March 11, 2007

Meet The Monotones


Back in the early 1970s, clunky portable tape recorders were becoming more readily available to the general public. As a result, they also started falling into the hands of bored American kids.

     The problem was that we're talking about 1973-’74, and the cassette revolution was still a few years down the line for the music industry. Back then, pre-recorded cassette tapes were hard to come by, the marketplace being dominated as it was by the 8-track. In short, we had tape recorders, but nothing to play on them. So what’s a bored kid to do with a tape recorder and a handful of blank tapes?

     Well, it seems there were two options. You could hide the device somewhere in the house—under a chair, usually—and surreptitiously record other family members. Problem with that plan is that more often than not, you learned just how uninteresting people could be. The other option was to hide away in your room and record your own shows.

     I don’t know how common it was for kids to make their own tape recorder shows. Morgan tells me that she made them when she was young, and I made dozens of them with my friend Gary back when we were eight or nine.

     The show we created was called “The Beast of Montague Penguin” (a poorly-veiled reference to Monty Python), and had no real set format. Sometimes we dramatized horror comics, other times we parodied commercials and talk shows, or we ad-libbed, or—if we were short on ideas—we acted out Monty Python sketches using really awful British accents.

     I remember we were both obsessed with a television commercial for Mr. Salty Pretzels. In the commercial, Mr. Salty—a slim figure with a single, wide tooth, a sailor’s cap, and a body covered with salt crystals that left him looking like he had some horrible disease—would jump off the front of the box and dance around a kitchen counter while singing his theme song (No matter what you pour, you’ll like it even more with a Mr. Salty pretzel . . .)

     We hated him, for some untold reason, and always made a point of killing him off in some ridiculous way in each episode.

     Thinking back on them, most of the sketches we recorded make me wince nowadays. There was one, though, that still makes me laugh. It came back to me this morning on my way to the grocery store.

     It takes a little explaining.

     At the time, television was awash in low-budget commercials for “greatest hits” albums by performers you’d mostly never heard of before (at least if you were nine): Slim Whitman was the king of these commercials, or course, but there was also Boxcar Willie, Connie Francis, and the Great Roy Orbison.

     Orbison’s career was on the skids at that point, and the commercial for Candlelight Music’s greatest hits collection was so cheap and so funny that it quickly turned him into one of my favorite performers of all time.

     But that’s beside the point. Point is, these commercials were everywhere, so Gary and I decided to do one of our own.

     My sister, who owned most of the records in the house at that point, had a Bobby Sherman 45—a minor hit from 1969 called “Little Woman.” Fortunately for everyone, by 1974 the record was scratched so badly that no matter where you placed the needle, it would only play a single rotation before skipping. The entire record was like that—all you could get was a single half line at a time, repeated ad infinitum.

     It immediately struck both Gary and me that what we had was essentially a double album’s worth of really short, repetitive songs.

     So we took that single and created an entire show around the meteoric career of “Bobby Sherman and The Monotones,” featuring some fifteen of their greatest hits, including “You Got To” (You got to! You got to! You got to! . . . ), “Wanna Say to You” (Wanna say to you wanna say to you wanna say to you . . . ), “Come on Now” (Come on now come on now come on now . . . ), and one of his biggest hits, “When I Hear Your Name” (When I hear your name when I hear your name when I hear your name . . . )

     In the end, the show was about ten minutes long, and consisted mostly of song clips followed by me or Gary saying “Yes, and that of course was Bobby Sherman and The Monotones, with ‘Wanna Say to You.’“ Then we’d introduce the next song. Still, it was some of the best work we ever did.

     Given the success of that show (well we thought it was funny), we immediately set out to do some more career retrospectives. We went back into my sister’s room and spirited away her box of singles. Most of them had been recorded by Tiger Beat fodder—Donny Osmond, David Cassidy and the like—all of them prime candidates for mangling. Yet try as we might, we couldn’t find another that had been scratched in such a perfect way. We even tried scratching a few by ourselves, but it didn’t have the same effect. It turns out that Bobby Sherman record had been a complete fluke.

     I’d learn as I grew older that flukes like that are plentiful in life—and most of the time it’s better they stay flukes.

     Looking back on it now, it occurs to me how arcane much of this might seem to anyone who grew up in the digital era. “45s”? “Needles”? “8-tracks”? Might as well be talking about spinning wheels and butter churns. It also occurs to me that the sketch I’ve described simply couldn’t happen anymore. Not in the same way, at least.

      Sure, you could digitize a song and program it to repeat a single phrase. Simple as pie. But there’s a complex intentionality behind it that robs it of the original spirit. Gary and I were just being stupid. We stumbled across a scratched record and tried to figure out what we could do with it.

     Then we walked six miles to school, uphill both ways, in the middle of a blizzard!

     Yes, well.

     The really scary thing is, I still have those tapes around here someplace. I could probably find them if I really, really wanted to. But I don’t. Some things are just better left as memories. Memories, in this case, of a time when I was almost clever.


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