When “MMMBop” first bounded onto the airwaves a quarter of a century ago, it sounded like nothing else around. Released on 15 April 1997, it arrived at the tail-end of grunge and with Britpop in full swing, a blast of irresistibly catchy pop rock influenced by classic R&B and soul and sung by a band of brothers too young to have a drink to toast their success. The song soared to the top of the charts in a dozen countries, including Britain and the US, making the long-haired Hanson siblings international sensations overnight.
The trio had formed five years earlier in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after the family arrived back in the States after a stint in South America, where the boys’ accountant father was auditing operations in the oil and gas industry. As they travelled they listened religiously to a compilation of hits from the late Fifties, featuring golden oldies “Good Golly, Miss Molly” by Little Richard, “Splish Splash” by Bobby Darin and “Rockin’ Robin” by Bobby Day.
“It was rock’n’roll in its absolute essence,” remembers lyricist and middle brother Taylor Hanson. “That music became really ingrained in our psyche as our connection to America.”
The power of that influence would become clear when the young brothers went ahead and crafted a perfect pop hit of their very own.
The story of “MMMBop” begins in the Hanson family garage in 1994, when guitarist Isaac was 14, keyboardist Taylor was 11 and drummer Zac was nine.
‘We looked like a 12-year-old Nirvana cover band’
The foundations of ‘MMMBop’ were formed while the brothers were brushing their teeth, and almost by accident. The trio then expanded it, albeit with lyrics they only later realised were slightly bleak...
Taylor Hanson: We were working on a song we made called “Boomerang”, which is incredibly hooky in itself. We were looking for a counterpoint background part and started singing: “Mmmbop, ba duba dop”. You have to remember we’d learnt to sing listening to doo-wop and early rock’n’roll, so we were thinking about songs like [sings Barry Mann’s 1961 hit “Who Put the Bomp”:] “Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp?”. We started singing and that little pattern formed, but it was too hooky to be a counterpoint so it went on the shelf.
Isaac Hanson: In the early Nineties you had the grunge and rock stuff coming out of Seattle, and you also had more straight-down-the-middle guitar pop like Gin Blossoms and Hootie & the Blowfish. We were trying to figure out where we fit in.
Taylor: I distinctly remember a regular morning, just brushing our teeth and getting ready for school, singing: “Mmmbop, ba duba dop” and Isaac harmonising with me. That idea was in our brains and in our household. It was around then that the verses began to be born. It’s a campfire song, a reflective, earnest, heartfelt little story. “MMMBop” is kind of “C’est la vie”.
Zac Hanson: I’m surprised more people weren’t worried about us when you look at the things we were writing at that age. Obviously it was packaged in a very upbeat way with harmonies and catchy guitar lines, but “MMMBop” is really about getting old, losing friends and the fact that most things won’t last.
Isaac: If we hadn’t already had that chorus, “MMMBop” would be a really depressing song.
Taylor: We recorded it locally, and “MMMBop” became the thing that we shopped to labels. Before that, they couldn’t really make any sense of these guys singing Motown and soul but looking like a 12-year-old Nirvana cover band.
Isaac: Except our hair was cleaner.
Taylor: The record got turned down by almost everyone in the business until we found the right label and it got us signed. We did not think of “MMMBop” as the ticket. It was an expression of who we were, but we didn’t think the day it was written that it would light the world on fire.
‘You can’t actually play the drums when you’re 10 years old’
After moving to Los Angeles and getting signed, the brothers collided with professional – and adult – musicians, and sought out indie rock experts to hone their craft and their visual aesthetic.
Isaac: We drove out to LA before we were technically signed. We signed the contract with Mercury Records in the parking lot of the Beverly Garland Hotel in Studio City, California.
Taylor: They teased me about this, but I was genuinely frustrated that I was 13 when we got signed and Michael Jackson was only about eight when The Jackson 5 got signed.
Isaac: That’s Taylor’s competitive spirit. He got a healthy dose of that from Mom, who is the queen of “nothing is impossible”. One of the earliest things we did after we got signed was go to work with [producers] the Dust Brothers on [re-recording] the songs “Thinking of You” and “MMMBop”, which had both been on our independent record 3 Car Garage. In classic Dust Brothers form, they both have very prominent vintage drum loops on them.
Zac: The Dust Brothers were good to us. They treated us like we were going to be the next Jackson 5. We never were, but they treated us like we’d already achieved something. They weren’t perfectionists. Their sound is about mixing and mashing, which I think fit with our imperfect qualities as a young garage band. We had a lot more conflict with [subsequent “MMMBop” producer] Stephen Lironi. He’s a drummer, and drummers see the world in a different way.
Stephen Lironi: Drummers do see things differently. At the time, Zac was 10 years old. You can’t actually play the drums when you’re 10 years old. It’s a physical thing. You need muscles and technique. It takes a long time. They’d originally started recording with the Dust Brothers, but that didn’t quite go the way they wanted it to so we holed up at Scream Studios on Ventura Boulevard and tried to recapture some of what was on the original demo.
Isaac: Our approach was to work with indie rock people. For the music video we felt like we were in capable hands with Tamra Davis, who’d done videos for Sonic Youth and Black Flag. We liked her approach and her style. That’s also why we wanted to work with people like the Dust Brothers and Stephen Lironi, who’d just come from making a record with [Shaun Ryder’s post-Happy Mondays band] Black Grape.
Stephen Lironi: Working with heroin addicts and kids is quite similar. You’ve got to spoon-feed them both.
‘We were kind of trapped’
“MMMBop” hit No 1 in 12 countries, and transformed the brothers into overnight superstars. But fame was also intense and frightening – particularly when their long-haired “look” left them so conspicuous.
Isaac: We were just focused on making the best record we could, and being proud of it. We didn’t immediately assume that we’d be going to places like London and travelling all over the world.
Zac: We were so young that we weren’t doing a lot of things on our own. Now as a band you might go to a show or a bar, but we couldn’t do any of those things. Then there was the fact that there’d be somewhere between 25 and 150 people waiting for us outside the door of our hotel.
Isaac: That was both a very unusual experience and a regular occurrence. We were kind of trapped, actually.
Zac: We had the problem of being very recognisable. We were three very young, very American adolescents with long blond hair. Our life was like A Hard Day’s Night, and of course the reality of screaming girls and stampeding crowds is not silly, it’s kind of terrifying.
Stephen Lironi: It’s very difficult when a young band doesn’t have a chance to build up and they’re just a phenomenon straight out of the blocks. I think they opened a lot of doors for bands like NSYNC who were completely manufactured, whereas Hanson weren’t. They manufactured themselves. They co-wrote with a lot of different songwriters on their first album, but nobody came close to what they’d created already.
‘Today it’s the whipped cream and the cherry on top’
The brothers continue to tour and make music, with their 11th album released next month. As for “MMMBop”, performing it today is a bittersweet experience.
Isaac: Playing the song today is a little emotional for me. The lyric of the song is about holding on to the things that matter, and asking who are the people who will really be there in the end? For us, it’s those people in the crowd who are still coming to see us night after night and year after year. People who come to our shows come to experience the fullness of the band, and “MMMBop” gets to be the whipped cream and the cherry on top.
Zac: The crowd reaction is always amazing. People love that song, because it was the song of a moment. Up until that point music on the radio had been very grunge-y, and “MMMBop” came as this bolt of lightning. It was like: “Oh, music can also be full of joy!”
Hanson’s new album ‘Red Green Blue’ is out on 20 May, and their European tour begins on 8 June
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