The House That Bubblegum Built
While Bazooka Joe was being shipped off to die in 'Nam, a sweetly sick kind of music called bubblegum oozed out of stateside AM radios like pink, candy-coated napalm. From 1967-1969, independent producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz supervised a revolving, New York-based crew of session players and professional jingle writers who tossed off dizzy-headed confections with one objective in mind: cashing in on a generation of hormonally charged kids too young to care why draft cards were being burned but old enough to know an infectious, rock-based nursery rhyme when they heard it.
Buddha Records -- an archival label set up in the late '90s to legally distinguish itself from the originally misspelled Buddah imprint that flourished three decades earlier -- has recently reissued collections by three of Kasenetz and Katz's more successful pop progenies: the 1910 Fruitgum Company, the Ohio Express and the Lemon Pipers, three "bands" that not only perfected the art of making music that America loved to hate, but paved the way for the countless boy and girl bands that followed, everyone from Rodney Allen Rippy to the Village People to Britney Spears.
Sired from the same commercial mindset that tried to convince preteens of the early '70s that dried-out brine shrimp were some whimsical colony of Sea Monkeys, Buddah's bubblegum laboratory released assembly-line music with interchangeable singers for infantile tastes. Under the Super K banner and the leadership of aggressive Buddah head Neil Bogart, the upstart label defied the new rock format of FM radio stations (whose psychedelic playlists were larded with enduring songs of social protest) by opting for disposable ditties that were both catchy and marketable. God bless free enterprise -- and twelve-year-old girls who just wanna dance.
Meant to be happy, free, unashamed and precocious, bubblegum contrived a sense of innocence while corrupting it with lyrics of sexual innuendo hidden in a love for candy and children's games; on a 1969 anthology called The Naked Truth -- with a back jacket featuring six bare-bottomed and cavorting toddlers -- Bogart penned liner notes that romanticized his nonexistent bands (including Lt. Garcia's Magic Music Box decked out in laughable mariachi drag) with backspin from the Garden of Eden: "The next time that serpent comes winding down the tree he'll have a chunk of bubblegum in his mouth and he'll be whistling a tune," Bogart wrote. "And he won't be tempting you out of the garden -- he'll be tempting you back into it."
The 1910 Fruitgum Company (which took its name from a gum wrapper found in an old moth-eaten suit) slithered into mass consciousness in 1968 with its signature song, "Simon Says," a mindless, kindergarten sing-along that drilled itself into human gray matter like a woodpecker. Led by mousy Mark Gutkowski on vocals, the five pimply half-pints (ex-members of the boyish, New Jersey-based garage band Jeckell & the Hydes) were quickly established as the most infantile of Super K's mega-selling triumvirate. "1,2,3, Red Light" (remarkably part of an early Talking Heads set list) tried wearing down prepubescent resistance with sloppy, trainer-bra fumbling: "Every time I try to prove I love you/ 1,2,3 red light you stop me/Baby, you ain't right to stop me," Gutkowski cooed. "Indian Giver," meanwhile, tested the limits of political insensitivity with its mock tom-tom nonsense and clay-brained cover photo: The perky bunch mugged for the camera dressed as cigar-store Indians -- something that makes Cher in her dopey "Half Breed" phase seem like Malcolm X. Big heapum dumb, kemosabe.
Kasenetz and Katz soon introduced American youth to yet another unctuous teen quintet worthy of their sexually playful popcraft: The Ohio Express (originally Sir Timothy and the Royals) was the buckeyed pride of Mansfield and one of the true white hopes in the field of musical puppetry. Led by drummer Tim Corwin, the Express posed as the band behind "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy," a blockbuster rejected by fellow bib wearers Jay & the Techniques for being too juvenile. Yet Bogart was so impressed by sessioneer Joey Levine's nasal whine on a demo version of the song that he reassigned the young guitarist/songwriter as the permanent voice of all future Express singles. (Levine later found a career niche as a jinglist, with Almond Joy's "Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut" and Diet Coke's "Just for the Taste of It" to his credit.) This arrangement made touring a palpable migraine for the "band." Besides needing to learn their own hit songs from recordings they didn't even make, the Express took turns trying to imitate Levine's phlegmatic singing style -- not exactly child's play when tossing through Super K's bag of lyrically mixed metaphors, such as "Baby you're hotter than a bowl of soup/You're oh so very hot," from "Sweeter Than Sugar"). Pop tirades like "Gimme, Gimme" and "Chewy, Chewy" made it clear that the Brothers K had no qualms about standing over the open grave of the Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie" with shovels poised.
Fortunately, you don't have to be an adult baby to appreciate the Lemon Pipers, the one glittering jewel in Buddah's gum-snappin' trifecta. Their "Green Tambourine" remains the one-size-please-all chunk of nutritious taffy from those innocent days of tooth-rotting decay and pestilent gibberish. Formerly Ivan and the Sabres, these five experimental souls from Oxford, Ohio, actually played on all of their records and occasionally even wrote their own material. They're by far the most psychedelic and compelling of the three (taking cues from the Beatles and the Byrds) and remain the genre's most underrated contributors.
While Fruitgum and the Express loaded diapers and played baby grab-ass, the Lemon-scented ones expanded bubblegum's boundaries into the esoteric, opting for harpsichords, sitars and tons of glissando to make the "peppermint leaves on lollipop trees" shimmer without sounding too ridiculous on tracks like "Blueberry Blue." The band's producer and main writer, Paul Leka, custom built songs with an ear for spacious explorations into more album-oriented territory; rather than marooning every hit single in the top-forty wasteland (where the chart-topping "Green Tambourine" met its fate), the Pipers took an orchestral chisel and hammer to the three-minute radio format. They pecked out far lengthier space jams like the exceptional, nearly twelve-minute "Dead End/Half Light," which placed its cream-filled center of jazzy, walking-bass-accompanied instrumentation within a hard-rock shell of confrontational guitar fuzz. Not surprisingly, the Pipers didn't exactly endear themselves to their bosses, stodgy businessmen who wanted the Archies without that crazy Jughead beat.
With an apparent fixation on footwear, the Pipers also sang of shoeshine boys with mothers who couldn't pay the rent (typical pop fodder) and magical cobblers in dirgy, medieval settings. "Love Beads and Meditation" ridicules the whole Love Generation's enlightenment shtick with vocalist Ivan Browne (who claimed in the liner notes to live in a bell tower) crooning straight-faced but preposterous lyrics: "The tangled mass of membranes that used to be me/Is a memory." On "Jelly Jungle (Of Orange Marmalade)," they make a rare attempt at matching the naughty double entendres of their Buddah colleagues with more lubricious and creative metaphors: "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." Elsewhere, "Catch Me Falling" explores rootsier Americana flavors, while the apocalyptic "Wine and Violet" blends backward tape manipulations into an aural cornucopia. It's enough to make a hippie cry.
Buddha has started to do quite well for itself (though the label is light-years behind Rhino) by recycling every scrap of yesterday it can muster, including reissues from Petula Clark, the Partridge Family and Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band. Even Gene Simmons is planning to produce a movie about Neil Bogart, who, in addition to launching the original Buddah, was the force behind Casablanca, the imprint that signed KISS. "[Bogart] was the first grownup who said to me that I was capable of a lot more in my life than just drooling blood and sticking out my tongue on stage," Simmons recently told the New York Daily News.
Yeah. Try doing that and chewing gum at the same time, Geno.