JTF’s HS Jams Review — 10) Box Car Racer “Box Car Racer”

Released May 21, 2002; Produced by Jerry Finn

I don’t know if the looming finale of this blog series has been on my mind or what but I’ve been thinking a lot about high school lately. Not longing for it, mind you. Just reminiscing about the awkwardness of it all. For my entire life, I’ve known people who cling to their high school years as their glory days … and I’ve pitied them. 

A friend’s mom once sat us down in her living room and preached to us, “enjoy these years because they’ll be some of the best of your life!” Even in that moment I thought to myself if what I was going through at the time was as good as my life was ever going to get … then the rest of my life wouldn’t be much worth living.

99% of my friends from those years have gone their separate ways and while I’m grateful for Facebook for letting me know they’re doing okay, I don’t miss them. I had two great teachers that really helped shape me as a person back then and I did learn a lot about how selfish some people can be, how selfish I can be and how difficult relationships can be. 

Thankfully despite the lost friendships and broken hearts and jealous boyfriends and countless trips to the chicken nugget bar that inevitably led to countless trips to the bathroom (with no stall doors), I at least had a lot of great music at my fingertips. I already knew this fact but doing this series has helped me really appreciate it even more.

As an adult, I find it strange that so many bands made of grown-ass adults would sing so many songs that are relatable to 16-year-old kids. Even when I was their age when they sang the songs, I felt like I was a little above the subject matter of most of my favorite Blink-182 songs. But when I was actually 16, the songs sang directly to me. Nobody understood what I was going through the same way that Tom Delonge did. 

Not from this era but a rad photo nonetheless

Tom was way cool to me. During the Enema of the State years, I frequently sported Hurley shirts, wore my Spitfire and Independent hats to the side and wanted my lip pierced badly so I could look just like Tom. He introduced me to one of the greatest Blaxploitation films of all time (Blacula) thanks to a t-shirt he had on in a publicity photo. When Take Off Your Pants and Jacket came out, Tom’s look grew up a little more, which meant I was now wearing black-on-black more often and was obsessed with his brand Atticus — which required trips to Pac Sun in Johnson City to acquire — and I still wanted my lip pierced. 

It was quite clear on songs like Dumpweed, Dysentery Gary, Anthem, Anthem Part Two, First Date, Story of a Lonely Guy, Stay Together for the Kids, Give Me One Good Reason and Please Take Me Home, that Tom obviously knew what it was like to be lonely, sad, depressed, feeling broken because your parents are divorced, can’t keep a healthy relationship going and always in love with someone who will never love you back. 

One thing Tom rarely ever conveyed, however, was genuine anxiety or anger, two feelings I frequently had but had no real outlet for. Fortunately for me, the ESP that existed between me and Tom was still strongly connected when I was 17. He heard my cries and made one of the greatest records of all time.

10) Box Car Racer — Box Car Racer

As Tom states — the best and worst thing to happen to Blink-182.

When I was a teenager, I was all but glued to MTV, especially in Blink-182’s heyday. We had only recently gotten a modern-rock radio station in Kingsport (and even then, they usually only played dad rock) so MTV was all I had. Even when I was a little kid, I had a strong interest in music, the music industry and the production of music. At one point in my life I even wanted to be a music producer and work for a record label. 

So it’s no surprise that I was always excited when MTV news had an update on a band I loved — it was insider information about something I was passionate about. And I remember the hype I felt when it was announced that Tom Delonge and Travis Barker of my favorite band at the time were spinning off to release a side-project record under the name Box Car Racer.

My fellow Blink freak and friend Dustin sat up with me one evening to see the world premiere of the Box Car Racer single and accompanying music video for I Feel So. I remember being excited but also nervous — what were we about to hear? The piano intro wasn’t what I was expecting but I had an open mind … then BOOM.

If you listen closely, Blink-182 had some heavy elements up until this moment, especially on Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, but nothing — NOTHING — this heavy. The band is in a grungy, graffitied room, dressed in black, tattoos and blood visible. The energy in the room was something altogether different than I’d seen from Blink and it was a very, very good thing.

As the video faded to black, I remember looking at Dustin and saying, “I think that may be the best song I’ve ever heard.” 

We learned the release date of the record and I marched down to our local Circuit City that day and picked it up (this was the only CD store in town that would sell Parental Advisory CDs to minors). Every song on the record is a masterpiece and I still love it to this day. In fact, while this list wasn’t arranged in any particular order, I can confidently say I saved the best for last. It’s still one of my favorite records ever made.

If you try to research any information about the record, you’ll see that despite the creativity that went into the record and all the strong points it has, the album’s greatness is overshadowed by the drama it created between Tom and Blink-182 bassist Mark Hoppus. With Tom starting his side project with Travis, Mark felt left out and understandably so. Tom swears Box Car Racer was never supposed to be a real band, that he asked Travis to be a part of it so he wouldn’t have to pay a session drummer to lay down the tracks and that including Mark would essentially make it another Blink-182 album — something Tom was trying to avoid since the content and arrangement of the songs were an extreme departure from Blink’s usual material. 

On a negative note, the record caused a divide in Blink-182 that, even after releasing a couple of records afterward, they never fully recovered from. The band ended up breaking up not once, but twice before Tom left the band forever. Blink-182 continues with guitarist Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio (another band I loved at the time). I think Matt is a good fit for the current sound of Blink and I really like the guy but I do still prefer Tom-era Blink especially because of the record that came next. 

Thanks to the darkness exercised on Box Car Racer in addition to Mark being more open-minded about the new sound for Blink-182, the next Blink record was the best album they ever released (in my opinion). I wanted badly to include that on this list but it didn’t come out until after I had started college. That record with its heaviness and dark notes wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Box Car Racer. It destroyed the band but it also gave them their strongest work.

And here’s why it works:

Strong Points

The album’s second track All Systems Go really reveals how heavy this record is going to be. After Tom wrote Aliens Exist on Blink’s 1999 album Enema of the State, the song’s topic about government conspiracy isn’t a far stretch from his earlier work. The mood that is set musically, however, is unique and is a fun window into some of the better songs from Blink’s self-titled record (Obvious, Easy Target and Stockholm Syndrome to name a few).

Cat Like Thief almost made it to the Favorite Songs list here. It’s NOT heavy and is way more stripped down, likely in the fashion that Tom wanted the record to sound in the first place. It’s said that Tom started Box Car Racer after writing so many Blink songs on an acoustic guitar and intended the unofficial project to be that naked. To add icing to this musical cake, the verses are shared with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and if you listen closely, you can hear New Found Glory’s Jordan Pundik on backing vocals, though I have to admit that I was only recently able to hear them.

While it’s already been established that this record ultimately drove a wedge between Tom and Blink bandmade Mark Hoppus, Mark was still able to lend a hand on the album’s final, non-instrumental, track Elevator. This is another stripped-down song dealing with suicide as a man leaps to his death while a group of people on the ground witnesses the tragedy before moving on with their lives. Some argue the song is about those who were leaping from the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks in NYC but I think it has more to do with humanity’s knack for dismissing the demise of its peers.

Favorite Songs

I Feel So kicks the album off as both track one and the first single released. I already talked about the heaviness of the song and the visual they chose to go with in the video leaving such a lasting impact on me so I won’t go there again. You can easily imagine being 17 and completely identifying with ‘cause I feel so mad, feel so angry, feel so calloused, so lost, confused again // feel so cheap, so used, unfaithful, let’s start over. To my great surprise, one of the first things you notice upon popping this CD into your stereo is that the intro to this song is actually much longer than what they let the video have. And that’s a beautiful thing because the long build-up is intense and the heavy intro riff is so delicious — one of my favorites in the entire genre.

Letters to God is one of my favorite songs to play on guitar. Lyrically, the song has the narrator pleading with God for more time on this planet. It’s nuanced enough, however, to leave some room for interpretation — is the person dying and wanting more time, feeling as if this impending death is unfair? Or is it one of those instances where you want something so badly that you swear to God that you’ll never do anything bad again if He allows it to happen? Regardless, the acoustic and piano accompaniment to the verses are intense and gloomy enough to fit the mood of the song … but then the band kicks in with that heavy Box Car guitar to finish the song with some incredibly strong emotion.

If you were ever a teenager in love, there aren’t many songs that spell out the innocence of missing your teenage infatuation better than There Is. Another acoustic banger, the song kicks off with Travis providing a rolling snare that persists throughout the song followed by Tom’s guitar and what I would argue are some of his most heartfelt lyrics. I wanted to point out a particular lyric but I figure I’d just drop the entire second verse because it’s gold:

Those notes you wrote me, I’ve kept them all

I’ve given a lot of thought of how to write you back this fall;

With every single letter, in every single word

There will be a hidden message about a boy that loves a girl

Even though I’ve only been a professional writer for the last decade, I’ve used writing as an outlet for my passions, emotions, concerns, struggles and creativity for most of my life, and that includes writing silly little love letters to those girls whom I thought were the loves of my life at one point. I had a girlfriend at the time who was rarely allowed to go out on dates and had limited phone time (this was pre-social media, of course) so summers were hard for us. And even though I spilled my heart onto those pages more times than I’d ever like to be reminded, I’m confident I never got to Tom Delonge level, and that’s okay.

Do you care if I don’t know what to say? 

Will you sleep tonight? Will you think of me?

Will I shake this off? Pretend it’s all okay

That there’s someone out there who feels just like me?

There is.

So Box Car started off with Tom wanting to do an acoustic side-gig, likely not heard by very many people … then brought Travis on board instead of a session drummer who helped him arrange a lot of the songs and flesh them out … then deciding to record them DIY-style in San Diego in just a matter of days. Despite its independent intentions, MCA records knew that if any member of Blink-182 tried anything, that it would sell, so it’s reported that some A&R guys came to the studio during recording and said (paraphrased), “Shit, we have a record here!”

And they were right. Box Car Racer sold 65,000 copies its first week, landing it at number 12 on the Billboard 200. Very little promo was done for the record save for two music videos, a DVD and a single tour (the band consisting of Tom Delonge on guitar/vocals, Travis Barker on drums, Anthony Celestino on bass and David Kennedy on guitar) with support coming from a then-unknown band called the Used.

Ultimately, the album peaked at number 12 in the USA, 27 in the United Kingdom and 7 in Canada. The album is certified Gold in Canada and Silver in the UK. 

To reiterate, Box Car Racer is one of my favorite punk rock albums of all time — maybe even one of my favorite albums, period. Tom allowing himself to be creative in this regard may have led to the demise of Blink-182, one of my favorite bands, but it is directly correlated with the greatness of Blink’s followup record, the best one of their career. Box Car Racer was a one-and-done project, and I think that’s kind of cool. Considering the direction Tom started to go in with Angels and Airwaves, I’m really glad this eponymous record was where Box Car ended. 

I hate it when perfect things are ruined.

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