The Yummy, Gummy And Sugar-Sugary Story Of Bubblegum Pop
Left: The sleeve art for the Portuguese release of the Lemon Pipers' 'Green Tambourine.' Right: The Monkees. Source: 45cat.com; IMDB
Who remembers bubblegum pop? Chart hits like the Lemon Pipers' "Green Tambourine," the Music Explosion's "Little Bit O' Soul," and the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" are just a few examples of the bubblegum phenomenon. The music was contrived to appeal to teens and pre-teens by producers, sometimes with little input from the actual bands -- the result was often catchy nonsense, like the Ohio Express's "Yummy Yummy Yummy," and the Archies' "Bang Shang-A-Lang."
Some bubblegum bands didn't mind the manufactured nature of their careers, while others rebelled. And the most famous bubblegum band rebelled to the point they weren't really bubblegum anymore -- the Monkees, who were put together for a TV show but almost immediately campaigned for, and were granted, more artistic input. It's telling that one big bubblegum band was actually a cartoon, and thus completely controllable by producers.
Manufactured pop music existed before the late '60s, and still exists today, but the period of 1967-72 saw a distinct surge in the bubblegum pop or bubblegum rock phenomenon.
The Lemon Pipers
The Lemon Pipers are often held up as the prime example of a bubblegum pop act, but that's most likely because their big hit "Green Tambourine," from 1967, is one of the first recognized bubblegum pop hits. The Lemon Pipers were a band in their own right, though, before they signed with Buddah Records (which would turn out to be a bubblegum factory). "Green Tambourine," which was written for the band, went to #1 in early 1968; thereafter, the Lemonpipers lived a schizophrenic existence, recording somewhat silly singles to satisfy their label, but writing their own more authentic rock tunes and harboring dreams of escaping the bubblegum category. It didn't happen. The group had two more minor bubblegum hits, "Rice Is Nice" and "Jelly Jungle (Of Orange Marmalade)" and released two albums in total, which were a jumble of bubblegum and rock.
The Lemon Pipers weren't the only bubblegum act on their label -- The Music Explosion, The Ohio Express and 1910 Fruitgum Company were Buddah Records bands as well, and all experienced chart success. These groups (but not the Lemon Pipers) were produced by Super K Productions, the team of Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffry Katz. The Music Explosion's "Little Bit O' Soul" went to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and 1910 Fruitgum Company had a pair of #5 hits, in "1, 2. 3 Red Light" and "Indian Giver." The Ohio Express wasn't really a band, more like an alias used by other acts, and it had a top-10 hit with "Yummy Yummy Yummy" and a top-20 hit with "Chewy Chewy."
The Monkees seemed like the epitome of bubblegum, at least on paper -- a made-for-TV band inspired by the Beatles' Help! Fortunately -- or unfortunately, for producer Don Kirshner -- the four young men hired to be Monkees were musicians who didn't want to fake it. Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, David Jones and Micky Dolenz initially went along with the plan, which required only their vocals, and no songwriting or playing. The Monkees' first album was the prefab, bubblegum product Kirshner had envisioned, but soon after its release things got ugly. The band and Kirshner got into a heated altercation, and ultimately the Monkees won a measure of self-determination. Mike Nesmith explained to Rolling Stone:
We were quite capable of playing the type of songs that were selected for the show. We were also kids with our own taste in music and were happier performing songs we liked – and/or wrote – than songs that were handed to us. It made for a better performance. It was more fun. That this became a bone of contention seemed strange to me, and I think to some extent to each of us – sort of “what’s the big deal – why wont you let us play the songs we are singing?” This confusion of course betrayed an ignorance of the powers that were and the struggle that was going on for control between the show’s producers in Hollywood and the New York-based publishing company owned by Screen Gems.
The public had learned that the Monkees didn't play on their first album, and wanted them to be more authentic. So Kirshner was out, and the Monkees went forward trying to prove themselves as a real band -- of course, credibility is hard to win back once you've lost it.
The Archies: Bubblegum To Its Logical Conclusion
As the Monkees episode demonstrated, the pitfall of putting together a band in a test tube was the real-life hopes and dreams of the people you'd assembled. Kirshner's true bubblegum success eliminated the human complications -- the band was The Archies, consisting of characters from Archie comic books. With a cartoon band, a producer could hire and dismiss musicians and singers as needed and still maintain the appearance of a sustained group. The Archies had a monster hit in "Sugar Sugar," which went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was the biggest-selling single of 1969.
The Archies weren't the only cartoon-ish band that achieved popularity -- not necessarily chart hits, but a musical presence that sustained or augmented TV programming. The Banana Splits were humans in costumes; the Scooby-Doo cast was initially conceived as a band; Josie & The Pussycats was a bona fide cartoon band; the Sugar Bears was a bubblegum pop act built around breakfast cereal mascot -- you get the idea.
Bubblegum On TV
There was a lot of crossover between bubblegum pop and TV entertainment -- with shows like The Partridge Family being a TV family-band and The Brady Bunch delving into music. David Cassidy, Sean Cassidy and Bobby Sherman were teen idols who made catchy, prefab pop music while pursuing TV careers.
What Wasn't Bubblegum?
Bubblegum pop isn't strictly defined, and can include various other acts, for various reasons. The Jackson Five, a family group that produced durable hits, gets tagged bubblegum because the songs did have that preteen/teen appeal, and they had their own cartoon series. (So did the Beatles, but...) Herman's Hermits, though a British Invasion group, certainly fit the bubblegum mold with songs like "I'm Henry The Eighth, I Am." Tommy James and the Shondells had a few proto-bubblegum hits, including "Hanky Panky" and "I Think We're Alone Now," as did Tommy Roe with "Sweet Pea." The major era of bubblegum continued into the '70s, including (depending on how you define it) the Osmonds, the DeFranco Family, and the Cowsills, who were the real group upon which the Partridge Family was based. Early releases by British glam-rock acts -- like "Little Willy" by The Sweet -- have been called bubblegum as well. Music pundits generally agree that bubblegum's last hurrah, before disco changed the game, was the Bay City Rollers.
Tags: Music In The 1960s | One Hit Wonders | Popular Lists Of Everything From The Groovy Era | The 1960s | The 1970s
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