TMBG: Learning Can Be Fun

I’ve always appreciated how They Might Be Giants respect their fanbase and labor hard to provide high value for the entertainment dollar.  While their music has always had strong appeal to a younger demographic, in recent years They Might Be Giants have released albums aimed squarely at the school-age crowd, such as Here Comes the ABCs, (released as 25 tracks on CD, 39 on DVD) which has gotten a lot of airplay around our house.  Note the clever lyric and accompanying animation sequence for “Alphabet Lost and Found“:

“Alphabet Lost and Found”      They Might Be Giants     2005

There is a good reason why this YouTube clip was uploaded under the name of “DisneyMusic” — so says Wikipedia:

“While [the album] was produced and released by Walt Disney Records, the band was reportedly given complete creative control over the project, which at the time was very unusual for Walt Disney Records, which had until then followed a strict artist control policy.  As a result, the DVD features a variety of puppetry, animation and live action supplied by personal friends of the group, including A.J. Schnack, who directed the TMBG documentary Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns).  For guest vocals on a few tracks, they turned to family:  John Flansburgh’s wife Robin Goldwasser, and John Linnell’s son, Henry.  The music videos that appear on the DVD were also aired (in part or whole) on the Disney Channel’s children’s programming block, Playhouse Disney.”

Sounds like Alvino Rey‘s “Sono-Vox” being employed in the phased backing vocals — or some simulation thereof, yes?

TMBG-aDivya Srinivasan is the artistic hand behind the animation on “Alphabet Lost and Found” — check out the rest of her work at her website, which includes an animation reel and illustration slide show.

Here Come the ABCs would be the successor to No!, their first formal children’s album.TMBG-bTMBG Flexi-Disc Trivia

For their April 1992 edition, Reflex Magazine would release a “split 331/3 RPM flexidisc:  XTC b/w TMBG!  Side A features “Rip Van Reuben” – a home demo of an Andy Partridge compostion – with They Might Be Giants’s “Moving to the Sun” on the flip side.TMBG-ccTMBG-c

Popeye in Pop’s Eye

Very much looking forward to this Saturday’s special event at the AFI in Silver Spring in which Gary Lucas, Sarah Stiles and a stellar supporting cast will provide musical accompaniment to 1930s Max Fleischer cartoon classics, most notably Popeye and Betty Boop – a “spotlight evening” for this year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival.

Max Fleischer & Betty Boopimage courtesy of Washington Jewish Film Festival

As the WJJF website notes:

“Celebrating the release of the titular album–on Silver Spring-based label Cuneiform–legendary guitarist Gary Lucas joins forces with Tony-nominated singer & actress Sarah Stiles (Avenue Q, Hand to God) for a loving musical tribute to the swinging, jazzy soundtracks that adorned master animator Max Fleischer’s surreal, wacky and Yiddish-inflected Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons of the 1930’s.

Backed by the cartoons themselves, and the cream of NYC’s jazz performers (Jeff Lederer on reeds, Rob Jost on bass, Rob Garcia on drums and Mingus Big Band’s Joe Fiedler on trombone), Lucas and Stiles have a rare evening in store.”

Check out Lucas & Stiles on the delightful “Broken Record

Gary Lucas CDThe coolest treatment of Popeye in vintage pop music is undoubtedly this original song by Lamont Anthony – a.k.a., Lamont Dozier of Dozier-Holland-Dozier fame – released on Motown imprint, Anna, in 1960:

“Popeye”     Lamont Anthony (Dozier)     1960

45Cat helped me discover that The Nomads released a 45 on Indiana indie label, Genie, in 1960 – “Santa Fe Rock” b/w “Popeye the Sailor” – that would get picked up the following year for national as well as overseas (i.e., Australia & New Zealand) distribution by ABC-Paramount:

“Popeye the Sailor”      The Nomads     1960

Jack Mercer, voice of Popeye, would release a 78, “Never Pick a Fight with Popeye” b/w “Help Help” (voiced by Mae ‘Olive Oyl’ Questel) — a “Golden Record” that promised “two great NEW songs” for just 29¢ in 1959.

“Never Pick a Fight with Popeye”    Jack Mercer (& the Sea Weed Singers)    1959

Other Musical Tributes to Popeye

Michael Anthony’s bass solo during Van Halen concerts would include “Popeye

Popeye Epiphone Guitar

“Uh Oh”: Jet Age Moderne

ABC once broadcast a 4-part television special in 1960 called The Frank Sinatra Timex Show:  Welcome Home Elvis.  This was to be the hip-swiveler’s first television appearance in three years since being discharged from military service.

Poster Art by Al Hirschfeld?

Frank Sinatra TimexAt one point, Elvis threatens to get upstaged by a fresh, jazzy near-instrumental but for the phrase, “uh oh” that sounds as if voiced by a pair of “nutty squirrels” (i.e., poor man’s Alvin & the Chipmunks):

“Uh Oh”     The Nutty Squirrels     1959

Uh Oh” – the debut single by The Nutty Squirrels, a creation of Sascha Burland and Don Elliott – would enjoy release in the US, UK, Canada, Germany, Australia & New Zealand.  The duo would follow “Uh Oh” with “Uh Huh” (a 4-song EP) and a third single, “Eager Beaver” b/w “Zowee” — all tracks from their debut Hanover album — before making the leap in 1960 to almighty Columbia, who issued an LP and Christmas 45.

Nutty Squirrels LPIn 1963, The Nutty Squirrels would issue a 45 on RCA and one final LP (A Hard Day’s Night) on MGM the following year.

Nutty Squirrels MGM LPWikipedia claims that [1] “The Squirrels actually preceded the Chipmunks on television in an animated cartoon, but with much less success”; [2] “Uh Oh (pt. 1)” just about grazed the Top-40 (#45), while “Uh Oh (pt. 2)” climbed to #14 Pop and #9 R&B in 1959; and [3] The Squirrels would have one last fling with commercial success in 1976 as “Shirley & Squirrely” via a CB-radio novelty single, “Hey Shirley (This is Squirrely),” that reached #48 Pop and #28 Country.

The Shadows: World’s Tiniest Rockers

Vintage Guitar Magazine’s well-researched history of the Vox musical equipment company contains a particularly delightful side story about “wee” instruments that were designed and manufactured strictly for marionettes!  Peter Stuart Kohman has the scoop:

“One of the most oddball Vox orders was for a set of miniature equipment for singing puppets, specifically, a set of toy-sized Phantom guitars and AC30 amps.  These were supplied for ‘The Beakles’ from The Pinky and Perky Show, a popular children’s program starring marionettes.  The Beakles’ gear was built to look like the real thing by prototype designer Mick Bennett and showed JMI [i.e., Vox]’s commitment to having beat groups on TV – even fictional ones – properly equipped.”

Unfortunately, the only good image of The Beakles that can be found online shows the avian instrumentalists merely playing acoustic guitars – definitely not the modernist, asymmetrical Vox Phantom:

The (unnamed) Beakles depicted on 45 picture sleeve for Pinky & Perky EP

Pinky & Perky's Beat Party

Beakles Spoof LPBeatles Debut LP

Kohman also points out that UK’s preeminent instrumental band, The Shadows, would be the recipients of similarly exquisite custom miniature gear in conjunction with their first full-length motion picture: “The Shadows also appeared in marionette form in the 1966 film Thunderbirds Are Go with miniature AC30s but ‘playing’ their signature Burns guitars.”

The (mini) Shadows can be seen backing Cliff Richard in this charming performance of “Shooting Star” from their big-screen debut:

“Shooting Star”     Cliff Richard & The Shadows     1966

According to Thunderbirds Wiki, “The real-life Hank Marvin loved his puppet so much, he tried so hard to buy it, but it was later reused for another character.”

Hank Marvin & FriendHey, Wikipedia tells me that that sound you hear at the beginning of “Thunderbirds Theme” is Hank Marvin himself (not bassist, Jet Harris) playing a Fender VI six-string bass!

Jeremy Wakefield: SpongeBob’s Stellar Steel Support

Biller & Wakefield sound like a modern-day Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant on 1999 album, The Hot Guitars.of Biller & Wakefield:

“Martian Guts”     Biller & Wakefield     1999

Coincidentally or not, 1999 would also be the year SpongeBob Squarepants would make its television debut.  And just as Los Straitjackets would spearhead a movement to revitalize the instrumental, Jeremy Wakefield – virtuoso musician – would similarly use Nickelodeon’s broad commercial platform to reintroduce the gloriously warm sound of the (pre-pedal) steel guitar to the millennial generation and beyond.   Wakefield, along with the other musicians and SpongeBob Music Director, Andy Paley, have done an outstanding job of incorporating western swing, hillbilly boogie, surf & spy guitar, Hawaiian steel music, and Hot Club-era gypsy jazz into the show’s soundtrack in all manner of ways.

1999 would also find Jeremy Wakefield and Dave Biller playing their respective guitars on Wayne Hancock’s Wild, Free & Reckless album, while Wakefield would peel off that same year to play steel guitar with Smith’s Ranch Boys on More Barnyard Favorites.  The year prior, Wakefield would also play his Bigsby steel guitar on (future Los Straitjackets collaborator) Deke Dickerson & the Ecco-Fonics’ Number One Hit Record!

Wakefield’s musical contributions to the SpongeBob television show have earned him a reputation for upholding an older analog “vintage” sound, thus it is especially intriguing to learn that some of Wakefield’s earliest album credits would include digital keyboard sequencing for The Style Council, of all people, on 1985’s “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” EP.  Wakefield would continue to work with The Style Council over the next 20 years or so.

other Albums on which Jeremy Wakefield plays steel guitar

  • Wayne Hancock     A-Town Blues     2001
  • The Lucky Stars     Stay Out with The Lucky Stars     2005
  • The Bonebrake Syncopators     That Da Da Strain     2008

Tracks on which Jeremy Wakefield plays steel guitar

“Hawaiian Blues”     music used in 2 episodes “Jellyfish Jam” & “SB-129”

Link to incidental SpongeBob steel guitar music clip posted on YouTube.

“Don’t Fake It”: Prophecy of a Black Presidency

As Martha Ross writes in the Contra Costa Times, cartoonist Morris “Morrie” Turner broke racial barriers in the 1960s when he became the first African-American to have a syndicated comic strip – Wee Pals – that still runs daily, despite Turner’s death this past January at the age of 90.  As Ross writes, Turner “admired Charles Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ and mulled creating a black Charlie Brown after turning to cartooning full-time in 1964.  At one point, Turner asked Schulz, who was then a friend, why he didn’t have any black kids in his comic strip, and Schulz told Turner to create his own.”

Wee PalsRoss adds that “even though the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in the mid-1960s, few papers would run Wee Pals.  That changed with the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  The tragic event helped Wee Pals gain nationwide acceptance.  The strip began appearing in more than 100 newspapers across the United States.”  Among the characters are “several African-American kids, a neighborhood bigot, some ‘Girls Libbers’ and, of course, Nipper, a boy, modeled on Turner himself, who typically wears a Civil War cap and has a dog named General Lee.” 

As Greg Ehrbar writes on the website, Cartoon Research

Wee Pals had been in newspapers for seven years before Rankin/Bass and ABC adapted it as Kid Power for Saturday morning TV, the same season that Filmation and CBS introduced Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.

Rankin/Bass also cast young voice actors according to the ethnicity of the characters, including Donald Fullilove, who also voiced Michael Jackson for the animated R/B series, Jackson 5ive and played Goldie Wilson onscreen in the Back to the Future films. Jay Silverheels, Jr., son of the actor who played ‘Tonto’ in The Lone Ranger films and TV shows, voiced Rocky, a Native American.  Also in the cast as Connie was a preteen April Winchell, now one of Hollywood’s top voice actors (as well as a writer and satirist) whose oeuvre includes Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Despicable Me 2.

Like Fat Albert, Kid Power featured songs with messages in every episode. With mainstay musical director Maury Laws on other R/B projects, Oscar-nominated composer/arranger Perry Botkin, Jr. handled the Kid Power songs and background music, partnering with Jules Bass on the tunes created for the show.”

Kid Power LPI recently picked up a copy of the original soundtrack album at a local pawnshop, of all places.  How fascinating to hear the following track, “Don’t Fake It,” 42 years after its original release and know that the “radical” premise in the song’s spoken word intro — that of an African-American elected as our nation’s chief executive and top military commander — had, indeed, come to fruition in my lifetime:

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “Don’t Fake It” by The Curbstones.]

“Swimmy”: Sounds of a Buchla Box?

I am very appreciative that Scholastic Video, in partnership with Weston Woods, has done such a consistently great job adapting children’s literature for the small screen and in a way that appeals to people of all ages.

PV000324_storytimefavorites_VSOne such adaptation is the story of a fish named Swimmy, who shows his friends how—with team work and ingenuity—they can overcome any danger.  The film’s soundtrack is particularly effective in conjuring up a nautical netherworld, and yet no information seems to exist about who scored these sounds.  In absence of any facts, I would not guess that a Moog is making those undersea burbling sounds but rather a Buchla Box:

Swimmy Soundtrack

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play the soundtrack to the film adaptation of “Swimmy” by Leo Lionni.]

Swimmy - page from book

120 Years of Electronic Music provides the historical overview:

“Donald Buchla started building and designing electronic instruments in 1960 when he was commissioned by the Avant Garde composer Morton Subotnik to build an instrument for composing and performing live electronic music. Subotnik was interested in developing a single instrument to replace the large complex Electronic Music Studios of the day where most ‘serious’ avant-garde music was composed and recorded. These studios consisted of multiple individual oscillators, processor units, filter and mixers that, with the help of technicians (each of the studios had it’s own unique system), needed to be manually patched together. The advent of transistor technology allowed much of this process to be miniaturised into a single portable, standardised version of the Electronic Music Studio but still using the modular, patchable approach.”

Buchla Modules - Series 100

(Notice – no keyboard with the original 100 Series Buchla Box)

By the way, I called Weston Woods to inquire whether they had a historian/librarian who could provide any information about this film and its soundtrack and was told that Weston Woods actually licensed this title from Italtoons, a film production company based in New York City.  Italtoons, unfortunately, seems to be no longer in business.

I then reached out to electronic music pioneer, Suzanne Ciani, who very kindly agreed to listen to the “Swimmy” soundtrack to determine whether a Buchla Box might have been used to generate the sounds that accompany the narration of the story.  Ciani concluded that, while these analog sounds certainly could “be done on a Buchla,” nevertheless, “there is nothing particularly Buchla-esque” about this synthesizer-embellished soundtrack.  Will that stop me from creating false controversies in future posts?  Doubtful.

Worth noting, by the way, that filmmaker, Connie Field, finished her Kickstarter Campaign last October and is presumably at work on her new documentary, Buchla:  California Maverick on a New Frontier.

This piscine piece is dedicated to the (former) Invertebrate House at DC’s National Zoo – no longer extant as of today.  Is it hopelessly naive to think that a petition might help reverse this decision by Smithsonian officials?  Quite possibly – but let’s try anyway.

Free Game!  Suzanne Ciani:  Real-Life Pinball Wizard

Riveting film clip of Suzanne Ciani living out every 70s teenage rocker’s fantasy:  creating the music and special effects for a Bally pinball machine.  Peter Ustinov narrates an 8-minute clip from the science TV news magazine, OMNI, that shows Ciani at work in the recording studio experimenting with a vocoder, programming in BASIC, and creating various synthesized sounds for 1979’s Xenon – one of the few pinball machines to feature a woman’s voice.  Click here to see (and hear) a video of two games being played on Bally’s Xenon pinball machine back-to-back, with an exciting multi-ball climax at the end of the second game.

Extra Ball:  Buchla Box Meets the Mad Men

Check out this Clio-winning General Electric dishwasher ad for which Suzanne Ciani wielded her trusty Buchla Box to create the synthesizer-driven soundtrack.

“Truck Driver”: Pop Goes the Diesel from The Archies

1968 was a great year for truck driving songs:  “Big Rig Rolling Man” by Johnny Dollar,   “My Big Truck Driving Man” by Kitty Wells, “Gear Bustin’ Sort of Feller” by Bobby Braddock, “There Ain’t No Easy Run” by Dave Dudley, “I Want to Be a Truck Driver’s Sweetheart” by Marcie Dickerson, “Somebody Stole My Rig” by Shel Silverstein, “The Truck Drivin’ Cat with Nine Wives” by Jim Nesbitt … and “Truck Driver” by The Archies:

Written by legendary songwriter and Archies mastermind, Jeff Barry, “Truck Driver” was the B-side to “Bang-Shang-a-Lang” – The Archies’ debut 45 released in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and Rhodesia.

Archies - Truck Driver 45

The rough, scratchy version featured here actually comes from a 12″  Archies compilation, Jingle Jangle, on the Kirshner label, that features fun cover art:

Archies - Jingle Jangle LP

“It’s sunshine, love – the sparkle of young, spirited voices creating clean, pure fun with their music.  The comic-strip American characters, creations of John L. Goldwater, are bright, happy teen-agers and always have been.  As American as baseball, as popular on the international scene as jet travel and still as uncomplicated as a frisky puppy.  The Archies build up with good nature rather than tearing down with bitterness and disillusionment….

This has been the year of the Astronauts landing on the moon, the Mets, and the Archies.  Not only are all three sensational but each one holds a promise of more to come.  Have fun with the Archies.  Delight in the Jingle Jangle of their sound.” 

    Liner notes from back cover