Somebody once told me pop music is all about a certain formula. The I-IV-V chord progression, an infectious beat, and a hook to embed itself so deep within your psyche, you’re singing it to yourself decades later. However, some of the most accomplished songwriters in the industry may tell you crafting a perfect pop song has more to do with chance than science.
I’m not entirely sure where I stand on the debate. There are plenty of examples of a time-and-place chance when it comes to hits throughout music history. But on the other hand, most modern releases seem to follow a direct linear path from bpms to overall length. Then there’s the discussion about longevity. Can a 20-year-old song still be relevant in the Spotify age?
For the answer to that question, look no further than “All-Star” by Smash Mouth.
From the opening vocal line backed with a simple ska-esque guitar shuffle to the larger than life sing-along chorus, “All-Star” just might be the best example of a perfect pop song. Reaching the number one spot of Billboard’s Top 40, “All-Star” became one of the most played songs of 1999 and remains in rotation today.
Thanks to nostalgia, Shrek love and the current meme generation, Smash Mouth has experienced somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. While never really leaving the mainstream, social media has introduced “All-Star” to a whole new generation of fans, both ironic and legitimate.
Regardless of how you may feel about “All-Star”, it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.
I recently got in touch with Smash Mouth guitarist Greg Camp (who wrote all of Smash Mouth’s original hits) to ask him about the history of “All-Star”. I’m not sure if our conversation has me leaning into science or chance, but I did get a better understanding of how and why this track is so endearing even after all these years.
Coop: How did “All-Star” come about? Did you set out to write a hit song or did it just happen by chance?
Greg Camp: We were still on tour for the first record Fush Yu Mang when our A&R Tom Whalley started asking to hear new songs. I bought a portable multitrack recorder and borrowed a microphone from our sound guy and set up a little makeshift studio on the tour bus. I wrote a lot of Astro Lounge on the road. When we finally got home, I was able to polish those songs up and send a batch to Tom and Jimmy Iovine at Interscope. Tom invited me to his house where he told me that he didn’t hear the first single and they wouldn’t release the album as is. So I needed to go back to the drawing board.
They probably wanted another “Walking On The Sun” straight out of the gate.
That “sophomore slump” pressure was definitely on, and we were already being pigeonholed as a one-hit wonder. It was crucial to put aside any sort of indie moral cred code and really concentrate on writing a hit. How to do that? I had never had to scientifically construct a song. I wrote “Then The Morning Comes” in about 20 minutes because it was a true story of the band’s life on the road for the last 14 months. But we needed a song that everyone could attach themselves to.
Setting out to write a hit sounds like a completely different beast than writing one organically. I wouldn’t know where to start?
It started with a breakbeat record. I looped an old, crusty drum beat and started playing bass to it, I pushed record and started whistling melodies into a mic which ended up on the actual recording. I went back and overdubbed guitar skanks and the nuts and bolts of the song were born.
With the skeleton of the song in place, was it easy to kind of come up with a theme as to where the song was going?
Paul Delisle (Smash Mouth bassist) and I would read fan mail and one of the common sentiments in these letters were these kids being bullied at school and in some cases at home. I was able to relate, I was sometimes harassed for being a musician and not a jock at school. As I got older my parents were pushing me towards a “real” career and saying that my music hobby wouldn’t pay the bills. One of my first girlfriends directed the “L” on her forehead at me one night as I left the house for a cover band gig. So the idea for “All-Star” had been brewing for many years and it was about to be realized.
So as universal the lyrics are, it was pretty much autobiographical?
For lyrics, I referred to some things that stood out in the fan mail. I wanted to get those kids to look at themselves in the mirror and be able to see a star looking back. Yeah, it was kinda corny but the self-affirmation thing reminded me of the song “I Will Survive”. No one was doing this sort of thing at that time, it was the end of grunge era and the field was wide open so I just went for it. I had no idea how it would be perceived and I was terrified of how the band would react to such an unashamed, sappy pop song. But I put “Then The Morning Comes” and “All-Star” on a CD and sent it off to the band and Interscope. I got the thumbs up and we were ready to record our second album.
On the technical side of things, “All-Star” does a weird thing with the I-IV-V chord progression in the chorus. It goes from G to C (the I to the IV) but instead of going to the V like the listener anticipates, it goes to the C sharp.
It starts with a happy go lucky G to the C but the C sharp suddenly comes out of left field. It’s to say “nothing worthwhile in life is easy and will throw curve balls“. Not to be a downer, I made sure there’s a positive message and chord progression at the end. Which resolves on that ever so happy and ear-pleasing C.
That’s a pretty cool twist on something so common! What planet did that come from?
So I’m very much into Spy movies and particularly the soundtracks of 60’s spy films. It stems from my love of surf music and Italian film scores of that era. If you listen to the James Bond theme and the chords under the twang guitar riff you hear the inspiration for the song’s chorus. Mystery solved!
What is it about “All-Star” that draws people to it after even after all these years?
Not sure but I would speculate it immediately evokes a time and place with the vocal “somebody…”. They remember what they were doing when that song came out. Some people may think of the first few scenes of Shrek or being at a party or driving their car to work, etc. It still comes on at grocery stores and satellite radio. Bands are covering it live as well as DJs spinning it. Everything comes back around as far as style and culture. That 90s thing is here now I guess. It’s being licensed a lot lately for film and television too.
You’ve nailed plenty of pop anthems. Is there a sure-fire formula for writing a perfect pop song or is it something that clicks with the individual? Is it science or chance?
It’s like a combination lock and the more numbers that line up the better. Right time, right place, right artist, and a great song at its core. It helps if the lyrics have a universal message such as love or breakup. Someone is probably going through one of those but if you can expand to other issues to bring more listeners in, it gets bigger. For instance, “All-Star” speaks to sports fans although it wasn’t intended to. So it has gotten tons of spins at games as well as all the sports networks.
It’s pretty much been stuck in my head for nearly 20 years and I wasn’t even a fan of it when it was released!
Marching bands play it, crowds of thousands sing it on any given game day, it’s a school bus anthem. There are millions of renditions and covers across YouTube and social media, it’s fucking mind-blowing! So at this point, it may have started with science or chance but has become something else.
Does it bum you out to see “All-Star” or the band at the center of so many Shrek memes and YouTube videos?
Not at all! It’s very flattering for me personally!
There’s always been a self-awareness to Smash Mouth but you started out as a punk outfit right? Do you hold any kind of bitterness about becoming something you didn’t initially set out to be?
Well, as I get older the whole ethic has changed. Paul and I grew up with punk rock and when you’re young and trying to fit in, there are certain rules to abide by. The biggest one is not to conform. Smash Mouth as a San Jose band, were supposed to stay true to the scene. But we were never really invited to that scene. When we realized that, we just adjusted our ethic I guess.
In your personal opinion, what’s the greatest pop song of all time?
Probably “Happy Birthday”.
Twenty years later, what does the legacy of “All-Star” mean to you?
“All-Star” has been a vehicle to other areas of my career as a writer and producer. As a songwriter, it’s a hard one to beat. I write songs every day and I’m aware at this point there will obviously never be another quite like it.
Headshot photograph by Kelly Castro
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.