Music » Music Stories

Sugar, Sugar

A new book about bubblegum bands provides more than empty calories


"Serious" music fans and critics (i.e., those who read or write for alternative weekly papers) usually operate under a few key assumptions: that popular music is rarely a good thing, that actively striving for popularity is worse and that music aimed at teen or preteen audiences is, by definition, worthless. What, then, of the glorious subgenre of music known as bubblegum? In its heyday (roughly 1967-74), bands such as the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the Partridge Family charted hit after hit with a sound almost scientifically calculated to appeal to kids not quite ready for their older siblings' Dylan records. While churning out these intentionally disposable hits, some bubblegum bands made, by accident or design, a surprising number of truly great songs, songs that have since become touchstones in pop-music history. Just as surprising is how downright naughty some of these sugarmongers could be, making as many references to drugs and sex as Jefferson Airplane did but couching them in seemingly innocent kid-speak. Add in some shady behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, and you've got a fascinating story of an unjustly neglected part of rock's past.

Righting this wrong is Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth (Feral House Publishing), a lengthy collection of essays on high-sucrose pop ephemera. As exhaustively researched and obsessively detailed as it is lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek, the book is a must-read for all those who love pop music's past or present, particularly those who once carried a Josie and the Pussycats lunchbox. Bubblegum is written by music fans for music fans, and although it bears the subtitle The Dark History of Prepubescent Pop, from the Banana Splits to Britney Spears, most of the writers celebrate the genre rather than condemn it. Proving that grown women still get misty-eyed over David Cassidy and grown men still lament the fact that none of the music from the Fat Albert cartoon series was ever commercially released, editors Kim Cooper and David Smay present an impressive array of contributors: from publishers of tiny fanzines to rockcrit luminaries such as Chuck Eddy of the Village Voice and Dave Thompson of Mojo, from record-collector nerds to rockers such as Derrick Bostrom (of the Meat Puppets), from comic-book artist Peter Bagge (of Hate fame) to Cooper's 10-year-old brother. What ties all these disparate views together is every writer's genuine love of, and fascination with, pop music and its capacity to put a smile on the face and a tap in the toes. The jaded need not apply here. Better yet, the jaded are invited to lock themselves in a room for two weeks with a copy of this book and "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" by the Ohio Express on an endless loop.

Bubblegum is divided into a dozen-or-so main areas of focus, from specific sections such as "Artists," "Producers and Impresarios" and "Record Labels" to broader, more conceptual categories such as "Bubblegum Invades the Media!" and "Unlikely Bubblegum." The book is a well paced, well planned cover-to-cover read, but with most essays just two or three pages, it lends itself just as easily to skimming and skipping around to the reader's particular areas of interest. Want to find out more about the Archies? They appear, in one form or another, in nearly a dozen essays throughout the book. Branch out into songwriter/producer Jeff Barry, the man most directly responsible for the cartoon supergroup's hits, or cross-reference the studio musicians who performed the songs, and you'll touch on virtually every other section in the book. In "Six Degrees of Jeff Barry," Smay shows how the Archies have ties to almost every artist in almost every genre. The Archies to the Melvins? Three steps. The Archies to Einstürzende Neubauten? Five steps. Miles Davis? Run-DMC? No sweat. All can somehow be traced back to Barry. Indeed, reading the silly and sordid interconnected stories of these prefabricated superstars can be as addictive as the songs themselves.

Now, as for the "dark side" promised on the cover, bubblegum is probably no shadier than any other aspect of the music industry. It may be more subversive, though. Consider the rampant sex- and drug-related innuendoes found throughout the genre, some of which the songwriters later admitted were intentional in-jokes, sure to be overlooked in the context of sunny kiddie music: Imagine Lou Reed singing about his craving for sugar and his fondness for sucking on lollipops, however, and the songs acquire entirely different meanings.

These revelations notwithstanding, the content's far from scandalous: The fact that producers such as Don Kirshner and the Jerry Kasenetz-Jeff Katz team made more money than the bands they controlled or that most of the bubblegum supergroups were in reality interchangeable studio musicians should come as no surprise to anyone at all acquainted with the music industry. And it's unlikely that any St. Louisan's civic pride will be damaged by the disclosure that the St. Louis Invisible Marching Band, featured on the Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus album, didn't actually exist. Of course, the writers don't attempt to portray these details as shocking; surely no one in his right mind ever thought Danny Bonaduce was actually playing bass on "I Think I Love You."

The closest thing to a truly tragic tale in the book concerns the ill-fated Ohio Express. A real-life garage band (and from Ohio, even!), the Express was chosen as the public face for a series of session-musician-produced hits. Not allowed to write or even record any of the hits, the band was constantly out on the road, performing songs they didn't write for kids who didn't know any better. The Ohio Express essentially became an Ohio Express cover band, a source of deep frustration for the band members. Tensions reached a head when the group played a radio-station-sponsored event in support of "their" newest single and realized shortly before going onstage that they'd never heard the song and had no idea how to play it. Although that anecdote's perhaps more hilarious than heartbreaking, it does show the level of contempt producers and record labels had for their bands.

Far from being a forgotten subset of music, bubblegum remains popular and influential even today. Direct descendents include indie-rockers the Apples in Stereo and prefab boy band the Backstreet Boys. Even notorious sourpuss Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields has gone on record proclaiming his love of "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies. Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth shows that even 30-plus years after the fact, these silly little-kid songs continue to fascinate on many levels -- not bad for something that was intended to be as disposable as a candy wrapper.

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