The jaunty melody belies the serious nature of this song, which is about the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. The song was written by the group's guitarist Greg Camp, who told Songfacts
: "The song was basically a social and racial battle cry. It was a sort of 'Can't we all get along?' song for the time when I wrote it. It was just about all the things that were going on around me as a young person. And I'm, like, God, what is going on? I don't understand why this is happening. It's like we might as well be walking around a planet on fire."
The riots took place after four white police officers were acquitted after a videotaped beating of a black motorist named Rodney King. "Can't we all get along?" was King's famous quote during a news conference to address the riots.
"Walkin' on the Sun" was Smash Mouth's first major-label single and their breakout hit. The group is from San Jose, California, where they had a supporter in Carson Daly, at the time a DJ at the alternative rock radio station KOME. In April 1996, the group was unsigned, but KOME put their song "Nervous in the Alley" in rotation anyway, and later added ""Walkin' on the Sun." Soon after, Daly moved to the mighty Los Angeles station KROQ, where he continued to champion the song and give it airplay. Other stations followed suit, attracting lots of attention to the band, which was courted by a passel of record labels. They signed with Interscope, which released "Walkin' on the Sun" as their first single in 1997. It landed at #1 on the Modern Rock chart and #2 on the Airplay chart (the song wasn't sold as a single, so it wasn't eligible for the Hot 100), helping the album Fush Yu Mang sell over 2 million copies.
The song interpolates the keyboard riff from the 1966 single "Swan's Splashdown" by the electronic music duo Perrey and Kingsley (Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley), which gives it a '60s retro sound. The mixing of musical genres and eras served Smash Mouth well and helped set the tone for their future hits.
Mike - Santa Barbara, CA
This song dates back to 1992, when Greg Camp wrote it. He was in a different band at the time, which turned it down. When he joined Smash Mouth in 1994, he brought it to them. Camp told us: "I wrote it on a chintzy little nylon-string guitar that I had, and it sounded to me more like Santana or something. It had bongos and maracas and stuff on the original demo. We took it into Eric Valentine, who produced the record, and we just put this more locomotive driving beat to it. It was already simple, so we just did the little Doors-y style riff in there and that's what happened. The singer [Steve Harwell] brought it out to where it was supposed to be. He has this gravelly voice, but it still has a melody, so it just worked."
Smash Mouth was more of a punk band when they started, which is apparent on most of the tracks on Fush Yu Mang. "Walkin' on the Sun" is an outlier, but since it was the hit, that's the sound they had to emulate.
It's not just rappers who make Scarface references: the album title is something Tony Montana (Al Pacino) says in the film.
The first line is:
It ain't no joke I'd like to buy the world a toke
This is a reference to a famous 1971 Coca-Cola commercial where they sing, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke." When the song took off, Smash Mouth heard from Coke's lawyers, but nothing came of it.
The video was directed by McG, who before hitting it big in feature films (We Are Marshall, Terminator Salvation) spent a few years making music videos, mostly for bands in Southern California where he was based. "Walkin' On The Sun" is typical of his video work, with a car scene, a dance scene, and many eye-catching non-sequiturs. He wasn't your guy if you wanted a literal interpretation of the song.