I started buying punk albums in 1994. My local shopping mall record store only carried noteworthy releases at the time, and a lot of them they would sell as imports. 14.99$ is the price I paid for “Punk in Drublic” (at least thirty bucks in today’s money, give or take), and that was for the cassette, not the CD. It’s no surprise then that “Cheshire Cat”– Blink 182‘s first studio album–flew under my radar. Of course ’94 was also the year that saw the release of “Smash” and “Dookie,” so we kids weren’t exactly starving for quality new music to rattle us out of our suburban stupor.
It was much later, after I’d committed every toilet joke from “Dude Ranch” to memory, that someone at a party sat me down in front of a ghetto blaster and said: “This is the best punk rock song you’ll ever hear. Pay attention.”
Nearly twenty years later, as I turn my attention once again to “Carousel,” the album’s opening track, I can’t help but think, though I have heard dozens of memorable punk rock songs since, that this dude was definitely onto something.
If you’ll indulge me a moment, I’d like for us to listen, and I mean really listen to that song one more time. It is, after all, the prototype for most of the pop punk that came after it. Yes: go fetch it from ye olde CD rack. I’ll wait.
It begins deceptively slow, with a heavily distorted guitar melody, a distant cymbal rhythm, and a distinctive bass line; you could almost mistake it for a heavy metal arrangement. After about thirty seconds, the heavy guitar recedes and that instantly recognizable bass riff takes over. Even though that sequence serves merely as an overture to the frenetic (and unforeseeable) power-chorus that’s coming up passed the minute mark, it is an integral, and to my mind indispensable part of the song—and not just the bass line, the whole intro. Frankly, I always thought the earlier Buddha version was weaker because of these missing bars, and so is the one from The Mark, Tom and Travis Show. With its down-tempo and melancholy overtone, the prologue accompanies the song thematically and lends it a kind of earnestness that is fitting for a song dealing with, amongst other things, loneliness (come to think of it, maybe the darker mood it adds is precisely why they never played it live, given their frat boy personas on stage).
Once the prologue is done leading you on, the tune quickly switches gear and the bass measure still echoing in your head is pushed aside unceremoniously, drowned out by a lo-fi guitar fuzz that drags on just long enough to leave you wondering about the song’s actual direction. Then it hits, like a Joycean epiphany, like raw energy turned into sound: a guitar lick, a perfectly memorable melodic punk measure that ties into and justifies everything that went on before it. Finally, as soon as you hear young Tom Delonge’s angry and shrill voice deliver the first lyrics—“I think of you every now and then/I never felt so alone again/I stop to think at a wishing well/My thoughts send me on a carousel”—you feel it sharply in your gut, and your whole body jerks upwards. It’s that powerful.
And while we’re quoting lyrics, it bears mentioning that, as opposed to a lot of material in Blink 182’s oeuvre, the wordsmithing in “Carousel” is pretty decent indeed, especially considering Delonge must have written it when he was 18. He isn’t exactly a poet of Lou Reed’s order, but in “Carousel” we get honest verses that are easy to relate to.
So there you have it: an intro with an interesting structure, a melodic tune that’s catchy and exciting as hell, and the added bonus of somewhat meaningful lyrics. It’s a piece that lingers after it’s done, that has a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that sets it apart from the rest of the album, from the rest of Blink 182’s body of work, and from the canon of pop punk altogether.
It begs the question: how many pop/skate punk connoisseurs would put Carousel on their list of, say, top five seminal punk songs?
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