With 'Goddamnit,' Alkaline Trio Rebuilt Chicago Punk in Their Own Image
Twenty years ago, the three-piece released a debut album that stood out by being just a little bit weirder than its peers.
The Shape of Punk revisits some of the seminal albums turning 20 years old in 2018, tracing their impact and influence on the future of the scene.
In 1998, the Chicago punk was in a state of flux. That’s not to say it had become stagnant, as the 90s were a creatively fertile time for bands of all flavors, as everyone from Screeching Weasel to Slapstick to Los Crudos to Charles Bronson built their own pathways within the city and the nearby suburbs. But by ’98, most of those bands were either broken up, breaking up, or releasing third-rate reunion records. While these distinct subsets all constructed different outposts of the Chicagoland area, they converged at the Fireside Bowl. This rundown bowling alley became the go-to spot for every up-and-coming band, as well as nearly every national touring act. A new breed of Chicago punk was slowly bubbling up, and while it doesn’t have a definite beginning, it’s easy to see October of 1998 as the start of something. And while it’d be incredibly convenient to say that Alkaline Trio playing the release show for Goddamnit at the Fireside was when this new scene started in earnest, the fact that show was a total disaster somehow feels more appropriate.
Formed in 1996 by guitarist and vocalist Matt Skiba, bassist Rob Doran, and drummer Glenn Porter, Alkaline Trio’s start was no different from that of many of its peers. Though Porter had gained some notoriety as the drummer of 88 Fingers Louie, neither Skiba nor Doran had reached that same level. This was due, at least in part, to Skiba being the drummer of bands such as Blunt, Jerkwater, and The Traitors, always keeping the rhythm at the back of the stage. But with Alkaline Trio, he’d become the band’s face. After the release of their SunDials seven-inch in 1996, Doran vacated his spot and Dan Andriano entered the fold. Andriano had previously played bass in the ska-punk band Slapstick, who split up in 1996. The addition of Andriano gave Alkaline Trio more depth musically, as his backing vocals gave Skiba’s songs another harmonic layer and soon, while he was still fronting his emo-leaning band Tuesday, he’d begin writing his own songs for Alkaline Trio. In 1998, this new version of the Trio joined the Asian Man Records roster and released their first EP together, For Your Lungs Only, as a precursor to the band’s debut album.
Recorded over the course of five days with producer Matt Allison, Goddamnit felt no more important than any other Chicago punk record coming out at the time. But slowly, the band’s unique blend of Jawbreaker’s heart-on-sleeve lyricism, Skiba’s darker, satanic fascinations, and their embrace of Chicago’s weirder, art-rock tendencies found a way to coalesce. Opening with “Cringe,” Goddamnit put the band’s sideways approach to punk on full display, as Skiba played a simple, three-chord riff, but stretched out those first notes just a little too long and made them feel distinct. Andriano ran circles around him, hitting every complementary note he could think of while Porter built jarring stops into his rolling fills. And for extended periods, they were basically just jamming, eschewing punk’s ethos of trimming anything that could be seen as indulgent and letting the music be just as expressive as the lyrics.
Those moments personified much of Goddamnit, as the album broke almost every rule and somehow stuck the landing. Given that the album was recorded so quickly, and Andriano had to leave for a Tuesday tour in the middle of it, he recorded his backing vocals before Skiba laid down his leads. The result of that unintuitive approach is that he’d easily slip out of sync with Skiba, butting his way to the front and giving songs like “My Little Needle” an added dash of character. Those little fumbles are what made Goddamnit so engaging, as those minor mistakes became intrinsic to the songs themselves.
No song encapsulated the charm of Goddamnit more than “Nose Over Tail.” Though it had debuted on the band’s demo tape and served as the B-side for SunDials, it achieved its final form on their debut. The song rocketed forward with a velocity that was sure to grab any fan of the kind of populist punk being dealt out by labels like Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords, but with Skiba’s abstract lyricism, melding imagery from The Wizard of Oz and the self-deprecation of him cracking his head open to prove he had brains, it was a mixture of goofy wordplay and youthful conviction that was fully compelling. It was also unendingly saccharine, as the band dropped out so Skiba could scream “I’d love to rub your back” at the top of his lungs. But that was only the beginning of Goddamnit’s most maudlin moments, as two acoustic tracks found their way onto the album. Midway through the record was “Enjoy Your Day,” which saw Andriano’s voice cracking as he forlornly sang “I hope he bought you roses.” And at the album’s end, when Skiba picked up an acoustic guitar for “Sorry About That,” he offered an apology for being a shitty dude, a fact he was, clearly, still very broken up about.
But in the midst of all those earnest declarations, Alkaline Trio was busy throwing themselves into the realm of the occult. While punk had long flirted with darker subject matter, it often manifested in more cartoonish depictions, with The Misfits looking intimidating but singing about the old horror movie monsters. Alkaline Trio would skew toward that as their career went on, but on Goddamnit, their approach was more subtle. Well, sort of. The album may have been called Goddamnit and had 666 emblazoned across the cover, but it felt nuanced compared to the works of Glenn Danzig. Even if the band was doing their version of corpse paint on the album’s back cover, and Skiba drew a little pentagram in the lyric sheet next to “Southern Rock,” all of this made them feel more mysterious and sinister than if they were fully showing their hand.
At a time when punk rock was becoming increasingly focused on razor-sharp precision, as skate-punk bands put a premium on faster tempos and cleaner production, Alkaline Trio served as a reminder that the genre is at its best when it doesn’t get too fussy about the particulars. The same could be said of Chicago bands that ran in similar circles to them and began releasing records shortly after Goddamnit. Soon, bands like The Lawrence Arms and The Honor System would offer up their own takes on this brand of punk, and before long, this kind of lo-fi, rough-hewn strain would become Chicago’s chief export to the rest of the punk scene over the next decade.
Not only would Skiba’s signature octave chord patterns get stolen by nearly every band that came out of the Midwest in the ensuing decade, his lyrics would become a launchpad for plenty of other pop-punk bands to pull from. Fittingly, Skiba would get talked up by the members of blink-182, a band he’d go on to join after Tom Delonge left the group. In a short interview clip, Delonge copped to rewriting lyrics after listening to Alkaline Trio, which does a pretty good job of explaining how he landed on his lines about spider webs in “I Miss You.” Similarly, Skiba’s handiwork would give My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way a gentle nudge before he guided them toward full rock opera.
Even now, Goddamnit remains a totem in Alkaline Trio's discography. Though the band streamlined their sound as the years went on, they never lost sight of Goddamnit’s power. When interviewed earlier this year, Skiba picked it as his favorite Alkaline Trio record. “When we play that record—any song off that record—it just hits,” he said, and that statement holds a lot of water, given that the band has played the album in full on two different tours and people still showed up and emphatically sang along. And even now, with over 300 releases to its name, Asian Man Records founder Mike Park still says it’s his favorite album he ever released, touring it as being one of “the top five greatest punk albums ever.”
Although Alkaline Trio has changed dramatically since the release of Goddamnit, the album’s combination of youthful energy, earnest wordplay, and genuine excitement still feels like the band’s most defining trait. Even as they tried to go back to their roots with records like 2010's This Addiction, they couldn’t tap into that vein a second time. Plenty of others have tried, too, but that ultimately betrays what Goddamnit was all about. The album perfectly captured a moment of creative freedom in the Chicago scene, when lines between genres blurred and bands could make whatever the hell they wanted without a second thought. It’s a testament to Goddamnit’s singularity that, even as plenty of others tried to rip it off wholecloth, no one else has made something as beautifully fucked up as those three kids did in 1998.