Bubblegum Pops the (Counter-)Culture

by Iain Ellis

24 August 2006

Fake and faceless, bubblegum pop in the late '60s and early '70s offended the prevailing rock myths of artistic creativity and rugged opposition to the powers-that-be.
The Bay City Rollers give the thumbs up. 

The imaginative reach and high art aspirations of late ‘60s rock took the form across many new frontiers of music and humor. Rock appeared as a boundless art limited only by the creative visions of its purveyors — and few recognized any limits. It had certainly been a long journey in a short time from the innocent simplicity of much ‘50s rock to the ambitious eccentric opuses of the likes of Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa.

However, in rock history reactions are invariably met with counter-reactions, forces met with counter-forces. Such was the case during the final years of the decade, a period when many believe rock reached its artistic zenith. Just as the whimsy of the hippy counter-culture had been met with the straight-edge satire of Zappa and others, so the bubblegum genre that popped up in 1967 served as a counter-reaction to the serious endeavors of both of those camps. If the black humorists had been a counter counter-culture, the bubblegum popsters might be regarded as part of the counter counter counter-culture.

One of the principle reasons rock proper had become more sophisticated in its humor and expression was because the baby boom kids were coming-of-age. That left the next wave of pre-pubescents without a music they could relate to or call their own. Mixing comic book ideas with nursery rhymes, baby-speak lyrics with fast, catchy dance beats, bubblegum “bands” like Ohio Express, 1910 Fruitgum Company, and the Archies took the US and UK charts by storm between 1967 and 1972. The fact that these acts did not actually exist as such, but were mere fronts for the songwriting-producer team of Jerry Kasenatz and Jeff Katz, was of little concern to the adoring masses of pre-teens. For them, the rock their elder siblings listened to was too weird and uninviting; they wanted primal simple-minded pleasures to sing along with and dance to. As such, bubblegum was not only a tacit reaction to rock snobbery, but it was also the second coming of the novelty pop that had dominated the US charts in the late ‘50s.

Unsurprisingly, not all listeners received bubblegum with the same open arms and hearts. For serious rock fans and critics, it was an abomination, a worrying sign of a step backwards after the many great leaps forward. They saw bubblegum as contrived and formulaic, fabricated fronts for business-minded Svengalis who plugged in whatever studio musicians were needed to create a top ten hit. The Archies, a TV cartoon band, did not even pretend to be real! As had been a common reaction to the Girl Group phenomenon a few years prior, the backlash to bubblegum was largely because it broke the sacred code of rock credibility: authenticity. Fake and faceless, bubblegum offended the prevailing rock myths of artistic creativity and rugged opposition to the powers-that-be. Behind the cartoons or actors in silly costumes were those powers, controlling every detail with Wizard of Oz-like deceit.

It would be an overstatement, though, to suggest that the entire counter-culture took objection to bubblegum. Indeed, there was a solid one percentile that embraced the form. Within musical ranks, one can see the early Beatles (the original boy band) as providing the initial template upon which bubblegum crafted its material ambitions. Just ask the Monkees! Even within the counter-culture’s inner sanctum, one could interpret the Tiny Tim phenomenon — along with his hit “Tip-Toe Thru’ the Tulips” (1968) — as much bubblegum fare as hippy absurdism.

Even within critical ranks, where the urge to burst the bubble was strongest, rock writer-rebel Lester Bangs was as tireless an advocate on behalf of the form as he had been in defense of the Girl Groups. In both cases, he admired how the pomposity and phony myths of rock bands were being penetrated and exposed, their own fakery unveiled, their own product exposed as just that — product. For Bangs, the beautiful irony was that besides the trappings, bubblegum was actually less phony and more authentic than rock proper. In their genre study, Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth (2001), editors Kim Cooper and David Smay actually make their dedication out to Bangs, recognizing his long-time support of this much maligned genre. Over time, Bangs’s position has gathered support, just as the genre itself has become more accepted and recognized on its own terms.

There is clearly ironic humor in bubblegum co-existing in juxtaposition to high art rock in the late ‘60s; it provided a knowing wink and constant reminder of bottom-line realities in much the same way as Andy Warhol and other Pop and Op artists were doing within the fine arts. Furthermore, there are other aspects of gum humor that reveal (perhaps) subversive angles. Bangs has pointed to the in-house double entendres in some of the lyrics, to wordplay that shows the songwriters subverting their own “innocent” fronts. He sees sexual innuendo in both Tommy Roe’s “Jam Up and Jelly Tight” (1970) and the Ohio Express 1968 hit “Yummy Yummy Yummy” (“I’ve got love in my tummy”). Some have also read drug references into such lines as “Pour your sweetness over me” from the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar”, a #1 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1969.

Though the US bubblegum boom burst around 1972 — perhaps an eventual victim of its own corporate facelessness — the trend adapted and expanded in the UK and beyond. On the more glittery edges of the UK glam rock movement in the early ‘70s, the influence of bubblegum aesthetics was pronounced. Early Sweet songs like “Wig-Wam Bam” (1972) and “Little Willy” (1972) (both written by bubblegum writer-producers Chinn and Chapman) paved the way for the band’s future pop career; Marc Bolan, as he drifted from hippy indulgence into (the) glitter camp, was not averse to adding some gum to his glam; Gary Glitter (a.k.a. Paul Gadd), likewise, adopted the elemental features of bubblegum as he crafted his space-age Liberace image.

Unfortunately, Glitter’s efforts to reach the gum pre-pubescent constituency later went too far when he was jailed for downloading child pornography in 1999 and more recently convicted for having sex with minors in Vietnam. One might perceive a somewhat parallel scenario in the recent legal troubles of Michael Jackson, who, lest one forgets, once led the premier soul bubblegum group of the late ‘60s alongside his brothers.

Beyond glam rock, other major pop acts of the ‘70s, like Abba and the Bay City Rollers, also operated by the bubblegum playbook, though where the genre reached its most subversive and humorous adaptations were within the late ‘70s punk rock movement. The Sex Pistols’ how-to-be-stars satirical satire (on album and film), The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1979), could just as easily have been addressing any bubblegum band, while the Ramones’ embrace of childlike simplicity in lyrics and hooks showed the band to be studious fans of the form. As with bubblegum, the humor of punk’s back-to-basics model was an implicit (and often explicit) satirical counter-reaction to the self-importance of many of the rock idols/idles of the day.

Nowadays, bubblegum continues to pop up periodically, bringing rock’s higher ambitions back to pop’s down-to-earth realities. One might note, for example, how modern gummers like Hanson, the Spice Girls, and Britney Spears emerged in the wake of the early ‘90s grunge seriousness. The bubblegum genre itself is also being increasingly praised for its primary charms and unpretentious dumb humor. As a result, alternative acts have increasingly entered the fray, embracing the form and pushing its extremities up more ironic avenues. Sweden’s Sahara Hotnights and the Hives, as well as Japan’s Shonen Knife and Guitar Wolf, suggest that the geographical reach of bubblegum rock is also expanding; these and other bands are currently providing some of the cutting edges of what has been termed “bubblecore”, a subgenre exploring the possibilities inherent in sonic simplicity and humble (though tongue-in-cheek) humor.

* * *

The above essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book about rock-related artists who use(d) humor as a primary instrument of rebellion.


The Archies — Sugar Sugar

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