Bubblegum Pops the (Counter-)Culture

Iain Ellis
The Bay City Rollers give the thumbs up.

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 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

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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