Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth
by Kim Cooper
If you do not wish to have your illusions about bubblegum destroyed, you should read no further than this paragraph. The chapter that follows is an exploration of the dark side of a genre which, to all appearances, dwelt entirely in the light. If you still cling to the notion of a happy world composed of sugarcone hills and chocolate milk streams, where cotton candy robins pluck gummy worms from shredded-coconut lawns (and then kiss them kindly and return them to the soil), and the wind blows a lovely scent of peppermint and spice, well, I don't want to be the one to take that away from you. Don't worry, your happy candy world is still there, and there are no shadows on the lawns. Now turn the page, quick, before you're ensnared by my evil heresies.
Bubblegum music was much maligned in its brief heyday (I968-69), and is pretty much ignored or despised today. A Los Angeles oldies station was recently launched with the slogan "No bubblegum, and no weird stuff." (To which I responded, "In that case, I'm tuning out!") Such derision is a pity, for the oddball recordings of the 1910 Fruitgum Co., Archies, Ohio Express, Lemon Pipers, Banana Splits, et al. are quite fascinating, in addition to being catchier than a huge yawn. Emerging out of a producer-driven system that makes Phil Spector look laid-back, bubblegum was made and marketed for a powerful new demographic: the pre-adolescent with cash to burn. Someone should tell Arrow-93 that these kids are all growed up and listening to oldies radio today.
In the late Sixties the American economy was in great shape, and for the first time a whole generation existed that knew nothing of deprivation. Their parents remembered WW2 and perhaps the Depression, and wished to spare their own progeny such pangs. And in direct response to this economic force emerged a startling variety of kiddie-driven commodities: comic books and skateboards, goofy plastic paraphernalia, half-length lovebeads, Sea Monkeys, and a whole new kind of rock and roll.
Bubblegum, however, was meant from the start to appeal to the eight-year-old of the house. It was the rare bubblegum album that had an accurate track-listing on the jacket—since much of the target audience could barely read, there was little point. Lyrics were calculated to evoke schoolyard rhyme schemes, and the groups themselves were marketed as wacky gangs of cuddly juveniles, or even as anthropomorphic animals and cartoon characters—entirely devoid of the sexual threat embodied by adult artists. Band members were often nameless and even interchangeable, as on the two Kasenetz-Katz Super/Singing Orchestral Circus records, which claim to feature all the hit-making Buddah bands playing simultaneously, but which internal evidence suggests was a session project. The photos inside the jacket of the so called "Original Cast Recording" of the Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus (Buddah BDS-5020) are a revelation into the type of "band" favored by the masterminds of New York bubblegum.
The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo was composed of young men wearing expensive animal costumes, and cradling their masks in their arms; it is unclear how they were supposed to have played their instruments in such attire, or how "The Lion" and "The Bunny" kept their blonde locks looking so neat beneath the stifling character heads.
Lt. Garcia's Magic Music Box dressed n fetching mariachi drag, attractively accented by the Anglo members' Beatle boots.
The 1910 Fruitgum Co. presented a distinctly disunited front, with members clad individually in the garb of 1940s businessman, British bobby, Old West huckster, Napoleonic foot-soldier, and minor pre-Revolutionary Russian noble.
The St. Louis Invisible Marching Band, on the other hand, was invisible. 'Nuff said.
It was the 1910 Fruitgum Co. that transformed the game "Simon Says" into an upbeat number that gleefully reveled in the dominance and submission of childhood play. This was the same group that turned "Pop Goes the Weasel," "1-2 -3 Red Light," and "May I Take a Giant Step" into original pop songs (the latter two also heavy on the implied s/m.) Other groups played up the infantile lyrics without delving quite so literally into the music of the classroom. "Yummy Yummy Yummy" is a typical Ohio Express song: catchy, simplistic, with a first grade vocabulary and a killer punk presentation. Like several bubblegum acts, the OE started life as a cool mid-‘60s garage band, and were always able to conjure up a little punky phlegm to wash the sugary-sweetness down.
There is an astonishing amount of food imagery to be found in the lyrics but, like its namesake substance, bubblegum music was meant to be ingested for pleasure and not for nourishment. The Archies sang of a "honey," an "ah-sugar sugar," a paragon of empty caloric grace. The Lemon Pipers suggested you join them in a "jelly jungle of orange marmala-a-a-ade." And the 1910 Fruitgum Co. even had a signature candy edifice, the "1910 Cotton Candy Castle," where a young listener was invited to come and eat his or her fill. It is inconceivable that a b-gum band might have ever sung about something healthful like green onions or mashed potatoes. (But as seductive as a land of candy may seem, one would do well to recall that the candy house in the Grimm Brothers' "Hansel and Gretel" concealed a cannibalistic witch [read: a mother who wished to re-absorb her child into her body], and that all the kids but Charlie who visited Wonka's place came to very bad ends. Also, if you eat all that stuff you'll get spotty and fat and no one will want to have sex with you once you reach puberty.)
Food is, of course, incredibly important to children. Often it is only at the dinner table that children are able to exert power over their parents. By pointedly not eating, or by gorging, a child can focus the attention of the family directly upon himself. At its most extreme, such behavior can produce life-threatening conditions of anorexia and bulimia, but there are many subtle gradations which (while far less dangerous) also achieve the desired ends.
In many households, certain foods are forbidden, and thus take on a fascinating gloss to the children that are denied them. Sugar-free families were an unfortunate, growing phenomena in the late sixties, and the brown-rice kids must have gaped at the glorious food fantasies to be found in bubblegum lyrics. In nearly every neighborhood at this time, there was a child whose house everyone longed to visit, because their parents stocked an astonishing variety of junk foods, and had no qualms about letting guests gorge on them. If there was no such child in your neighborhood, or you were a complete social outcast, then at least there was bubblegum. In the privacy of your room, it was possible to glue a transistor radiator to your ear and drink in the promise of a new world, full of rare spices, fantastic flavors, and weird characters that beckoned you to join their feasting ranks.
A possible source for the excess of food imagery in these songs can be found in the names of the writers and producers who created them: Artie Resnick, Joey Levine, Jerry Kasenetz, Jeff Katz, B. Bloom, Don Kirshner—a bunch of Jewish guys! Who better to understand the seductive power of the edible, the powerful bond between noshing and being loved? "Eat, boychick, eat!"
But in truth, these junk food lyrics concealed a menace far more dangerous than hyperactivity, obesity or the eventual threat of diabetes. There was a big fat uncircumcised snake in the garden of bubblegum, and his name was S-E-X. Blame it on the writers, guys in their twenties hired to write innocent faux-rock lyrics designed to appeal to little tykes. The same impulse that led an anonymous Disney animator to draw a towering phallic castle on the video box for The Little Mermaid seems to have blossomed in the minds of the b-gum staff writers. The producers must have figured no one would notice (this was long before the current rage for parental supervision of pre-adolescent entertainment vehicles), and it doubtless amused the bands.
And so you have a cuddly group like the Lemon Pipers following up "Green Tambourine" with a very lewd Top 40 hit "Jelly Jungle," to wit: "Take a trip on my pogo stick/ Bounce up and down, do a trick/ I'll play a beat on your pumpkin drum/ And we'll have fun in the sun." A suggestive title like "Hard Core" from the same LP turns out to be ghastly white-'fro blues; the Pipers concealed their smut discretely within cutie-pie metaphor. This was a Kama-Sutra Production (on Buddah Records), names not chosen lightly. I'm sure I'm just one of many children of the era who remembers finding mock-Eastern sex manuals which had been poorly hidden by doped-up adults: to me, the Kama-Sutra name and the many-armed Buddah logo evoke rather sinister forms of acrobatic sex. And indeed, much of the smuttiest bubblegum could be found on Buddah.
"Yummy Yummy Yummy" (#4, Billboard, June 1968) by the Ohio Express is a prime example, a huge hit that to all appearances is about oral sex. (Ditto "96 Tears," but that's another story and genre.) That panting sounds were used as a percussive device seems unsurprising when one looks closely at lines like "The lovin' that you're givin' is what keeps me livin'/ And the love is like peaches and cream" and, of course, "Yummy yummy yummy, I've got love in my tummy." Oh yeah, and how did it get there?!
And in fine Freudian tradition, Buddah made the most of the fast train metaphor of the Ohio Express name. Album jackets pictured the group romping around train yards, dressing in drag and giving the kids a real good look up their legs.
The 1910 Fruitgum Co.'s " 1-2-3 Red Light" was clearly about the timeworn American hobby of getting into an unwilling pair of panties, by whatever means—psychological in this case—necessary. This theme was blatantly celebrated on the album cover.
"Every time I try to prove my love/ 1-2-3 Red Light, you stop me .../ If you stop me again/ That's when we might end/ So please don't refuse." He's threatening to break up with her if she doesn't put out; what a doll, and what a lovely message for the pre-sexual kiddies listening to this happy hit. The same band's "9 10 Let's Do It Again" is even more blatant:
“9, 10, let's do it again, gee that was so much fun
1, 2 , I'm counting on you, to be my #1
3, 4 , I'm shutting the door, gee this is so much fun
5, 6, I'm getting my kicks, doing what I love to do
7, 8, I'm feeling so great, doing what I'm doing with you”
This one was apparently intended as a sing-a-long—or, on second thought, perhaps the line "9, 10 let's do it again, join in everyone!" is meant to inspire an orgy rather than a group sing. The notion of a sexual utopia, lorded over by a benign Hefneresque figure is raised in this lyric from "1910 Cotton Candy Castle": "Here comes the Lollipop Man in his goody ship Lollipop/ All aboard for lollipop land where the lovin' never stops." Mm-hmmm, mister, this thing tastes good!
The Archies' "Sugar Sugar" (# 1, Billboard, September 1969), pretty much the only bubblegum hit that still turns up regularly on oldies radio, has one of the sexiest moments this side of Tim Buckley when the anonymous vocalist (Archie? Reggie? Ron Dante?) explodes, "Like the summer sunshine, pour your sweetness over me." These are the same Archies who celebrated bestiality in their non-hit "Hot Dog." It's always seemed suspicious that a gang of kids would name their canine mascot Hot Dog, but this is worse than anyone could have imagined.
“Hot Dog, life is tastin' pretty good, oh yeah
Hot Dog, 'cause you love me like you should, oh yeah
So put some mustard on my roll
'Cause you're barking up my soul, Hot Dog
Hot Dog, feel like kickin' up my heels
Hot Dog, oh how good your kissing feels, oh yeah
So wag your tail and let me know
Just how much you love me so, Hot Dog...
I really relish you
Who could embellish you?”
The Archies were masters at evoking the nervous excitement of adolescent sexuality. Reggie's menacing "Don't Touch My Guitar" is directed at his room-cleaning mother, and the titular "guitar" is clearly a symbolic stand-in for less savory items hidden in his bedroom. "Kissin'," with its Who-inspired stutter, sums up everything you need to know about what really went on at Riverdale High: "When you're feeling sad and blue, kissin' is the thing to do." There was a dark side to all this experimentation, however: on "Hide and Seek," the traditional children's game is played out as sheer sexual predation, and that old date-raper Reggie sneers, "It's an old game with a brand new twist/ Whoever gets caught is gonna get kissed"—at least!
And so things might have continued indefinitely, with new and goofier bands springing up to service each fresh generation of tykes, had not the creative team of Hanna-Barbera and Sid & Marty Krofft conspired to take things entirely too far. They shamelessly developed and unleashed an act whose very name evoked a sexuality so blatant that there was nothing for the other producers, writers and so-called bands to do but pack up their toys and go home. I refer, of course, to the Banana Splits.
Contemplate with me the genius of that moniker. It is on one level innocent and sweet, suggestive of nothing more than a favorite taste of childhood. Simultaneously, it is an unspeakably lewd reference to the sexual act. With such a name, it was hardly necessary for the Splits to be smutty in their music, although they were at times. Why, to even look upon the obscene proboscis that composed Snorky's "trunk" was to feel as if one had been flashed.
On their sole Decca LP, these Monkees imitators explored genres as varied as psychedelia, soul and bluegrass, demonstrating great skill in each. But their musical charms were not enough to erase the chill that the sexual content of their lyrics instilled in parents. "This Spot," purportedly about a nightclub, was a masterful double entendre ("This spot cannot be stopped when they dim the lights..."), while "Don't Go Away—Go Go Girl" explored the hopes and fears of a foot fetishist. Also notable is the obviously acid- (and Bee Gees-) inspired "I Enjoy Being a Boy," with lyrics so far out that it was pointedly left off their only album, despite being prominently featured on their TV show. ("I live in a cucumber castle on the banks of a cranberry sea/ And starfish dance under my drawbridge and blackbirds make nest in my tree/ I enjoy being a boy in love with you girl/ OH YEAH!")
But the Banana Splits' most outré moment came in their recording of "Two Ton Tessie," a song allegedly for children that featured these lyrics, sung by animals: "She's got big red lips and big brown eyes and everything my mamma's got is king-size/ Oh she's big and round and I love every pound," and "When she holds me tight it feels so nice, we can't get it on 'less I go round twice!" Twice, no less. It is a truly sickening image.
Who, after this, could pretend that bubblegum music was appropriate for children? It clearly was far better suited for teenage boys, who could appreciate the subtleties and snicker when they "got" the dirty bits, alá "Louie Louie" and (later) "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang." But it was simply too late to appeal to them. Marketing had aimed bubblegum directly at the little tykes, and older kids thought it horribly juvenile. Now that the secret was out it could no longer be given to youngsters, lest it cause psychic cavities. There was in fact no audience left for the genre. It quickly fizzled and was gone.
And thus ended a great era, which when the powdered sugar had settled was seen to have lasted barely two years. Two short years, the span between the first and third grades. Only one generation of American children had been lucky enough to forever have their sexual imaginations overflow with absurd treacly psychedelic imagery. (And since you ask, yes, I do resent the fact that by the time I got my first AM radio, all there was to listen to was Elton John and Cher. Curse you, Hanna-Barbera!) As quickly as it had begun, it was gone. Remainder bins filled with cutouts, which were ignored even when their prices got down to 49¢. Critics occasionally roused themselves to sneer (except for Lester Bangs, who typically knew exactly how great bubblegum was from the start), but mostly this spiffy realm was left unexplored, forgotten, its vast charms appreciated only by a peculiar few. And most of us don't talk about it, to even our closest friends.
If the time is ripe for a bubblegum revival, this unapologetic fan doesn't want to know about it. I have no interest in iffy compilations of alternative bands playing Saturday morning cartoon themes, or in the rumor that the original Archies have been playing a Florida hotel-bar. The faux-innocence of that time cannot be aped.
But the real thing makes me happy, and as long as I can listen to my bubblegum, I know all my silly troubles will go down in the most delightful way.