The Song Remains: Adam Schlesinger 1967 – 2020

Regular and recent readers of this website will have seen from his current posts following Adam Schlesinger’s death on April 1st, from complications with Covid-19, that our esteemed editor is a particular fan of the artist and his band Fountains Of Wayne. In these, he shared his personal feelings on what Adam’s music has meant to him and acknowledging that while they weren’t a country band, Fountains Of Wayne recorded, in his opinion, a great country track with ‘Fire In The Canyon’, which just happens to be his favourite track of all time. Fountains Of Wayne were the most obvious outlet for Adam Schlesinger’s talents as songwriter, with his college friend and lead vocalist Chris Collingwood, producer, bassist and multi-instrumentalist, but they are only part of his rich legacy.

When Fountains Of Wayne came out of the starting gate in 1996, they were seen as part of the power pop continuum going back to the Beatles, Kinks and Byrds. However, even then it was clear that there was something potentially special about Adam Schlesinger. He was already a member of another group, the trio Ivy, and he gained an Academy Award nomination for writing the title track for the Tom Hanks’ film ‘That Thing You Do’. Both of these ventures demonstrated the breadth of his songwriting covering as they did, vintage French pop and faux 1964 beat music that actually stands comparison with the best songs of that year. Clearly Adam could write a good tune and his lyrics were equally adept, covering typically the lives of various characters in his native New Jersey with humour and poignancy.

Fountains Of Wayne, while being critically acclaimed, did not really generate much attention with the wider public until they had a hit with ‘Stacey’s Mom’, supported by the Rachel Hunter video. While the quality of their songs was maintained over subsequent albums their popularity began to fade and their last album was 2011’s more acoustic folk-pop ‘Sky Full Of Holes’. That isn’t to say that in the ‘10s Adam Schlesinger wasn’t busy, he was, and in some ways he found his own natural rhythm and medium.

In Fountains Of Wayne he had always been a more behind the scenes presence and musical force rather than the band’s frontman and his diffidence was noticeable when the band played live. After 2011 he worked much more with Broadway, Television, including his work on the comedy series Crazy Ex-Girl Friend for which he won an Emmy, and producing others. This didn’t diminish his songwriting but showed more clearly just how good he really was by being able to craft songs that fit perfectly with the dramatic requirements.

Musically he didn’t really try to change the three-minute popular song format but sought to use it to write and perform perfect pop type songs repeatedly. He worked with many other artists throughout his career and perhaps the two most illustrative of his attitude and view of the world are the albums he produced for America and The Monkees. America were never a favourite of the critics during their commercially successful heyday in the ‘70s and by 2005 they had even less of a reputation. However, Adam had been influenced by their pop sensibility during his own musical development and produced their 2005 album ‘Here & Now’ with ex-Smashing Pumpkins James Iha. The resulting album brought their sound up to date while still making it one with their original recordings thereby bringing a modicum of critical acclaim late in their career.

He undertook a similar challenge when he produced the Monkees’ 50th anniversary album ‘Good Times!’ and subsequent ‘Christmas Party’. The Monkees have a difficult history, with some great songs but a questionable reputation as a serious music group. This ambiguity is best illustrated by Michael Nesmith’s reticence to embrace fully his Monkee past while he is lauded for his own songwriting career in the ‘70s when he helped found country-rock. However, if you listen to the songs Nesmith wrote when he was a member of the Monkees you could call them country songs.‘Good Times!’ received very positive reviews with some saying it was the most successful Monkees album and it featured Michael Nesmith alongside Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork – featuring new songs by old Monkee writers, a couple of old Monkees tunes and some songs by their newer fans such as Andy Partridge, Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller. Adam contributed one song ‘Our Own World’ and a co-write one with Micky Dolenz ‘I Was There (And I’m Told I Had A Good Time)’.  The general view is that it was Adam who made the album the surprising artistic and relative commercial success it was.

Some have said that Adam Schlesinger is the best songwriter of his generation and there is certainly a case to be made to support this. Additionally, his work in the ‘10s mirrors that of the great composers of the ‘30s and ‘40s who worked in the then new medium of film and subsequently saw their work included in the Great American Songbook. Given the music that influenced him in his formative years, it is not surprising that country was one of the many genres he was able to bend to his melodic will when he felt it was required. Time will tell exactly how Adam Schlesinger’s body of work will finally be judged but he was a significant artist for his generation of listeners and fellow performers.

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

4 thoughts on “The Song Remains: Adam Schlesinger 1967 – 2020”

    1. Good songwriters are rare Guy and they.are also good arbiters of other practisers of their craft

    2. Thanks for this Guy. I like the top comment on that Robbie Fulks YouTube from the guy who confirms how much he thought of them.

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