — the band’s do-or-die moment.
If the language sounds exaggerated, it’s because everything Blink-182 did at the time was hyperbolic, the symptom of a band dedicated to having a good time and writing great songs while giving the appearance of ease. When it came time to record Dude Ranch, the band sought the help of local producer Mark Trombino, who was best known for his role in post-hardcore band Drive Like Jehu and the emo records he'd helped make great, specifically Jimmy Eat World’s 1996 LP Static Prevails. “Cheshire Cat had sold 70,000 records at the time we started making Dude Ranch,” Trombino tells MTV News. “It was a much, much bigger record for me at the time. I was excited but also nervous and intimidated. I felt weird that there were these guys who had sold way more records than I had ever sold and I’m sitting in the producer’s chair telling them what to do.”
The band headed to Big Fish studios in Encinitas, California to work with Trombino, taking daily trips to Mexican fast food chain Sombrero (as made famous on the album’s fourth single and second biggest track, “Josie”). “They were the most business-centric band I’d ever seen at that point. They had their shit together,” Trombino continues. “They were funny, and I was laughing all the time, but they weren’t like delinquent children.” The image he paints is quite different from the one the band was known for at the time. Toilet humor and inappropriate jokes were their calling card; the full extent of their talents and ambitions was rarely seen yet. That would come later, with 1999's multi-platinum Enema of the State and their groundbreaking hit “All the Small Things.” By that time, the band was leading a more adult lifestyle, with their sobriety well-documented in their 2000 Rolling Stone cover story. The persona presented on Dude Ranch was still tumultuous in all the rock-and-roll ways.
Many of the challenges the band faced in 1997 were environmental: They were fighting to maintain their SoCal skate punk ethos while taking their chances with a major label. Internally, they were on the brink of navigating a lineup change — Raynor departed after Dude Ranch and was replaced by current drummer Travis Barker. “Right after they signed their deal with MCA, they were celebrating and Scott, I don’t know exactly what happened, but he jumped off a roof and broke both his feet,” Trombino recalls. “By the time we made the record, he still had a cast on one foot and he was in a wheelchair. He would wheelchair up to the drum set and scoot onto the drum throne and play. I got the sense that they were bummed, and maybe that was the start of whatever came to be. I didn’t sense any major [tension], but he did amazing.”
Raynor's percussive style helped lay the framework that Barker would later follow — a structure Blink had in place since their earliest days of being the hook-iest pop-punk band in San Diego. On Dude Ranch, that approach is fully realized with the three-chord power-punk tune “Dammit,” their first rock radio hit. Hoppus plays lead vocalist, his dry voice pushed to the brim by Trombino. “I went into it knowing Cheshire Cat and knowing Mark’s style: that sing-song, talk-singing,” Trombino says. “I went into Dude Ranch thinking, I want to put some intensity behind Mark. I pushed him to the point of screaming, basically.”
Hoppus later described how being pushed outside his register this way helped lead him to quit smoking. His performance on the track — that pressure towards screaming — gave the single a sing-along quality, a loose, energetic, no rules no moms freedom that is part of the reason “Dammit” is still part of the pop cultural consciousness.
Not all of Dude Ranch feels as pure. There are lyrical moments that date the album (the “I’m so retarded” line in “Apple Shampoo” is especially cringe-inducing). They get close to redemption in Dude Ranch’s loving moments, which are unlike almost anything else Blink did. “Josie” fails to villainize its romantic other, even celebrating her, in a way that's refreshingly different compared to how the band wrote about women in their later material.
What makes Dude Ranch hold up so well 20 years later is its sense of style. Songs like “Enthused” highlight Blink's inventive pop songwriting in a punk sphere, while “Dick Lips” pushes genre barriers even further toward new possibilities — it’s one of the few songs on the record that actually sounds like it could’ve been recorded on a dude ranch. Instead of gang vocals, the album relies on harmonies that often feel atypical, since DeLonge and Hoppus couldn’t have more distinctive voices from one another. At the time, all of their musical decisions were slightly left of center, even if retrospectively, this can be hard to see. Blink-182 went on to define the building blocks of modern pop-punk, after all. If it’s a genre with limited materials, Dude Ranch did its best to throw a few more bricks in the pile.