Primus covers Willy Wonka, playing up your fuzzy memories of the film's dark heart while subverting the original arrangements.
Primus and its frontman, Les Claypool, are no strangers to covering other artists’ material. Primus has released two EPs of cover songs over the years, and Claypool just put out an album under the name Duo de Twang that was almost all covers of both his own and others’ material. Claypool’s most ambitious cover project to date came back in 2001, though, when his Frog Brigade released a live album that consisted entirely of the band playing Pink Floyd’s Animals.
But Primus and the Chocolate Factory blows away Live Frogs Set 2 in terms of scope and ambition. As implied by the title, this record consists of Primus (buttressed by mallet percussion and cello) essentially playing through the soundtrack of the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But Primus is a trio that specializes in the weird and creepy, and even with a couple of additional instruments, replicating Leslie Bricusse’s full orchestra, classic movie musical score is not technically possible. Instead the band has put the songs through a complete rearrangement, to the point where often only the lyrics and maybe a melody line remain from their original versions.
It’s certainly an ambitious gambit, and most of this record works very well, at least from the perspective of someone who already likes Primus. A fan of the movie who isn’t familiar with the band may not get much out of Primus and the Chocolate Factory beyond frustration. What Claypool and company have done here, effectively, is to play on people’s fuzzy memories of the film as something dark and sinister. To be sure, there’s a nasty undercurrent to the story, courtesy of original author Roald Dahl and Gene Wilder’s droll performance as Wonka. But the music, for the most part, is largely big, bright, Broadway-style production numbers. Primus wants to take those memories of darkness, though, and recreate the music from that perspective.
A quick introduction features at least three different tracks of Claypool’s bowed upright bass on top of each other, with swirling cello interjections. Sparse percussion complements the bass, and eventually Larry LaLonde’s sliding electric guitar sound enters to complete the classic Primus sound. But it isn’t until the second track, “Candy Man”, that the band shows what they’re going to be doing to Willy Wonka. Tim Alexander, back on drums with the band for the first time since 2009 (and on a full studio album for the first time since 1995), uses a wide variety of drums to set down a spacious groove, while cellist Sam Bass and mallet percussionist Mike Dillon add in sound effects. Claypool, still on upright bass, makes his instrument sound like a cow, moaning in the background. When Claypool starts in with the lyrics, he’s mostly speaking in an intentionally creepy tone of voice, eventually grunting out the chorus, “The Candy Man can,” in a guttural croak. The song resembles the classic made famous by Sammy Davis, Jr. in lyrics only, and in Primus’ interpretation this Candy Man sounds like a dangerous pedophile looking to prey on children. It undermines the original arrangement so completely that it sounds like a parody.
Most of the album doesn’t go quite that far, but listening to the record, Primus fans could easily forget that the band has always had a bright, somewhat goofy side to contrast their dark weirdness. That side doesn’t show up much on Primus and the Chocolate Factory. “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket”, where Charlie’s Grandpa Joe dances around the family’s hovel in celebration, comes the closest. There’s a bouncy playfulness to the song courtesy of Alexander’s bopping drums and Claypool’s active bass guitar. But LaLonde and Dillon undercut the bounciness with weird, off-kilter guitar, marimba, and vibraphone parts.
“Pure Imagination” is darkened in similar fashion to “Candy Man”. The difference here is that Bricusse provided the seed for that darkness in the original score, which features a recurring minor key glockenspiel part that intentionally doesn’t fit with the traditional-sounding beautiful ballad that is the rest of the song. Primus seizes on that theme, gives it to LaLonde, and builds their whole arrangement around it. After this, the rest of the album is essentially a breeze for the band. The four versions of the Oompa Loompa song are directly in Primus’ wheelhouse anyway, so it’s no surprise that the band nails them all, particularly the vocals.
The subversion continues on the album’s last proper song, “I Want It Now”. The film allowed Veruca Salt to sing her “I Want” song beautifully despite her bratty behavior. Primus throws the vocals over to LaLonde for the first time in their 25-plus year history and lets him speak his way through the lyrics, getting louder and whinier as the song goes on. Musically, the arrangement is livelier than most of the rest of the record, with a vaguely Middle Eastern feel and a bunch of great guitar leads, an unusual choice for the mostly bass-driven band.
If there’s one place where Primus and the Chocolate Factory doesn’t work, it’s the early ballad “Cheer Up Charlie”. The band gets very gentle to play the song, sung in the film by Charlie’s mother. It’s a nice little song, but slight in the film and carried entirely by Diana Sowie’s vocals. Here, Claypool’s weakness in traditional-style singing fails the song and the band’s little stabs at melody don’t amount to enough to make up for Les’s lack of ability.
As an experiment in radically rearranging existing music, this album is a massive success. As a listenable album, though, it falls a bit short. Primus goes to great lengths to make the songs fit the band, and Tim Alexander’s percussion plus the cello and mallet percussion give the arrangements a feeling of fullness. It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, though, that the band didn’t stretch to fit the songs much. Every single track didn’t need to be weird, dark, and creepy. A little bit more of the band’s playful side might have brightened up the record just enough to make it highly re-listenable. As it is, I fear that this is a record that all but the most ardent Primus fans will listen to a few times and then put it away as a successful experiment but not a great album.