Number Ones: Once there was this kid who…


#1 JUNE 11 – JULY 1, 1993

The ABC used to flash stern parental warnings ahead of the more risque episodes of Degrassi High, Heartbreak High, or any of the Highs, which, for any eager young fans with cautious parents in the room, spelled a disappointing channel change to whatever John Burgess was up to, and protests that “we already know about sex. They tell us at school.”

While Drazic’s foul mouth or Spike’s (cough) ways could really throw off a young Australian’s afternoon viewing schedule, where our young, susceptible minds could have actually done with a parental heads-up was during early morning RAGE, where a huddle of pyjama’d-up kids, waking to the weekend and the endless Froot Loop-fuelled joys that it could bring (trampoline!, Slip ‘n’ Slide!, stitches from a rock under the Slip ‘n’ Slide!) may suddenly be bombarded with imagery so dark, tones so sonorous, and subject matter so morbidly-veiled that it can blow apart a young mind not yet equipped to deal with such things.

The Crash Test Dummies’ ‘Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm’* rolls out somberly, a slow funeral procession of a song, lead by the impossibly-low, measured tones of singer Brad Roberts. Each verse opens with “Once there was this kid who” – instantly hooking those with an ear for a story told casually – especially one about other kids. His steady, clear voice made the story seem important, but the meaning was opaque, the accompanying imagery was bleak yet familiar – each verse has children acting out a school play** – and by the end of each story one thing was horrifically clear: all these kids in the stories were suffering. Go get mum!

Verse one chronicled a kid who seemingly got into a car accident, and missed a mess of school. Seems like the luckiest kid ever. But wait, “when he finally came back, his hair had turned from black into bright white.” A temporary symptom of shock, it would turn out, and while scientifically sound, it still had that unnerving element. Verse two features a girl covered in birthmarks, who wouldn’t change in front of the others. Finally she is forced to, and it is mortifying: “She couldn’t quite explain it, they’d always just been there.” Each child “couldn’t quite explain” the circumstances and this opaque meaning bled through to those young listeners who couldn’t quite link the narrative, nor take the leap into the final verse -the kicker of the “one kid who had it worse than that.”

Then there was this boy whose

Parents made him come directly home right after school

And when they went to their church

They shook and lurched all over the church floor

He couldn’t quite explain it

They’d always just gone there.

The insidious damage that church can have on an impressionable mind is the theme of this song, although this is all but lost to a lot of listeners, especially – as outlined – those who heard the song in their tender years. There is some form of lesson, some darker truth. The three kids in the story felt uncomfortable in a way they couldn’t emote, and that translates.

The wordless chorus implies a calm but hopeless acceptance of life’s cruel, godless sway, or perhaps like Hanson’s ‘Mmmbop’*** – a similarly mmm-themed #1 single – it was originally intended as a bed to put a more word-intensive chorus over before they thought “fuck it”, and just let it be.

‘Mmm…’ was an unlikely hit. Firstly, it was only us and the Germans that saw fit to send it to the top of the charts – this single didn’t go over too well in their homeland Canada, only reaching #14 . The only reason the song wasn’t dismissed as a three-minute om mantra exercise in the US was the rising popularity of a commercial radio format laughably named “adult album-oriented alternative rock” or AAA, because fuck that. Basically this format plays singles by artists who generally sell albums and make their living touring to a healthy fanbase – as oppose to pop stars who rely upon hit singles and MTV. Of course, this conceptually ate itself when AAA became a dominant format and these earnest, modest strum-alongs suddenly became monster singles which spawned monster albums and before you could say Hootie and the Blowfish, there was a land rush for the most dad-friendly, earnest, crisp, clean, commercial cut of golfing turf in sensible shorts and… you get the idea.****

But this all happened a few years down the track, and before the entire AAA genre was completely homogenised (which is too hilarious a concept to even address) songs like this dark tome slipped through and received blanket airplay across America, in this instance seeing it hit #4 and score an international release. Us and the Germans loved it. Weird Al Yankovic even did a parody, which is the closest thing to being forever locked into the pop pantheon there is.

The next step for the now-super-successful Crash Test Dummies was to brutally misinterpret the very appeal of the group, releasing the chirpy, bouncy Afternoons and Coffeespoons in which Roberts smilingly shrugs off lyrics based on T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, as if that wasn’t what was happening, with a little help from a blindingly-lit video featuring wacky singing paramedics. The single peaked at #40 in Australia and was so poorly received, we gave their future airplay slots to Live’s ‘Lightning Crashes’, which offered up the dark religious imagery Australian commercial radio was crying out for.

*Still the only single with 12 ‘M’s in the title to top the charts.

**The official video clip seems blocked in our country. 20-year iMAX 3D cinema release coming perhaps?

***Best non-Middle Of Nowhere Hanson songs list coming soon. Not even remotely joking.

****If you really wanna trace back the emergence of Lifehouse, Three Doors Down, Matchbox 20, The Calling, etc. – then you can’t find a better man than mister ground zero of this sound: Eddie Vedder.

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