Absolute Smash

Or: Sometimes, writing A Hit Single is as easy as it looks

By all rights, Smash Mouth should have come and gone by now, one-hit wonders saddled up on their one-trick pony and headed into the dimming sunset. "Walkin' on the Sun" -- with its cheese-log Farfisa beat and British-Invasion-by-way-of-Southern-California big-beat pop -- was so ubiquitous in the winter of 1997 and spring of '98, it should have forever doomed the band to where-are-they-now? status. Nothing says disposable like the band that comes from nowhere, hits big and fast, then disappears into the great pop beyond known as modern-rock radio.

Such is the plight of the modern hitmaker in a marketplace full of flavorless-of-the-month chart-toppers -- especially when the rest of your record contains bland and banal surf-punk-ska, the likes of which barely made Goldfinger and Save Ferris household names around their own houses. Today's superstar act is tomorrow's segment on some VH1 special, sandwiched between the Breeders and -- please, Lord -- No Doubt. Most often, they and we are the better for it.

But Smash Mouth guitarist-songwriter Greg Camp was determined to make sure his bandmates didn't linger in pop purgatory. The man begins each day intending to pen chart-toppers for his bandmates, especially lead singer Steve Harwell; such is the kind of friend Camp is, guaranteeing his boys another tomorrow on the radio by setting out to write The Hit Single, even though trying to do so is like attempting to capture smoke in a butterfly net. Hence, Smash Mouth's second disc, Astro Lounge, is even more ubiquitous than the San Jose-based band's 1997 debut, Fush Yu Mang; the new record spawns hit singles the way Orlando, Florida, spawns sexless boy bands. Trying to survive the summer of 1999 without hearing "All Star" was as impossible as trying to dodge 100-degree days.

Walkin' on the sunny side of the street: Smash Mouth could have been -- hell, should have been -- a one-hit wonder.
Sean Murphy
Walkin' on the sunny side of the street: Smash Mouth could have been -- hell, should have been -- a one-hit wonder.

And to think, that song wasn't even on Astro Lounge when the band initially offered it to Interscope Records. Ah, the happy luck of the ambitious and determined band. Just like that, it seemed, Greg Camp whipped up "All Star" -- he recommends you throw in a little "Joe Jackson thing," add "a hint of a hip-hop beat," splash in a touch of "a catchy thing" -- and voilà, everything he touches turns to platinum.

"When we first turned in Astro Lounge, the record company listened to it and said, 'It's a great album, but it's not excellent,'" Camp says. "They didn't hear anything that would push it to the top quick. They needed something to do what 'Walkin' on the Sun' did. I had something in my back pocket -- literally -- and I had written some stuff after reading fan mail. I don't know if all bands are like this, but these kids were like our guidance counselors. We write these songs, and they take them literally. This one kid was running away from home and he heard 'Nervous in the Alley' [off Fush Yu Mang], and he came home. This one girl in Hawaii writes us all the time, and we wrote 'All Star' for her and all these other people growing up whose families and teachers told them they were worthless. It was taking our experience -- people telling us we'd never be famous -- and how we proved them wrong."

Astro Lounge is a brilliant album, the quintessential summer disc on which every song's so ingratiating, so memorable, and so absolutely disposable. It's the sort of disc you can listen to a thousand times and never get bored with, perhaps because you forget it an hour after you finally take it out of the car. Every song's a perfect single (especially "Diggin' Your Scene," "Radio," "Can't Get Enough of You Baby") -- and would have been in, oh, 1966.

In a rather brilliant move, the track listing on Astro Lounge reads like a variation on "Walkin' on the Sun," little bits of that one song fleshed out into 15 giddy pieces of Lucite. To think, at one point last year, the band -- which now includes ex-Brave Combo drummer Mitch Marine, who joined only a few weeks ago -- had grown so tired of playing "Walkin' on the Sun," they would throw in random covers ("Jump Around," "Running With the Devil," a smarmy lounge version of "The Lady Is a Tramp") to mask their disgust. Then they turn around and make an album built upon its very foundation. But there is, as always, a fine line between cynicism and giving the people what they want.

"We sort of wanted to pick up where we left off with 'Walkin' on the Sun," Camp says. "That was stuff we didn't think people would really grasp, and when we figured out they would, we sorta went with that. That kinda stuff wasn't going on at the time, and a lot of program directors were thanking us. They were like, 'Oh, thank you, we're so tired of playing this other stuff' -- this ska-punk stuff, the Cali movement. We grew up in California, and we were raised on the skateboard-and-car culture and all that stuff. But we didn't get a break from that sound -- we got a break from 'Walkin' on the Sun.' And we tried to get away from it, but our fan base liked that sound, so we tried to write a record with our true fan base in mind -- not the people who throw bottles at us at alternative-rock radio festivals because we're not Korn or Limp Bizkit."

 
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