“My favourite thing to do was run away.”
– Richard Hell
I can’t remember how I first discovered The Ataris, though it was probably through their cover of Boys of Summer, which was on heavy rotation on MTV at the time. I loved the original, but the cover was spiky, energetic, and had a harder edge. This was at the height of my pop punk phase, so I decided to take a punt and buy the album. That meant a trip to HMV in Cardiff, which was where you had to go to get anything cool if you lived in the south Wales valleys twenty years ago. That, or Spillers Records, which is still there and now the oldest independent record store in the world.
Kind of like weed, So Long Astoria was my gateway album, and for the next couple of years I feverishly set about collecting everything the Ataris had ever put out. I still do, though they’ve lapsed into a funk over the past few years and apart from the odd single, live recording and demo, haven’t released anything new since 2007, though they’ve been threatening a new album for a couple of years now. They’ve never been the most settled outfit, with lots of label and line-up changes, the only constant being singer/songwriter/guitarist Kris Roe.
So Long Astoria, which like all the best albums, is a snapshot in time. Whenever I play it, I am magically transported back to the summer of 2003. It was a special time. My first book had just come out to modest success, I’d left my factory job, which I’d held for almost a decade, and was on the verge of moving to Southampton to study journalism at uni. I’d been writing diligently for eight or nine years by that point, and the hard work was finally beginning to pay dividends. I was also trying to extricate myself from a very bruising three-year relationship that had turned decidedly toxic. In short, my whole world had been turned on its head. Whereas before, it was a world of drudgery and stifled dreams, now it was one of unlimited possibilities.
Looking back, that period felt a lot like a dream. Mostly, I felt a sense of freedom I’d never experienced before. I also felt lucky, and proud that my hard work was finally paying off. I was also slightly terrified. Change is always terrifying, especially when everything changes at the same time. It seemed like every day I had to make potentially life-changing decisions, and I was afraid of fucking things up. There was excitement for my new life, and a duty to navigate my ship responsibly, but there was also a yearning for the past, where my existence was more structured and conventional. I’d spent most of my life trying to break out of a box and when I finally managed it, I had no idea what to do next.
The group of songs on So Long Astoria all fit a certain mould. They are full of optimism, yet many are also tinged with sorrow or regret. It’s an album of new beginnings and second chances. It’s looking forward, but glancing behind with a plaintive, wistful gaze. That fits with the overall context of the album’s release, as it was the band’s major label debut (for Columbia Records) after spending their early career on smaller labels like Kung Fu and Fat Wreck Chords. The mood is encapsulated in the title, a reference to the classic eighties flick The Goonies which is set in a place called Astoria. Roe has said the album’s overall theme was inspired by the book Go Now by Richard Hell (who was a member of several notable punk bands including the Neon Boys, Television and The Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders) which alluded to the concept that memories are better than life itself. “I wanted this record to portray, that life is only as good as the memories we make,” Roe later explained, echoing the lyrics in the title track that kicks off the album.
The theme of escaping small town life and somehow making it big is carried onto the next song, Takeoffs and Landings, which is about the dissolution of a relationship and probably my favourite cut on the album. That and many other songs like Summer of ’79 and All you Can Ever Learn is What You already Know maintain the tempo and call to mind vintage Bouncing Souls or Sum 41. But they aren’t all spiky pop punk rockers. There is depth here, too. My Reply is about a hospitalized fan close to death and Unopened Letter to the World is an ode to American poet Emily Dickinson.
One of the key tracks is first single In this Diary, which was released on 11 February 2003 and later featured in teen heist comedy The Perfect Score. The below verse is pretty typical of the lyrical content:
I guess when it comes down to it
Being grown up isn’t half as fun as growing up
These are the best days of our lives
The only thing that matters is just following your heart
And eventually you’ll finally get it right
Some versions have a selection of bonus tracks on the end of the standard 13-track release. The pick of these for me is a remake of I Won’t Spend Another Night Alone, a song from the album Blue skies, Broken Hearts… Next 12 Exits, but A Beautiful Mistake, which came out as a b-side in some territories, and the cover of Rock n’ Roll High School by the Ramones are also worth checking out.
So Long Astoria was released on 4 March 2003 and was certified gold in America, selling over 700,000 copies. It sold 33,000 in its first week, debuting at number 24 on the Billboard 200. and charted at a slightly less impressive number 92 in the UK. I was hoping we’d get one of those deluxe 16-disc boxed set reissues, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. It wouldn’t really be necessary as the demos and live recordings from the era are available on the band’s Bandcamp page. After all this time, the album’s impact remains undimmed, especially among pop punk aficionados. The album was included at number 25 on Rock Sound’s 51 Most Essential Pop Punk Albums of All Time list. They later ranked it at number 97 on the list of best albums in their lifetime, and as recently as 2017 it was voted number 30 in Kerrang! Magazine’s list of Greatest Pop Punk Albums of all Time, the entry saying:
“While his powers have waned, Kris Roe’s skill with three chords and the truth was once second to virtually no-one. The Ataris’ So Long, Astoria is solid-gold evidence of that fact while their cover of Don Henley’s Boys Of Summer remains as good as (dare we say, even better than) the original.”
They are not wrong. Of all the album’s I have ever listened to, So Long Astoria is one I cherish most, and probably always will. If you’ve never heard it, go treat yourself.