“Mmm mmm mmm mmm, mmm mmm mmm mmm.”
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Inspired by Tom Ewing’s “Popular” (which traces the history of UK #1 singles) and Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones” (which does the same for US #1s), “We’re #2!” looks at the history of those songs which almost but not-quite managed to reach the summit of the UK Singles Chart. Beginning a quarter century back from this column’s inception (March 2019) up until whenever the Present Day comes about.
005] Crash Test Dummies – Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm
Reached #2: 30th April 1994
Weeks at #2: 1
Are we at the point yet where we can forgive Eddie Vedder for his non-existent transgressions? Pearl Jam, at least until the band themselves deliberately shunned the mainstream and the Grunge bubble tragically burst in high-velocity fashion, became one of the biggest bands in North America upon the release of their instant-classic 1991 debut Ten. Vedder was idolised, the album’s videos were all over MTV, the Seattle sound effectively forced Alternative Rock into the mainstream and killed off Hair Metal practically overnight, and Pearl Jam specifically did so with a sound which proudly embraced Classic Rock reference points and a frontman who could, y’know, sing – by which I mean, “sing” in an immediately distinctive, fun to imitate, and technically proficient manner which aging Dads worldwide politely lose their shit over.
There were going to be imitators and wannabes and trend-chasers dumbing PJ and Vedder’s vocal styles down to the lowest-common denominator, of course there were. To believe otherwise is to cross over into delusional naivety. So, repeat after me: it is not Eddie Vedder’s fault that we were subjected to Creed and Three Doors Down – and, to a lesser extent since both bands at least released a few decent songs, Stone Temple Pilots and Collective Soul – amongst others, therefore we should not hold him responsible for those atrocities. If we’re not going to hold the ghost of Kurt Cobain personally responsible for *wretches* Post-Grunge and its disciples Nickelback and Puddle of Mudd, then I think we can let Vedder off the hook for the abundance of overwrought bassy guttural drawls peddling insipid lyrics of faux-profundity who cropped up in his wake. Besides, if you want to find an original sin in all this, then you should fight the real enemy, one who may not have become internationally famous until roughly a week after Cobain’s death but whose debut album predated both Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s breakthroughs. Don’t hate Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, hate Brad Roberts and Crash Test Dummies.
I hate Crash Test Dummies. Hate them. Hate them. Prior to covering “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” for this series, I had never heard of the band or their music or even this specific song before, yet by the time I finished wasting two full days of my life consuming and re-consuming their discography for the purposes of research, I had grown to hate them with the same fervour I reserved for Fast Food Rockers, Boyzone, Soulja Boy and other such #2 acts I despised instantly at the time but we’re going to have to cover at some point in the future. They suck. They suuuuuuuck. I have had to take extensive breaks every few tracks to listen to almost anything else in order to keep my critical faculties from glitching and to stimulate my mind with something far less embarrassing. It is a damn good thing I don’t actually use my Discover Weekly anymore because I’d hate to envision what the algorithm thinks is on an equal footing with the music of Crash Test Dummies; perhaps, rather than play related music, it offers to call for professional psychiatric help on my behalf.
Now, the why of that hatred is surprisingly easy to explain, despite the fact that their music doesn’t aggressively irritate and dominate attentions like “Doop” or “Anything Maroon 5 Have Released Since 2007,” and it comes down to three interlocking factors. The first is Brad Roberts’ baritone voice, which is objectively ridiculous. It’s a parody of itself, this deep booming nonsense seemingly incapable of not overemoting like a newsreader transitioning from a fun human-interest piece to a solemn “earthquake devastation, thousands dead” bulletin, sounding extremely try-hard even when he’s attempting not to. Still, one’s vocal range is one’s vocal range and it’s not inherently a bad thing so long as one plays to their strengths; can’t take it seriously, may as well have some fun with it.
Except that leads into the second factor: musically, these songs are a chore. Aggressively mid-to-low tempo, overly self-serious, sonically unambitious (save for the debut which really played up the Folk Rock aspects to often bewildering degrees)… The Dummies were not a Christian Rock band, despite often singing about religion and Christianity, but they sure sound a shit-tonne like the lamest of Christian Rock bands. Very, very occasionally, Brad (who was their chief songwriter) might stumble upon a decent refrain, such as the chorus guitar melody in “Swimming in Your Ocean,” but these are sparing anomalies before the dive back into mediocrity and heavily reverbed harmonies which sound like arse. Finally, there’s factor three: Brad Roberts is an abysmal lyricist. Throughout much of my research, which has also included reading up on praise from the group’s fans, Brad’s sense of humour has been commonly cited as a major selling point for the band, yet not a single one of his jokes or witticisms land assuming they were even attempting to be jokes or witticisms. The aforementioned “Swimming in Your Ocean” is about the protagonist getting so distracted by philosophical musings whilst he’s having sex that he forgets entirely about the fact that he’s having sex, save for a brief panic about whether he’s gotten the woman pregnant, and it just… doesn’t register. I can’t even say the lyrics “thud” because “thud” implies a reaction of some kind.
All three faults coalesce anti-perfectly on “Superman’s Song,” the track which broke them in Canada and effectively functions as a test run for “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.” It’s a ballad about Superman, someone who quietly does good for others despite receiving zero credit or reward for it and how “the world will never see another man like him,” contrasting him with Tarzan (of all people). It is absolutely ridiculous, its chorus has the lines “Superman never made any money/For saving the world from Solomon Grundy,” Brad refers to Superman as “Supe” at one point; there should be a wink or a punchline or some indicator that he and the band are having fun. Instead, it is a sparse piano and acoustic guitar-led funeral ballad with very earnest chorus harmonies and a cloying atmosphere, droning on for four and a half minutes at an interminable slog, in what is very obviously meant to be a Very Serious Parable for the State of Modern Society. (It was released in 1991, over a year before the notorious “Death of Superman” arc in the comics.)
Which brings us to “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” a song so terrible not even a Weird Al Yankovic parody could improve it. Just like “Superman’s Song,” it’s a piano and acoustic guitar-led ballad which attempts to be a Very Serious Parable for the State of Modern Society and instead says absolutely nothing because it means absolutely nothing. There are three verses, each telling the tale of three different children who had traumatic experiences which left them feeling ostracised from society: a boy was involved in a car crash and his hair turned white from shock, a girl wouldn’t change with the other girls because she has a bunch of birthmarks, and a second boy (who “had it worse than [the other two]” which made “the boy and girl… glad”) went to a church. …that’s it. Those are the entire extents of each story, each verse being six lines long (plus a two-line bridge expositing how that third verse is somehow “worse”), we don’t learn anything about these kids, the effects of their trauma, the confusion of society, nothing. “Particle Man” has better storytelling than this.
“Particle Man” is also continents more fun and sonically palatable. In fairness to Brad Roberts, “Mmm” does have noteworthy zagging chord choices at the end of each verse, going from the standard minor-key Pop Song progression “Am-F-C-G” to a G# and G7 before settling back into the expected, but the effect is excruciatingly awkward as if he and the band are having to stall for another four measures whilst the chorus finishes construction. And that chorus, ugh. Brad had no lyrics for the chorus when he wrote and demoed the song, but he and the band grew fond of the scratch tape hums and so they stayed in spite of the fact that they sound utterly dire. Aurally, it’s equivalent to the sound a man makes when squeezing out the last dregs of his shit. Thematically, it’s supposed to invite us all to ponder on the ‘story’ we were just told and What It All Means, functioning like in C+C Music Factory’s “Things That Make You Go Hmmm…” (an infinitely better song). Except, as established, there’s no ‘there’ there! Brad admits in a 1998 interview that he “write[s] lyrics that invite questions as opposed to providing answers” but he hasn’t done anything in those lyrics to invite questions! They aren’t character studies, they aren’t grand insights in life, they’re nothing! (Which at least makes it an improvement on “How Does a Duck Know” from the same album, a song which makes The Lonely Island’s “Incredible Thoughts” completely irrelevant.)
I guess the addition of drums at least makes the song less obnoxiously overwrought than “Superman’s Song,” but it’s still an exceptionally dull sounding record even as it glistens with the sheen of something readymade for drivetime radio. (That would be producer Jerry Harrison’s touch, evening out his legacy of being in Talking Heads by helping bring this to life.) Excepting the end harmonisation, anyway, which despite the video clearly demonstrating it being a harmony instead sounds more like the cheapest ‘Choir’ preset on a Casio used in secondary schools. God, it sucks. It sucks in the way that many a pretentious art movie sucks, being so utterly lacking in joy or humour or self-awareness and so convinced of its profundity and genius despite being so utterly vapid that it’s just a miserable bummer to be around. I scanned that video high and low for any indicator that someone was in on the joke, so then I could just put the song down as a failed attempt at parody – although that’s not an excuser of shit songwriting; Lupe Fiasco’s “Pussy” was technically a parody of lazy EDM rappers but that fact doesn’t make the song in any way fun to listen to – and got nothing. No hint, save for customary mugging from Brad which was in most MTV-friendly vids at the time. Precious little separates this aggressively self-serious video from the sort Blind Lemon were putting out two years earlier, and at least Blind Lemon wrote tunes!
Completely unsurprisingly, Crash Test Dummies did not display much longevity on the UK chart scene after “Mmm” finally faded away, scoring two more Top 40 singles – “Afternoons & Coffeespoons” at #23 and a cover of XTC’s “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” for the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack at #30 – before being banished back to Canada and cult/guilty pleasure status. But what baffles me more is the fact of “why this one?” The Alternative Nation largely struck out on the UK singles chart with only Nirvana managing any real success (scoring three UK Top 10s), yet the Dummies have more UK Top 10 singles than Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Beck, and the same amount as Green Day pre-American Idiot. We Brits have slowly been identifying less and less with religion (and Christianity specifically) in recent decades, yet here’s a song freely invoking God’s name in a religious context and sounding like a particularly drab hymn session in a tiny village on a Sunday morning in the runner-up position.
And it’s not like “Mmm” took advantage of a slow week for releases. That week saw Red Hot Chili Peppers finally break through here with “Under the Bridge.” Soundgarden’s “The Day I Tried to Live” debuted just outside the Top 40. In fact, “Mmm” was in its second week! This rose from its debut the week prior at #5. Meanwhile, “Supersonic,” the debut single by a little-known upstart Mancunian Rock band called Oasis whose paths we certainly won’t be crossing at any point in this series (no sir), dropped out the Top 40 entirely after debuting in #31 the same week as “Mmm.” It leapfrogged the Erasure single which outplaced it the week before, it supplanted a former #1 by Take That! All of this for a song with damn-near zero redeeming qualities, the most miniscule iota of a hook, and which was so thoroughly out of step with British popular chart trends. Hell, I can make more of a case for the logic behind “Doop”’s chart success than “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”’s! It should have been anathema, it should never have gotten out the starting blocks, it had no possible reason to succeed… yet succeed it did. It even took the album, God Shuffled His Feet, to a Gold certification. For the life of me, I cannot understand why.
Now there’s something worthy of a reflective humming hook.
Bonus Beats: Here is Oscar-nominated actor Jeremy Renner performing a cheesy solo piano ballad cover of “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” in the closing credits of the pretty-decent 2018 action-comedy Tag, aided by copious highly necessary Autotune and the rest of the film’s principal cast, because why not?
The #1: “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” was mercifully kept off of the top spot by the second and final week of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” by The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Not only was it somehow Prince’s only UK #1 single, it would be his penultimate first-run UK Top 10 appearance – “Gold” would be his last, hitting #10 for one week in December of 1995, although technically the 1999 reissue of “1999” would be his final Top 10 appearance overall, its #10 peak exceeding the single’s first-run peak of #25 in 1983. “Most Beautiful” is quite problematic, but it does still slap, slink and shimmer in the way only Prince could. It’s a 4.
The gaps: The three weeks in April separating our previous entry (Bruce Springsteen’s sensational “Streets of Philadelphia”) and our current entry saw the #2 slot occupied by former and soon-to-be #1s. On the 9th, the slot was held by former #1 “Doop” by Doop. On the 16th, future #1 “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” rose to its new peak. Finally, the 23rd saw “Everything Changes” by Take That slide down from its #1 perch.
We’re #2! will return consistently next month.