BUBBLEGUM'S LASTING FLAVOR: A HISTORY OF "POP" MUSIC
BUBBLEGUM MUSIC, that sticky sweet concoction of frothy pop and nursery rhyme rock was probably written off by your older siblings and other tin-eared cynics as mere "kid's stuff" in its 1967-1972 hey-day. But its irresistible flavor has proved a lot longer lasting than your average wad of BAZOOKA JOE. Where did this factory-made, contrived, immensely popular genre first "unwrap"? THE CHORDETTES' chirpy LOLLIPOP got its licks in back in the late fifties, while THE FIFTH ESTATE's euphoric Land of Oz chant DING DONG! THE WITCH IS DEAD, THE DIXIE CUPS' rootsy kiddie ditty IKO IKO, THE ROYAL GUARDSMEN's comic strip ode SNOOPY VS. THE RED BARON, and TOMMY ROE's sweet-toothed hits all pre-date the "great gum explosion" of the late sixties.
Being strictly a producer's singles oriented medium, the savvy team of JERRY KASENETZ and JEFF KATZ formed SUPER K PRODUCTIONS, gave "bubblegum" its official moniker, and aligned with NEIL BOGART's BUDDAH label to create a stable of faceless "groups" like 1910 FRUITGUM CO. and OHIO EXPRESS. Contrary to the "one hit wonderful" status of most such ensembles, those two entered the Top 40 charts several times via neatly interchangeable singles notable for snappy beats and simplistic singalong lyrics. The first and best OHIO EXPRESS hit BEG, BORROW & STEAL, which combined LOUIE LOUIE's infamous riff with garage rock toughness, was actually by THE RARE BREED (who also saw their flop COME AND TAKE A RIDE IN MY BOAT reborn as the smash COME ON DOWN TO MY BOAT by EVERY MOTHERS SON). Double entendre charters YUMMY YUMMY YUMMY and CHEWY CHEWY followed, helmed by JOEY LEVINE's nasally vocals and anonymous session musicians. LEVINE also belted out the non-existent KASENETZ-KATZ SINGING ORCHESTRAL CIRCUS's lone biggie QUICK JOEY SMALL, and many years later, the "group" REUNION's ultimate bubblegum tongue-twister LIFE IS A ROCK (BUT THE RADIO ROLLED ME).
1910 FRUITGUM CO., another manufactured band with a penchant for catchy song titles nicked from children's games, spit out the equally popular SIMON SAYS, INDIAN GIVER, MAY I TAKE A GIANT STEP, and 1-2-3 RED LIGHT. MUSIC EXPLOSION's LITTLE BIT O' SOUL and CRAZY ELEPHANT's soul-drenched GIMME GIMME GOOD LOVIN' (with lead vocals by former CADILLACS member ROBERT SPENCER) represented grittier, if less permanent sides of SUPER K's prolific output. The lightly psychedelic LEMON PIPERS, another BUDDAH hit maker, contributed the chart topping jangler GREEN TAMBOURINE and its barely remembered follow ups JELLY JUNGLE and RICE IS NICE...but at least they could lay claim to being an actual flesh and blood band.
Next up were cartoon-heroes-turned-pop-stars THE ARCHIES, whose chart topping confection SUGAR SUGAR was perhaps bubblegum's most savory anthem. Their musical journey was the brainchild of former MONKEES svengali DON KIRSHNER, who had lost creative control over the Pre-Fab Four phenomenon. MICKEY, DAVY, PETER and MIKE, no strangers themselves to the sticky allure of gum, impressively transcended the gum label by mixing country, RNB and show tunes into their sunny repertoire. An avalanche of Saturday morning gum-spouting ensembles popped up, including curvy chick trio JOSIE & THE PUSSYCATS, THE BANANA SPLITS (actors costumed as critters), LANCELOT LINK & THE EVOLUTION REVOLUTION, (real chimps, not mere men masquerading as MONKEES), and THE SUGAR BEARS (cereal mascots). Many of these kitschy concoctions actually ended up on the backs of breakfast product boxes as ultra lo-fi 45s kids could cut out and ruin their parents' phonograph needles with. Even those perky, ultimate purveyors of "bubble-soul" THE JACKSON 5, along with their Caucasian clones THE OSMOND BROTHERS got their own animated series during gum's most fertile period.
Leading the charge for post-MONKEES teen idols was TV's ultra-wholesome PARTRIDGE FAMILY, starring DAVID CASSIDY (he of the perfect shag haircut); their signature hit I THINK I LOVE YOU focused on a slightly more mature, polished gum sound. The toothsome DONNY OSMOND, who vied with CASSIDY for space on the pop charts and TEEN BEAT readers' hearts, squealed out gummy covers of oldies like GO AWAY LITTLE GIRL and PUPPY LOVE, hitting his high-pitched peak with SWEET & INNOCENT, an insanely innocuous slab of gooey greatness.
The early seventies was a hot-bed for gum-centric goodies, notably PEPPERMINT RAINBOW's glorious one shot WILL YOU BE STAYING AFTER SUNDAY, folk singer MELANIE's playfully suggestive BRAND NEW KEY and Scottish pin up lads THE BAY CITY ROLLERS, whose spelling bee chant SATURDAY NIGHT unfurled like a classic cheerleader routine. And what was ABBA's debut juggernaut WATERLOO, if not the most perfect DONNY OSMOND knock-off ever waxed? Time has shown bubblegum to be a profound and ongoing influence...witness seventies glam artists SLADE, GARY GLITTER and SWEET (who morphed from the gum great LITTLE WILLIE to the harder rock of BALLROOM BLITZ) and power pop legends THE RASPBERRIES, who carried the innocent lust of CHEWY CHEWY to its logical seamy conclusion with GO ALL THE WAY. A new wave of eighties upstarts including THE RAMONES, JOAN JETT and BILLY IDOL covered chestnuts from 1910 FRUITGUM CO.'s INDIAN GIVER to TOMMY JAMES' CRIMSON & CLOVER and MONY MONY, while gum's flavor also enticed THE CARS (compare the opening bars of OHIO EXPRESS' YUMMY YUMMY YUMMY to those of JUST WHAT I NEEDED), BLONDIE and THE GO-GO'S. Finally, hair metal mongers BON JOVI and POSION carried the pink torch into the nineties, even as that flirty fivesome the SPICE GIRLS (think female MONKEES) and the bubble-headed BRITNEY SPEARS made it safe to chew again.
Like those petrified pink chunks of FLEER forever plastered to the underside of diner tables and school desks the world over, bubblegum...much like rock and roll itself...is here to stay.
K-TEL'S GREATEST HIT*
Eons before homemade mix tapes and IPOD shuffle-play existed, pretty much the only way to listen to a bunch of different pop artists in one sitting was by plopping a K-TEL album onto your record player. Yes, we're talkin' those "22 ORIGINAL HITS" by "22 ORIGINAL STARS" platters with oh-so-hip titles like OUT OF SIGHT and MUSIC EXPLOSION hawked on late nite TV by a frantic off-screen announcer breathlessly ticking off stars' names accompanied by teasing sound bites...BROWNSVILLE STATION! (cue SMOKIN' IN THE BOYS ROOM)...TOM T. HALL! (cue I LOVE)...ALBERT HAMMOND! (cue IT NEVER RAINS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA)...KOOL & THE GANG! (cue JUNGLE BOOGIE)...CHER! (cue GYPSIES, TRAMPS & THEIVES)...don't pretend you don't remember.
After a successful run touting "must-have" gizmos like the FISHIN' MAGICIAN and the BLITZHACKER FOOD CHOPPER, the K-TEL company found its real niche moving a different potpourri of plastic. K-TEL RECORDS ruled in the 70s, when a similar unrestricted blend of rock, pop, country and soul chestnuts co-existed peacefully on your trusty AM radio (preferably a bright orange ball & chain model courtesy of RADIO SHACK). Who cared if K-TEL product was manufactured on recycled vinyl with severely compressed grooves to fit in all those guilty pleasure ditties? What did we know or care about sound quality? Our first phonographs were 30 dollar discount department store models with a penny scotch taped to the tone arm to prevent record skippage.
Like most boob-tube product, K-TEL didn't exactly practice "truth in advertising". Sure, the albums boasted 22 ORIGINAL HITS! by 22 ORIGINAL STARS!...but some of these were certainly never hits and a lot of these artists were never EVER stars. 5000 VOLTS? CELI BEE & THE BUZZY BUNCH? THE INCREDIBLE BONGO BAND?...Catch my drift? Granted, juggernaut stars of LED ZEP's and PAUL MCCARTNEY's ilk were missing in action...most of K-TEL's roster consisted of one or two hit wonders, buoyed by a few prime movers like ELTON JOHN and JAMES BROWN, (whose funk-infested presence graced seemingly every release) with considerably more on their resumes. You got a ton of bona fide TOP 40 chestnuts like TIE A YELLOW RIBBON 'ROUND THE OLD OAK TREE, COVER OF THE ROLLING STONE and FRANKENSTEIN, although every K-TEL LP snuck in a couple of "ringers" that I never saw or heard ANYWHERE ELSE. (Cue TWILIGHT ZONE music). Two examples that spring to mind...both from BRIGHT SIDE OF MUSIC, no less...are the "shoulda been huge" country rocker BOOGIE WOOGIE MAN by PAUL ("I GO CRAZY") DAVIS and SWEET's perky bubblegum blast IT'S LONELY OUT THERE.
One thing K-TEL never bragged about was "original length"...in order to shoehorn 22 hits onto a 45 minute LP, tracks were mercilessly chopped, cropped, sliced & diced...maybe even made into JULIEN FRIES. Intros were lopped off, endings faded out a minute or two early, whole musical bridges went mysteriously AWOL. Although it was hardly unusual for a band like ARGENT to release the 3 minute single HOLD YOUR HEAD UP to AM radio and a twice as long version for FM play, K-TEL actually inserted a take that lasted a whole 90 seconds! So much for the argument that prog artists are longwinded. At least they got the "ORIGINAL ARTIST" part right; there were no lame re-recordings by "past their expiration date" acts in need of beer money. That sleazy practice didn't surface until the new millennium version of the company.
K-TEL was mostly content to shove the normally unrelated WAR, JERRY JEFF WALKER, HELEN REDDY and BACHMAN-TURNER OVERDRIVE onto the same 12 incher. They occasionally veered off for cool concept efforts such as SUPER BAD, stuffed with "heavy" RNB charters like ISAAC HAYES, FREDA PAYNE and THE CHI-LITES, or GOOFY GREATS and its rib-ticklin' roster of RAY STEVENS, OHIO EXPRESS and 1910 FRUITGUM COMPANY goodies. By the 80s, K-TEL theme discs including KICKIN' COUNTRY, DISCO ROCKET and MASTERS OF METAL were commonplace...truly something for everyone.
Naturally, I prefer to remember K-TEL RECORDS as they were in their infamous 70s hey-day...spattering like Pop Rocks all over TV and radio, turning up in every cheapo depot, super market and gas station rack. Much as the pubescent wail of DONNY OSMOND segued into the macho bedroom growl of BARRY WHITE, my innocent musical tastes formulated by K-TEL and AM radio eventually made way for the darker spoils of FM's underground sound. As the lure of that disembodied pitchman's voice loudly proclaimed at alarmingly regular intervals, each and every K-TEL platter truly mattered in its own kitsch-encrusted way.
* Also available on 8 track tape
CUB KODA: FROM BROWNSVILLE TO BLUESVILLE!...
The first time I caught the late, great, and never sedate singer/guitarist/composer/music historian/journalist CUB KODA, "MR. SMOKIN' IN THE BOYS ROOM" to you casual music fans, I was a bleary-eyed teenager, fighting to stay up during MIDNIGHT SPECIAL long enough to see BROWNSVILLE STATION rip through their latest hit. I distinctly recall CUB, in his outrageous glam duds and oversized specs (hey, I wore 'em too--the specs that is) introduce his band something like this: "Hi. We're BROWNSVILLE STATION. Now there ain't too much else to watch on TV this late at night besides us, but if you wanna flip around a little bit and see what's playin' on the other stations, go right ahead. We'll wait!..." And wait Cub did, arms folded, smirk across his face, for what seemed like an eternity in that pre-MTV age of long attention spans. Then he confidently resumed, saying, "See? Told ya!"...and BS launched into a volcanic KINGS OF THE PARTY, proving of course, that they really were. The man had it all...warped fashion style, CHUCK BERRY meets ELMORE JAMES chops, and especially a sense of humor...which never hurt NOBODY NO HOW in the music bidness.
As I stumbled blindly into adult-hood, I was fortunate enough to catch CUB KODA in person (the very best way, by the way) at a rundown seaside shack of a beach club prone to hosting highly suspect lineups of IRON BUTTERFLY and BADFINGER. To this day, it's the only joint I've ever seen that shunned bartenders and waitresses in favor of el cheap-o beer sold one can at a time, from a long low grocery store cooler that formerly housed NUTTY BUDDIES and CREAM-CICLES. A cashier who looked amazingly like LUCY's soulmate ETHEL MERTZ was planted at the end, chain-smokin' LUCKY STRIKES and readin' dog-eared dime store novels. Did this set-up bother THE CUBMASTER? Not on yer sweet life, bubba! Armed with nothin' more than grease, grit and an axe to grind, CUB expertly managed to transport a few dozen NARRAGANSETT-suckin' half-wits on a musical mind-meld through down 'n dirty blooze, heavenly noggin' knockers, and rockabilly boogie. The sweat-saturated evenin' climaxed, natch, with that all-time juvey delinquent ode to cancer sticks which need not even be named here. Hell, ETHEL even glanced up from her literature for THAT encore. A better night of ear-cleansing debauchery and soul-scratchin' salvation I have not experienced since. All this genuine entertainment for a measly ten bucks, which roughly translated to four hours of sackin' provisions at the local GULP 'N GO in the late 70s...and might I say, worth every red cent.
I also maintain fond memories of THE CUB KODA CRAZY SHOW, which he presided over Saturday nights on New England's premiere oldies station WCGY, cherry-picking the very best obscure sides of rockabilly, doo-wop and RNB to share with his rabid listeners, interspersed with the funniest jive deejay patter this side of PETER "WOOFA GOOFA" WOLF.
CUB KODA worked long and he worked hard for that one tenth of one percent of cult fandom that trickled his way. After BROWNSVILLE bit the dust, he pumped out gritty solo albums of every conceivable genre short of RAP and OPERA. A prolific witer, he penned music columns for GOLDMINE magazine, authored a lengthy series of record reviews for the ALL MUSIC GUIDE website, co-wrote BLUES FOR DUMMIES, and whipped out funky album liner notes for everyone from SPIKE JONES to FREDDY CANNON to SLIM HARPO. Somehow, he also found time to amass one of vinyl records' most impressive private collections of his twang-bangin' heroes, as well as gig often with late blooze legend HOUND DOG TAYLOR's band THE HOUSEROCKERS.
CUB KODA has long since gone to that "great greasy gig in the sky", and I miss him like I miss my first grammar school girlfriend...all 72 freckle-faced, near-sighted, gum-snappin' pounds of her. She left me without so much as a rusty skate key...but CUB left me a rock & roll legacy.
God bless ya, CUB. You made me the music fan I am today.
FAREWELL TO THE KING OF "POMP"
For me, MICHAEL JACKSON's best musical period will always be those "guilty pleasure" early JACKSON 5 hits.
Despite their debut album's title DIANA ROSS PRESENTS THE JACKSON 5, the supreme diva did not discover MOTOWN's last truly great group, as legend (and BERRY GORDY) would have us believe. Obscure MOTOWN band leader BOBBY TAYLOR (whose one hit/one album group THE VANCOUVERS included a young TOMMY CHONG on guitar) unearthed the J5 while sharing a multi-night bill with them in CHICAGO. He brought them back to DETROIT, put them up in his pad, and prepped them for an audition with MOTOWN. The J5's incredible hat-trick of chart topping singles...ABC, THE LOVE YOU SAVE, and I WANT YOU BACK...were slabs of joyously unfiltered bubble-soul, all penned by a team of songwriters headed by BERRY GORDY himself, purposely given the anonymous monicker "THE CORPORATION". GORDY was still smarting from the loss of his top writing team HOLLAND/DOZIER/HOLLAND, (creators of virtually every SUPREMES and FOUR TOPS classic) who had defected from MOTOWN over royalty disputes to form their own hitmaking label HOT WAX/INVICTUS. Those J5 juggernauts ABC, THE LOVE YOU SAVE, and I WANT YOU BACK were hopelessly/deleriously interchangable; in fact, a claim could be made that they were ALL THE EXACT SAME SONG...but oh mama, WHAT A SONG! For better or worse, "that song" was also an obvious inspiration for the OSMOND BROTHERS first sugar-smack of a hit ONE BAD APPLE.
A young and amazingly astute pupil, MJ copped all his best athletic moves and much of his stage presence...the lickety split spins, the smoother-than-glass glides, the hyperkenetic dancing, from a man who boasted a dozen showbiz nicknames, and NONE that he bestowed upon himself as blatantly as THE KING OF POP, which JACKSON would insist on being referred to by the media and the public in his "weird years". I'm talking of course about SOUL BROTHER NUMBER ONE, THE HARDEST WORKING MAN IN SHOW BUSINESS, BLACK ELVIS, MR. DYNAMITE, THE GODFATHER OF SOUL...MISTER JAMES BR-"OWWWWWWW"-N. Of course, JAMES picked up a few tricks from FRED ASTAIRE and CAB CALLOWAY, but nobody ever put it all together into one tight-as-a-drum package quite like he did. Not MJ, not PRINCE, not USHER, not anybody...
PRINCE, arguably a better dancer than MJ, and perhaps the mightiest disciple of BROWN's frantic footwork, may have never invented a move as famous as THE MOONWALK, but in the 80s, he was MJ's main competition on the charts and in the media's hearts. At the very least JACKSON's singing equal, THE PURPLE ONE was clearly miles ahead in the songwriting department. While MJ wrote some but not nearly all of his solo hits, PRINCE penned (and played on) EVERYTHING he sang, and racked up just as many smash singles, many which hold up better today than say...the title cut from THRILLER . PRINCE even found time to write a batch of huge charters for other artists...THE BANGLES, TOM JONES, SINEAD O'CONNOR, SHEILA E, CHAKA KAHN, and SHEENA EASTON among them. To date, the only successful cover of a MICHAEL JACKSON-written tune is ALIEN ANT FARM's rockin' regurgitation of SMOOTH CRIMINAL.
But back to that MOONWALK, easily MJ's most iconic moment. It has been said that while he popularized it, its origin goes back to before he was even born, when tap dancer BILL BAILEY was busting the same move. Still, it was MICHAEL's flawless execution of that backsliding illusion on the TV special MOTOWN 25 that slam-dunked his reputation as the biggest star in the world that night in 1983. What is long forgotten, is that he actually LIP-SYNCHED to a studio recording of BILLIE JEAN during that performance of "the walk". Every single other star on that program, from MARVIN GAYE and STEVIE WONDER to THE TEMPTATIONS and the FOUR TOPS, sang their hits live accompanied by a backing band/orchestra, turning in stellar bits, one and all.
As younger sister JANET long ago claimed, when confronted by a reporter about some lip-synching accusations of her own during a mega tour, "Well...it's really hard to dance and do all those physical moves AND sing all night long."
To which the reporter replied, "well, what about JAMES BROWN?"
...and there you have it, folks. It all comes back to THE GODFATHER OF SOUL...who, in spite of dying on CHRISTMAS day a few short years ago...in spite of influencing seemingly every soul singer sucked into his orbit...in spite of over 100 hit RNB and/or pop singles...in spite of being waked at NEW YORK's legendary APOLLO THEATER...recieved not one hundredth of the media hoopla surrounding MICHAEL JACKSON's exit to that great greasy gig in the sky.
All I can say to that is something that JAMES BROWN always said so much better: "OWWWWWWW."