Wednesday, December 2, 2015

TMFW 117 - A DJ Prank Inspires a Gold Record

In TMFW 110, I told the story of The Knack's great song "My Sharona," and marveled at how on-the nose its lyrics are.  While writing that post, I was (naturally) listening to Get The Knack, which also includes the excellent song "Good Girls Don't" (that's the "clean" version for radio; the unsanitized album version is here).  
"Good Girls Don't" is even more direct in its adolescent rock-and-roll fantasies than "My Sharona." Lyrics include "she makes you wanna scream, wishing you could get inside her pants" and "you've heard she's pretty fast, and you're hoping that she'll give you some tonight..."  The chorus is pure teenage boy wish-fulfillment: "Good girls don't, good girls don't, but she'll be telling you 'Good girls don't, but I do.'"
So imagine my surprise when, during my research on "My Sharona," I came across the claim that both "My Sharona" and "Good Girls Don't" were covered by The Chipmunks on their album Chipmunk Punk. Surely this was fake, right?  Some merry pranksters creating a good example of inappropriate kids songs, maybe?  Nope, it's real.  And the story of the record is a pretty good one.
First, here's a short history of The Chipmunks. The group was the brainchild of a guy named Ross Bagdasarian, Sr.  He was a musician who recorded under the name "David Seville," and first rose to fame with the novelty song "Witch Doctor."  That song - later credited to the Chipmunks (and re-recorded with them too) - hit #1 in April and May 1958.  Bagdasarian performed both parts of the song, and achieved the "witch doctor" vocals by singing at a low pitch and then speeding up the tape. 
The success of "Witch Doctor" lead Bagdasarian to continue experimenting with tape recording tricks, and his next big hit was "The Chipmunk Song (Chistmas Don't Be Late)" in December 1958.  As before, Bagdasarian performed all of the vocals (this time, David Seville and each of the three Chipmunks).  "The Chipmunk Song" reached number one and sold over 4 million records, and the Chipmunks were born.
Over the next decade, Bagdasarian turned out a steady stream of Chipmunks records, releasing 12 albums between 1959 and 1969.  But in 1972, Bagdasarian suffered a heart attack and died at age 52.  The Chipmunks seemed to die with him.  
So here's where today's TMFW comes in.  In 1979, seven years after Bagdasarian died and with no Chipmunks activity since then, the band Blondie recorded the song "Call Me." The record was a giant hit in 1980 and was at #1 for six weeks that year.  During that run, Los Angeles DJ played the song at twice the speed and announced that it was the Chipmunks' new record.  To the DJ's surprise, inquiries came flooding in about where the record could be purchased.  Word got to Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. (Bagdasarian Sr.'s son, if you couldn't figure that out for yourself), and he decided to give the people what they wanted. 
The resulting album was Chipmunk Punk, released in the summer of 1980.  Among others, the album included the Chipmunks version of "Call Me," along with Tom Petty's "Refugee," The Cars' "Let's Go," and three songs from The Knack: in addition to "Good Girls Don't" and "My Sharona," it included the also-inspired-by-Sharona song "Frustrated."  (Ironically, Chipmunk Punk did not include any songs that are considered even remotely "punk.") 
Apparently nobody thought that it was weird for young cartoon chipmunks to sing teenage sex anthems: within four months of its release, Chipmunk Punk went gold.  And the Chipmunks were reborn.
Since the release of Chipmunk Punk, Bagdasarian, Jr. has expanded the Chipmunks into a Saturday morning cartoon show that ran for eight seasons, 25 more records, several video games, and more recently a collection of four feature films.  Not bad for a group that started with some sped-up cassette tape.
BONUS FACT 1: Following the "My Sharona" entry, TMFW reader and music scholar Les sent along the 2004 documentary Getting the Knack, which is available in its entirety on YouTube.  It's a good look at how The Knack rose to fame and made their first record.  
From that, I learned that the band did only one take of "Good Girls Don't" for their record.  As Doug Fieger explained in the film, "we recorded it for the first time in 1972 [Get the Knack was recorded 7 years later in 1979] and had made at least 4 demos of it.  [We'd] been turned down by everybody.  I was sick of the song I didn't really want to record it. And [Get The Knack producer] Mike [Chapman] was very high on the song.  He said "look at, Doug, we'll go out there, you'll play it one time, you'll sing live.  If we don't get it in one take, we won't put it on the album.  And of course we got it in one take and that's the take that's on the album."  That's a good story.  
BONUS FACT 1.5:  Also from the documentary, Fieger explained (and then briefly demonstrated) that he'd written "Good Girls Don't" with Johnny Cash's voice in mind. He does a pretty decent impression.
BONUS FACT 2:  Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. got his start in the entertainment business from his cousin, the playwright William Saroyan.  Bagdasarian acted in a Broadway production of Saroyan's Pulitzer-winning play The Time of Your Life.  That he would start his career working on a Pulitzer and New York Drama Critics Circle winning play and end with fame from voicing three high-singing Chipmunks is amusing to me.  
BONUS FACT 3:  Just as the Chipmunks made their records by speeding up playback, several people have made "un-Chipmunk" versions of songs by slowing down Chipmunks recordings.  This "real-time" version of "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" is an excellent demonstration of how Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. recorded the song.  This one of "Call Me" shows his son pulling it off in the same way.  And for good measure, here's the slowed down version of "Good Girls Don't."
BONUS FACT 4:  I remember being amazed when a sequel (sorry, I mean "squeakuel") to the first Alvin & The Chipmunks movie came out, and wondering how they could possibly justify making another one.  But it turns out that the movies are big business.  The first three movies have made over $550 million domestically at the box office, and over $1.1 billion worldwide, against a combined production budget of $210 million.  Unbelievable.
BONUS FACT 5:  Similarly, Chipmunk records are shockingly popular.  I thought it was just a good gag, but they have won five Grammys (FIVE) and an American Music Award, have had seven top-40 hits (including two number 1s in "Witch Doctor" and "The Chipmunk Song"), and have scored three platinum and four gold records.  Not counting greatest hits compilations (and there are at least 8 of those!), they have released more than 35 albums over 54 years.  Respect to Mssrs. Bagdasarian for the mileage they have gotten out of what could have been a one-and-done gimmick.
BONUS FACT 6:  Just today, the Chipmunks were featured in this depressingly misanthropic news story of a town in England that plays annoying music on repeat at their train stations overnight, in order to keep homeless people from sleeping there.  A Chipmunks record of Christmas songs is apparently the flavor of the day; I would bet that's pretty effective.

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