THE WONDERFUL WEE WORLD OF RODENT ROCK
or "Please Don't Sue Us, Mr. Bagdasarian!"
by Kim Cooper and Nathan Marsak
The late Fifties were a strange period in American popular design and culture. It was a time of exaggerated hugeness, in which pneumatic busts and bouffants shared the seemingly-infinite lebensraum with bulbous, elongated automobiles and twenty pound ham-pineapple loaves. Fleshy love-goddess Marilyn Monroe is reputed to have worn a size 12 dress; if this is true (and it is likely a slight understatement), then Jayne Mansfield must have been at least an 18. Magnitude was where it was at, babe. How then do we explain the emergence of a group of minuscule celebrities, each no larger than a dinner role? What strange forces conspired to draw Americans simultaneously toward the massive and the infinitesimal?
There is no simple explanation, but we will now attempt to contrive one in the hope that it will make you "like" us. At the time in question, the vastness of space had been recently conquered by one Nemesis Q. Sputnik, a bionic Russian doodad that could fit in the back seat of dad's Buick. Conversely (yet with perverse similarity), our other ideological foes, the Belgians, saw fit to erect The Atomium (a 2 00 foot atom) at the '58 Brussels World's Fair. Were America to remain the helm of the S. S. World Domination, it was imperative that it show no weakness in the torrid Barnum-esque relationship between mass-production and simple mass. Rodent Rock was thus a selling point of democracy: the lowly order Rodentia nobly habitrailing its way to the top of the Everyman pedestal.
Whether you buy our little theory, or prefer to slap it fast to the floor, Rodent Rock remains perhaps the last genre of recent popular music to have received nothing in the way of belated appreciation. Sure, the kids are all "grooving" to the strains of every vaguely exotic bandleader, to self-hypnosis disks and It's a Moog Moog Moog Moog Christmas, but just try to spin "The Alvin Twist" among mixed company and watch the mental shutters slam shut as so-called "hepcats" cover their pearly ears and mew pathetically. "Incredibly Strange Music" my horribly protruding incisors! In the interests of fairness and willful perversity, we at Scram are delighted to being you this guide to the great and unjustly neglected genre of Rodent Rock.
Alvin, Simon and Theodore Chipmunk were the first of a series of talented rodents to cross over from pariahdom to pop stardom. What this meant to their fellow rodents can only be imagined. We're all familiar with the advances the civil rights movement made possible for black Americans, but the popular prejudices held against rodents were actually more entrenched and destructive. There was no safe place for rodents within human society, no chance to prove their worth. Before The Chipmunks came along, rodents had been confined to dead-end gigs working the grade school treadmill, not-infrequently ending up as snake-food. If they wanted to go into show biz, they were pretty much limited to working in Warner Brothers cartoons in an endless repetition of the same tired scene they'd been playing since Vaudeville days: housewife espies mouse or rat on kitchen floor, jumps onto chair and squeals. While the petite thespians got to ogle a lot of shapely gam, it was a humiliating way to make a living.
So when The Chipmunks burst onto the international pop scene in 1958 with their debut single "The Chipmunk Song," rodents everywhere stood on their hindquarters and took notice. It seemed no coincidence that these be-whiskered critters recorded for "Liberty" Records, as the liberating effects of their popularity rippled out into the common consciousness.
And forget the cuddlesome anthropomorphic Chip'n'Dale-esque features you recall from their animated cartoons: the original Chipmunks (as seen on their record sleeves) were pointy-nosed, long of tooth and possessed of a terrible verisimilitude.
Suddenly, young rodents realized that they too could succeed in a human's world. It was no longer necessary to go under the surgeon's knife in order to sport "cuter" features, or for the fluffier rodents (chinchilla, hamsters) to attempt to "pass" as malformed kittens. The 'munks were trendsetters, and their successes were closely watched by the beady eyes of millions of their peers.
But of course The Chipmunks were not their own rodents; their every move was calculated and controlled by their edgy manager, David Seville. Seville was a pseudonym for a heretofore moderately-successful songwriter named Ross Bagdasarian. He wrote all The Chipmunks' original material, and is rumored to have even scripted their "ad-libbed" remarks for public appearances. Still more disturbing, "Alvin," "Simon" and "Theodore" were pseudonyms just as was "David Seville": in a shameless bid for corporate approval, Bagdasarian re-named his talented protï¿½gï¿½s after a trio of Liberty executives; The Chipmunks' true names have been lost to time.
When Seville discovered The Chipmunks practicing their act in a Hollywood park, they were a folk trio working the in tradition of Burl Ives and The Weavers. Their leader, the chipmunk known as Alvin, was honing a nascent talent for protest lyrics, and had recently returned from a solo trip to New York to check out the Greenwich Village coffee house scene. Simon and Theodore were skilled harmonizers and had won several competitions for their traditional bluegrass picking. All that, Seville declared, would have to go. He wrote them some innocuous pop material, brought the little fellows up to the Liberty offices in a Thom McAn box, and the rest is music history. Skeptical execs suggested that, to test the waters, Alvin first make an uncredited guest appearance on the track "Witch Doctor," created to "The Music of David Seville." After this novelty disc scampered up the charts, The Chipmunks began to make their own hit records.
At first the group was delighted by their success. Their debut, "The Chipmunk Song" went straight to # 1 on the Cashbox singles charts in December 1958. Seville was fairly generous with the purse-strings, and all three Chipmunks enjoyed their newly prosperous lifestyle. And the babes! Well, we don't think we need to say anything more about that! [NOTE: In a contemporary L.A. Times article discussing the surprising popularity of the band, one Arthur S. Hodge of Burbank was quoted as saying, "I suppose they sing all right, but I wouldn't want my daughter to marry one."]
But in time the "phoniness" of their songs began to gnaw at Alvin. "It's a real drag," he told Downbeat in June of '5 9, "I've got all this wild material, and Ross doesn't want to know from it." Alvin had attempted to record some demos secretly at the Liberty studio, but Seville discovered what he was up to and had his privileges revoked. "He says, 'I don't want my boys overextending themselves,"' Alvin snarled, "But that doesn't stop him from dragging us out on the road month after month. Simon and Theo were sick all through January, coughing up all kinds of stuff, and we couldn't get a day off to recuperate. I think it's disgraceful." Alvin also made some rather tasteless on-the-record remarks about the pulchritude of his Liberty label-mate, Julie London. It's not known what went on between the chipmunk and his volatile manager after these comments saw print, but it would be several years before Alvin again spoke candidly to the press.
The success of "The Chipmunk Song" and its follow-up, the rebellious chacha "Alvin's Harmonica" eased the way for a second talented rodent act, The Nutty Squirrels. The Squirrels were a New York jazz duo who spoofed their beatnik lifestyle on a weekly TV show. They recorded for Hanover Records (best known as the label that released Jack Kerouac's Poetry for the Beat Generation after Dot deemed unsuitable for children's listening), and later Columbia, RCA, and MGM. Allan and Marty Squirrel never sold millions of records like the Chipmunks did, but they had street credibility that drove Alvin nuts. It had already become hip among certain progressive rodent circles to dismiss the 'munks as tools of the oppressor, and The Nutty Squirrels stepped in at just the right time to serve as examples of how rodent musicians ought to behave.
Like The Chipmunks, The Nutty Squirrels had a human manager, a distant cousin of the Ertugen brothers of Atlantic Records fame. But unlike Seville, Amos Ertugen kept a low profile and ostensibly allowed his clients to make their own creative decisions. Seville's Armenian blood was stirred by his perceived rivalry with the Squirrels' Turkish manager, and he refused to allow The Nutty Squirrels to be mentioned in The Chipmunks' presence. Alvin had to sneak down to Wallich's Music City at Sunset and Vine and commandeer a listening booth in order to check out his rodent rivals' latest waxings. He confessed to friends that he really dug their sound. If only The Chipmunks could be so "gone."
Alvin (and thousands of kids) would have been shocked to learn that the Squirrels rarely played on their own records. Allan Squirrel was a decent lead guitarist and his kid brother Marty a wild stand-up bassist, but they were both frequently too stoned to play their material as it was written. While their frantic improvisation made their live shows legendary among jazz fans, Hanover execs insisted that session musicians play on the 45s; that's Don Eliot's band featuring Cannonball Adderley playing on such Squirrels' favorites as "Uh! Oh! (Part 1)" and "Zowee." [NOTE: For years it's been rumored that there exist bootleg recordings of the Squirrels' three-night stand at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop in November 1959, but these reporters have never heard them. If any Scram reader can wing a tape our way, we'll make it truly worth their while.] The Nutty Squirrels did at least sing on their own records, getting in some entertaining scat work on most of their sides.
Mention should also be made of a rare female-managed singing rodent rock act. The Astro Mice were apparently composed of manager Miss L.L. Louise Lewis, Blimp-Whimp and Skip, and recorded a remarkable one-sided single "No Cheese on the Moon," on Skyway Records sometime around 1959-60 (b/w Louise Lewis' fire safety ditty, "Miss Matches U.S.A." The group's quite remarkably high-pitched vocals are charming, if unintelligible. Sadly, nothing else is known about these rodents. At about this time, several insect rock acts attempted to cash in on the RR craze, but neither The Grasshoppers, The Crickets, nor Los Mosquitos made any significant dent in the charts, possibly due to human distaste for certain extremely low-pitched counter rhythms generated by the tiny musicians' throbbing thorax muscles.
Meanwhile, Alvin was growing ever more frustrated. Since "The Chipmunk Song" had originally hit #1 at Christmas 1958, the record was re-released for the season in December of 1959 (#37), 1961 (#89), and 1962 (#84). Alvin felt that this was a cynical, lazy move, and argued that they should record new Christmas songs instead; in 1960, Alvin was permitted to arrange a version of "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer," but when it only made #51 on the charts, Seville had a strong bargaining chip with which to quash Alvin's future attempts at selecting material. Under Seville's guidance, The Chipmunks recorded gimmicky Americana like "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" and "(She'll Be) Coming Round the Mountain," which Alvin believed was pandering to their audience. He was also annoyed that he could never get a writing credit, while Seville put obvious throwaways like "Almost Good," "Mediocre," "Copyright 1960," and "Flip Side" on the backs of hit singles. When Simon and Theodore backed Seville in several disagreements, Alvin realized that he was outnumbered and that there was no chance of his musical ideas prevailing. In 1961, Alvin retired from touring, and henceforth directed his energies to the group's burgeoning television career, in which he found great satisfaction. A friendly agreement was made, whereby Seville directed The Chipmunks' musical career and Alvin made the major decisions about their acting.
The Nutty Squirrels recorded sporadically between 1959 and '63, but their television show was canceled as the beatnik fad became little more than a dirty joke. After RCA dropped the group, following the failure of their "Hello Again/ Bluesette" 45, the Squirrels recorded a remarkable album of Civil War-era prairie dog ballads (Way Down Yonder in the Sky, Verve/Folkways FV-9003). As their human brethren were burning busses in Alabama, two gutsy squirrels put aside centuries of inter-species animosity to present the most accurate set of historic prairie dog songs ever recorded. It sold 467 copies, mostly to ethnographic libraries. MGM picked them up for an album of Beatles' covers (The Nutty Squirrels' A Hard Day's Night), in an calculated attempt to steal some of the market for the Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits LP. It flopped. Then Allan and Marty Squirrel retired into abashed obscurity. Allan is said to have descended into a hopeless macadamia nut addiction, which quickly ate up the small savings he'd managed to accumulate from his TV days. And Marty... Marty took being "nutty" one step too far, necessitating his confinement to a sanitarium in 1965.
By the mid-sixties, a different breed of musical rodent was emerging. The Chipmunks had found it necessary to play it safe and cute to overcome the negative stereotyping that could have hobbled their career. The Nutty Squirrels were then able to be slightly rebellious, and to play up their lovable beatnik personae. But by the time Ratfink began recording, under the Mr. Gasser & the Weirdos appellation, several dozen generations of rodents had lived and died. [NOTE: The Chipmunks' startling longevity can perhaps be ascribed to a raft of experimental glandular treatments financed by a nervous Seville early in their career, or maybe it's just good genes; in any case, the boys remain astonishingly well-preserved.] Ratfink was to Alvin what Darby Crash was to Caruso and, like Crash, his career was ravishing in its vitality and brevity. His drooling likeness continues to emblazon lines of clothing and recreational vehicles, but the Rat himself is long dead, shotgunned by SWAT agents during the siege of a Yreka methedrine lab in 1971.
In later years, The Chipmunks became known as a group that could be counted on to cash in on any musical trend, no matter how misguided their take on it might be. The Urban Chipmunk LP was at least appropriate in light of the group's longtime association with traditional American music. But Chipmunk Punk was a baffling exercise in genre-hopping, featuring covers of songs by The Cars, Tom Petty, Blondie, Billy Joel, Queen, and three separate tunes by The Knack. It's only a matter of time before we hear these most perennial of rodents squealing their way through the Offspring songbook.
The impact of Rodent Rock on popular music has been quiet, but pervasive. Two major Sixties bands took names that acknowledged the originators: The Monkees and Germany's The Monks. Frank Zappa knew exactly what he was referencing with Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Hot Rats; in fact, Alvin himself is rumored to have attended sessions for the former recording. And of course Ratt's import need not be reiterated to regular readers of this magazine. Recent acts that pay tribute to The Nutty Squirrels include Squirrel Bait and The Squirrel Nut Zippers. And yet the great music of these Rodent Rock artistes remains a well-kept secret, known only to a small and open-minded group of fans. So next time you see a copy of Let's All Sing with The Chipmunks at a yard sale, won't you risk a buck and give another chance to these trailblazing rodents who meant so much to so many?
AN ADMITTEDLY INCOMPLETE RODENT ROCK BAND LIST
The Astro Mice ("No Cheese on the Moon"/ "Miss Matches U.S.A." [Louise Lewis, Miss L.L.] Skyway Records # 1 42/# 1 45)
The Boomtown Rats
The Desert Rats (on Mink Records!)
J.C.W Ratfink ("Pop goes the Weasel/Magic Windmill" Buddha-40,1968)
Mouse and the Traps
Mr. Gasser & the Weirdos (Ed Roth and Gary Usher collaborating with "vocalist" Ratfink on such gems as Rods N'Ratfinks and Surfink! for the Capitol label, 1963-64)
The Nutty Squirrels
The Rat Pack ("I Can Do the Mouse Now/Crazy, Crazy Love" DCP- 1 145, 1965)
Shirley and Squirrelly (and Melvin too)
The Squirrel Nut Zippers
The Swamp Rats ("It's Not Easy/No Friend of Mine" St. Clair-711, 1966)
The Wild Knights (not strictly a RR act, but mention must be made of their erotic masterpiece "Beaver Patrol/Tossin' and Turnin"' Star-Bright-3051, 1965)
Frank Zappa & The Mothers (cf. Weasels Ripped... & Hot Rats)