Bubblegum Music – An Acquired Taste
I nearly didn’t write this article. When I saw a snippet informing me that it was the anniversary of the first Bubblegum Music chart-topper, I almost didn’t follow through. The song was Green Tambourine from The Lemon Pipers, and although not my favourite song of the era, it definitely beat some of the bubblegum crud we were expected to chew on the weekly hit parade. However, when I had a deeper look at this sugary-sweet genre I found it was quite an interesting topic and well worth some blog space.
It seems the definitive book on the subject is 2001’s Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth (The Dark History of Prepubescent Pop) from Kim Cooper and David Smay, whose dissection of the topic leaves no candy unwrapped. They state that Bubblegum Music should not be confused with ‘teen-pop’ or ‘boy bands’, and that classic Bubblegum is specific to 1967 – 1972. It was upbeat, intangible, disposable pop music which was conceived and marketed to pre-teens by assembly-line producers using faceless singers and studio bands.
The songs themselves were the archetypal formula with singalong choruses, childlike themes and a contrived innocence. Of course, love and desire were the topics, and some of the songs (naughtily) had an undercurrent of sexual innuendo or double entendre that gave it a bit of dark interest for older listeners.
Writing for Mojo Magazine, Dawn Eden summed up the difference between Power Pop and Bubblegum Pop perfectly: “Power pop aims for your heart and your feet. Bubblegum aims for any part of your body it can get, as long as you buy the damn record.” The late Rolling Stone journalist, Lester Bangs, was also quite accurate in his assessment that Bubblegum is “the basic sound of rock ‘n’ roll – minus the rage, fear, violence and anomie.
To start today’s proceedings I have chosen one of the most annoying examples of the era. The 1910 Fruitgum Company and the irritating ditty, Simon Says. The band originally formed in 1966 as Jeckell and The Hydes and released five albums and a number of singles under their real name for the Bubblegum formula factory, Buddah Records. Recording as ‘The 1910 Fruitgum Company’, it was Simon Says that gave them a #4 US Chart hit and the #2 spot on the UK Singles Charts while becoming the lead song of their (sort of) self-titled album.
The song was written by Eric Chiprut and, as you will have guessed, is based on the children’s game. I am not sure what the original song sounded like, but it is well documented that the band changed the style and beat during the recording session to give it the driving feel of ‘Wooly Bully’, the song by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.
On a personal note, I was 12 when this came out and although I was supposed to be slap-bang in their demographic target, I think I was a bit too musically advanced to fall under its spell. Precocious brat! Grit your teeth because here we go….
How the name Bubblegum Music came about is credited to Buddha Records’ employees Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffry Katz. In a marketing meeting, they discussed their target as ‘teenagers, the young kids, the age when we used to chew bubblegum’. It clicked, they laughed and agreed that Bubblegum Music was the perfect analogy. Their boss, Neil Bogart, got behind the name, and so it was that Buddha Records became the machine that force-fed Bubblegum to the world.
As even more of a direct strike on their chosen target, the introduction of Cartoon Rock took this already nauseating musical fad to a new level of debasement. The best example of Cartoon Rock is The Archies. For those of you who might remember, Archie Andrews was the central character of a comic book series that was HUGE in the 60s. The trials and tribulations of the teenage ‘gang’ consisting of Archie Andrews, Reggie Mantle, Jughead Jones, Veronica Lodge and Betty Cooper were a weekly part of my childhood.
The comic became the American TV series, The Archie Show, and a fictional animated band started to appear regularly. Fronted by vocalist/guitarist Archie, Reggie took on the bass while everyone’s favourite, ‘Jughead’, played the drums. Veronica laid down the keyboards on something that looked like a Hammond X-66, while Betty shared backing vocals and played a mean percussion.
The music was, of course, performed by session musicians with only Ron Dante and Toni Wine taking vocals as permanent ‘members’. The recordings used on the TV shows were released on a series of singles and albums and achieved chart success worldwide.
You can’t keep a bad idea down, and in 2020 a new version of the band was introduced into the Archie spinoff, Riverdale. As I am no longer their target demographic I admit that I’ve never watched it and have no intention of doing so, and won’t comment further!
Diabetics beware, here’s the huge hit of 1969, Sugar Sugar
As with any studied music genre, different attributes, rules and guidelines have been set down regarding Bubblegum Music. Music Historian, Bill Pitzonka, claims that “The whole thing that really makes a record bubblegum is just an inherently contrived innocence that somehow transcends – It has to sound like they mean it”.
However, music critic David Smay argues that disco is merely bubblegum by another name and that since bubblegum is “dance music for pre-teen girls”, the genre’s scope must therefore include dance-pop and such associated figures as Stock Aitken Waterman and Kylie Minogue, however, Not all dance-pop is aimed at kids and shouldn’t be presumed to be disposable anymore than Bubblegum”. It all gets pretty confusing!
The success of Bubblegum was to be short-lived and by the early Seventies it failed to maintain a significant chart presence. Changes in the industry coupled with social upheavals saw tastes change, especially with Punk becoming the dissenting voice of some of the kids who had grown up with the comic series. Although some music lovers may be appalled, Pitznoka states that the simple structure, tempos and catchy hooks greatly influenced the Punk bands, with The Ramones being the most prominent of the bubblegum-influenced, taking on cartoon personas and covering the Bubblegum hits Indian Giver and Little Bit O’ Soul.
Quoting Chuck Eddy in Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth, “Bubblegum evolved to be more an attitude than a genre” during the 1970s.“
What I didn’t know before today’s research is that the name Bubblegum was also given to a style of South African music that “was born in 1980s black South Africa from the ashes of disco. It was usually stripped-down and lo-fi with a predominance of synths, keyboards and drum-machines and overlaid with the kind of deeply soulful trademark vocals and harmonies that South African music is famous for,” according to the Soundway site. A topic for future exploration.
However, before today’s closing track, I’d like to share some thoughts from a book that I have only seen referenced, The First-Ever Book on The Music We All Love to Hate – Yet Secretly Love! “Bubblegum maybe 30 years past its peak, but the word can still inflame passions. To fans, it’s everything great about pop music, stripped of pretentious ‘authenticity’ and delivering a potent jolt to the reptile brain. To its detractors, bubblegum is a joke, a plan hatched by Svengali producers’ intent on profiting off rock’s noble back. But the reality lies somewhere in between, in a place where the basest of motives can result in real and timeless art”.
The closing song for the feature completes a personal hat trick of annoying songs, Ohio Express and Yummy Yummy Yummy. Ohio Express were not so much a band as a brand and another of the Jerry Kasenetz / Jeffry Katz stable for their Super K Productions. The band was an assemblage of studio musicians with the singer/songwriter Joey Levine on vocals.
It has been fun compiling a feature about a genre that I really have very little time for but was an important era that influenced music, and debate, far more than anyone expected it to. Catch you soon.
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by The Design Train to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that do more than just share a song.
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Words © Andrew Knapp 2021