My Playlist: Fastball

When I recall a song I haven’t heard in ages, I tend to revisit the band or artist who performed it, especially if I don’t know them well beyond a tune or two. That’s what happened with Fastball when I remembered The Way the other day and included the cool tune in my last Sunday Six feature. After sampling a bunch of other songs from different albums by the American alternative-rock-turned-power pop band, I liked what I heard and decided to put together this profile and playlist.

Fastball were formed in 1994 in Austin, Texas by Tony Scalzo (vocals, bass, keyboards, guitar), Miles Zuniga (vocals, guitar) and Joey Shuffield (drums, percussion). After Shuffield had introduced Zunigo to Scalzo who had been with California group The Goods, the three of them decided to start their own group.

Following a series of names, including Star 69, Magneto, Magneto USA, Ed Clark’s Business Bible and Starchy, they decided on Fastball. What appears to be a baseball metaphor is definitely more memorable than some of the other names they had considered. Fastball managed to quickly gain popularity in the Austin music scene. After a local journalist had seen them perform, they brought them to the attention of Hollywood Records, which led to a record deal soon thereafter.

Up to that point, Fastball’s story almost looked like a fairytale. Other bands struggle for years to sign with a label if they ever get that far. But the Texas group’s ride wouldn’t be without bumps. While their debut album Make Your Mama Proud from April 1996 yielded a win in the “Best Pop Band” category at the Austin Music Awards (tied with The Wannabes, another Austin group), the record sold poorly (about 5,500 copies as of April 1998). Suddenly, the future was wide open, to creatively borrow from Tom Petty, and all of the band’s members felt compelled to keep their day jobs.

Then came their break – again, something many music artists never get. And it was a big one. In February 1998, Fastball released the above-mentioned The Way, the lead single of their then-upcoming sophomore album All the Pain Money Can Buy. The Way, which only was the group’s second single, hit no. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart, as well as in Canada on both the mainstream and alternative rock charts. Overseas, it also reached no. 7 in Sweden and no. 21 in the UK.

By September, only six months after its release, All the Pain Money Can Buy had sold more than a million copies in the U.S. alone, thus reaching Platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Interestingly, the album “only” reached no. 29 on the Billboard 200. It did better in Canada where it climbed to no. 18 and also charted in a few European countries. Fastball had arrived. But their commercial and chart performance would be short-lived – again, an all-too-familiar playbook in the brutal music business.

In September 2000, Fastball’s third album appeared. It was appropriately titled The Harsh Light of Day. While it received positive reviews, once again, it turned out to be a record that didn’t sell well. As of January 2004, sales totaled a mere 84,000 copies – definitely a harsh drop compared to the predecessor’s million units sold in just six months! It also was the group’s last album to make the Billboard 200, reaching no. 97.

Despite lacking chart and commercial success, Fastball managed to soldier on. They remain active to this day in their original line-up and have since released four additional studio albums. Their catalog also includes two live records and a compilation. I’d say the time has come to take a closer look at some of their songs. And there’s definitely more to this band than The Way.

I’d like to do this in chronological order starting with Fastball’s debut album Make Your Mama Proud from April 1996. Compared to their sophomore record, the songs on their debut effort sound a bit rawer and remind me a little of Green Day’s 1994 album Dookie. Here’s the title track, written by Scalzo.

Turning to Fastball’s hugely successful second album All the Pain Money Can Buy, I’m skipping The Way, since I just covered it (though the tune is included in the Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post). Instead, I’d like to highlight Out of My Head, the only other song that had sounded vaguely familiar when checking out the band’s music. Penned by Scalzo, the song also became the third single off the album and the last to make the Billboard Hot 100, climbing to no. 20 – interestingly outperforming The Way, which missed the U.S. mainstream chart but as noted above was pretty successful elsewhere.

You’re an Ocean is a catchy pop-rock tune from Fastball’s third album The Harsh Light of Day, the last appearing on the band’s original label Hollywood Records. Once again, the song was written by Scalzo. The record featured some notable guests, including Billy Preston and Brian Setzer.

In June 2004, Fastball released their fourth album. Previously, they had signed with new record label Rykodisc. The record was mixed by Bob Clearmountain who is known for having worked with major acts like Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Toto and Bon Jovi. Two tracks, Someday and Red Light, were produced by Adam Schlesinger who among others founded Fountains of Wayne. Here’s Someday written by Miles Zuniga – nice power pop! The album did not chart.

The Beatlesque The Malcontent (The Modern World) is from Fastball’s fifth studio album Keep Your Wig On that came out in April 2009. The band had switched labels, and the record appeared on MRI/RED Distribution. It was co-produced by Miles Zuniga and CJ Eiriksson, with mixing once again done by Bob Clearmountain.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Friend or Foe, the opener of Fastball’s seventh and most recent studio album The Help Machine from October 2019. The song was written by Zuniga. The record appeared on the group’s own 33 1/3 label.

It’s a pity Fastball have largely been under the radar screen for the past 20 years or so. I find their melodic rock and power pop that oftentimes is reminiscent of The Beatles and Badfinger enjoyable. Here’s a Spotify playlist featuring the above and some additional tunes by the group.

“When I look at our catalog, there’s not a bad record in there,” notes drummer Joey Shuffield in the band’s online bio, “We’ve been through our ups and downs, but I think we’ve really found our groove over the last few years.”

“We spent a lot of time on a major label, so initially the transition back to being an indie band was a little bumpy,” Shuffield further points out. “But now it feels comfortable being responsible for everything ourselves, because that way we’re more likely to get it right. We’re all so into the music now, and I think you can hear that on the last couple of albums.”

Adds Tony Scalzo: “It’s only natural that you get better at what you do as you get older and more experienced. But you can’t always figure that out when you’re in your 20s. Now that we’re on our own label, the pressure’s all on us, and that’s fine. All I ever really wanted was a consistent creative outlet, and we’ve got that now.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Fastball website; YouTube; Spotify

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Is Monkee-Mania Still Alive?

Yesterday, I coincidentally listened to a new live album by The Monkees. And, nope, this isn’t some old material somebody had dug out from an archive. It was actually recorded in March 2019 from the so-called Mike & Micky Show and is the first live album released by Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz, who toured as The Monkees in 2018/2019. No matter how you feel about what initially was a fictitious band created for an American television show in the mid-’60s, listening to the 24 tracks isn’t only fun but also vividly illustrates how many great songs The Monkees have had. Plus, let’s not forget that Nesmith and Peter Tork had instrumental skills from the beginning and Davy Jones was a capable vocalist, while Dolenz eventually learned how to play the drums.

The collection spans the entire 50-plus year catalog of The Monkees. Frankly, I had not realized how active the band had remained in more recent years. Their latest studio album Christmas Party appeared in October 2018. And while it has a Christmas theme, it’s not just pop versions of holiday tunes. It also came out only less than two years after Good Times!, their previous studio release from May 2016. By the way, both of these albums were co-produced by Fountains of Wayne co-founder and key song contributor Adam Schlesinger, who passed away last Tuesday from complications caused by COVID-19. It’s kind of crazy how much the coronavirus already has impacted the music industry in less than two months!

Michael Nesmith & Micky Dolenz
Michael Nesmith (left) & Micky Dolenz

Even after The Monkees had become a “real” band, they largely continued to rely on outside writers like the songwriting duos of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and Jerry Goffin and Carole King. But they also penned some of their songs themselves, especially Michael Nesmith. The album features various tunes he wrote, such as The Girl I Knew Somewhere, Listen to the Band and Papa Gene’s Blues. Two of them, St. Matthew and Auntie’s Municipal Court, the band didn’t perform during their heyday. ‘Nuff talk, let’s get to some music!

The album kicks off with Last Train to Clarksville, the band’s debut single released in August 1966. It’s one of the tunes written by Boyce and Hart. And it’s certainly no coincidence that it sounds very Beatle-esque. Frankly, this is an awesome song that is comparable to some of the mid-’60s tunes by The Beatles, and I say this as a fierce Fab Four fan! Here’s the official video.

Nesmith wasn’t the only member who contributed to the band’s own songs. For Pete’s Sake was co-written by Peter Tork and Joey Richards. The tune appeared on The Monkees’ third studio album Headquarters from May 1967.

A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You, a tune written by Neil Diamond, was the band’s third single released in March 1967. It didn’t quite match the chart success of their previous smash hit I’m a Believer, but still climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, hit no. 1 in Canada, and reached the top 10 in many other countries. It’s a fun tune that reminds me a bit of That’s What I Like About You by The Romantics.

Next up, one of the above noted Nesmith tunes: Papa Gene’s Blues. As Nesmith points out, it’s an acoustic version. Originally, that song appeared on The Monkees’ eponymous debut album from October 1966. Apart from the track, it’s kind of entertaining to listen to the announcement, with Nesmith and Dolenz trading jokes.

Let’s do two more. I’ve always loved these tunes and simply couldn’t skip them. Daydream Believer, written by John Stewart, is a track from the band’s fifth studio album The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees released in April 1968. It’s the perfect sing-along, and not surprisingly, Mike & Micky asked the audience to join them – feel free to follow their lead!

And, of course, no concert by The Monkees would be complete without I’m a Believer. Their second single from November 1966 and biggest hit topping the charts in the U.S., Canada, Australia and numerous European countries is another Neil Diamond composition. It also was included on the band’s sophomore album More of the Monkees, which came out in January 1967.

At the time Nesmith and Dolenz were planning their 2018/2019 tour, Tork was still alive but declined to join. Sadly, he since passed away in February 2019. Jones had died seven years earlier in February 2012. Initially, Nesmith and Dolenz had planned to take their show out on the road again in the U.S. and Canada starting later this month. But given COVID-19, most dates have been pushed back until July and September. The current schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Monkees website; YouTube