Friday, October 3, 2008

Where's Jughead?

I think you're supposed to outgrow pop music at some point. Eventually, the catchy melodies and lyrics involving fun, dancing, love gained and love lost just sound too...simple. We crave something meatier. And so in our late teens or so, we end up leaving behind the pop field, and get into acid rock, or folk, or jam bands, or classical, or whatever. But pop continues on, since there's a new breed of youngsters who crave something that's "got a nice beat and you can dance to it."

If pop music is candy for the ears, then pop music that springs from children's TV is meringue. The lightest of the light, the airiest of the airy. After all, pop songs CAN talk about weightier subjects such as war and a purpose in life, but that's rarely the province of Saturday morning kids fare. So these pop songs end up being about friends, playing in the sun, and love in its most simplistic terms ("I love you" or "I miss you" pretty much gives you the range).
I'm not entirely sure if The Archies were the first kids show to really mine the pop music field, but they certainly were the first to really hit paydirt with it. Archie et al may or may not have been part-time musicians in the comic books before the Saturday morning cartoon premiered - that's a bit before my time - but now it's hard to envision them otherwise. Four songs from the show cracked the Top 40 in America, and one of them ("Sugar Sugar") was not only a number one hit, but according to Billboard magazine, was the #1 single of 1969. And the band set the template for all the cartoons-who-also-are-musicians-in-their-spare-time that followed. The lead character plays guitar and sings. The dumb guy plays drums. And the smart girl, despite being smart, can never play anything other than tambourine. (This perhaps was elevated from the sublime to the ridiculous when Josie & the Pussycats consisted of a guitarist, a drummer...and a tambourine player. Who played TWO tambourines, no less. Perhaps they were actually a New York No Wave band who cut pop songs to make rent.)

With the singles selling like gangbusters, putting out albums was a given. The first was called (natch) Archies, and featured their first hit, plus a few more similarly frothy numbers. It sold OK, charting at #88, and as the band sold more singles, it was time for another album. The title of the album was probably a forgone conclusion - the theme song of the cartoon show was "Everything's Archie", so what else are you gonna call it? This LP featured the band's biggest hit, so it was gonna be a guaranteed seller. All you need now is album art. The first album had the band playing instruments, so maybe you want to do something different. That's fine - how hard can it be? This band is fictional. They're drawings. You don't have to gather them together in a studio, or on location. You don't need a make-up crew or a lighting engineer. You just need a guy who can draw them. And you can do whatever you want with them. You want them playing at a party, sharing a large sandwich, rehearsing on the moon? No problem - just draw them that way.

But no. Somebody chose this art instead.

I'm not sure what they were going for here. If I had to hazard a guess, perhaps somebody said, "Let's get a bunch of youngsters in Archies sweatshirts, and have them dancing at a huge Archies party!" But if that's accurate, something went majorly wrong between the concept and the execution. For one thing, four teenagers isn't a huge party. It's a slow Friday night. And if there's only four teens, trust me - there's not going to be any dancing. The girls in photo look OK, although the one in the background looks more like she's pleasantly chatting with her date, and the one up front might be yawning off a mid-afternoon nap. It's the guys that really don't make any sense. One of them (and I'm assuming that's a guy) is totally hidden by the guy in front. And that guy in front. There's something just...wrong about him. No matter how I squint and tilt my head, I can't make him look like he's having fun in any way, shape or form. His fists are raising up. He may be about to start a fight with his manager who got him this gig, or perhaps he was captured halfway toward throwing his fists in the sky and screaming, "Why? Why am I dancing to the Archies?!" But neither of these seems likely, either, because his face is...blank. Utterly blank.

But perhaps that's a warning to the kids out there. Throw on an Archies sweatshirt, dance to "Bang Shang-a-Lang" a few too many times, and you'll become a Stepford Teen.

This album reached #66, which isn't bad, but considering it had the biggest hit of the year on it, that's a bit disappointing. Surely they'd figure out what the problem was - the awful album art. They're the Archies, damnit. Draw Archie and the gang having some fun on the cover, and people will snap it up and play it until their needle wears out.

Album number three looked like this.

On a positive note, they left Zombie Teen and his napping girlfriend off the cover. But that's about all I can say for it. I do remember the toy pictured, although its name escapes me. A bunch of colored discs with notches, and you could interlock them and build these...structures. Someone at the label had the toy, someone built something, someone took a picture, someone thought it'd be the ideal cover for an album called Jingle Jangle by the Archies.

This sudden bout of Photography As Art 101 was a dangerous move, something that appears to have been picked up on by the whoever wrote the back cover liner notes. The liner notes are very insistent - this album is a YOUNG sound, a NOW sound. And that's perhaps more accurate than anyone had expected. The NOW sound would have no tomorrow. The album didn't make the Top 100, and the Archies were pretty much through.

It's probably too much to state that the early demise of the Archie pop hit machine was due solely, or even largely, to some moron at the label who had some aversion to putting the Archies on Archies album covers. The "band" was probably doomed to sputter out no matter what happened. But each time I listen to "Jingle Jangle" or "Who's Your Baby" - and I do - I try to block out the image of robotically dancing teens and of plastic toys. Instead, I picture Archie and Reggie arguing over who gets the lead vocal on the next track. Veronica casting an evil look at Betty, possibly scheming how to sabotage her tambourine so she gets more time in the limelight. And Jughead, either oblivious to the turmoil in the band or intentionally ignoring it, sneaking a burger from behind his drum kit.

In my alternate universe, the Archies had a few more hits.

The Archies, like pretty much all music ever recorded, have been anthologized a few times on CD. Repertoire (a German label, oddly) put out a fun collection called Sugar Sugar - The Best of the Archies. Its 24 tracks feature pretty much everything you might want to hear from the band. Give it a whirl. However, if you feel your face assuming a blank expression, and your fists slowly rising of their own accord, you might want to switch over to something with a bit more heft.

- Mondo Gecko

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...I recall Archies putting out another album after Jingle Jangle called "Sunshine" that had a weird cover that kind of looked like the aliens in Close Encounters walking around on a back-lit sand dune or something. The song "Summer Prayer for Peace" made the charts in South Africa (#1!) and Scandinavia. You're right that Archies cover art was rather ill conceived for the most part.