The Goo Goo Dolls toiled for 12 years and five albums before the heartworn ballad Iris turned them into one of the biggest American bands of the late 90s. That song’s ubiquity overshadows pretty much everything else the Buffalo, New York band have released – which is a shame, as these alt-rock gems prove…
1. We Are the Normal
Goo Goo Dolls started off as disciples of cult Minneapolis rockers the Replacements and supported them on their final US tour. After which the Goos’ frontman John Rzeznik mailed Replacements main man Paul Westerberg the backing track for this song from 1993’s Superstar Car Wash and begged him for a set of lyrics. The end result was as careworn and bittersweet as a latter-period Replacements classic. “And no, I didn’t edit Westerberg,” says Rzeznik now. “That guy is pretty amazing with words.”
2. Long Way Down
The charging opening track from the Goos’ fifth and still perhaps best album, 1995’s A Boy Named Goo, this bottled up the essence of all of Rzeznik’s best songs: a dash of grit, rough around the edges but wide-eyed at heart, and sung by the man himself with a rasping commitment that makes even his most mawkish sentiments sound positively Shakespearean. It was only after A Boy Named Goo went double-platinum in the US that the band discovered they had signed a contract that entitled them to no royalties.
Basically the proto-Iris, 1995’s Name was the keening single that broke Goo Goo Dolls through into the American mainstream. Arriving at the fag-end of grunge, it distilled the perfect cocktail of pre-millennium ennui and everyman fatalism into a heart-tugging ballad that also echoed kindred spirits Soul Asylum’s early-’90s smash Runaway Train and had a dose of Bruce Springsteen’s blue collar heroism.
4. Ain’t That Unusual
Kicked off by a strident riff, proceeding through stuttering verses and on to a surging chorus that pretty much seized you up by the collar, A Boy Named Goo’s third solid-gold song sounded for all the world like it had fallen off the soundtrack to a mid-‘90s college movie that Richard Linklater has still yet to film. A hymn to beautiful losers and vanished dreams, Rzeznik struck a chord that resounded with the post-grunge generation: ‘Someday you never made it,’ he sings, ‘maybe you never will.’
5. Black Balloon
The signature song from 1988’s Dizzy Up The Girl album was, of course Iris – but it wasn’t its best. From the swooning strings that punctuate its chorus to the arty black and white video that accompanied it, Black Balloon served more compulsive notice that the Goo Goo Dolls had definitively stepped up from being ragged alt-rock contenders and into the major leagues. The trace element of grit in Rzeznik’s voice remained though as their strongest calling card.
Rzeznik channelled his inner Springsteen and Tom Petty to fashion this perfectly pitched slice of American heartland rock from Dizzy Up The Girl. The sentiments were universal: a cast of characters that included a cowboy, a rock star, faded girls and a young man ‘in an old man’s bar’ were left to ponder the fragility of life through a long, dark New York night and to the sound of a rousing chorus that made the heart beat just that little bit faster.
7. All Eyes On Me
Tucked away towards the end of Dizzy Up The Girl and its secret weapon, the hushed, haunted verses of All Eyes On Me crack open one, twice, three times into the sort of wraparound chorus that runs to a boundless horizon seen from the perspective of a convertible with the top down. Rzeznick is a route-one songwriter for sure, but at his best, and as here, his ultimate destination is an altogether bracing one.
8. Big Machine
Rzeznick described the opening track from the 2002’s Gutterflower as a disco song. That’s stretching it, but it did at least sound unshackled as his guitar skipped over a more typical rock-solid rhythm and off into yet another hook big enough for a football terrace. The Goo Goo Dolls had settled upon a formula, but not exhausted it just yet.
9. Here Is Gone
The most precisely realised example of that formula would be this, the second single to be lifted from Gutterflower. A by now familiar one-two of acoustic verses and grand-standing choruses, it was a higher quality version of the sort of track often to be found playing over the end credits of a Michael Bay movie.
10. Can’t Let It Go
The Let Love In album from 2006 was uneven and tired-sounding in parts, but Rzeznick still managed to concoct a handful of scarf-waving anthems that measured up and this was the pick of that bunch. It goes without saying by now that Can’t Let It Go strictly adhered to that old hit-writing maxim: don’t bore us, get to the chorus. “Choruses have caught me out more than once,” says Rzeznik. “I’ve been somewhere without my phone when one has just popped into my head and had to call myself to sing it on to my voicemail. I don’t question how that happens. I’m just lucky that it still does.”