LeBlog’s Cheesetastic Classics: Supertramp vs Smash Mouth
Welcome to the next matchup in our continuing search for the most satisfyingly cheesy pop songs of all time! A LeBlog Cheestastic Classic should be both undeniably corny or over-the-top while also possessing some quality that makes some of us grin and pump our fists in gleeful irony. Some people might also use the term “guilty pleasure.” But I’m not going to. For our purposes here, these are “LeBlog’s Cheesetastic Classics.” The skill and talent involved in producing some of these songs may, in fact, be quite impressive and at their core these songs might actually be rather superior to some which are considered cool. But somewhere along the way the songwriter or performer took that wrong turn at Albuquerque and landed themselves in the land of cheese.
Today we’ve got another inter-decade matchup with a high concept, high-production rock band taking on a group that quickly revealed themselves to be a serial novelty act. The question in both cases will likely be whether the tongue they may or may not have planted in their cheeks gets them off the hook for inclusion alongside people like Melissa Manchester, Meatloaf, and Dan Hill. Join us after the break and let’s talk!
As this series has progressed, we’ve shared a lot of what we all think defines a LeBlog Cheesetastic Classic, and so far we’re definitely favoring recordings that were released in the ’70s and ’80s over most other competitors. Last week we continued to bolster this pattern by voting almost unanimously to induct Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” into our hall of fantastic cheese while just barely rejecting The Proclaimers’ song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” Technically “I’m Gonna Be” was originally released in the late ’80s, but it didn’t become a hit here until 1993, which does fit in with our voting tendencies so far. Still, The Proclaimers fell just short with only 47% of the “yes” vote. I may have inadvertently jinxed Eric Carmen by suggesting that he might get 100% of the vote, because just hours after I made that comment he got knocked out of running for that honor. Will either of today’s nominees push for perfection?
Smash Mouth appears to have taken some purposeful steps to avoid being named to our list. First of all, they didn’t get together as a band until 1990, which takes them just outside of our wheelhouse era-wise. Also, they appear to know that their song is a little cheesy, so they went out of their way to have lots of fun in the video for it, even attaching it to the super hero spoof Mystery Men.
But does that mean we have to give them a pass? Well, that maybe depends on how much of a musical genre purist you are. The band’s lead singer, had previously been a member of a rap group called F.O.S. (Freedom of Speech), while a few of the other members of the group had backgrounds in the California punk scene. If you’re a fan of punk the group’s mildly ska-infused early recording of “Nervous in the Alley” will likely appeal to your sensibilities.
The song got the band attention when it was played locally by a San Jose radio station, leading to a contract with Interscope Records. The label is notorious for being the home of raw-edged and experimental rap and alternative acts such as Snoop Dogg, Weezer, Rise Against, Primus, Notorious B.I.G., Beck, Nine Inch Nails, Blink 182, Marilyn Manson, The Hives, Garbage, and Bone Thugs and Harmony, so it would be fair to assume that Smash Mouth would plow full steam ahead with their bright punk sound. In fact, much of the group’s first album was filled with just that. People who I knew had “Fush Yu Mang” and expressed surprise that the band which had become so well known for the catchy musical mash-up that relied in part on some retro styles “Walking on the Sun,” had mostly released a punk/ska record otherwise. Their big hit was just sinewy and sweaty enough to allow listeners to make the leap while listening to the complete album.
Even to this day, “Walking on the Sun” stands up as a fun and catchy recording that is still mature and grimy enough to be enjoyed by people who take their pop music a little too seriously at times (guilty?). “Fish Yu Mang” certainly had all the markers of a band that was not trying too hard to be hugely popular in the mainstream while still featuring some strong evidence of good pop instincts. The album was initially slapped with a parental warning sticker which indicated that it had some obscene lyrics and/or adult themes. The album’s title itself is a misspelled interpretation of Al Pacino’s slurred delivery of “Fuck you, man” in the super violent drug trade movie Scarface. The cover art also showed one of the guys leaning out of the back seat window of a car displaying his middle finger, an image that was covered over by text when “Walking on the Sun” was released as a single. There was no reason to believe that Smash Mouth was anything other than a punk band who liked mixing in other musical styles and had stumbled into a freak top 10 hit.
Then the band’s next album, “Astro Lounge,” was released in June of 1999 and while much of the musical pastiche was still in evidence, it was also pretty obvious that the band had responded to the success of “Walking on the Sun” by delivering the album the fans of that song wanted rather than maintaining their punk and rap roots. The people I knew who had defended the first album either took the hint based on the next single release, “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby” and avoided “Astro Lounge” or were pretty disappointed with the totality of what they found once they cracked it open. Of course I’m more likely to know the sort of person who would react that way. The album sold pretty well and spawned three top40 hits, including the one we’re looking at today. “All Star” immediately seems like an effort to cash in and the song’s wide proliferation on television commercials only strengthened that impression. The whistle-along instrumental refrain and simplistic nouveau “We are the Champions” type chorus put the lie to any pretension of musical or lyrical sophistication and the band leans into this in the video, emphasizing the frat rock qualities that would help to push units. Despite this, there’s something sort of undeniable about the song if you let yourself take it at face value and embrace its Kraft Singles style of corporate cheese.
Our second nominee today follows a mildly similar, if more projected, arc, beginning as a pretty typical prog-rock band of the early 1970s and gradually morphing into a middle-of-the-road pop rock outfit that sold millions of records, with their commercial peak in the late ’70s to early ’80s. First take a look at where they ended up by gazing on the cheesy masterpiece which is the video for their #11 1982 hit “It’s Raining Again.”
Supertramp was the child of the songwriting team of keyboardist Rick Davies and vocalist/bassist Roger Hodgson, who had been united when Hodgson answered an ad placed by Davies in Melody Maker magazine. The two musicians had different tastes and backgrounds, but got along well and appeared to make their disparate approaches work together harmoniously at first. If you’re not familiar with what “prog-rock” tends to sound like, well…consider that members of the band are credited in playing instruments like the flute, harmonica, accordion, saxophone, cello, clarinet, saw, water gong, and things called balalaika, and flageolet. Apparently these early recordings were either pretentious or unappealing or odd enough to modern ears that I couldn’t find any of it on YouTube to share with you. But as they reached their third studio album “Crime of the Century,” the band started to sharpen its focus and create catchier songs. But of course there is still a slightly forced epic-ness even in these recordings that only their strong musicianship and ear for hooks and harmonies really save.
Gradually, Supertramp would build a strong fan base and would become one of the most successful rock bands in the world with their 1979 release “Breakfast in America” which would pump out three top40 hits, including the top 10 smashes “The Logical Song” and “Take the Long Way Home.” This would lead to “dreamer” being released in the U.S. in a live format and becoming a top40 hit more than 5 years after its initial appearance on vinyl.
Success has been argued to have poisoned the well for Supertramp, with members of the band admitting that the passion had left the group and critics lambasting their next album (the one “It’s Raining Again” showed up on) as an obvious attempt to produce more mainstream hit singles. Based on what we can all see in the video for our nominated song, the critics do not seem to have been very wrong. The faux mopey lyrics of the song contrast with its very bright and optimistic sounding instrumentals. Most egregious is the kindergarten-level rhyming used to punctuate the simplistic structure of the arrangement which pays off with school children providing a sing-song counter melody with the old playground tune “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring, The old Man is Snoring.” All of this is tied together in the video with a story about a sad sack nerd in a bow tie who is having the worst day of his life throughout which is supposedly redeemed when he meets a pretty girl. Unfortunately it’s left unclear as to whether this girl is the one who broke his heart at the beginning of the video or not. Stealing imagery from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg does nothing to elevate the whole pandering mess. And yet…that melody and the harmonies Supertramp were so expert with somehow make the whole thing pretty listenable in the end. This will never be considered one of their better recordings, but damn if it comes on while you’re waiting at the dentist’s office if you won’t find yourself nodding or even humming along.
And when it’s over you’ll wish they’d played this instead-
So, what are we looking at here? Is Smash Mouth neither cheesy or awesome enough for you? Do you like Supertramp too much to admit that they’re really cheesy? Vote here and then tell me about it in the comments section.
Posted on August 24, 2016, in Cheesetastic Classics, Music, poll and tagged All Star, Dreamer, It's Raining Again, Nervous in the Alley, Smash Mouth, Supertramp, The Logical Song, Walking on the Sun. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.