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Kids’ Show Rock: The Strange World of Cartoon Bands (An Introduction).

October 27, 2013

The late 1960’s and early1970’s – from approximately 1968 to 1971 – is considered by many to be the golden age of what many music critics call ‘Bubblegum Pop,’ a genre all too often looked at with unexamined snobbery. The term is an amorphous one, but in their 2001 book Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth, Kim Cooper and David Smay attempted to sum it up as “…a sticky-sweet confectionary masquerading as rock ‘n’ roll. D.Js, promotion men, executives and songwriters greedily conspired to tap the vast and largely untouched pre-pubescent music market, and the results were more successful – commercially and artistically – than they could have hoped.” (Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth, page 1.)

(I should tell you right now that Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth is a work of  genius, a reference book that should be in every music-nerd’s home, and the primary source of information for this article. Edited by Kim Cooper and David Smay, it is a collection of essays by various critics and music writers that will tell you everything you need to know about bubblegum pop in its many permutations and reincarnations. Come to think of it, it’ll tell you a few things you may not have wanted to know, too. It’s currently available for only $16.06  on Amazon, so buy it if you can.) Anyway, as producers and record executives realized how much money could be made by separating naive pre-teens from their pocket-money a whole rash of prefabricated pop band sprung up. Many of these bands were creations of Hollywood and the T.V studios as much as the music industry. Dozens of T.V shows were launched – both live-action and animated – revolving around characters who were supposed to be musicians or pop stars. Record labels would then release singles and albums attributed to these characters, with the songs themselves performed by anonymous session musicians and session singers.

The most successful of the kids’-show bubblegum bands, of course, were the Monkees, and the Archies, but they were far from the only ones. Join me now, as I take a brief tour through the oeuvre of three of the less-remembered groups from this unfairly-maligned genre:The Banana Splits, the Bugaloos, and the Cattanooga Cats. They may never have been as commercially successful as either the Archies or the Monkees, but they were much stranger, and – to me, anyway – much more interesting.

Before we go any further – you might wonder just why I’m devoting so much time and so many words to these half-forgotten prefab bands – bands that fans of serious (supposedly serious) music considered vapid and meretricious back then, in the same way that many people consider Katy Perry and One Direction vapid and meretricious now. Well, my first answer would involve what I call the fly-in-amber theory. An ordinary house fly, buzzing around your head, is merely annoying and faintly disgusting, but a prehistoric proto-fly, encased in amber for centuries and then uncovered by a palaeontologist, is something rare and precious. In other words, the passage of time can make even the most banal artifacts seem intriguing and mysterious, especially if you weren’t around to experience them the first time. (I certainly wasn’t.)

My second answer (however snobbish and rockist it may sound) would involve the differences between pop music of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, and pop music today. Back then, of course, synthesizer technology was in its infancy, and such things as Auto-Tune not exist. Even the most lightweight and simplistic songs still required a certain degree of musicianship and singing ability; even if a song wasn’t performed by the band it was attributed to, you knew it was still performed by some people, in some studio somewhere, playing real instruments and singing with their real voices. And my third answer to why I’m devoting your time to such silly old prefab bands would be…well, just because I like them, and I hope you’ll like them too.

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