Friday, February 09, 2007

The Banana Splits

Conceptually, if not aesthetically, I consider The Banana Splits perhaps the purest expression of the bubblegum idea. Let me explain what I mean by that: with their simple three chord structures, catchy and repetitive hooks, and lyrics that use nursery rhymes or children's expressions as sexual double entendres, the hits of The Ohio Express and The 1910 Fruitgum Co. are probably the purest expression of the bubblegum musical aesthetic. But setting aside aesthetic considerations, bubblegum music can also be thought of as being driven by the desire to shift artistic control away from the performer to the producer in order to maximize efficiency.

Think of it like this: back in 1964 The Beatles had a pretty good thing going, cranking out several albums and numerous hit singles, and shifting gazillions of units per year. In the U.S. Beatle albums were slap-dash affairs that cobbled together singles and tracks from the U.K. albums. As a result Capitol always had some new Beatle product ready to hit the shelves. That is until the Beatles decided they wanted more control over their product, and worse decided to get all "artistic" and weird and take an entire year to record a single album. By 1967, The Beatles--and other rock acts demanding artistic control over their musical output--had become inefficient revenue streams for music producers. Additionally, The Beatles artistic "growth" left a hole in the market for simple, catchy music directed at a pre-teen market.

Producer Don Kirshner recognized that gap in the market and appreciated the concept of efficiency, so he created the Monkees, the so-called "pre-fab" four. The idea was solid; actors would be hired to portray the musicians, while recordings would be left to studio pros that wouldn't spend a lot of time fiddling around in the studio, and songwriting would be done on spec by Brill building pros like Neil Diamond. The concept was almost Fordian in its efficient distribution of labor. But the actors and musicians cast as the Monkees quickly developed their own artistic ambitions, and became difficult to work with.

But Kirshner was a very bright man who recognized that performers--in the traditional sense anyway--were not a necessary evil. So he had the even better idea of creating the cartoon rock band The Archies. In terms of allowing the producer artistic control, the Archies were the perfect vehicle. Cartoon characters were not likely to get all uppity and decide they had to spend a year in Abbey Road Studios to record a rock opera.

Like the Monkees, the Archies concept allowed for multiple revenue streams; a television series, record sales, band paraphernalia, marketing deals (and of course there were already the comic books). But one major revenue stream was noticeably missing from this equation--you could not send cartoon characters out perform live shows. Kirshner would later try to correct that oversight (with limited success) by creating a harlequin-costumed band called the Klowns, who were cross-marketed with The Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus (and featured lead singer Barry Bostwick). (More on The Klowns another day.)

But the folks at Hanna-Barbara had perhaps the greatest bubblegum idea of all time in the Banana Splits. The Banana Splits Adventure Hour was a loopy, psychedelic, kiddie TV show that featured the characters Fleegal, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky dressed in costumes designed by Sid & Marty Krofft. The Banana Splits concept had it all. It allowed for complete control of the musical output by the show’s musical director, Mark Barkan. Barkan hired some of the best people in the business to provide the Splits music, including Al Kooper, Gene Pitney, Joey Levine, and even Barry White. Hanna Barbara also struck a major cross-marketing deal with Kellogg's, who not only sponsored the series on television, but also distributed some of the music via their cereal boxes. But the Splits concept was most brilliant in that it allowed for revenue not just from one touring band, but multiple touring bands. Because the characters performed in costumes, it was no problem to have multiple Banana Splits acts on "tour" at the same time. And since the performers were doing nothing more than pretending to play to pre-recorded music tracks (they didn't even have to lip-synch!), they could be paid next to nothing.

So this is why I consider The Banana Splits, conceptually if not musically, the ultimate bubblegum act. Setting aside these considerations, the Splits music was also pretty swell, and has enjoyed some influence over the years. The Banana Splits theme song "The Tra La La Song" was covered by The Dickies, "I Enjoy Being A Boy" was covered by They Might Be Giants, and Michael Stipe has reputedly declared The Banana Splits to have been a bigger influence on his music than The Beatles.

According Wikipedia (the world’s most reliable source of information about everything): "The Banana Splits Adventure Hour is tentativly [sic] scheduled to be released on DVD in 2007." Let’s hope the person who wrote this has better inside information than spelling.

A bootleg of all the released Splits recordings appeared in 1995 on the "Hollywood Library" label.

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