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Fountains of Wayne: Driving to the heart of the road song

August 11, 2018

Ian, my good friend from school, was always a beat or two ahead of me – and everyone else – in his range of music. While we were dabbling our toes into the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane, he was fully immersed in Blue Oyster Cult and John Coltrane. His speakers were always the biggest and the loudest, his collection of LPs larger and more neatly stacked. Apart from an inexplicable passion for Dwight Yoakam and country music, his tastes were generally impeccable and roughly in keeping with my own.

 

Our five-decade friendship was based on a shared experience of public school and an insatiable appetite for sport in general and for our own tales of derring-do in particular. Our conversations were conducted in a sort of morse code, utterly normal for us and completely baffling to anyone else. 

Ian had always promised that he would compile a CD of 20 favourite tracks, some his favourites, some he knew would be mine, to keep me going on long Saturday drives up the M40 or M6, and just before he swapped his house in Leatherhead for a retreat in Cumbria, of all godforsaken places, he delivered his present, labelled: ‘For the long-suffering journo on the road’.

 

Typically, he was spot on in most of his choices: Dr Feelgood (Going Back Home), Jason and The Scorchers (Absolutely Sweet Marie), Richard Thompson's extraordinary Al Bowlly’s In Heaven, Graham Parker and The Rumour (New York Shuffle), The J. Geils Band (Hard Driving Man). You get the picture. It was, after all, a CD to keep the driver awake. 

 

Most of the tracks I knew, but mixed into the second half were two that were entirely new to me: both by a band called Fountains of Wayne (the name derives from a lawn ornament store in Wayne, New Jersey) and both brilliant, catchy, uptempo pop tunes. Fountains of Wayne, though very different in sound, were not so far removed from other New Jersey rockers, Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny, in their subject matter: life, love, transport and the American dream. FoW were best known for a Grammy-nominated hit single, Stacy’s Mom, whose popularity owed as much perhaps to the raunchy video as the song itself. Ian, rightly, ignored Stacy’s Mom and focused instead on two lesser-known tracks by the band: Little Red Light and Strapped For Cash.

By the admission of Adam Schlesinger, the band’s songwriter, and with Chris Collingwood, founder member, Fountains of Wayne had an obsession with transport. In Little Red Light, the lovelorn narrator is stuck in a traffic jam on the Tappen Zee bridge, which connects New York with South Nyack across the Lower Hudson River. It’s raining and the radio isn’t working, heightening the sense of frustration which is primarily reflected, as it turns out, not in the amount of traffic on the seven lanes of one of NY State’s busiest bridges – ‘50 million people in front of me’ – but in the unblinking ‘little red light’ on the answer machine of his ‘big black plastic Japanese cordless phone’.

 

‘It’s not right, it’s not fair, I’m still a mess and you still don’t care’ is the real message. For the pedantic among you, the reference is to the old Tappen Zee bridge which has been replaced by a new suspension bridge at a cost of $4bn. The Tappen were a native American tribe from NY State and the Zee is Dutch for Sea.

 

A reviewer in the Austin Chronicle wrote that their 2003 album, Welcome Interstate Managers, was full of ‘everyman voices and cheeky middlebrow wit’ and ‘hit the spot like hamburgers and coffee’. It is hard to disagree. Schlesinger admitted to two significant influences in his songwriting, one was the American band, The Cars, the other the very British band, The Kinks. Both dealt in the details of everyday life and echoed the ‘everyman voices’, be they on Waterloo Bridge or the Tappan Zee. The mystery is that a band with a real gift for an American road song and a catch-line should have remained so relatively unappreciated through a career which, on and off, lasted nearly two decades.

One explanation might be the tension within the band which led to fallow periods and ‘solo projects’, another is the swift turnover of record companies, a reflection perhaps of a destructively independent turn of mind in Schlesinger and Collingwood. Either way, Schlesinger went off to write film lyrics for Tom Hanks and Hugh Grant, among others, while Collingwood also went his own way. The strange paradox is that for all the independent exploration when the band reformed they quickly returned to their old topics of conversation and their old three-minute pop songs.

 

Traffic And Weather, their fourth studio album, was produced in 2007 and gained mixed reviews. ‘It sounds like a collection of big-hook choruses strung together with half-hearted chugging build-ups. This is far and away the most forgettable thing the band has released,’ wrote a reviewer for Pitchfork. Ouch. 

 

Yet, in the midst of it, ‘we belong together like traffic and weather’, there is an absolute gem. Strapped For Cash tells the story of a young man who needs to find some money quickly to pay back Paul, who’s just come out of prison. There is a ‘big hook’ chorus all right augmented by a power-packed horn section, but a nimble backbeat keeps the tone light and the characterisation, the helpless pursuit of a windfall that never comes, is brilliantly sketched and utterly fresh. You can listen to the track 100 times and not be bored.

 

Six bodybuilders pulled up in a Pinto
Next thing I know they're coming through the window
Hate to keep you waiting, I know times are hard
Now would you prefer a Visa or a MasterCard

 

The store in Wayne, New Jersey, closed down just before the band shut up shop too, in 2013. The sad postscript is that, after Ian’s death from a heart attack last year, the CD for the ‘long-suffering journo’ has become an epitaph, a tribute, a poignant reminder that in death as in life Ian was always a few steps further down the road.

Andrew Longmore began his career in journalism on the Bracknell News in the late 70s, covering the 1979 general election, before moving to The Cricketer Magazine and on to national newspapers. He joined The Times as tennis correspondent in 1989 and became chief sports feature writer, switching to take up the role of chief sports writer for the Independent on Sunday in 1996. In 2002, he became a senior sports writer for the Sunday Times, covering a variety of sports including horse racing, football and multiple Olympic Games. In 2000 he was named Olympic reporter of the year by the Sports Journalists' Association and in 2003 sports feature writer of the year. He retired in the summer of 2018

 

 

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