The Origin Of Smash Mouth's 'All Star,' An Unintentional Sports Anthem

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Smash Mouth guitarist Greg Camp (left) and singer Steve Harwell. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Smash Mouth guitarist Greg Camp (left) and singer Steve Harwell. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

"I think it was the first song I ever knew all the words to," Sports Illustrated's Charlotte Wilder says. "And I took great pride in knowing all the words, because they come very fast."

"I just remember it taking over," CBS Boston sports writer Michael Hurley says. "There were probably five different stations I listened to regularly, and it was probably on one of them at any given moment."

"I also realized there was something kind of poetic about it," Wilder says. "You know, ‘It's a cold world. They say it gets colder ... ’ "

The song, of course, is Smash Mouth’s 1999 hit, "All Star."

"All Star" reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, but with its timeless lyrics — "Hey now, you’re an all star, get your game on. Go play" — it was quickly No. 1 in the hearts of young sports fans.

I can still remember an end-of-season Little League barbecue at which “All Star” just played on repeat — it was all my fellow preteens and I wanted to hear.

The song got so big so fast that Smash Mouth was called on to perform at Fenway Park before the 1999 Home Run Derby.

But it turns out that "All Star" — the sports anthem of my generation — actually wasn’t meant for sports fans.

"[Sports] wasn't the inspiration for it," Smash Mouth songwriter and guitarist Greg Camp says. "I think the inspiration for it was me looking at my shoe."

And then there's this:

"That song almost did not exist," producer Eric Valentine says.

Early Struggles

Back in early 1997 — otherwise known as 2 B.A.S, or Before All Star — Smash Mouth, then a little-known band from San Jose, California, was on thin ice.

"Our band was about to break up," bass player Paul De Lisle says. "We’d been together for, like, two-and-a-half years and nothing had happened."

When De Lisle says, “Nothing had happened,” he means the band still hadn’t been signed by a major label.

"We weren't getting anywhere as quick as we wanted to," Camp says. "And so we decided to fire our manager. And our manager said, 'What can I do to keep you guys?' We said, ‘We want $10,000 to go record with this producer named Eric Valentine.’ "

(Valentine was an up-and-coming producer who also lived in the Bay Area.)

"Our manager said, ‘OK. Done,’ " Camp continues. "And so he gave us the money."

De Lisle doesn’t remember the band threatening to fire its manager.

"But I do remember him giving us 10 grand and just thinking he was just nuts," De Lisle says. "Why don’t you just burn it, you know?"

Star Turn 

So Smash Mouth got the money to book their dream producer. And soon they were ready to record at Eric Valentine’s studio.

"You pretty much walk through the door and you're stepping on old burritos and cables," Camp recalls.

"There isn’t a maid service at the studio — what can I tell you?" Valentine says.

"You walk through a little maze of speakers and things," Camp continues. "And there's Eric, the mad scientist, sitting back there. Looks like he hasn't ever been outside. Just a genius — mad scientist genius."

Valentine says it’s not entirely true that he never went outside.

"Toward the end of ’96, I went on a scuba diving trip with my dad," he says.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Smash Mouth and Eric Valentine hit it off. And they put together a song that Camp had written called "Walkin' on the Sun." And that changed everything.

"It immediately became a huge hit," De Lisle says.

Smash Mouth was signed by Interscope Records. The band put out its first album and started touring.

Smash Mouth And Sports

And here’s where I want to tell you about one important dynamic within Smash Mouth.

"Could you rank the original members of Smash Mouth as far as their sports fandom?" I ask De Lisle.

De Lisle laughs.

"For Greg, it’s almost nonexistent," he says.

(Greg Camp, remember, is the band’s chief songwriter.)

"I don’t know how to play sports very well," Camp admits.

But the rest of the guys in the band? They were all big sports fans.

"All of them," Camp says.

"I'm a sports fanatic," lead singer Steve Harwell says. "I watch it every morning, every day. I listen to sports talk radio."

"I played ice hockey 'til I was 15," De Lisle says.

So on the tour bus, it was all sports all the time — at least for everyone except Camp. Camp says if the guys weren’t watching a game on TV, they were playing a sports video game.

Camp says that was fine with him. But when he started reading through the band’s fan mail, he could tell that Smash Mouth’s biggest fans weren’t mainstream sports fanatics.

"These were outsiders," Camp says. "They wanted to spend more time in art class. They weren’t punk. They weren’t rock. They weren’t BMX. They weren’t skaters. They weren’t surfers. They were kinda either all of those things or some of those things."

Camp says that a lot of those kids would write in with stories of being bullied.

"By other kids or their siblings or their parents or their step-parents," Camp says. "It was, like, 'Wow, we're sort of like this healing thing for these kids.' So we would respond to those letters."

'This Is The Thing'

Smash Mouth kept touring their first album into 1998. And the band got used to hearing a particular phrase.

"All we heard was, ‘One-hit wonder,’ " De Lisle says. " ‘They’re done. That’s it.’ Critics didn’t like us."

But Camp was already writing songs for the band’s second album. And when Smash Mouth returned to Northern California, they went back to record with Eric Valentine. Everything was going to plan.

"We had a finished record for their second album, 'Astro Lounge,' that we thought was amazing," Valentine says. "Like, ‘Yup, high five. Home run, grand slam. This is the thing.’ "

"We turned in what we thought was the finished album," Camp recalls. "And I got a call from our manager. And he said, you know, 'Get on a plane and get down to L.A. Interscope wants to talk to you.' It was like going to the principal's office."

Meetings with the Interscope execs could mean trouble.

Camp still remembers one “talk” with Interscope co-founder Jimmy Iovine that went like this:

"I remember Jimmy Iovine kind of almost laying on a couch — like, on a sofa in his office with his stereo next to him with a big volume knob on it," Camp says. "And him just, like, blasting the music. And he would only turn it down long enough to say something and then turn it all the way back up so you couldn't respond. He'd turn it down and go, 'Where's the chorus?' And then turn it all the way back up."

“All we heard was, ‘One-hit wonder. They’re done. That’s it.’ Critics didn’t like us.”

Paul De Lisle

But this time, after Smash Mouth turned in what it thought was its finished second album, Camp was called in for a meeting at the home of another Interscope executive.

"They're just like, ‘Where's the hit?' " Camp recalls. " 'This isn't it. You got a second single. You got a third single. Maybe a fourth single. But not a first single. We’re not gonna put this out ’til you give us something better than this.’ "

"And it was just like, ‘Ahh’ — very, very frustrating to hear," Valentine says.

'What Do People Listen To These Days?'

Camp went home, hunkered down in his garage — and tried to create a hit.

"I think I picked up a Billboard magazine," Camp says. "Like, 'What do people listen to these days?' It's, like, 'I don't listen to the radio.' So I was just checking it out. And I'm like, 'All right. OK. We need something that’s going to be a little bit funky.' That’s kinda why I started with a break beat."

And when he started to write the lyrics, Camp found himself thinking about all those letters he’d read on tour — the ones from the kids who said they were bullied. Camp decided to write a song for them.

"Sorta like a self-affirmation -- don't let these people get you down, go get ’em," Camp says.

And this is where Camp's footwear comes into the story.

"The whole 'All Star' thing — I think I was probably wearing Converse All Stars, which is what I always wore," Camp says. "And I think it just went, 'Click, click, click.' Like, 'All Star. Wow, what does that mean? I think it means when a bunch of exceptional players get together and have a team.' And so it was, like, you know, this could sort of relate to a kid who just needs a pep talk."

Camp put together a demo of the song, singing the lyrics himself. He played it for the band.

"They were like, ‘Oh, s---. It's going to be a long couple years,’ " Camp says.

"So you guys knew this was going to be a hit?" I ask.

"We had a feeling, yeah," Camp says.

Singer Steve Harwell remembers the moment well.

"I said, ‘This is like a smash. This is going to be life-changing,' " Harwell says. "And we knew it. I knew it right away."

"I just said at one point, ‘I think this song will definitely do what the record company wants it to do, but you may potentially fly your band straight into the sun with this song,’ " Valentine recalls. "Because there's no turning back from this. But everybody agreed that it's too valuable to try and be too cool to put it out."

So they put together an “emergency” recording session. And All Star was born.

“They were like, ‘Oh, s---. It's going to be a long couple years.’ ”

Greg Camp

"It shot pretty quickly up the charts," Camp says.

And while Camp may have written the song for the outsider kids, it became a sports anthem.

"I guess it got co-opted," De Lisle says. "Hey, it's fine with us. Greg should be very proud of writing that song because it’s not just a song. It’s a cultural institution, you know?"

Harwell says he could see it coming.

"I just knew right away — this thing's gonna be everywhere. It's gonna be played at every basketball game, hockey game," he says. "You're gonna hear 'All Star' — just like you always hear 'Hells Bells' or 'Back in Black.' "

All-Star Stardom

In the years since Smash Mouth’s only non-sports fan wrote the sports anthem of a generation, the band has performed at dozens of baseball, football and basketball games. Mark Cuban picked them up in his private jet so they could perform at a Dallas Mavericks game. The song famously appeared in the 2001 movie "Shrek."

In recent years, Greg Camp has been doing his own music production and writing songs for other artists. But he, De Lisle and Harwell still tour with Smash Mouth.

And the song “All Star” is still out there. Camp says he was at the park the other day, pushing his daughter on the swing, when the little boy next to them started singing the song.

"And my daughter looked at me, like, 'What the — do you know him?' " Camp says with a laugh.

"It's a double-edged sword because that is the top rung. It's like, that's about as good as you're going to get, you know?" Camp continues. "Still, to this day, if someone wants to work with me or someone wants do a song or something like that, they’re like, 'Let’s do another All Star!' I’m like, 'I’ll get right on that, Pal!'

"You know, it’s just ... I don’t know. It’s just a one-of-a-kind thing."

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that members of Smash Mouth played Xbox while touring their 1997 album "Fush Yu Mang." In fact, Xbox did not come out until 2001. 

This segment aired on July 14, 2018.


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Martin Kessler Producer, Only A Game
Martin Kessler is a producer at Only A Game.



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