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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

An Informal History Of Bubblegum, Part 1

This was originally published in the April 25, 1997 issue of Goldmine.  It was subsequently edited for an appearance in the book Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, partially for length and style, but also to avoid duplication with subjects discussed elsewhere in the book.  Writer Gary Pig Gold and I revamped my original article's section on The Monkees into an amusing debate on whether or not The Monkees were every really a bubblegum group.  Except for some minor editing, this restores the original, full-length piece as it appeared in Goldmine.  This will be serialized in several parts.

                                   

"When Buddah Records was formed two years ago, most songs were about crime and war and depression. At the time we felt there was a place for a new kind of music that would make people feel happy. So we got together with two talented young producers named Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz who had an idea for music that would make you smile. It was called 'bubblegum music.'"

The above quote, taken from the liner notes to a circa-l969 sampler LP called Buddah's 360 Degree Dial-A-Hit, gives us both a succinct statement of intent for the critically reviled '60s pop music phenomenon called bubblegum and an equally-succinct recap of the genre's origin.

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Although bubblegum has gained a certain cachet of cool in some circles over the past few decades (while remaining a pop pariah in other circles), during its original heyday it was viewed strictly as fodder for juvenile tastes, pure pabulum for pre-teen people. Furthermore, the music was blatantly commercial at a time when such materialistic goals were deemed unacceptable by an emerging counterculture. Bubblegum music held no delusions of grandeur, nor any intent to expand your mind or alter your perceptions. Bubblegum producers only wanted you to fork over the dough and go home to play your new acquisition over and over to your heart's content (and, no doubt, to your older brother's consternation).

Bubblegum is absolved of any perceived counter-revolutionary sentiments because it was so damn catchy.  Once “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy,” “Sugar, Sugar,” “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin',” or “Goody Goody Gumdrops”  embedded its sweet pink hooks into your mind, it was likely to remain stuck there like its sugary namesake would stick to the underside of a classroom desk.
Decades after the opening salvos of the bubblegum revolution, the best bubblegum records still stand up as sterling examples of hitmaking craft, characterized by sing-a-long choruses, seemingly childlike themes, and a contrived but beguiling innocence, occasionally combined with an undercurrent of sexual double entendre. And oh yeah—did we mention the hooks? There were hooks a-plenty.
As with many genres, from punk to funk to power pop, it's difficult to precisely define the parameters of bubblegum, to say with authority that this record is bubblegum and that record is something else again.

According to writer Bill Pitzonka, a bubblegum historian and author of the liner notes for Varèse Vintage's brilliant Bubblegum Classics series, "The whole thing that really makes a record bubblegum is just an inherently contrived innocence that somehow transcends that. It transcends the contrivance. Because there were a lot of records that were really contrived and sound it. And those to me are not true bubblegum. It has to sound like they mean it."

Writing in Mojo magazine, writer Dawn Eden put a finer point on her description of bubblegum music. "From the get-go, bubblegum was a purely commercial genre. Producers like Buddah Records' Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz had no higher aspiration than to make a quick buck and get out. Yet, with the help of talents like Joey Levine, they propagated a musical form that continues to influence acts the world over." Drawing a distinction between bubblegum and power pop, Eden went on to note, "Power pop aims for your heart and your feet. Bubblegum aims for any part of your body it can get, as long as you buy the damn record."

While we're going here with a working notion of bubblegum as defined by the uptempo confections perfected by Kasenetz & Katz's Super K Productions, our intent isn't really to disabuse you of your belief that, say, The Partridge Family was the sine qua non of bubblegumdom. Consider this as simply as a very informal history lesson. Chew away!

Pre-History: The Big Bubble Theory

Although the birth of bubblegum as a genre is generally dated from the success of The 1910 Fruitgum Company's “Simon Says” and The Ohio Express' “Yummy Yummy Yummy” in 1968, there are important antecedents to consider in tracing bubblegum's history. In fact, there are too many antecedents to adequately cover here. You could conceivably think of virtually every cute novelty hit, from pre-rock ditties like “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window” to transcendent rock-era staples like “Iko Iko,” as a legitimate precursor to bubblegum's avowedly ephemeral themes.

Moving away from mere novelties, the field of garage punk served as a swaggering, cantankerous and (perhaps) incongruous breeding ground for some of bubblegum's sonic attack. No one in his right mind would call The 13th Floor Elevators or The Chocolate Watchband bubblegum groups, but there were undeniable links between the two genres. The most obvious such link would be the overriding simplicity prized equally by garage and bubblegum groups, both of whom recognized the excitement to be generated by three chords and an attitude.

Moreover, garage and bubblegum groups were generally singles acts. There were exceptions, but few garage or bubblegum acts were capable of creating full albums that sustained the compact punch of their essential 45s. And the singles, concerned as they were with quickly hitting the hook and hitting the road, were not as far apart stylistically as one might think. Chicago's prototypical punks The Shadows Of Knight, famed for their hit take on Them's “Gloria,” would eventually make a record for Super K. And bubblemeisters The Ohio Express scored their first two chart singles with punk-rooted tunes: The Rare Breed's awesome “Beg, Borrow and Steal” and The Standells' banned-in-a-neighborhood-near-you “Try It.”

(The former is actually the very same Rare Breed record, reissued under the Ohio Express name; the latter was co-written by a guy named Joey Levine, who would play a large role in The Ohio Express' rising fortunes.  Levine would also co-write and produce The Shadows Of Knight's Super K hit, "Shake.") 

Falling somewhere between garage and bubblegum was an Ocala, Florida group called The Royal Guardsmen. They managed a #2 hit in 1966 with “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron,” a novelty tune based on the funny-looking dog with the big black nose in the Peanuts comic strip. The single combined a campy kid's appeal with a punky bridge nicked without apology from “Louie, Louie.”  Although “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron” and its lower-charting sequels were certainly precursors to the recognized bubblegum sound, Bill Pitzonka insists The Royal Guardsmen were not a bona fide bubblegum group.

"The Royal Guardsmen kind of came out of that whole '20s-revivalist kind of thing," Pitzonka says. "That was their camp. But, you know, just because they were on Laurie and they did the “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron” song, which some people consider bubblegum... that's a fringe to me. That's pointing in the right direction, but it's not quite there yet.

"But The Royal Guardsmen definitely contributed," Pitzonka continues. "It was aimed at kids, and unfortunately they couldn't rise above their 'Snoopy' image.

By the same token, a Stamford, Connecticut group called The Fifth Estate scored a #11 hit in 1967 with “Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead.” The Fifth Estate had originally been called The D-Men, and as The Fifth Estate had released a killer pop single called "Love Is All A Game" that sold zilch.  For "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead," the group took a song from the movie The Wizard of Oz and redid it as a pop song, replete with a Renaissance music underpinning. Though considered a novelty tune, its musical accomplishment transcended novelty value. Unfortunately, it was the group's only hit.

And, of course, there was no shortage of acts in the mid-'60s actively cultivating some aspect of the adolescent market. Herman's Hermits had a string of cuddly hits, with “I'm Henry VIII, I Am” veering the closest to bubblegum, but they were never quite a bubblegum group. The Lovin' Spoonful had a goofy, goodtime vibe all about them, but they were far too... well, authentic-sounding to be called bubblegum. And Paul Revere & the Raiders had funny costumes and lots of TV exposure, but they simply rocked too hard for bubblegum—if they were bubblegum, then so were The Rolling Stones.
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Which brings us to the strange case of The Monkees.  On paper, The Monkees seemed the perfect prototype for a bubblegum band.  First and foremost, they were a prefabricated, fictional rock 'n' roll group, a manufactured commodity concocted to sell records and TV advertising time.  But it's a point of some debate whether The Monkees could really be called a bubblegum band.

Let's review the evidence.  The Monkees--Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork--were four guys selected from auditions to play a rock 'n' roll group in a weekly TV series.  As part of the package, pop music veteran Don Kirshner was brought in to oversee music production.  Kirshner's machinery clicked into place, and Monkees music was created by an array of top pop songwriters (Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, et al.) and played by top session musicians, with The Monkees themselves relegated to strict vocals-only duties on their records.  The group staged a coup, and lobbied successfully for the right to function as a working, recording band on their third album, 1967's Headquarters.

Bill Pitzonka considers The Monkees bubblegum, at least up to a point.

"Up until Headquarters," he says, "I completely agree that they were bubblegum because they were prefab.  As long as you're under the control of somebody else and somebody else is picking your material and you're just there to sing along, that to me is the whole foundation of bubblegum.  That whole Jeff Barry angle [veteran pop songwriter/producer Jeff Barry produced The Monkees' smash "I'm A Believer"]--Jeff Barry was a quintessential bubblegum producer.  So basically anything he touched had that kind of bubblegum feel to it."

Still, some of us remain unconvinced that the original Monkees were ever really a bubblegum act, their prefabricated status notwithstanding.  Put simply, most of The Monkees' recordings don't sound like bubblegum records.  "Last Train To Clarksville"?  "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone"?  Nesmith compositions like "Sweet Young Thing"?  Nope.  None of these fits the bubblegum mold later cast by Kasenetz and Katz.  Each sounds like a stirring example of AM-friendly pop-rock, with The Monkees' (inaudible) artificial origin the sole, negligible difference between these records and contemporary records by the Raiders (who cut "Steppin' Stone" shortly before The Monkees), Turtles, Dave Clark Five, Hollies, etc.  Even "I'm A Believer," regardless of its gooey pop savvy and Jeff Barry's involvement, is more an unabashed, hook-filled pop ditty than genuine, chewy chewy bubblegum.

"I would agree once they started doing their own stuff it ventured away from bubblegum," Pitzonka concedes.  "That's one of those gray areas.  It's also difficult because there's this whole Monkees mythology that goes beyond the manufacturing.  And they were also the one band that really turned the tide on the British Invasion and made the charts safe for American acts again."

Regardless of which side of this debate one favors, it's worth noting a specific song that helped mark the transition from puppet Monkees to hey-hey-we're-a-band Monkees.  In 1967, Kirshner presented The Monkees (and Chip Douglas, whom The Monkees had chosen as their new producer) with a new Jeff Barry/Andy Kim tune he wanted them to record.  Instead, The Monkees rebelled, rejected the song, and started a chain of events that would ultimately lead to Kirshner's expulsion from the project and he recording of Headquarters.

The song in question?  A little something called "Sugar, Sugar," a song which we'll be discussing at greater length in just a bit.  As Chip Douglas later told writer Eric Lefkowitz for the book The Monkees Tale, "I'm glad I was in there at the time.  I probably saved The Monkees from having to do some real bubblegum."  [2016 NOTE:  although this story has been repeated often, by a wide range of folks from Don Kirshner to Micky Dolenz to..um, me, it is now generally believed to be hooey.  "Sugar, Sugar" was written specifically for The Archies in 1969, so the song didn't even exist when these other events occurred.  The rest of the account is true.]

Meanwhile, another act was busy writing its own chapter in the bubblegum story.  Tommy James and the Shondells first made the charts with a # 1 hit, "Hanky Panky," in 1966.  The success of "Hanky Panky" was a fluke--it had been recorded in 1963, been a short-lived regional hit in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, and the Shondells had long since disbanded by the time that forgotten record very unexpectedly connected with a national audience.

No dummy, James (nee Thomas Gregory Jackson) formed a new Shondells group and set about the task of coming up with a follow-up record.  Toward that end, James partnered with producers Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell, and proceeded to craft a series of singles that perfectly presaged the bubblegum sound.  The first big hit of these was "I Think We're Alone Now," a pulsating pop tune that coated its tale of adolescent sexual curiosity with a candy-shell of wide-eyed innocence.  Its throbbing bass line, which James is said to have improvised on guitar as a sub for an MIA bass player, provided a model for the chunky rhythm of what would soon be known as bubblegum.

Tommy James didn't remain with a bubblegum style for long, but the singles "I Think We're Alone Now" (# 4), "Mirage" (# 10), and "Mony Mony" (# 3) were solidly in that vein, all produced by Gentry and Cordell.  James broke with Gentry and Cordell for his next hit, the chart-topping "Crimson And Clover."

"I don't consider 'Crimson And Clover' bubblegum," Pitzonka says.  "I don't consider 'Hanky Panky' bubblegum and I don't consider 'Crimson And Clover' bubblegum--everything in the middle, yes.  I consider their output to be bubblegum in that whole time.  I mean, you look at those records and they're just picture-perfect production masterpieces.  They were all about the song.  Tommy James evolved with the psychedelic angle and all that stuff [and] went away from all that.  But he knew it was bubblegum; he knew it was bubblegum when he was doing it."

And now the era of full-fledged bubblegum was nearly upon us.  By 1967, a new label called Buddah was looking to score some hits. A brilliant promotion hustler named Neil Bogart was coaxed from Cameo Parkway to helm Buddah, and Bogart had some definite ideas about the kind of hits the label was going to make.

The ushering in of this new era was initially accomplished with “Green Tambourine” by The Lemon Pipers, which entered the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of '67 and hit #1 in February 1968. Bubblegum was now this close to exploding. “Green Tambourine” was a perfect, giddy bubblegum single, and two follow-up hits, “Rice Is Nice” and “Jelly Jungle (Of Orange Marmalade),” were cut from the same chewy cloth, but The Lemon Pipers themselves had little interest in becoming bubblegum's favorite sons.

"The Lemon Pipers I never considered really bubblegum," Pitzonka says. "They were acid. [Their singles] are bubblegum; they do have real strong roots there. I just never thought that it carried over as intensely as it did with the groups that didn't exist. Because [The Lemon Pipers] hated that stuff."

To be sure, The Lemon Pipers only recorded “Green Tambourine” because they knew they'd be dropped by Buddah if they didn't record this tune, which Neil Bogart saw as a surefire hit. Thus, The Lemon Pipers scored the first bubblegum #1, but it was clear that their hearts were not in it.

So, with “Green Tambourine,” Buddah had the right song at the right time to snap the bubble heard 'round the world. Now, bubblegum just needed the right people. Two producers from Long Island, Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, would be the guys.

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NEXT:  Yummy Yummy Chewy Chewy Goody Goody