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Kids’ Show Rock Part Two: The Bugaloos (Those Psychedelic Pests!)

October 27, 2013

The Bugaloos were the invention of T.V producers Sid and Marty Krofft, who were responsible for more than a dozen live-action kids’ T.V shows over the course of the 1970’s, the best-remembered of which being Lidsville (1971), Land Of The Lost (1974), and H.R Pufnstuf (1969.) Maestros of puppetry, the Krofft brothers had got their start working as vaudeville puppeteers before joining the T.V business, and all of their shows featured a combination of dancers, puppets, elaborate costumes and sets, thistledown plots (made by taking every whimsical, magical idea they had and throwing them all together to see what stuck,) and of course, a whole lot of cheery, kid-friendly music. (Speaking of costumes, sets, and music, it was Sid and Marty Krofft who designed the sets and costumes for The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. Yes, it was the Kroffts who gave the world Fleagle, Bingo, Drooper and Snork.) The Bugaloos, which ran from September 1970 to September 1972 on NBC, was one of the Krofft’s first and less-remembered shows, but it was the one with the most (and poppiest, and best) music. The Bugaloos themselves were supposed to be talking bugs that sang and danced – their group name, I suspect, being a portmanteau of ‘bugs’ and ‘boogaloo.’ What the Insect Kingdom has to do with the Music Biz, I’m still not sure, but Sid and Marty Krofft, in their estimable style, did their best to prove there had to be a connection.

The plot of any given Bugaloos episode would involve the four main characters Joy (a butterfly vocalist played by Caroline Ellis), Courage (a ladybug drummer played by John Philpott), Harmony (bumblebee keyboardist, played by Wayne Laryea), and I.Q (a grasshopper guitarist, played by John McEndoe), as they had adventures, learned lessons, and made music in their enchanted woodland home, the Tranquility Forest. Though The Bugaloos was an American show; the four main actors were all British; they spoke with Cockney accents and used expressions like ‘Cor blimey!’ and ‘Stone the crows!’, which must have struck American kids as neat and exotic. Accompanying them was their bumbling sidekick, Sparky, who was supposed to be a firefly, and was played by showbiz trooper Billy Barty, wearing a head-to-toe woolly costume. Around and about the Bugaloos were such supporting characters as Nutty Bird (a bird-brained puppet who served as the Bugaloos’ messenger), Bluebell Flower (a giant-sized talking flower puppet) and The Grapevine (a bunch of puppet grapes, each one talking in a different voice.) The Bugaloos’ closest allies were Peter Platter (a kooky D.J who lived in Rock City, just outside Tranquility Forest), and Mike (Peter Platter’s smart-aleck talking microphone.) And then there was the villain of the show: the Bugaloos’ nemesis Benita Bizarre, an ancient irascible witch who lived in a giant jukebox. (The Kroffts had a thing for witches – their earlier show H.R Pufnstuf featured villains named Witch Hazel and Witchiepoo, and the full-length Pufnstuf movie included a supervillain who was just called Boss Witch.) Benita Bizarre (played by comedienne and lounge singer Martha Raye was just as loopy as the Bugaloos themselves (though she hated them,) and she was surrounded by an equally mad bunch of flunkies – anthropomorphic speakers named Tweeter and Woofer, and a giant rat named Funky Rat, who had a German accent and an S.S trooper uniform. Benita Bizarre and her henchmen were always trying to capture the Bugaloos, either to enslave them or to prevent them from making music – the motivation changed from episode to episode – and of course, the Bugaloos themselves always won out in the end.

But never mind all that. The plots, as mentioned above, are thistledown. It’s the music that matters, and the music is surprisingly complex and melodic – as Kim Cooper and David Smay put it, ‘…much better than they needed to be for a Saturday morning T.V show…’ (Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth, 194.) The songs attributed to the Bugaloos (there was always at least one song per episode) were composed by Charles Fox, with lyrics written by Norman Gimbel. Gimbel and Fox were Hollywood hired hands, who had previously written and composed songs for H.R Pufnstuf, the Kroffts’ previous show, but they put their best effort into the music for The Bugaloos. They were aided in their efforts by the actors for the show themselves – Caroline Ellis, Wayne Laryea, John Philpott and John McEndoe all did their own singing, and were genuinely talented. Caroline Ellis was particularly good, with a hauntingly husky voice. On the song ‘Senses of our World’, Ellis’s cold singing contrasts so sharply with the chirpy positive-thinking lyrics that you wonder vaguely if she isn’t putting you on. Watch and listen here, and see for yourself. ‘Senses of our World’ is a standout track, but all of the songs recorded for the show are pretty great.

A Bugaloos record was released in 1970 for Capitol Records; it has since been reissued as a C.D. It’s rare and expensive – on Amazon, it costs about sixty dollars – but it’s well worth the price. So save up your shekels – you’ll be glad you did.

Kids’ Show Rock Part One: The Banana Splits, Costumed Creatures with Tasty Tunes

October 27, 2013

To put it roughly, the Banana Splits were a ‘band’ composed of four guys in funny-animal costumes, with their own live-action kids’ show, The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, which ran on NBC from September 1968 to September 1970. The show was produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions (the same company that brought you The Flintstones and Yogi Bear.) The group was composed of Fleagle, the ostensible leader, who looked (as his name might suggest) like a floppy beagle, Drooper (a draggletailed lion wielding a shiny Vox guitar), Bingo (a big orange ape who played the drums) and Snork, or Snorky, a pink-and-grey furball with a big snout who was supposed to be an elephant (and a piano player. And also, as shown in the link above, Snorky was the one member of the Banana Splits who most frequently went up against the group’s arch-rivals, the dreaded Sour Grapes Bunch. Viewers never saw the Sour Grapes Bunch in the flesh, so nobody knows what they really looked like – if they were funny animals like the Banana Splits, or if they were monsters, or what. Viewers only ever got to see their heralds – a gaggle of mysterious and slightly creepy little dancing girls, who all went by the name of ‘Charlie.’ I only go into such detail about this because the sheer weirdness of it never ceases to blow my mind). On the show, the Banana Splits would race around in their ‘banana-buggies’ (sort of extra-gaudy modified go-carts) horse around in their clubhouse, and of course, play music. The show was what producers called a ‘package show’: to fill out the running time, the music and adventures of the Banana Splits themselves would be inter-cut with segments from various cartoon serials (Atom Ant, Micro-Ventures, etc.,) that had no music nothing to do with the Splits.

Now, I know this all sounds terribly silly and mind-numbing. But here’s the thing – the songs attributed to the Banana Splits were actually really good. The show’s theme song is remembered with great fondness by many people, and in 1978, it was covered by British punk group The Dickies.  Shortly after the show’s premier, a full-length Banana Splits album was released, by Decca Records, with the songs performed by a floating cast of studio musicians. The songs were genuinely charming examples of unassuming ‘60’s pop. My personal favorites off the album would have to be ‘Wait ‘til Tomorrow’, with its delectable harpsichord intro and ghostly backing vocals, ‘This Spot’, a cheerfully callous ode to a groovy club where ‘…girls outnumber the guys two to one…’ (a homage to Jan and Dean’s  ‘Surf City‘, where there’s ‘…two girls for every boy…’, perhaps?) and the bubblegum Beatles homage, ‘Long Live Love.’ (Note: if you don’t believe me about ‘Long Live Love’ being a Beatles homage, just listen to it and the Beatles’ ‘All You Need is Love’, back-to-back).

Have fun listening, and remember: “One-banana-two-banana-three-banana-four, four bananas make a bunch and so do many more…Tra-la-la, la-la-la-la!…’

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.

Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street Revisited

October 7, 2013

Don Delillo’s third novel, Great Jones Street, is a book that had an incredible influence on me. This is not to say that I love it. Great Jones Street was published in 1973, to little fanfare or acclaim. (It appeared after Delillo’s equally unheralded first and second novels Americana [1971], and End Zone [1972]; Delillo would only find major acclaim and attention thirteen years later, with the publication of White Noise, in 1985.)   Even today, Delillo’s critics rarely mention Great Jones Street. About the only time people do mention it is when discussion turns to that thorny subject, ‘rock ‘n’ roll novels.’ Many critics consider Great Jones Street to be the best novel written about rock ‘n’ roll, and it was certainly one of the first serious novels to be written about the subject.

The one reason I read Great Jones Street in the first place was because I was attempting to write a novel about a rock star myself. (I still am attempting to write a novel about a rock star; the novel will hopefully be entitled The Mutant Sound; you’ll hear more about it soon.) Great Jones Street was the book that, in many ways, told me what not to do in a rock ‘n’ roll book – what tone not to take, and what message not to convey to readers.

A prime example of a postmodern novel as well as a rock ‘n’ roll novel, Great Jones Street was published only eleven years after Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (Pale Fire was first published in 1962; Great Jones Street was first published in 1973) and shows Delillo’s clear debt to Nabokov in terms of plot and style. The themes of artistic turmoil, exile, madness, and the fraught relationship between an artist and his audience pervade both Pale Fire and Great Jones Street. (Intriguingly, the final pages of both novels echo each other, too.) Roughly, Pale Fire  is (among many other things and on only one level; Nabokov’s novels are tricky like that) the story of a professor, slowly going mad, who becomes fixated on a successful artist – a poet – and stalks him. Great Jones Street is about a successful artist – a rock star – who feels as though he is slowly going mad, and finds himself being stalked and fixated on by many different people. Readers who are familiar with both novels will undoubtedly be able to think of many more similarities. Sometimes, I wish Great Jones Street was better known, hence my attempt to spread the word about it. But I said ‘part of me’ for a reason – because Great Jones Street leaves me angered in many ways – angered and unnerved– each time I read it.  I return to it over and over like someone returning to finger a wound.

Great Jones Street tells the tale of a fictitious rock star with the improbable name of Bucky Wunderlick, who, at the height of his fame and glory, suffers something like a nervous breakdown and decides to retreat from the public sphere. He goes into hiding, renting a cheap apartment in an ancient, crumbling building on seedy Great Jones Street, in New York City, and attempting to recuperate from the wounds of fame, and plot out a new direction for himself as an artist. But of course, things aren’t allowed to go that smoothly. Almost from the beginning, Bucky’s attempts at hiding out, let alone reinvention, are thwarted by various foes. His manager begs and pleads with him to go back on tour; zonked-out fans bang on his apartment door and want him to tell them the meaning of life, and – worse – he and his band become the targets of a Charles Mansonish evil cult.

Perhaps I’m making this all sound pulpier than it actually is. But a plot summary alone cannot convey how frightening this novel is, at least to me. This is a novel pervaded with images of doom, death and rot, and more than that, it’s one of those doleful cautionary tales about the price of fame and the risks of the artistic life. I don’t know if Delillo meant it to come across this way, but it reads like one of those stories that says it’s better to stay at home and lead a safe, ordinary life than to risk becoming an artist. This idea has been expressed many times before, but it’s an idea I’ve always found suffocating – and more to the point, doesn’t a work of art that says you shouldn’t try to create art automatically contain a germ of hypocrisy? I’m trying to become an artist myself, and I don’t need anyone, least of all some already-published novelist, telling me I’m on the wrong path. Reading Great Jones Street for the first time, I felt like a sinner in the hands of an angry Puritan, because Great Jones Street is a book that says – with a loudness and shrillness barely masked by its cool smooth prose – that no earthly good can come of rock ‘n’ roll. And it actually goes even further than that. At many points, Delillo – and the protagonist himself, since the novel is written in the first person, and we’re in Bucky’s head the whole time – seem to be saying that no earthly good can come of art in general, or politics, or even language itself. Throughout the book, there is constant talk of the futility of culture and civilization, talk of regressions, devolutions, man’s true brute animal nature. There’s a lot of baby-talk and gibberish (almost enough to get on readers’ nerves), a lot of blood and sickness and vomit, a lot of phrases talismanically repeated, a lot of retreats into wordlessness, and mindlessness. By the novel’s horrifying climax (I don’t want to spoil it for you, you’ll have to read it for yourself) it seems that Bucky has come to view such a retreat as a consummation devoutly to be wished. The denouement, in the last two pages, offers a gleam of hope that Bucky may be ready to return to his art and his world – but it’s a dim gleam indeed.

Besides all that, Great Jones Street is one of those books where you can never tell what the author actually thinks of his characters, or wants you to think of them. I certainly felt sorry for Bucky Wunderlick – and Opel, his doomed lover, and even Azzarian, his ambitious neurotic guitarist. But sometimes I wonder if Delillo actually wanted his readers to feel anything for his characters; sometimes I doubt it. Sometimes, I even wonder if we’re even supposed to take most of what Bucky says all that seriously. Bucky too often seems like a sort of Bob Dylan manqué (manqué literally meaning ‘with something missing’) as conceived of by someone who doesn’t actually like Bob Dylan much. He’s constantly offering the reader little philosophical musings on things, and I thought a lot of them actually sounded good, but I began to suspect after a while that they were meant to sound bad, like a parody of Surrealistic philosophizing. The same question of intent comes up when Delillo shows us what are supposed to be the lyrics to some of Bucky’s songs. I truly cannot tell whether they’re supposed to be an imitation of poetic rock lyrics by a novelist who doesn’t know enough about rock, or poetry – or whether they’re actually a vicious parody of the acid-rock style. (They certainly aren’t that good; they don’t scan, and it’s impossible to imagine how anyone would sing them.)

After all that, you might wonder why I want you to read this book so badly, if I hate it so much. Well, I don’t hate it, of course. As I said above, Great Jones Street means a lot to me. I couldn’t have started my own novel without reading it. It just puts me uptight, as Bucky might have said. ‘Puts me uptight’, I think, is the mot juste – it keeps me on my toes whether I want to be on my toes or not. I open it just about anywhere, at random, and my skin prickles, and my heart starts beating fast. For as many things as there are about this book that terrify me, and infuriate me, there are things in it that thrill me – tough, pungent dialogue, droll remarks and fascinating insults, some images and phrases I know I’ll never forget, and some passages of genuine beauty and tragedy. I recommend this book to you because on some level it changed the way I work as a writer. I know it’s bad form to end a discussion of someone else’s work by talking about your own, but I want to make this clear – I’m obsessed with Great Jones Street, and I’m contending with it, I’m fighting it.  Part of the reason I started writing my rock-‘n’-roll novel, The Mutant Sound, was to prove Don Delillo wrong – to prove that artistic and commercial success is not a fate worse than death, that language is not a curse, and that popular music, and art in general, are worth living, loving, and fighting for.

What Is An Overground? An Introduction and FAQ.

October 7, 2013

Hello, Internet!’ (Blogger’s equivalent of ‘hello Cleveland!’, I guess.) I present you with a brand-new blog. It’s called Overground: culture popular and otherwise. If want something out-of-the-ordinary to read online – if you’re looking for thoughtful, intriguing articles about, well, culture (popular and otherwise), you’ve come to the right place. I suppose that now is the time to answer some Frequently Asked Questions about Overground. So here we go – an Overground FAQ.

Q: Why do you call your blog Overground?
A: The phrase ‘Overground’ comes from a song of the same name by seminal English punk-rock band the Banshees. The song itself appeared on their 1978 debut album The Scream. I love that song, (even though I have no idea what the lyrics mean, if they mean anything), and I like to think that ‘Overground’ is a takeoff on ‘underground.’ I said to myself, a long time ago, that if I ever had a blog about popular culture, I’d have to call it Overground, just because I liked that song so much. Now I finally do have a blog, so that’s what I’ve called it.

Q: If this is a blog about popular culture, does that mean its a blog about the same kind of popular culture they talk about on BuzzFeed and TMZ?
A: Nope. This is definitely not a blog about the same kind of popular culture talked about on BuzzFeed or TMZ. I think that BuzzFeed and TMZ, and a lot of other websites too, have got the more current and ubiquitous movies and TV shows and actors, and songs and singers, and books and writers, covered. Overground, on the other hand, is a blog that revels in obscurity; it’s a blog about things that hardly anyone talks about.

Q: Byobscurity’, do you mean hyper-obscurity, and things Ive never heard of before in my life? And isovergroundlikeunderground’?
A: Not really, and the notion of relative obscurity is closely related (in my mind), to the second meaning of the name ‘Overground.’ In 2007, film-and-music critic Howard Hampton published a book of essays on obscure aspects of popular culture, called Born in Flames, which had a great influence on me. In the introduction, Hampton writes that people who seek out half-forgotten B-movie and indie records for inspiration are ‘…looking for…an intact underground to call one’s own.’ For him, the old, weird, unpopular things he liked were ‘underground’, they were so obscure. However, while I love Hampton’s phrase, I question his definition. In an age when practically everything can be found on the internet (and there are many more blogs than there were in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, when Howard Hampton wrote most of the essays compiled in Born in Flames) I wonder if anything can be really considered ‘underground’, anymore. Besides, even though I’m trying to write about the less-popular aspects of popular culture, the critics I admire and try to imitate in my writing are famous and established (Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Pauline Kael), and a lot of the books and films and songs and albums I like are actually pretty famous, even canonical. Which brings us to the next question…

Q: Is Overground a retro blog?
A: You bet it is. Most of the films I’m going to talk about on Overground will be B-movies from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s (and maybe the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, too, I’m not sure yet.) Most – nearly all – of the music I’ll be talking about would be classified by radio deejays as either ‘classic rock’ or ‘golden oldies.’ Most of the books I’ll be talking about will be fairly old, too, although I do intend to write a few posts about a few modern Y.A books.  (I’m not a teenager anymore, but when I want to unwind with a book, I usually read something written for teenagers. I guess young-adult novels are wasted on young adults.) My favorite period for popular culture is the late 1960’s, even though I wasn’t around back then. I don’t know why, but I find nearly all the music and film and general style of that period fascinating.

Q: Is Overground a blog for hipsters?
A: Goodness, no. You will not obtain any hipster points liking most of the things I like, and liking some of the things I like may even cause you to lose some hipster points. I hope that doesn’t scare you off, though, because it doesn’t scare me off. I don’t like certain things because they’re hip, and I certainly don’t write about things because they’re hip. I read things, and watch things, and listen to things, and write about things, just because I like them.

Q: Is Overground a blog for nerds?
A: Overground is a blog for people who think a lot, written by someone who thinks a lot, and who thinks that pop culture should be thought about a lot. Overground is not a blog for people who think that pop culture exists in a vacuum, or who respond to criticism of a song or movie or work of literature by saying ‘relax! It’s just entertainment!’ (I personally think there are too many people around who say this.) Overground is for people who know that nothing is ever ‘just entertainment’, and who know that, in film, in literature, and even in popular music, the Smart (art that’s genuinely original, well-written, innovative) must be discerned from the tolerably or even pleasurably Dumb (art that’s hokey, predictable, clichéd), and the insultingly Thoughtless (art that perpetuates negative stereotypes, art that treats its audience like fools, art that was made by people who didn’t care). The distinction between the last two categories is especially important. Here at Overground, I will be talking about some pretty silly, hokey, undemanding songs, and books, and films (and I’ll be talking about them with great and unfeigned pleasure), but I will always take care to say when I think the Dumb tips over into the Thoughtless, to fondly tolerate the former and excoriate the latter. If all of the above makes someone a nerd, then Overground is indeed a blog for nerds. Besides, I quote from TVTropes, and nothing’s nerdier than that.

Q: What I expect to find on Overground?
A: Articles about the heroes of classic rock, both famous (Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones) and unfairly unsung (Coven, Peter Sarstedt, Laurie Styvers.) Reviews of B-movies, and maybe even reviews of A-movies, too. Quirkily themed playlists. Essays on young-adult novels, half-forgotten fantasy series, and poems and poets both good and bad. Poems I’ve written myself (and occasionally, short fictions I’ve written myself.) Trivia you can impress your friends with at parties, and possibly use to win at Jeopardy. And above all (I hope), deep, dense, thought-provoking writing.

A Newborn Blog.

October 6, 2013

Well…well well well well well. Here I am, on WordPress.com with a newborn blog on my hands – something I never expected to have. I have no idea what to do with it, and I don’t even think I’ll keep it around for very long. However, this has proved how easy WordPress is to use. I’ll certainly go back to wordpress in the future.