These days, artists who book session time at Los Angeles's Barefoot Recording have a sprawling, fully loaded, three-studio musical playground at their disposal. Vintage equipment — including a nine-foot Yamaha grand piano used by Stevie Wonder — lines the walls. After producer Eric Valentine took ownership of the facility in 2000, it became the recording nexus for several rock albums of the era: Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf, Good Charlotte’s The Young and the Hopeless, Taking Back Sunday’s Louder Now, and more. But before Valentine ran Barefoot, he operated a far less glamorous and smaller space 350 miles north in Redwood City.
“It was called H.O.S. Recording, and H.O.S. actually really stood for ‘hunk of shit,’" Valentine told MTV News. “That song definitely was recorded in that building for sure.”
“That song” is “All Star” by Smash Mouth. You know it. Everyone knows it. You can sing the chorus without much effort, and you might even be singing it right now. Maybe you’re whistling its sugary melodic breakdown. Quite possibly, you’ve just thought of your favorite “All Star” meme, and you’re laughing. It’s in your head. It’s always in your head.
“All Star” seems immortal now, the kind of song that can never die because it’s not really a song at all, not anymore. Though it was released as the first single from Smash Mouth’s second album, Astro Lounge, on May 4, 1999 — 20 years ago this week — you likely know it from 2001’s Shrek, where it soundtracked the title ogre’s disgustingly charming morning routine. It actually first appeared in another movie, the ’99 superhero spoof Mystery Men, which accounts for its Ben Stiller-led music video. Maybe you remember hearing it all that summer, when it topped Billboard’s U.S. Adult Top 40 and Mainstream Top 40 charts, almost topped the U.S. Alternative Songs chart, and peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100.
Quite likely, you know it from the memes. Valentine knows this, too, and he’s into it. He likes how “All Star” really never went away.
“It really speaks to how much that song became a part of the culture of the generation. I’m really proud of that,” he said. “Whether people are making fun or it or celebrating it or both or whatever, the fact that it's still meaningful to people, I think it's really cool.”
In the 20 years since the song hit, the Internet has accelerated our nostalgia cycles. Anyone with Wi-Fi and a little time can easily isolate the parts of pop culture we collectively remember, warp them in bizarre yet hilarious ways, then reintroduce them to the world as new creations. In the case of “All Star,” those constructions steadily became more deranged in the 2010s, right after the song's 10-year anniversary. A Saturday Night Live sketch from 2010 portrayed the band as one-hit-boogeymen haunting a girl at bedtime with their infectious chorus; four years later, mash-up artist Neil Cicierega positioned the song as a centerpiece to his Mouth Sounds composition. In 2016, YouTuber Jon Sudano recorded a series of bait-and-switch “covers” built around a simple gag: He actually just sang “All Star” over other popular songs. Then things got weird.
Compositionally, “All Star” is easy to meme. Its opening “some-BODY” lyric, delivered in singer Steve Harwell's husky croon, is instantly recognizable as is its chorus, making both effective punchlines. (The band, for their part, have been in on the fun for a few years now.) Smash Mouth songwriter Greg Camp maximized these same elements to create an indelible, instantly memorable pop song — brought to life by Valentine’s production flourishes. The two first linked up in 1997 to record the band’s debut album, Fush Yu Mang. It yielded their first breakthrough hit, the beachy, ’60-inspired “Walkin’ on the Sun.”
“When we got together, they were like a punk-ska band and amazingly good at it, because Greg is an extraordinary songwriter. ‘Walkin’ on the Sun’ sort of came up as an aside when we were doing pre-production,” Valentine said. “I did this more retro surfy thing to it, and that became sort of their sound. That first record, it did really well for them. It was a multi-platinum record.”
To make good on that momentum, the band and Valentine spent months “wringing our hands and pulling our hair” recording follow-up Astro Lounge. But their label, Interscope, didn’t hear a first single. So they all returned to H.O.S. for a quick weekend session where they banged out both “All Star” and fellow vintage-inspired single “Then the Morning Comes.” They worked diligently, and key decisions happened quickly. Valentine hired a session musician to handle drummer Kevin Coleman’s parts for expediency’s sake. (“He never forgave me for that,” the producer said.) He also blended in a drum loop from a ’60s David Axelrod instrumental with the live percussion on the chorus, creating a potent kick that redoubles the song’s hooks.
The end result, as we know it, is an anthem to self-positivity. As the lore goes, Camp penned the lyrics as a rally against bullying and grabbed the title from his preferred brand of sneakers. As such, the song doesn’t take itself that seriously — it's not “Everybody Hurts” — but it’s also not a lark, either. That’s perhaps why it lends itself to seeming unending relevance and boundless memeability. Valentine said his favorite send-up is the SNL sketch, but for a very specific reason.
“[In the sketch], the daughter’s saying, ‘It’s that song that you hear all the time,’ and the dad goes, “Isn't that the one that goes ‘do do do, do do-do do?’ And it’s another song I recorded [Third Eye Blind’s ‘Semi-Charmed Life’],” he said. “There was a lot going on for me in the ’90s.” As a wise man once sang, the years start coming and they don’t stop coming.