Bubblegum is the story of songwriter-producers—makers of shiny sounds. The villains in many rock legends, these are people who saved their innocence for their musical sentiments and never did anything so stupid as to sign away their publishing. Firing inept drummers, replacing lead singers, they ruthlessly worked the system to make it pop. But here we also find gentle studio geeks with a genius for engineering, child prodigies, cheerful tunesmiths in love with the game, the insane pace, the charts.
We’re conscious of legendary recording sessions with Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, George Martin facilitating Sgt. Pepper, Aretha’s first epochal piano chord in Memphis or Hendrix pulling together layers of sonic strata on Electric Ladyland. Still, our sense of the studio’s place in Rock Mythology remains peripheral. Only serious music fans know the names James Jamerson or Hal Blaine, while even the most casual listener knows their work. Bubblegum, like Disco, like Motown, like much of Nashville today, exists primarily within a studio culture of session players and songwriter-producers. This particular hyphenate ought to be better known than singer-songwriters—it’s the economic trigger for the whole recording industry. Why? Because both songwriters and producers collect royalties, and if you double up your credits on a hit record you’re raking in some serious chump change.
Reading these interviews we’re struck by the canniness and audacity of non-writers Kasenetz and Katz piggybacking bizarre studio goofs onto the b-sides of sure hits to collect songwriting checks. Or Jonathan King’s shameless talent for converting fads into pop hits. But we also delight in Jeff Barry building up the drum track for “Be My Baby” one mallet tap at a time, or Mike Batt living in a Womble suit for a week before setting those characters in song.
Here you find tricksters and hipsters, songwriters and songbirds, studio tans and golden ears.
West Coast Pop anticipated bubblegum’s methods, blurred the lines between music for sale and music that sells, influenced the sound of bubblegum and provided the pool of creators that presided over its cartooniest era.
As the man who squeezed Brian Wilson’s vision into an LP’s worth of slot-car racing songs and gave voice to Big Daddy Roth’s model kits, Gary Usher’s influence can’t be overstated. Bubblegum’s splendid tradition of completely fictitious bands starts at the Brill Building, but achieves a cheesy genius in the Weird-Ohs, the Super Stocks, the Hondells, and the Revells. Though his busiest period predates bubblegum’s onset by several years, Gary Usher laid out the entire bubblegum blueprint before it had a name. He recorded musically and lyrically upbeat music with a steady core of studio musicians under a variety of ghost band names, commissioned for a visual medium (substitute Beach Movies for TV here). Whereas most bubblegum makers went into commercial jingles after their bubblegum careers, Usher brazenly turned a Honda promotion into a masterstroke of pop genius (“Little Honda”).
Gary Zekley perfectly encapsulates the West Coast studio scene, swallowing not-so-disparate sub-genres like surf, sunshine pop, bubblegum and psych pop in one gulp. Most of his East Coast peers simply considered themselves pop songwriters with little concern for marketing categories. Zekley’s fluid career cautions against leaning too heavily on genre distinctions. You can assign the Fun and Games, Yellow Balloon and the Clique to different bins, but the same talent clearly penned “The Grooviest Girl in the World,” “How Can I Be Down” and “Superman.”
Oftentimes the supporting players provide a better window into a scene than the big names. Carol Connors found a niche in the L.A. scene, fronting Beach Bunny bands for Gary Usher and co-writing some tunes. Carol’s “Yum Yum Yamaha” does more to clarify the seamless fusion of surf, bubblegum and commercial jingles that defined west coast pop than any five books about the Beach Boys.