Strawberry Studios by Dave Thompson
Late in 1969, Kasenetz-Katz approached English songsmith Graham Gouldman with the offer of working for them. Gouldman was, after all, one of Britain's most accomplished hitmakers, the name behind a string of hits by the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, Herman's Hermits, the Hollies... even Cher had recorded a Graham Gouldman number.
Over the last couple of years, though, Gouldman's pen had fallen on hard times. His own attempts to break into the bubblegum market, first through the Graham Gouldman Orchestra's lightweight versions of his own greatest hits, then via one-time chart heroes the Mindbenders, had signally failed to take off; and with the bulk of Gouldman's income being plowed into the studios he was opening with fellow 'bender Eric Stewart, Kasenetz-Katz's offer came just at the right time.
In return for a generous advance, the deal didn’t just buy Kasenetz-Katz a proven songwriter. It also guaranteed them unlimited studio time at Gouldman's Strawberry Studios, and unlimited use of the studio's house musicians—Gouldman, Stewart, and a pair of dilettante ex-art students they'd both known for years, Lol Creme and Kevin Godley. None of them were exactly thrilled at the prospects, though. "We were very well paid for churning that stuff out,” Gouldman reflected years later. "But it's not a time we look back on with any feelings of pride."
He sells their achievements short. Not only did the Strawberry crew swiftly establish itself as bubblebashers par excellence, creating a string of latter-day Super K masterpieces and kickstarting the British gum scene as well, with the inexorable "Neanderthal Man;" they also rejuvenated Neil Sedaka's career, and emerged at the end of it as 10cc, and that was no small potatoes either. "The whole thing was incredible," Gouldman marveled. "Over a period of one year I wrote, and saw recorded, about twenty songs, which was a very high output for me."
Freddie and the Dreamers' version of Gouldman's "Susan's Tuba" sold over two million copies in France; the Ohio Express' "Sausalito" went Top 100 in the U.S. ("Tampa, Florida" wasn't quite so lucky), and "Have You Ever Been To Georgia" landed balladeer Tony Christie—who shared Gouldman's management company—a hit across much of Europe.
He missed out, however, on the studio's biggest hit, an irony compounded even further by the song's actual composers themselves being unaware that they'd actually written anything saleable. Stewart, Godley and Creme were simply testing the studio's percussion, says Stewart, "when Dick Leahy, from Phillips, came in and he said, `What the hell's that you're playing?' I said, 'It's a studio experiment; a percussive experiment.' He says, 'can we release it?' And we said, 'Yeah, okay'."
Credited to Hotlegs, "Neanderthal Man" would reach #22 in the U.S., #2 in Britain, #1 in Italy, and was probably single-handedly responsible for Jimmy Castor's entire hit-making career. It also spawned covers by the Idle Race and Elton John, but for Hotlegs themselves, success came with a sting.
Irretrievably tarred by "Neanderthal Man," nothing else Hotlegs did paid off, and within six months, Godley, Creme, Gouldman and Stewart were back on the pop production line, cutting singles with such giants of music as the Manchester City, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United soccer teams, comedian Les Reed, and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones... except he wasn't Led Zeppelin's after all, as Page and Plant's old bandmate explains.
"I'd worked with Graham for years, we basically did his whole solo album (1968's The Graham Gouldman Thing) together. So when his manager, Harvey Lisburg called me and said, they've got this comedian guy, and would I mind if they called him John Paul Jones... go ahead, won't hurt me. The next thing I knew, John Paul Jones is on the chart with this crap, crap song, and everyone thinks its me. Thanks, Harvey!" Litigation turned Jones to Joans, but back at Strawberry Central, work went on as before.
Godley-Creme's "There Ain't No Umbopo" would be the team's final Kasenetz-Katz success, a rolling, boiling boogie which had even less to do with a pure bubblegum ethic than Crazy Elephant records normally did. Neil Sedaka loved it, though, and called Harvey Lisburg to tell him so. "He said he wanted to try recording in England, and I said that if he did, I'd get the boys who produced 'Umbopo'."
The result, the multi-million selling Solitaire album, solidly relaunched Sedaka's career, but importantly, it ignited the Strawberry quartet's as well. "Sedaka did so well, and all we got was session fees," Eric Stewart recalled. "So we went out to a Chinese restaurant and asked ourselves whether we shouldn't pool our creative talents in a group."
They decided that they should.
interview by Keith Bearden from WFMU's LCD issue #22
If you've listened to the radio or watched TV semi-regularly over the past 30 years, you've surely heard the work of Joey Levine. He was one of the main songwriters behind the Bubblegum Rock movement of the late 60's, and his nasally, teen-sounding voice was perfect for rockin' hits by The Ohio Express ("Chewy, Chewy," "Yummy, Yummy") and The Katsentz-Katz Super Circus ("Quick Joey Small"). Fans of the Nuggets LP will know him as the leader of The Third Rail ("Run, Run, Run"), a more "adult" version of the studio musician "bands" that Joey staffed under Buddha Records producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz. And who over the age of 30 doesn't remember being delighted/horrified by Reunion's "Life Is A Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me)?" Or getting the munchies listening to the immortal "Trust The Gorton's Fisher-man" jingle for Gorton's Breaded Fish Sticks? Once again, the work of the busy Levine.
While the Bubblegum Rock movement has been critically lambasted for 30 years, its importance is undeniable. At a time in the 60's when Merseybeat and garage bands had broken up or turned hippie, pre-fab studio groups like The Monkees, The Archies, The 1910 Fruitgum Company ("Simon Says") and The Ohio Express created many beautifully crafted songs, carrying the torch of pure, simple pop/rock into the 70's, where it was picked up by bands like The Raspberries, The Shoes and The Rubinoos, or in the UK got dressed up by The Sweet and other glam rockers. Later, punk bands like Funhouse, Slaughter & The Dogs and Joan Jett all paid a debt to their three-chord Bubblegum forebearers by covering some of Levine's handiwork.
Getting involved in commercial jingles in the 70's, native New Yorker Levine still works in the field, and currently heads up three music companies, Crushing Music, Crushing Underground and Levine & Company.
LCD: What's your background as a musician?
LEVINE: My dad Elli Levine was a band leader in the Army and a jazz pianist under the name Elden Lewis, and my mother Marion Kingsley was a singer who had her own radio show in NYC when she was 16 years old. My uncle Alan Stanton was a record producer at Columbia and A&M. I took piano and guitar, and did the whole teenage band kind of things. My first band was Joey Vine & The Grapes, I was in The Pastels, playing country clubs and synagogues and sweet 16 parties...
LCD: How did you get involved with the whole NYC Bubblegum rock scene?
LEVINE: I had been working in music publishing for a couple years over at TM Music, writing songs after school, where I met a songwriter named Artie Resnick, who had written 'Under The Boardwalk.' We really collaborated well, and were getting success off of some demos we were cutting. Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz had heard a song I wrote called 'Try It' that The Standells had a kinda mini-hit underground thing that people were digging on, and then they recorded it with The Ohio Express after 'Beg Borrow & Steal.' They called me and said, 'We've been hearing your demos and this and that and we think you can write some of this teenybopper music,' and then Artie & I wrote 'Yummy Yummy.'
LCD: How old were you when this was all happening
LEVINE: Just about 17.
LCD: Wow. How was it working for Katsentz/Katz? Was it a hit factory or did you have a lot of creative freedom?
LEVINE: Well, it was a factory in that there were a couple of different bands that we used-a lot of times it would be the same band-and we had a day to record and a day to do overdubs and mix. Also, when Jeff and Jerry thought a song was a hit and it didn't fly, they'd have other bands record it again, slightly different. They'd have The Ohio Express do it, then The Shadows of Knight, then The Fruitgum Company, on and on. So you'd work all week, and in-between you'd write more songs.
LCD: Were the Ohio Express and 1910 Fruitgum Company real bands? Did they tour?
LEVINE: They were all real bands, but I sang on a lot of their records. Neil Bogart [Buddha Records President and the man who later gave the world KISS & Donna Summer] heard my demo of 'Yummy Yummy' and said 'Have this guy sing on the records.'
LCD: That's why on the Ohio Express albums you have the hits with you singing and then the other tracks sound like bad Procol Harum rip-offs.
LEVINE: Yeah. When the bands would tour I'd stay in New York and these guys would schlep out around the country singing my songs, though they didn't sound like me.
LCD: What are your memories of those days?
LEVINE: It was great. I had Top 10 records, my voice was all over the radio, but nobody knew who I was unless I wanted them to. The best kind of fame. It got me into a lot more parties at school, for sure.
LCD: Studio songwriters produced some of the best pop songs of the 60's. Name some songs you and Artie Resnick wrote from back then.
LEVINE: Oh, God, so many. Besides all The Ohio Express stuff, we wrote some stuff for The 1910 Fruitgum Company, me and Bobbie Blum and Bo Gentry and Richie Cordell. 'Gimme Gimme Good Lovin',' Tommy James stuff like 'Mony Mony,' 'Montego Bay,' lots of stuff. You lost track you worked so much, and a lot of times we co-wrote and never gave each other credit. I also wrote stuff for Gene Pitney with Doc Pomus.
LCD: A lot of people interpret songs like "Yummy Yummy" and "Chewy Chewy" as being slyly sexual. Was that your intent?
LEVINE: Absolutely. We were told to write these innocent songs, keep it young and poppy, but we were all in our late teens so we wanted to slide some double entendres past 'em if we could. Eating was our big thing.
LCD: The Ramones have mentioned numerous times that they started out wanting to sound like The Ohio Express. How does it feel to be a godfather of Punk?
LEVINE: [Buddha Records publicist/New York Dolls manager] Marty Thau was producing some punk bands back in the 70's, and he said 'You should produce this stuff-all these guys mention your records.' To tell you the truth, even though in the 60s we were all in our own funky state, meeting these bands-I just couldn't deal. It was too weird for me.
LCD: Why do you think critics trash the whole bubblegum scene?
LEVINE: Well, the music's a little contrite. It was just played for fun, and it was a period of time that was very serious. People were looking for big, heavy themes-drugs, war, revolution - and it looked very thin under those criteria. Bubblegum to me was making fun of all that. Basically it was like, 'We get the serious issues - so why not smile and dance and goof around?'
LCD: Tell me about Third Rail.
LEVINE: The Third Rail I did before I was in The Ohio Express. I was 16 or 17. It was me, Artie and Kris Resnick, some of the earliest songs we wrote that we recorded together just as songwriters. Very political, more all over the map musically. Teddy Cooper over at Epic heard the stuff we were recording and said, 'Let's do an album.' It just got re-released on CD in Britain.
LCD: The internet says you co-wrote stuff with Jim Carroll. Huh?
LEVINE: That's my friend Jim Carroll. Not the Basketball Diaries junkie poet guy.
LCD: OK. (sigh) Tell me about "Life is a Rock but the Radio Rolled Me"?
LEVINE: That song is imitated a lot I think, by people like REM, with 'The End of The World' and Billy Joel with 'We Didn't Start The Fire.' Not directly, but a lot of songs are based on people's memory of our song. Some guy called me and said [affects dunderhead accent]'I think that's the first rap record!' And I said, 'I don't know about that.' And he said, 'Well, before that you had country rap, and story raps, but just rhythmic rhyming of words flowing together, that was the first!' So I said, 'Look, I'm the father of bubblegum-don't make me the father of rap. Somebody will put me on a hit list.'
LCD: You work exclusively in commercials now. Do you miss writing songs about love as opposed to tampons or fish sticks?
LEVINE: I have never written a song about tampons.
LEVINE: The jingle thing is just cleaner, more honest. You write the song, you record it, people hear it, less politics, less rip-offs, the pay is good. No muss, no fuss. I still wrote songs. I write songs for my wife or my kids, but now it's all fun. No headaches and ulcers wondering about having a hit or not.
LCD: What are some of your commercial songwriting credits?
LEVINE: 'Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut' for Peter Paul/Mounds, (singing) 'Oh, What A Feeling to Drive-TOY-OTA!,' 'Can't Beat The Feeling' for Coca-Cola, 'The Softer Side of Sears,' Diet Coke, 'Just For The Taste of It'...
LCD: God. People will carry those jingles with them to their graves. With your pop songs and TV, how does it feel to be so deep in the public consciousness?
LEVINE: Ah, I feel good about it. I feel lucky to be able to do what I do for so long.
LCD: Tell me something people might not guess about Joey Levine?
LEVINE: I always thought of myself as a soul singer.