Sugar Sugar: the Golden Age Of Bubblegum Pop

The innocent joys of disposable pop music from the past, as featured on a new box set.

Bubblegum pop is that most elusive of beasts – everyone knows what it is – at least when they hear it – but actually defining it and its boundaries is something else entirely. We can look at all the characteristics – essentially disposable music, created by studio-based producers, session men and manufactured acts, pitched at the teen (and pre-teen) audience and almost entirely defined by the single rather than the album, defiantly catchy and sugary and empty – and so say what we think it is, but pinning down where bubblegum starts and finishes is slightly harder. If we look at the new CD box set Bubble Rock is Here to Stay!, then we can see the problem in trying to pin down a form of music that was never a genre, or even a specific sound, but more a feeling – and a feeling all too often defined by the people who hated it. On this collection, we have breezy pop, novelty records, hard rock stompers, experimental productions from wayward musical geniuses, cover versions of songs by serious acts and ballads, with musical directions that cross every genre. Sometimes, all of this is within one song.

To make things even weirder, ‘bubblegum’ seems to have a definite time and place, at least when you talk to music experts – it’s a Sixties/Seventies thing, even though manufactured acts, producer-led projects, throwaway pop and here today, gone later today artists are perhaps more prevalent than ever. But as with much entertainment, bubblegum has been refined, polished, autotuned and cynically manufactured within an inch of its life these days, all aspects of originality, novelty and experimentation swept away in a plethora of choreography and – ironically – mass exposure. It is unthinkable now that the same person could be anonymously grinding out hit after hit using a variety of pseudonyms and frontmen without everyone knowing about it; but at a time when this sort of thing was considered so ephemeral that the serious music press would not have even considered writing about it, and where acts might only be seen once or twice on Top of the Pops, forgotten as quickly as they arrive, it really did seem as though pop music and rock music were as far removed from each other as they were from classical (further, given prog’s classical training and leaning).

So how do we define bubblegum, and why is today’s throwaway pop seemingly removed? Well, perhaps both questions can be answered with ‘innocence’. There’s a certain wholesomeness to peak bubblegum (despite some double entendres and rude references that slipped past the BBC radio censors) that isn’t there with today’s acts – and not just because of the knowing, contrived hypersexuality of some modern pop stars, but because everything now is so controlled and corporate – multinational labels and TV broadcasters, slick production houses and a mass media machine that knows exactly how to produce identikit acts and convince the kids that this is what they love. This is, admittedly, a result of what happened in the 1960s and 1970s simply becoming more refined, learning how to co-opt the old cultural blip and never straying into experimentation – and having the technology to grind out massively polished and interchangeable pop sounds, pop stars and pop shows.

But back in the day, it was a lot more haphazard, even if no less contrived. When did bubblegum start? Who knows? Was it with the emasculation of Elvis? Larry Parnes and his stable of renamed pretty boys – the Furys, the Wildes, the Eagers and the Keenes? The post-Beatles Merseybeat acts? Well, perhaps. Perhaps too, there was a point when these happy-go-lucky pop acts became forever removed from the rock mainstream – as the Beatles recorded Rubber Soul and rock began to become ‘serious’ and increasingly album-oriented, then bubblegum started to feel a thing apart. A YouTube documentary about the American bubblegum scene sets 1966 as Year Zero and defines the sound as “fun songs with naive lyrics, catchy syncopated rhythms and raw simplicity”, though even here it becomes clear that the definition is slippery, with ? And the Mysterians’ 96 Tears played as an example. It also posits The Monkees as the archetypal bubblegum band – a literally manufactured act, though ‘manufactured’ and ‘fake’ are different things. The Monkees were a proper band, just one brought together in a contrived way by TV producers, which is arguably no worse than Malcolm McLaren bringing together the Sex Pistols as a house band for his fetish shop. But the difference is that these manufactured bands usually had the best talent working behind the scenes – the top producers, the most successful songwriters – and were not, by and large, in control of their own destinies – hired guns who did as they were told. The Monkees eventually rebelled, but then, the Monkees had a widespread public profile through their TV show that eventually allowed them to cut the puppet strings.

As the bubblegum sound developed, so producers realised that they didn’t need real bands at all. They could hire everyone in, often just for one single and a few TV appearances. Sometimes, the acts that appeared on pop shows were not the same ones who were on the recordings – not even the singer. Sometimes, a completely different band toured under the same name. This was not about building a long-lasting act – the hit single was all that mattered. And who cared if serious rock fans, journalists or the rest were dismissive? Even at the height of the progressive movement, there were plenty of acts that just wanted to produce fun, fluffy, empty-calorie music and perhaps make a living doing so – while invariably, many musicians still harboured dreams of stardom, they were happy enough just to have a job doing the sort of thing they loved.

If the defining aspects of bubblegum are short (under four minutes), hook-driven sounds and twee lyrics, then we can try to also pin down a few other elements. One aspect of bubblegum in the classic era (the box set defines it as ending in 1973, when it evolved into glam) is a Beatles-inspired odd melancholic nostalgia – a Penny Lane/Eleanor Rigby vibe that also feeds on the Hollies’ Jennifer Eccles and Mark Wirtz’ Teenage Opera (Wirtz turns up on the Bubble Rock collection with The Matchmakers, whose Turn Me On is a breathlessly lecherous affair). Sometimes, the performers were Sixties leftovers who either hadn’t made it or were one-hit wonders – a quick name-change and they were good to go as hired hands or reinvented acts freed from the baggage of their past. Some, like Sweet, were serious bands who sold their souls for pop success and eventually lived to regret it – Sweet never quite managed to claw back their hard rock credentials after the likes of Co-Co and Alexander Graham Bell, even if their later Chinn-Chapman written songs were belters like Hellraiser and Ballroom Blitz (the CD collection includes Wig Wam Bam, a sort of crosspoint between the fluffy bubblegum pop and the riff-driven glam hits). Pluto was an equally serious heavy band who dabbled with bubblegum – but Rag-a-Bone Joe wasn’t a hit, saving them from a similar fate (admittedly, they were equally unpopular as a serious rock band).

The sound was also tailor-made for TV and movie stars who either fancied becoming pop stars or were talked into it by producers – Bobby Sherman was probably the most successful of these, but shows like the Partridge Family spawned singers such as David Cassidy, a huge teen idol of the early 1970s. The biggest bubblegum hit of the 1960s was actually by a band who were not just fictional, but not even alive – The Archies was a cartoon show about a bubblegum band, and Sugar Sugar was credited to them. Ron Dante sang the song, uncredited – though he had another hit the same week that Sugar Sugar hit the top spot with the Cuff Links. Again, imagine that happening, unnoticed, now.

The joy of bubblegum is immediately familiarity. Heard now, it’s hard to see if this is down to actual familiarity with songs much-played and much covered, or virtual familiarity – because the whole point of this music was to immediately sound as though you knew it. If you weren’t singing along by the end of the first listen, it probably wasn’t working. And by the start of the 1970s, there were established British masters of the art, in the form of Jonathan King and what would later become 10CC – at this point, a collective of musicians and producers based around Stockport’s Strawberry Studios – the unlikely home of international bubblegum after US producers Kasenetz and Katz chose it as their UK base. These very different production teams had a weirdly innate understanding of what pop music was, and – oddly – enough of a lack of ego to grind out single after single under adopted names or for other musicians, effortlessly brilliant songs that are playful, eccentric and catchy. King, of course, is a controversial figure, to say the least – but if we can separate the art from the artist (and if we can’t, then a lot of art will be lost) then his records deserve to be seen as among the best of British pop – not just from the Seventies, but full stop. Equally, the music from various variations on 10CC – Eric Stewart, Graham Gouldman, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme – is great and eccentric, from primitive cartoon pop like Neanderthal Man to the perfect pop of Warm Me (recorded as Festival) and a storming glam-stomp cover of Da Doo Ron Ron under the name Grumble (released a week after Rubber Bullets, and in retrospect, immediately recognisable). Coming up from behind – if only in terms of actual hits – was John Carter, who recorded as the Flower Pot Men, Ohio Express, Stormy Petrel, Kincade and Butterwick with varying levels of success – but who could always be relied on to come up with immediately catchy numbers.

10cc

The CD box set is awash with great early Seventies pop – and not always emptily-happy pop. A certain wistfulness is a hallmark of British bubblegum, oddly – Blue Mink’s Banner Man is a classic example of that Beatles-inspired nostalgia pop (who would release a record about the Salvation Army now?), while Picketywitch’s Same Old Feeling is effortlessly smooth and as perfect a record as anything ever recorded – and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise (not really). Almost as good is Rod Thomas’ Timothy Jones, a track from an aborted Teenage Opera-style concept album that stands as a classic slice of moody, character-driven psych-pop. Design’s The Jet Song (When The Weekend’s Over) is ludicrously smooth harmonising and loungetastic bounciness – never what pop music actually was, but somehow the sound of the good life and martini glasses clinking. Similarly haunting are tracks like The Answers’ Tawny Wood, the moodily epic When You Are A King from White Plains (formerly the Flower Pot Men), while Tina Harvey’s Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow really pushes the idea of bubblegum – this is a moody folk number that slowly builds to an extraordinary pop crescendo and in any sane world would be hailed as one of the great lost classics of popular music.

Of course, there are classic, vacuous and gloriously dumb bubblegum stompers like Arthur’s Mother’s On the Dole, Buggy’s The Rolly Pole Coaster, Paintbox’s Come On Round – a classic Vanda/Young post-Easybeats slice of catchiness – and The Secrets’ Sha La Ley, Crush’s Today’s A Tomorrow, Middle of the Road’s deliciously ephemeral Samson and Delilah and the pre-glam sounds of Majority One’s Feedback. Slightly more substantial is The Sad’s ahead-of-its-time hymn to pansexual promiscuity, It Ain’t Easy and Gingerbread’s equally prophetic proto-ecological number Pollution (“Mr Scientist, please/save the birds and the bees”).

There’s much fun to be had going through these songs looking for people who went onto other, not necessarily better things later – most unusual in this is Stud Leather’s Roger Cook, who recorded Emma Louise while working for publishers IPC, and would later publish and edit Monster Mag and Cinema X, before composing the Electric Blue theme song at the end of the decade. Elaine Paige pops up as singer for Sparrow, belting out Hello Goodbye, an early version of the Bay City Rollers pop up with Keep On Dancing, and Jona Lewie appears as Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs (She Left I Died is a typical slice of Lewie eccentricity). On the other hand, there are acts like Mungo Jerry, Millie Small and The Tremeloes at the end of their time in the spotlight, perfectly capturing the bubblegum sound of the era.

And then there are the oddball novelty songs – Lieutenant Pigeon’s Dirty Old Man (which comes, coincidentally I’m sure, straight after a King track on disc one) is extraordinarily grubby and Pigeon copycat act Flanelcat’s Yer Big Girl Blouse is an amusing facsimile, while the Seventies predilection for the word ‘knickers’ feeds into St Cecelia’s Leap Up and Down (Wave Your Knickers in the Air) and X Certificate’s cod-reggae number Don’t Stick Stickers on My Paper Knickers (novelty reggae also pops up on the Piglets’ Johnny Reggae, a skinhead tribute that contains the censor-baiting lyric “he’s stupid over football and he looks me in the eye when he shoots” – no surprise that this is a Jonathan King creation). Other records too silly to ever have appeared at any other time include Jungle Jim’s Big Fat Oranguman, and Shag (King again) performing lederhosen-laden schläger song Loop Di Love. Add to this the usual TV stars (Simon Turner, Gary Warren) and sportsmen (Jeff Astle) and Jackie Lee’s ludicrously bouncy Rupert (the theme tune to the Rupert the Bear TV show) and the joys of bubblegum disposability are plain to see. That all these records still hold up as joyous, delightful songs simply shows how supposedly throwaway culture embeds itself in our collective memory – let’s face it, no one is still singing along to Caravan records.

Weirdest of all are the eccentric deconstructions that approach avant-garde levels – Bubblerock’s version of It’s My Party is a gender-bending demolition that appeared years before Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin’s own reinterpretation – no surprise that this is King again, as is Sakkarin – a knowing name attached to a proto-glam version of Hang On Sloopy. Vivian Stanshall – no stranger to experimental music or novelty songs – turns up here with his Gargantuan Chums (including Keith Moon and John Entwistle) for a lounge singer demolition of Elvis Presley’s Suspicion, and Bill Fay’s faux doo-wop of I Can’t Hide is equally knowing and odd. David Essex’s Lamplight is strange, stripped down and arty pop, closer to early Roxy Music than bubblegum in atmosphere, and Fickle Pickle’s California Calling is quaint jazz-pop that is essentially electro-swing decades before that contrived genre was invented – and obviously better than any modern version. These are songs that must have seemed as out of time in the early 1970s as they do now. Similarly, Peter Skellern’s eccentric Northern working-class song Our Jackie’s Getting Married is a song so much within its own world – having no connection to any sort of popular music before or since –  that it can never date. Strangest of all, perhaps, is Pete Dello’s oddball fantasy Harry the Earwig, the tale of the sword-wielding, caterpillar riding character. Almost a children’s song, nearly Peter Gabriel-era Genesis fairy tale whimsy, it’s too ludicrous to have ever been hit, but oddly compelling nevertheless. Are these tracks bubblegum? Probably not, at least by most interpretations. But equally, it’s hard to see what genre they do belong to, and I’m glad to see them included in this collection.

The classic era of bubblegum is one of strange experimentation – an odd thing to say of a musical form that was designed to be utterly commercial, you might think, but in those early years, it really was a case of people searching for a sound that worked perfectly. A sound that would hit all the marks – catchy, immediate, familiar and yet original. I do wonder if what we have in pop music now is the end of the line of this experiment – where all the variables have been filtered out, the chemical balance and the marketing techniques have been perfected and a collection of identical, interchangeable and soulless music has been unleashed on the world. The music of the ten year period from 1966 to 1976 feels like a prototype, sometimes getting it dead right, sometimes skewing to the side, and it’s much more interesting because of that. And it has a charm, a naivité and a strange sincerity that comes of being produced by a collection of eccentric outsiders and musical experimenters who really had no idea what they were doing, but were having a lot of fun playing with sounds. In some ways, bubblegum seems every bit as inventive and experimental as any prog or psych or avant-garde music you could hear – it’s just that the music always came with the intent of mass appeal. That these songs have survived and still sound great is telling – sure, the production has dated, but you could take any of these songs – okay, maybe not Jon Pertwee’s Who Is The Doctor? – and give them to modern pop bands, and they would entirely hold up. Pop music is an under-appreciated art form – dismissed by bands who could never, ever come up with something so immediate and infectious if they worked at it for years – and Seventies pop is especially sneered at. But ignore the naysayers and the too-cool-for-school ageing hipsters: open yourself up to this world and you will find yourself entering an ear-worm riddled rabbit hole of simple, disposable and essential brilliance.

DAVID FLINT

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