Bursting the Bubble

An old English view of one fabled pop factory

In the spring of 1979, British music journalist Pete Silverton wrote this piece for Trouser Press Collectors’ Magazine, based on — he now suspects — an interview with Kenny Laguna done in London for some other purpose entirely. We did a lot of piggybacking like that in those days. It ran in issue 5, amusingly enough with a crucial — but easily presumed — word from a quote omitted in the production process.

What’s most fascinating about this article is the time capsule in which was created. It was a full decade since the heyday of bubblegum, but its direct descendant, glam rock, which had a far greater influence in the UK than in America, had only recently faded out, and disco (which had the the opposite trans-oceanic experience) was still going strong. New wave was in full flower there, and the stylistic pinwheel of the British charts — which, if not relevant to bubblegum in sound, still spoke to a new generation’s appetite for easily digested and recalled pop fluffery. And people were still consuming music by purchasing slabs of plastic in various sizes.

So take this for what it is: a piece of history written a long time ago. (One small emendation was made to correct something that was not known at the time, but certainly is now.)

By Pete Silverton

Not as long ago as you might like to imagine, a car containing Beserkley Records prez Matthew King Kaufman and the one-time uncrowned potentates of bubblegum, Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, was heading out from New York City to a tiny and cheap studio in Long Island where Talking Heads were laying down some songs with Kaufman footing the bill. After shooting the breeze for a while about life, love and the whole damn thing — you know how these record company execs are — the trio got down to discussing the only really serious subject music biz high-fliers hold close to their heart: money, and how those goddamn artists are forever spending it, fer crissakes.

“But,” demurred Kaufman, “I like to pay my artists.”

With that statement Kaufman upset the whole view of the universe, the entire set of ideals and ethics by which Kasenetz and Katz ordered their lives. It was all too much for Katz. With this California oddball questioning his total weltenschauung, he was reduced to burying his head in his hands and mumbling dejectedly, “If this guy ever makes it, I’ll retire.”

Maybe that anecdote reveals as much about Kaufman as it does about the dynamic double-K duo, but it still highlights the essence of the whole bubblegum scam: Whatever else is going down, it’s the hustle that really counts.

Not that I’m suggesting, or even implying, that Kasenetz-Katz are some kind of all-time champion rip-off merchants. As longtime K-K foot soldier Kenny Laguna insisted: “I always got paid by ’em. Hell, they even gave me composer credit [and, hence, royalties] on ‘Hey Joe.’ I really did a lot of work on that one.”.

But Katz’s reaction to Kaufman’s philanthropic declaration does make clear the bottom line of any discussion of bubblegum: it has nothing whatsoever to do with any style of music per se, only with a style of promoting that music. Unlike any other genre of what we sometimes feel proud to call rock and roll, bubblegum has no musical roots, only financial and marketing ones. Its only musical requirement is baffling simplicity, an insistent 4/4 beat and lyrics a four-year-old can grasp after two plays. You can even dispense with a tune if you want; Gary Glitter did often enough.

And so, in 1967 bubblegum meant the Monkees consciously aping the Beatles. Six months later the Ohio Express came on like pre-school punks with “Yummy Yummy.” In 1968, the Lemon Pipers redefined LSD in terms that made sense to primary school kids. In the mid-’70s, Gary Glitter cashed in as a harmless [2020 editor’s note: not so, as we have since learned] hybrid of Ziggy Stardust and Uncle Ernie. In 1978, Boney M. presented kiddytoon investigations of racial persecution, “Rivers of Babylon” and “Brown Girl in the Ring.”

With bubblegum it doesn’t matter what you do — or how you do it — so long as you’re in there hustling for your very existence deep in the heart of the main action. Whatever the sales of Tubular Bells, Rumours and all those TV-promoted albums might indicate, as far as bubblegum is concerned, the main action was, is and probably always will be the single — seven inches of plastic only slightly less disposable than the eponymous elastic mouth-filler. It could just as easily, if less evocatively, have been dubbed Kleenex music.

The single has always been the only place in rock where any screwball, given a minimal outlay, can cop a hit.

Why? Three reasons.

For one, the price is right. You can’t expect mum to shell out for a whole LP as a last attempt to keep her little brat quiet while she watches General Hospital in the other room.

Second, the magic number three (plus or minus 30 seconds) is about the outer limit (in minutes) of the attention span of those running noses that make up the majority of bubblegum’s target audience.

Third — and this is both the most germane and interesting reason  — the single has always been the only place in rock where any screwball, given a minimal outlay, can cop the fortune and fame of a hit.

The album market is way too expensive. Recording, pressing, promotion and advertising costs for an album are such that, with very few exceptions, only major record companies can hope to get chart action and profits with LPs. But with singles, as long as you’ve got the right sound (whatever that may be this week), you can be right in there pitching the toss with all those multi-national vinyl conglomerates. (Not, of course, to deny that that you’re gonna be playing much longer odds than those multi-nationals or that the odds for independents have lengthened a great deal in the last 10 years as the majors’ grip on rock has tightened. Still, the oddball with a crazy sound does stand a chance).

That’s how bubblegum started out, despite its connotations of big business manipulation. As with almost any new musical style, it came from the independents, a bunch of ambitious hustlers screaming from outside the main game, confident they could take on the moguls on their home turf, win and ultimately inspire the deepest forms of congratulations — blatant imitations.

Leaving aside for the moment any discussion of proto-bubblegum archetypes like Tommy Roe, Tommy James and the Shondells or Freddie and the Dreamers (remember their version of “Short Shorts”? A true forerunner of bubblegum if ever there were one), if I had to plump for the most significant event in the evolution of bubblegum, I’d have to pick — rather predictably, I must admit  — the release of the loathsome Sgt. Pepper.

The moment rock started being taken seriously enough for the Times to claim that Lennon and McCartney were the best songwriters since Schubert (that did happen, honest), its unifying structure disintegrated overnight. No longer could kids of all ages listen to the same records and appreciate them in different ways. Now big brother/sister was up half the night decoding the hidden philosophy of Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” (there is none, incidentally) while kid brother/sister had to fall back on setting “Georgie Porgie” to more contemporary rhythms.

In short, a gap in the market for vinyl produce was created. And hustlers abhor that kind of gap the way nature does a vacuum. Grown men were transfixed. “Stuff all this mystical garbage,” they mused. “What about the kids? We don’t care if god blesses ’em or not but we do know they and their gullible, loving parents have got money. And we mean to get ourselves a hefty share of it. Mmm, young kids sing those damn nursery rhymes. How about — that one about sticking your hands in the air like the leader says? What did you say it was called? ‘Simon Says,’ that’s right. Okay, boys, take it from the top.”

As a metaphor for the genesis of bubblegum, “Simon Says” is almost too perfect to be true — Pavlovian consumer reflexes trained by anonymous session musicians overseen by cynical opportunist money-makers.

And so a star of sorts was born. Two months into 1968, bubblegum staked its position in any future history of rock and roll. Hitting the number-four spot in the US, “Simon Says” entered the British charts at an even more noteworthy time. Just as Paris was being divided by barricades of les evenements de mai, English kids were rushing out in droves to scoop up instructions on where to put their hands.

As a metaphor for the genesis of bubblegum, “Simon Says” is almost too perfect to be true — Pavlovian consumer reflexes trained by anonymous session musicians overseen by cynical opportunist money-makers. However, the reality is a shade more complex.

Apart from the slender fact that they both went to college where they studied (I think) law, I’ve no idea about Kasenetz-Katz’s background. I’ve yet to even glimpse a photo of them. Their first appearance in rock, so far as I can discover, was in 1965 when they worked with an artist named Christine Cooper. Graduating through Attack Records, around 1967 they formed their corporate ride to success: the Super-K production company.

Acquiring the services of the Music Explosion, Ohio Express and  — most important harbinger of their future  — The 1910 Fruitgum Company, they issued material through tape-lease deals until early ’68 when they hooked into a more permanent liaison with Buddah Records and its then-main mover, Neil Bogart (now head of Casablanca, home of post-bubblegummers KISS and elementary eroticism purveyor Donna Summer).

If you feel like throwing rotten eggs now, remember it was those three — Kasenetz, Katz and Bogart, aided and abetted by luminaries like Bo Gentry, Richie Cordell, Joey Levine, Lee Resnick and the Anders/ Poncia duo — who are the guilty men of bubblegum. They invented it, they created it, they wrote it, they named it, they (with the exception of Gentry and Cordell) made money from it, they hustled it into the ear of every kid in the Western world and, above all, they marketed it.

But, aside from Gentry/Cordell and Anders/Poncia, they didn’t record it. That was left to a bunch of real young kids, a first-generation punk band if ever there was one: 20-year-old Kenny Laguna on keyboards, Norman Marzano on bass, Jimmy Calvert on guitar (since graduated to Ringo albums), Paul Nalmin on guitar and Joe D’Andrea on drums.

Laguna: “We were put in A-1 Studio — it’s a really cheap studio — and we cut six sides in one day. Four of them charted: ‘Yummy Yummy,’ ‘Shake’ and I forget the others. They were all pretty rough anyway. Some of them even had flat background vocals, but Kasenetz and Katz said they were good enough as they were.”

“Shake,” huh? Well, it’s not that old soul moldie, although it does bear more than a passing resemblance to it, but you might recognize the name of the group that “performed” it: the Shadows of Knight. That’s right, the same legendary punk outfit that out-shouted Van Morrison to propel “Gloria” into the upper reaches of the American charts. Which clearly illustrates the point about bubblegum being nothing more than a weenybopper version of the music popular at the time. “Shake” could easily have been a classic mid-’60s punk disc….if it hadn’t been put together by Super-K Productions and marketed by Buddah Records. As in so much of what passes for rock history, questionable notions of what is hip have been substituted for aesthetic judgments. Not that “Shake” is necessarily as good as “Gloria” — it’s not. (For that matter, nor is the Shadows of Knight’s “Gloria” as good as the original.) But it is a more than presentable punk single of that innocent epoch. At least, it would have been if it hadn’t been put together by…

That’s one of the crucial points about early bubblegum records. Play Pye’s Golden Hour of Simon Says next to Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets and you’ll be surprised by the similarities. There’s the same reliance on basic instrumentation (the result in one case of penury and in the other of avarice), a simple rhythm section of drums, bass and guitar colored by a touch of lead guitar and fairly anonymous keyboard work. In both cases the vocals are hardly the kind you praise god for; there’s not much difference between whining young kids and aging hacks waiting to pick up their paychecks. One is dominated by ingenuousness, the other defined by its cynicism. That is often the only difference. To prefer one over the other is to admit you’re reacting to nonmusical criteria. Try the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “May I Take a Giant Step.” If you hadn’t looked at the sleeve you could be convinced of having unearthed a ? and the Mysterians rarity.

Bubblegum indeed relied on the time-tested path to instant hit status. Retreading the past is common in any music — in any art, in fact. But it’s the sine qua non of bubblegum. Quite simply, that’s the core of bubblegum’s success: It’s the perfect solution to the problem of imbuing singles with instant accessibility. Why else do so many latter-day English bubblegum outfits like Showaddywaddy choose to do cover versions? Why else do British bubblegum kings Magnet Records sign neodoowoppers like the Darts? People by and large (you too) like what they know and, more importantly, buy what they know.

Kasenetz-Katz understood this perfectly — it’s the first thing you learn if you want to be an operator — but they took their kiddie-oriented merchandising one step further. They came up with a brainwave that equals Newton’s brush with the tumbling apple. They flashed on young kids’ fascination with words even when they haven’t got the faintest about what they mean. So, starting with such glorious names as the 1910 Fruitgum Company, Kasenetz-Katz ploughed on into absolute stone craziness like Captain Groovy and his Bubblegum Army, Dick Whittington and his Royal Guardsmen, the 1989 Musical Marching Zoo, the JCW Ratfinks (a personal favorite — I only wish I’d heard one of their records), Licorice Schtick (Yiddish bubblegum?), Pattie Flabbie’s Coughed Engine, Professor Morrison’s Lollipop, the Banana Splits, the Amazing Pickles, the Unchained Mynds (take that, Cryan Shames), Saturday Morning Cartoon Show and — most ludicrous of all — the Rock and Roll Bubble Trading Card Co. of Philadelphia 19141.

Yeah, they sure were daft names — daft like Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. The names are the same, only the hipness quotient changes; but give me K-K style inanity over Garcia’s acid mumbo-jumbo any day.

“Yummy, yummy, yummy, I’ve got love in my tummy” — what kind of pervert would peddle that to impressionable children?

It’s a pure case of going over the top, just like Gary Glitter crawling upstairs in a Mike Mansfield TV epic, draped in more silver and sequins than the gaudiest of pantomime dames. It’s just a question of whom you’re going over the top for. If you’re aiming at late-adolescent “hip” malchicks, you call yourself Slaughter and the Dogs (even if you cover the bubblegum classic “Quick Joey Small”) or you make like lg and dip into a sado-masochistic relationship with the front three rows. If it’s kindergarten you’re after, you phrase everything in words of such utter simplicity that even if the men don’t know, the little girls always understand.

That’s why so many bubblegum records got away with purveying tongue-in-? filth. “Yummy, yummy, yummy, I’ve got love in my tummy” — what kind of pervert would peddle that to impressionable children? Or how about “Chewy, Chewy”? Nowadays, we save that kind of thing for Linda Lovelace movies.

If they’re not wallowing in muck, the K-K bubblegum records rarely stray lyrically far from such topics as inane love (the Fruitgum Company’s “Special Delivery”), childish obsessions in general (the Fruitgum Company’s “One Two Three, Red Light”) and food in particular (the Lemon Pipers’ “Jelly Jungle,” a prepubescent “White Rabbit”) and “Rice Is Nice,” the Fruitgum Company’s “Goody Goody Gumdrops,” or — outside the K-K axis — Tommy Roe’s “Jam Up and Jelly Tight”).

Beyond such concerns, the essence of every K-K record was its utter facelessness. Each record was product and product only; it sold on the strength of its sound alone, not on any created image concept (which is more than you can say for any Sex Pistols record. Not that bubblegum was without its touches of controversy: Apart from the double entendres mentioned above, “Mind Excursion” was banned in certain markets, and Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now” was refused airplay outright by the BBC first time around. I think it was the “And we tumble to the ground” line that got ’em.) Bubblegum survived on the basis of anonymity, pure and cynically simple. Nobody who bought the records at the time had the slightest idea who was behind them. Why should a six-year-old care anyway as long as he can sing along to them just as he would to a TV?

Of course, given that, there was no hope that K-K outfits could ever become viable touring propositions. Still, Ohio Express (with and without Joe Walsh) did a few dates after they started slumming with the K twins (“But they never played the same place twice” — Kenny Laguna). And there’s the fabled tale of the Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus —the one that did “Quick Joey Small” — and their tour of the States. Only it’s been told wrong up till now.

There was no tour. It fizzled out after the first date, in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Papering the hall with free tickets didn’t even help. It wasn’t all their fault. They just happened to choose an unfortunate date for the event: Bobby Kennedy’s funeral. What self-respecting mother would let her child attend a pop concert [on such a day]? “The body was actually moving down the road outside while the show was on,” Kenny Laguna remembers. To cap it all, they were faced with the problem that, while the stage was crammed with bodies, only five guys were actually plugged in. Some circus! Still, it was a stroke of bad luck — they’d apparently sold out any number of shows in less hip areas of the country.

Despite that one venture into live performance, facelessness was presumably the main lesson K-K learned from the ultimate failure of the prime forerunners of bubblegum, the Monkees.

The Monkees, as you all probably learned back there in seminary school, were an open-and-shut rerun of Frankenstein’s monster, Prometheus in a training bra. They were created by Don Kirshner, head of Screen Gems Publishing, Colgems Records (the Monkees’ US label) and major domo of the Brill Building school of songwriters. He was the one who bought the desks, pianos and manuscript paper for Carole Klein (not yet King), Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, Gerry Goffin, Carole Bayer Sager, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

When Kirshner decided to manufacture a group of his own, he had a whole slew of tried and chart-success tested songwriters to call on. This is where the Monkees differ from later bubblegum: an astoundingly large percentage of their songs were nothing less than classics. Besides a sublime reworking of Paul Revere and the Raiders’ (another proto-bubblegum outfit) “Steppin’ Stone” — if you don’t believe me, you obviously never heard the Pistols do it — there were such delights as Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer,” Goffin and King’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and Boyce and Hart’s “Last Train to Clarksville.” And that’s only the better-known material. My personal favorite is the brooding, near perfect “She,” another Boyce/Hart song. You thought the Monkees were nothing but four processed surrogate Beatle wimps? How about this couplet?

And now I know just why she keeps me hanging ’round
She needs someone to walk on so her feet don’t touch the ground.

If it weren’t self-abasing adulation, I’d say that was a near match for Elvis Lennon’s waspish “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than see you with another man” or the choking rancor of Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.”

At the time, I hated the Monkees just like any other self-respecting adolescent. Time sure can mellow a lot of things.

The biggest bitch against the Monkees was that they didn’t play on their own records — rank hypocrisy on the criticizers’ part when you consider it. This was when you could hardly read song titles on an underground album cover for the lists of guest musicians. Nobody ever accused the Beatles of cheating when they dragged in Eric Clapton to play the guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Unfortunately, good old American boys that they were, the Monkees were grievously upset by the accusations. Bleeding little George Washingtons they were: They felt they had to come clean and promise not to chop that cherry tree down again. But it was to no avail. As Nik Cohn stated in his fannish history, Rock: From the Beginning: “In the end, they played a few concerts. They even wrote songs. As it happened, they turned out to be not untalented after all. But the point was, their talent was incidental. Even if they’d been tone deaf, they’d still have made it, they’d have worked out exactly the same. Simply, there was no way they could lose.”

With the support of a weekly coast-to-coast primetime TV show (also shown across the Atlantic), how could they? Except by upsetting their flimsy applecart of fame and tiptoeing into obscurity while Don Kirshner pulled his new stunt: a TV show about a rock band again, only this time in animation, based on the Archie comic strip. No musicians to get snotty about session men this time. However, Kirshner, seeking to ape K-K’s anonymous approach, failed to realize that without flesh and blood characters even a pre-pubescent audience tires quickly — precisely why K-K used so many different and patently absurd names. Apart from the worldwide hit “Sugar, Sugar” (written by “River Deep, Mountain High” composer Jeff Barry), the Archies were a resounding failure. While the Monkees ascended to rerun heaven, the Archies never made it past one season and were never shown on English TV. Not one to give up, Kirshner came back with another TV show, this one about an imaginary pop group. Toomorrow was a total turkey but did introduce Olivia Newton-John to an unsuspecting universe.

Also away from the K-K kinderbunker were three artists often classed as bubblegum or at least fellow travelers:

At the age of 17, Tommy James cut a record in his home town with his backing band, the Shondells. Two years later a DJ in Pittsburgh started playing the hell out of it and the raw “Hanky Panky” was picked up by Roulette, who pushed it to the top of the charts. The band had long since broken up, so James tied up with Bo Gentry and Richie Cordell, racking up eight Top 20 hits over the next three years. One of the best (and their only hit in England) was “Mony, Mony.” The title came from the initials of the Mutual of New York insurance company. Cordell decreed that here was the new “Yummy Yummy” and immediately teams of writers set about building tune and lyrics from the title. After nine “Mony, Mony”s that didn’t cut it, they came up with the right sound; even now, dance floors the world over fill up anytime it’s played.

Paul Revere and the Raiders did it all back to front. Blowing into LA on the strength of two local punk hits (“Like Long Hair” and “Louie Louie”) in their native Portland, Oregon, they teamed up with Terry Melcher (Doris Day’s son) and couldn’t help but come up with bubblegum single after single. Eventually, not content with performing masterworks like”’Kicks,” “Hungry” and “Ups and Downs,” they had to get serious, stop wearing stupid costumes and appealing to microboppers. Unfortunately, by the time they learned to roll a decent joint, everyone had forgotten who they were.

Coming from yet another direction was Tommy Roe, one of the out-and-out wimps of all time. I remember liking his “Folk Singer” back in the early ’60s, but then all sub-teens have atrocious taste. After disappearing for the next few years, he returned with his very own brand of bubblegum. Despite its undoubted charm, “Dizzy” was more of a second childhood than the real thing.

And that was about it for classic-period bubblegum. By 1969, K-K were rich, famous and open to offers from anyone who’d accept their tape-lease deals. Filling their time with the likes of Bo Diddley 1969, a Super-K production for Chess which didn’t even show the Lumberjack flexing his axe on the cover, Kasenetz-Katz didn’t re-emerge until 1977’s “Black Betty” by Ram Jam (whose creative core was the remnants of the Lemon Pipers, one of the few actual bands drawn into, rather than created by, the K-K laboratory).

But bubblegum didn’t disappear altogether. The action just moved elsewhere. In the early ’70s, that meant MOR pop along the lines of Tony Orlando and Dawn, and then (fanfare) the whole glitter-rock, Chinnichap, Baycityrollering shebang. Sweet followed the path of Paul Revere by trying to come on real serious when they were too ugly to be taken seriously by anybody but backward pre-teens. Gary Glitter outdid Iggy. Slik changed their image every two days. Suzi Quatro straddled the line between black leather lust appeal and Midwest wholesome coyness.

So where is bubblegum now? One ex-practitioner, Chiswick Records’ Trevor Churchill (he ran English Motown when they tried unsuccessfully to set up their own bubblegum operation), reckons that disco is today’s bubblegum. It certainly has the same calculated marketing approach, big, big beat and utter facelessness.

As long as record hustlers believe there’s money to be made, they’ll chase it with the conviction of a school of piranha after a blood-dripping hunk of flesh. Maybe one time they’ll inadvertently create art of the stature of “I’m a Believer,” “Mony, Mony,” “Ballroom Blitz,” “Rock On,” “One Two Three, Red Light” (not Talking Heads’ version) and “Quick Joey Small.”

Enter the Monkees stage left, singing:

Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees.
People say we monkey around
But we’re too busy singling to put anyone down.
We’re just trying to be friendly,
Come and watch us sing and play;
We’re the young generation
And we’ve got something to say. [© 1966 Screen Gems-Columbia (BMI)]

In comes the pseudo-psychedelic guitar break. (They never did get around to telling us what they had to say.)