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How Third Eye Blind’s Debut Album Redefined Alternative Rock
In Depth

How Third Eye Blind’s Debut Album Redefined Alternative Rock

A defining moment in the reinvention of pop-rock, Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut album conquered the charts and broke new ground.

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Fondly regarded as a seminal work in the annals of alternative rock, Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut album proved that late-90s guitar music still had the power to conquer the pop charts. Led by frontman Stephan Jenkins, the San Francisco-based band crafted a sound that blended giddy guitar hooks and infectious melodies with socially-attuned lyrics that spoke to a generation.

From the driving energy of Semi-Charmed Life to the haunting beauty of Motorcycle Drive By, Third Eye Blind’s debut album captured the spirit of the times and helped to redefine alternative rock for the post-grunge era. Here’s how Third Eye Blind’s debut album changed the face of modern rock, and why it remains a touchstone for fans and musicians alike.

Listen to Third Eye Blind’s debut album here.

The backstory: “It was just straight desperation: I have a song in me and abandoned any fallbacks”
Formed in San Francisco, in 1993, Third Eye Blind were the brainchild of singer Stephan Jenkins and guitarist Kevin Cadogan, with a line-up bolstered by Arion Salazar on bass and Brad Hargreaves on drums. At the time, the post-grunge wave of pop-punk acts such as Green Day and Rancid dominated the Californian music scene, though Jenkins always felt his vision for Third Eye Blind was at odds with prevailing trends.

For a start, though Jenkins felt strongly aligned with the punk ethos fuelling underground indie-rock, his own musical inspirations were more far-reaching. “I wanted to be freed up from genre,” he told Billboard magazine. Name-checking Joy Division and New Order, he added, “I liked British riff rock and singer-songwriter stuff.” Secondly, having graduated from the University Of California, Berkeley, with a BA in English Literature, Jenkins saw writing lyrics as an opportunity to indulge in his own literary ambitions, tackling daring subject matter and pairing it with sprightly, pop melodies.

Booking small gigs around the San Francisco area, Third Eye Blind slowly built up a following, quickly gaining a reputation for playing high-energy live shows which showcased Jenkins’ distinctive vocals and Cadogan’s impressive guitar work. Fuelled by a hunger for success and their unique take on pop-rock, Jenkins later recounted to Rolling Stone magazine what was motivating him: “It was just straight desperation: I have a song in me and abandoned any fallbacks.”

In 1996, Third Eye Blind finally caught a break when they supported Britpop sensations Oasis at the Civic Auditorium as an unsigned act – a gig that would successfully seal the group a record deal with Elektra Records. Bridging their love of Britrock guitar music with punk-inspired pop melodies, Third Eye Blind were finally ready to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and go for gold.

The recording: “I liked the space that hip-hop gave you for expanding the lyric”

Heading to Toast Studios, at Skywalker Ranch, with producer Eric Valentine, Third Eye Blind began recording sessions for their debut album with a clutch of upbeat rock songs and introspective ballads. What really set Stephan Jenkins’ vocal stylings apart, however, was his fondness for early 90s hip-hop, particularly the “Daisy Age” movement spearheaded by De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. “I liked the space that hip-hop gave you for expanding the lyric and being really wordy,” he explained to Billboard.

With the influence of conscious rap group Arrested Development creeping into tracks such as I Want You, the biggest dose of fresh air came with Semi-Charmed Life, a catchy and upbeat pop-rocker which saw Jenkins spit bars about crystal meth addiction over rock riffs with frenzied abandon. “When I was writing that song, I was banging on my guitar as if it were a drum and free-associating a rap over it,” Jenkins told The Washington Post in 1998.

Released in February 1997, as the lead single from Third Eye Blind’s debut album, Semi-Charmed Life made a huge splash on FM radio with its “doo-doo-doo” vocal hook and, in spite of its dark subject matter (“We tripped on the urge to feel alive/Now I’m struggling to survive”), peaked at No.4 on the US Hot 100. Proving it was possible to craft gargantuan pop hits while exploring sobering topics, Third Eye Blind had perfected a winning formula.

The release: “So much of that first record for me just came out of being a misfit”

While Semi-Charmed Life rose to pop ubiquity, Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut album hit the shelves on 8 April 1997. Amid songs sugar-coated with a fondue fountain of power-pop chords, Jenkins’ lyrics covered topics such as homophobia and suicide (Jumper), substance abuse (Losing A Whole Year) and alumni anxiety (Graduate). Due largely to the catchy hooks and socially-conscious lyrics of the best Third Eye Blind songs, the group helped introduce a unique brand of radio-friendly alternative rock to a new generation of music lovers.

From sleepwalking through life (Narcolepsy) to the rain-sodden memories of a road-trip visit to an ex-girlfriend (Motorcycle Drive By), Third Eye Blind’s debut album effortlessly juggles disarmingly jaunty guitar hooks with the erudite introspection of an outsider. “So much of that first record for me just came out of always feeling so on the outside, being a misfit,” Stephan Jenkins confessed to Observer.

In October 1997, the band scored yet another US Top 10 hit with the single How’s It Going To Be. Musing on mortality and played on an antique zither, the sombre ballad peaked at No.9 on the US Hot 100 and was imbued with Jenkins’ hyper-literate penchant for poetic and emotive flair (“I want to taste the salt of your skin/The soft dive of oblivion”).

The legacy: “I put all I could into making every song outstanding”

Third Eye Blind’s debut album would come to be certified six-times platinum by the Recording Industry Association Of America, and it has sold over six million copies in the US to date. Widely regarded as one of the defining albums of the late 90s, its legacy can be felt in the music of countless artists who have followed in Third Eye Blind’s footsteps, most notably bands such as Barenaked Ladies (One Week), Smash Mouth (All Star), Semisonic (Closing Time) and Jimmy Eat World (The Middle).

Perhaps most importantly, Jenkins’ lyrical preoccupations were well ahead of their time. Upon its release as a single in August 1998, Jumper managed to peak at No.5 in the US while directly addressing the correlation between homophobia and suicide. “This is a noir about a guy who jumped off a bridge and killed himself because he was gay,” Jenkins told Songfacts. “It was really about bullying.” Embraced by LGBTQ+ audiences for being a thought-provoking fable of self-acceptance, the song remains as emotionally powerful today as it was when it was first released.

Ushering in a new way of tailoring pop-punk to a mass audience, the enduring impact of Third Eye Blind’s debut album continues to be felt. By combining punk rock’s raw energy with the peppiness of pop music, it’s a record that, in many ways, encapsulated the sound of pop-rock at the turn of the century. “I put all I could into making every song outstanding, and I know the others did the same,” bassist Arion Salazar said in an interview with Pass The Aux. “You can sort of hear everyone playing for their lives, I think.”

Wielding Stephan Jenkins’ lyrical introspection and Kevin Cadogan’s catchy guitar hooks, Third Eye Blind’s debut album helped pave the way for generations of bands to come. Now firmly established as a classic, it deserves much credit for redefining the sound of alternative rock for the modern era.

Buy Third Eye Blind’s greatest hits on neon-orange vinyl.

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