(Decca Broadway/Universal Classics)
US release date: 25 September 2001 (re-release)
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Hippie (and Anti-Hippie) Humor Revisited
There is no more ambiguous time period in America’s cultural history than what is generally called “the sixties”. Anyone who uses this phrase as a signifier automatically means the late 1960s, which really incorporates everything up until Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. And the way a person reacts to the idea of “the ‘60s” can tell you most of what you need to know about that person. Some are wistfully nostalgic for those days of “peace” and “love” and “freedom”; some are bitterly angry about the “hippies” who spat on returning Vietnam veterans and their “anti-American” protests; most are very ambiguous about the entire concept.
Late last year, two huge record companies re-released archetypal humor albums from the late 1960s and early 1970s: Universal with National Lampoon‘s 1973 off-Broadway show Lemmings, and Columbia with the first four albums by the Firesign Theatre. These CD versions are much-needed—Lemmings is on disc for the first time, and the Firesign Theatre CDs have been impossible to find since Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab went down a few years ago—and provide two very different views of the turmoil and confusion of the years and attitudes that together make up “the ‘60s” in our minds.
Lemmings is better known-about than known. An offshoot of National Lampoon magazine (itself an offshoot of The Harvard Lampoon), Lemmings was a quasi-musical that scored a huge hit in New York’s Village Gate in 1973. It is famous for featuring such amazing comedic talents as Christopher Guest, John Belushi, and the young Chevy Chase. The writers included the cast as well as National Lampoon stars like the great Tony Hendra, Sean Kelly, and Paul Jacobs. Now that the album is out again, we can finally hear what all the shouting was about.
Here’s the scenario of Lemmings: it’s Woodstock, except everyone is there to kill themselves. Pretty high-concept, huh? Well, actually, yeah: it was pretty revolutionary back then for hip, young comedians to represent hippie love-in festivals as mass suicidal events, or even to suggest that the counter-culture was just as uncool as the dominant culture. Now, of course, we see this all the time; try to find a children’s show that doesn’t make fun of parents and other characters who wear tie-dyed shirts and say, “Groovy, man”, at every opportunity. But back in 1973? Radical stuff—if by “radical” one can actually mean “conservative”.
Because that’s exactly what Lemmings comes off as: packaged satire for the cool counter-revolutionary crowd. Everything about Woodstock is mercilessly mocked in this album-long conceit, which is not necessarily a bad thing when you think about it. From the very first, the clued-in New York audience is cracking up at Belushi’s stage announcement, “We want you people who are into macrobiotics to off yourselves over in the south forty, to be used for organic fertilizer”. You can really feel Belushi’s charisma here, with his big shouty strangulated voice warning people “The brown strychnine has been cut with acid!”. No wonder the guy was such a huge star.
These announcements frame song parodies of many of the big artists (and easy targets) of the time: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young get it in “Lemmings Lament”, and Chevy Chase does a very credible John Denver in “Colorado”. Christopher Guest is spot on as both James Taylor (“Highway Toes”) and country-era Bob Dylan (“Positively Wall Street”)—wailing, on the latter, “You say I was your leader / You say I turned you on / You’re starting to suspect now / It was all a con”. But the best performance of all is Paul Jacobs on the soul workout (by a “group” called the Motown Manifestos) titled “Papa Was a Running-Dog Lackey of the Bourgeoisie”. It’s really wonderful to hear a perfect Stax arrangement built around lyrics like “The bourgeoisie controls the means of production / The bourgeoisie leaves nothing but naked self interest / The bourgeoisie is full of shit”. Oh, yeah, baby.
It’s all pretty funny, and it’s great to make fun of hippies, but as satire this stuff is revealed to be pretty weak tea. There are absolutely horrible moments like Alice Playten’s character Goldie Oldie singing a fake my-boyfriend’s-dead song called “Pizza Man”; maybe this was great stuff back then, in the shadow of Sha Na Na’s appearance at Woodstock, but, wow, is it awful! And there just isn’t any indication that the writers and cast members feel any emotions except contempt and disgust. While it may be true that “If you are not a black homosexual working-class woman, you’re an oppressor, pig! You deserve to die!”, hearing the line doesn’t make you smile as much as wince. National Lampoon was never the most revolutionary of magazines anyway—remember that one of its editors was arch-conservative P.J. O’Rourke, who was also one of the writers for this show. By the time I got to the end of the album, with Belushi in full heavy-metal mode singing a song called “Megadeath” (“Living is a bummer / Dying is a high / Nerves are getting number / Die, baby, die!”), I just shrugged my shoulders and wondered why this show had such a reputation if this straight-up, one-dimensional “satire” was the best they could do.
“One-dimensional” is not a word one could use to describe the Firesign Theatre’s approach. This was a group raised on the subtlety of Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer, and they were really the first comedy group to fully use the power of the recording studio—they reflect their radio backgrounds as fully as the Lemmings writers revealed their print experience. The core group of four men—Philip Proctor, David Ossman, Peter Bergman, Phil Austin (along with some incidental friends and a whole lot of studio trickery)—manages to create multi-layered soundscapes full of subtle jokes, historical commentary, stupid puns, and ruthless satire that made one think while laughing.
From their very first album, 1968’s Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, it was clear that this was a studio group to be reckoned with. The opening track, “Temporarily Humboldt County”, essays hundreds of years of mistreatment of Native Americans in just over nine hilarious, heartbreaking minutes. The two unnamed Indian protagonists spend the whole time waiting for “the Great White Brother” who will work with them, but are patronized by Spanish conquistadores (“Hey, corn! Now we can make tortillas! We’ve been waiting for this for hundreds of years!”), Western settlers (psyched to “carve a new life out of the American Indian!”), modern tourists who want to see the squaws, sons who don’t want to be called Soaring Eagle anymore (“Oh, come on! Call me Eddie!”), governments who turn their home into “the Stinking Desert National Monument and Cobalt Testing Range”, and having to earn a living by serving as extras in Westerns. It’s the kind of thing you could actually use in a hip Social Studies class . . . except that it’s far too radical.
The rest of Side One consists of a couple of less-biting pieces, the western/hippie slamdance “W.C. Fields Forever” (featuring great drug jokes, Gabby the Sacred Cowboy, and Indian grub chefs), and the what-if-the-whole-world-was-groovy burn “Le Trente-Huit Cunegonde”. But it is on Side Two that they really come into their own with the title track, which turns from language lesson to Hitchcock movie to prison fantasy to game show parody (“Beat the Reaper” is one of their best-loved bits) to post-apocalyptic freakout and back to the beginning in one seamless, insane, 17-minute acid trip. (This re-issue has a gently demeaning, but funny, extra track, featuring Indian supergroup “the Mantras and the Chakras”. Not PC, but pretty good nonetheless. Sorry, Indian readers, but it’s true.)
They followed this recipe on their huge second album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All: two side-long tracks, 56 1/2 minutes. Side A, the title track, is a trip around the world in a really very effectively climate-controlled used car—the protagonist, called “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith”, ends up inside a pyramid and is then thrust into a bizarre war scenario with marching songs like “You ain’t got no freak on the left! / You ain’t got no freak on the right! / Hound dog / Poon tang / Coon town / Ass wipe!”. And Side B is an amazing 28 minutes of “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger”, which stands every noir phrase on its ear, with time travel thrown in for good measure, as well as a wonderful bit in which private eye Danger realizes where he’s heard that one phrase—the other side of the record!
But it was their third record that really stands as one of the greatest comedy classics of all time. Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers takes both sides of the record to unfold, and tells the story of George Leroy Tirebiter in a kind of Joycean slipstream of chronology. It’s all told through the flipping of TV channels in a martial-law America where pizza delivery never comes to the right zone: Here he is as a teen in the 1950s starring as Porgie in “High School Madness”, where the brave kids from More Science High have to figure out whether or not they’re really at war with the evil kids from Communist Martyrs High; here he is as an old man; here he is as the producer of the world’s corniest war film, where everyone’s stereotypical accents are all screwed up; and he’s somehow the slacker who watches the world’s worst religious channel, where the only two sacraments are eating and, uh, letting it go (“Look at that steaming heap of hot-buttered groat clusters! My, my!”). By the time you figure out that Tirebiter is being tortured for selling out, Porgie is also being sold out by his own father in a Kafkaesque trial. Hell, even the winner of the game show wins a bag of shit . . . “but it’s really great shit!”. It’s an indictment of America’s cavalier treatment of its young people, and it’s a wake-up call, and it’s infinitely dense like a black hole, revealing new details on every listen. And, of course, it’s just plain funny.
The fourth of these releases is even weirder. I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus takes us with a bunch of clowns—yes, I mean real clowns—on a trip through a messed-up amusement/science park where everything is completely planned and perfected. Heck, even the President of the United States is available to answer your every question. That is, until he is revealed to be an animatronic sham easily reprogrammed by our intrepidly hapless protagonist. This is the shortest of the albums, and the least overtly “funny” of the four, but it might be the deepest; it shows the folly of believing in any sort of scientific philosophy of life, it explores the idea that mass entertainment is actually a front for shadowy figures who control us all, and it shows us a way out: use “progress” to fight “progress” by reprogramming the government. Or something. I’m not really sure.
It probably sounds like I’m saying that the Firesign Theatre produced four perfect comedy albums that completely kick the ass of the National Lampoon show Lemmings. I guess that is what I’m saying. And I guess I’m saying it because these albums have more going on than just the Lampoon‘s snarky fuck-you-isms; they are ambiguous, they are both scary and hopeful, and they are unlikely to be touched by any further achievements in comedy in a long time. We live in a simple time where albums like these could never be produced—we’ve lost the art of sublety anymore. And damn, we need it now more than ever.
I couldn’t urge you to find these albums more if I got it tattooed on my head.