Retrospective Reviews: Sum 41's "All Killer No Filler"
We look at the influential album from Canada's Blink-182.
I don't know how the fuck it really happened, but in May 2001, four strip-mall meat wads from Ajax, Ontario, released a 13-track album that would be considered one of the best pop-punk records of all time. By mainstreaming an anti-mainstream subculture, Sum 41's All Killer, No Filler made Iron Maiden t- shirts cool again and helped usher in a new era of teenage crap. The 1990s kids who got pubes and B.O. to the Backstreet Boys were growing all too conscious of their mundane suburban existences. Only punk, a genre with a variable but codified set of anti-establishment values, could ease the boredom of hanging out at the mall all weekend. Shows like CKY and Jackass had already popularized gross-out pranks, skate culture and So-Cal punk on TV, and teen jerks continued to go to the mall. But chugging Orange Julius just wasn't as cool as filming your stupid friends chugging Orange Julius and then puking on each other.
So when a group of punk hooligans called Sum 41 submitted prank video clips as part of their press package to labels, the young band was both following and shaping an emerging form of culture, what you could call commercial punk, and what we like to call pop-punk. The paradox of Sum 41 wouldn't really be evident for another few years: their success and influence was so immediate that no one questioned it.
To be clear, I was not above any of this. At this time in history, if I wasn't gawking at the guys at skate parks, I was self-producing my own stupid wipe-out videos with Metallica soundtracks. I was being educated by Bad Religion and Propaghandi and I was just as hormonal as the next TV-watching teen: fuck boy bands, fuck teachers. We were all so agitated by pop culture that pop culture became agitated.
Deryck Whibley was only 19 when Sum 41 signed to Island Records. He was only 21 when the band cut All Killer, No Filler with his high-school friend and song-writer Steve Jocz, the Tom DeLonge to his Mark Hoppus. With the other two -- Dave “Brownsound” Baksh on lead guitar and tall ginger “Cone” on bass -- Sum 41 was not particularly charming at all, and that was their charm. Early interviews reveal they were a bunch of idiot boys who mostly goofed off, with little to no musical training. But that didn’t stop them. They played over 300 shows in 2001 alone. What they lacked in skill was quickly made up by non- stop playing and learning over the next few (and arguably best) years of their international career.
Sum 41 has said that All Killer, No Filler isn't really a “punk” record. While the requisite three-chord, 4/4 time is there, so are gems of 80s metal, Beastie rap-rock and Californian ska. For four pseudo-punks from the suburbs, the album showed a wide-range of American influence, which was most likely driven by the album's songwriter, producer and Treble Charger frontman Greig Nori, who was almost 10 years older than anyone in the band. He was their Dance Mom, their Usher: where Treble Charger failed, Sum 41 succeeded, big-time. Both Sum 41 and the debut full-length was an appealing mix of youth, ignorance and know-it-all attitude, in spite of itself. It was adolescent whining that was perfectly relatable and easily consumable by the American teenager, the world’s most comfortable and privileged demographic.
All Killer, No Filler’s first single, “Fat Lip,” pretty much sums up everything I just said: "We like having fun at other people's expense" (okay, jackasses), "Don't tell us to behave!" (screw you, Mom), "Maiden and Priest were the guys that we praised" (post-pop metal revival) and "I'm sick of being told to act my age” (boo-hoo). I mean, it goes on and on like a manifesto drafted in Math class, but holy shit, it was catchy and stuck in the head. The song was divorced from the mature articulations of punk bands that were actually raised with “heavy metal and mullets.” What made “Fat Lip” such a chart-topper was the inherent sense of fun, the primal element of pop music; Sum 41 was about as threatening at Hot Topic. More than that, “Fat Lip” was gnarly and just punk enough to articulate both social entitlement and social disenfranchisement, which hadn't really been so balanced in song until this point. And true, Blink-182 had already made Sum 41’s mold, but the Canadian alternative was way cleaner and not at all edgy, save for the reference to “abortion, bortion, bortion, bortion.” They were still kids. That was the appeal.
The second single, “In Too Deep,” was as formulaic in style and sound as "Fat Lip" but it showcased a stronger metal line and tugged at the testicles. It incorporated horny teen romance and was featured on the American Pie 2 soundtrack, a perfect association between cinematic and musical high school boys who came too soon. I mean, there’s no way Sum 41 could have anticipated the success of these singles.
In the 16 months following All Killer, No Filler’s release, “Motivation” and “Pain for Pleasure” would also hit American charts and Sum 41 were appearing on Warped Tours, winning Much Music Video Awards, Group of the Year at the Junos and even grabbed nominations from MTV. More like The Vandals and Green Day than hard punk, Sum 41 was sincerely insincere, jokey and bratty, and they developed their technical skill by committing to the industry. But 2002’s Does This Look Infected? had less success than All Killer, which went platinum in the UK, US and Canada, so they’d already peaked.
Despite that both Jocz and Brown Sound eventually quit the band, Sum 41’s immense pop-punk success was largely unprecedented in the American market: very rarely do Canadian pop-punk bands completely takeover the over-saturated US industry, and even less often does a band have a hand in shaping mass culture. Between Whibley’s defiant vocals, the use and sometimes abuse of many genres and the simplicity of a naive form of mall-punk, the album was definitely mostly killer, and certainly captured 2001. As much as I poop on Sum 41, All Killer, No Filler deserved all the positive recognition it received.
Adria Young is a writer living in Halifax. She's on Twitter.