In this month's column, Martin Goodman dons his blue suede shoes to make the case that the first animated rock and roll rebels were... the Chipmunks?
The Candy Man and Ol' Blue Eyes had plenty to bitch about during the mid-1950s. These classic crooners were steadily losing record sales and teenage fan bases to a style of music that did not exist 10 years earlier. Sinatra, Davis, and other musical stalwarts such as Irving Berlin were not alone in their contemptuous attitudes. Parents across America cringed as their teens shook and shimmied to the country's newest musical form, a hybrid version of African-American rhythm and blues and white rockabilly that the older generation scorned as "race music." "Rock and roll," as the genre came to known, was powered by thousands of independent record labels and free-swinging disc jockeys such as Alan Freed, who found a huge audience of white teens ready to rock and roll to the suggestive lyrics and pulsing beat.
"Rock and roll" was, in fact, a coded term for sexual intercourse, and the new generation was ready to shatter the mores of postwar culture. Teenagers had become "cats" and rebels, resplendent in their ducktails and denims, rocking and rolling in the back seats of their souped-up cars. Rock and roll may have appeared as a cultural phenomenon as early as 1951, but by 1954 it took over the United States, never to entirely relinquish its hold. The engine of conquest was one Elvis Presley, a white boy who served as the ultimate integrator of two racial cultures. Riding a path blazed by many black performers such as Chuck Berry, Presley (under the initial guidance of Sam Phillips) gave the youth of America their own unique style of music.
Because of its biracial origins and sly double-entendres, rock and roll was a transgressive art. It was the music of rebellion; millions of unsupervised teens rocked to jukeboxes, raced cars, met for secret trysts amidst broken curfews, and danced in ways that would have scandalized the most libertine of flappers. For perhaps two years -- all too brief a time -- rock and roll existed in its purest form. After Col. Tom Parker took Elvis' reins and sanitized the superstar, rock and roll became "whitened," toned down, and more publicly acceptable. Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson and, perhaps most of all, American Bandstand host Dick Clark tamed the beast. By 1958 (Gordy Berry's Motown sound notwithstanding), rock and roll was dead. Not until the Beatles would it arise again in a new and vital form.
Still, rock and roll made a deep and lasting mark on the culture. It was still remembered as a transgressive musical genre, the soundtrack for rebels, delinquents, and dance floor demons everywhere. Uninhibited and licentious behaviors were rock and roll's sidekicks, and until the music industry caged it, no one (not even Frank Sinatra) could deny the pulsing power of its attraction to the young. So... what has this got to do with animation? During the course of one single animated TV series, the early history of rock and roll was recapitulated. The subversive power of the music was briefly highlighted, then disappeared from the scene. When rock reappeared in animated television shows years later, it would be sanitized beyond recognition.
The show that correctly pinpointed the subversive power of rock and roll did not come along until 1961, although the "stars" had been recording artists since 1957 and were very nearly named "The Butterflies." After several appearances on TV as a trio of puppets and in the pages of Dell comics, they were finally designed by the animation team at Format Films. Format was composed of UPA veterans who farmed out some of the work to Jack Kinney's studio, giving these nascent stars a pedigree background. When they finally appeared, in prime time, on October 14, 1961, three chipmunks named Alvin, Simon, and Theodore charmed a nation. They also brought a touch of James Dean, Elvis Presley, and teenage rebellion along with them.
How did a cheaply animated cartoon that ran for only 26 episodes accomplish this? Although too many mundane episodes featured the Chipmunks singing old parlor songs and many more were wasted on gratuitous characters such as Stanley the Eagle and Sam Valiant, Private Nose, there were several that sharply zeroed in on teenage transgression. Rock and roll may have died in the late '50s, but not in David Seville's world; the harried manager of this singing group replicated the adult struggle for control over their teenager's music. Not only did he lose, his Chipmunks sometimes inflicted other casualties as well.
In one episode, a harried Seville attempts to get the 'munks to sing a romantic tune, but Alvin insists on invading the song with his harmonica. An exasperated Seville finally tells Alvin "Go ahead. Make a fool of yourself. Play your harmonica." Alvin responds by riffing a variation on the original tune, much as the early rock and roll artists improvised around blues forms. In refusing to play composer Seville's original composition, Alvin changes its form through the rebellious use of a classic blues instrument.
In a later episode, Alvin and the gang appear on the "Teen Time TV Show." Alvin does some backstage grooving until Seville reminds him,"Alvin, we don't do that kind of music!" Alvin's reply? "Gee, Dave, do you want us to get out there and die coast to coast?" Alvin is hip to the power of rock and roll and warns Dave that he might become hypnotized into rocking out, but Seville sends them onstage singing "Yellow Rose of Texas." That is, until one among a stylized horde of pubescent girls in the audience yells out, "Come on, Alvin! Do the twist!" The Chipmunks launch into a rock and roll frenzy, with Alvin swinging and spinning his guitar while his rodent brethren twist up a storm. From offstage, Seville looks in horror at his wayward charges, only to be bowled over by a screaming mob of moppets. No sooner does Seville restore order than the screaming girls send Alvin back into his "trance," and the cartoon ends with anarchy -- and rock and roll -- firmly in command.
More than a few episodes featured the tension between old-school composer Seville and his too-cool Chipmunks; even the studious Simon closes ranks with Alvin and Theodore when there's mischief to be had. When the boys are interviewed via TV by a caricature of Edward R. Murrow, they end the interview with a mocking song describing their misdeeds, to the extreme embarrassment of both the interviewer and Seville. The Alvin Show replicated, in animated form, society's concerns and fears about juvenile delinquency and misconduct. It is probably no accident that the Chipmunks were a young musical group, and that rock and roll was their identity as well as their principal instrument of rebellion.
The most salient example of this trope, which encapsulated the entire generational conflict in one episode, was as disturbing as it was hilarious. "Squares" was one of the first episodes aired on The Alvin Show, and it featured the Chipmunks at their anarchic best. A peaceful day at home is interrupted by hefty, ebullient Mrs. Frumpington (voiced by Lee Patrick), who represents the Society for Quality and Universal Appreciation of Refined Enterprises (SQUARES, natch). Mrs. Frumpington's genre of greatest concern is music, and she wastes no time in disparaging not only the Chipmunks' music, but all of rock and roll. She unfurls 2500 signatures from those who want to "bring Bach back!" and outlaw that which the Chipmunks thrive upon. As another famous toon might have said, "Of course, you know, this means war!" Alvin and his brothers huddle, planning a counterstrike in the name of rock and roll.
We next see Alvin standing on Mrs. F's doorstep, presenting her with a flower. When she avers that she loves nature, Alvin innocently asks if she has ever noticed "how nature and music go hand in hand." By holding up signs behind his back, Alvin has Theodore strum a guitar to imitate the wind, while Simon is cued to thump out a bass beat and percussion from their hidden positions. As Frumpington starts to sway to the beat, Alvin wonders if Mrs. F. loves families: "Don'cha just love a baby, a baby, a baby... " Mrs. F is soon repeating the phrase, which Alvin switches to "a daddy, a daddy, a daddy." Alvin then lowers the boom and the Chipmunks' master plan is revealed. Behind a tree are a dozen large speakers. When Alvin switches them on, a grindhouse rock tune blares into the street.
Mrs. Frumpington is now so entranced by the beat that she dances about wildly, frenetically boogying and snapping her fingers as she wails, "Baby baby baby! Daddy daddy daddy!" (At this point June Foray takes over the vocals). Within minutes she has been reduced to a screaming wreck, and the neighbors have called for the local mental hospital to cart the woman away. In her frenzy she fights the attendants off and continues to madly prance and sing. The camera cuts to Alvin, Theodore, and Simon looking on with amusement, tapping their feet. Simon wags a finger in time to the beat as their foe goes progressively insane.
Finally the attendants drop a barrel from above and cage the crazed Frumpington. As she is carried to the padded wagon (which reads, "Happydale: The Home for Tilted People"), she continues singing as the "Tilt" sign lights up on the wagon. In a somewhat disturbing moment, we see the Chipmunks wave goodbye, shake hands, and exit left in a merry conga line. There is no remorse or regret among them for their destruction of Mrs. Frumpington; her crusade against rock and roll music had to be stopped and the Chipmunks, if nothing else, are good soldiers in the cause. This challenge by the adult, civilized world and the way in which it was met by Alvin and his bros, mirrored adult society's fears about what rock and roll might drive their children to do. Moreover, Alvin -- and rock and roll -- won.
Alvin, Theodore, Simon, and Dave Seville left television in 1962 and would not be back for another 21 years. In the meantime, rock and roll in animated cartoons would suffer the same fate as rock and roll music did in the real world. It became sanitized, thematically sterile and desexualized. A Beatles cartoon appeared in 1965, but it was a playful series, and it did not run long enough to feature the Fab Four in their Sgt. Pepper guise. Many shows went on to feature rock bands: One of them, The Archies, actually managed to secure a radio hit in 1969, but they sounded nothing like the Grateful Dead, The Doors, or many of the other rock bands that were coming to prominence at the time. Rock music on Saturday morning belonged to the subgenre known as "bubble gum" and would reflect none of rock's rebelliousness or mood of altered consciousness.
Alvin and his brothers, on the whole, were relatively tame and so was their TV show. Even in later televised incarnations, the Chipmunks were still very much mainstream. Yet, for one moment in 1961, a cartoon musical group consisting of chipmunks would transmit the memory of what rock and roll was like for the society from which it emerged. Through the occasional cracks in their original show, the mischievous 'munks shone the light of transgression that once illuminated rock and roll.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.