Originally published on MadeLoud, June 17, 2010
Even on Hollywood’s parched and barren post-Garfield landscape, the recent adaptation of Brad Anderson’s space-filling comic strip Marmaduke seems like a movie made on a dare. Nevertheless, it appears possible that we’re on the cusp of a new era of ripped-from-the-funny-pages filmmaking not seen since Blondie and Dick Tracy packed matinee screenings in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Whether this trend will carry over to the music industry remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t be the first time. We’ve pulled together a sampling from pop music’s long, if not especially rich, history of paying tribute to stars of the daily and Sunday papers. (Note: We’re excluding comic books and animated cartoons, or this would be a far longer list.)
Billy Rose – “Barney Google (With the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes)”
Considering the scrubbed-and-sanitized nature of modern funny pages, it seems almost unthinkable that America’s favorite comics star of the 1920s was a diminutive, slang-spouting gambling addict with anger management issues. Nevertheless, Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google was regarded as something of a national treasure when songwriter Billy Rose penned this buoyant 1923 ode to an inveterate loser “with a wife three times his size.” It was recorded by dozens of artists in many different styles over the years, including a typically anarchic treatment by Spike Jones in 1963. Barney himself was eventually muscled out of his own strip by his hillbilly cousin Snuffy Smith, but the song lives on as a reminder of a time when the word “Google” conjured up decidedly lower-tech images than it does today.
The Hollywood Argyles – “Alley Oop”
V.T. Hamlin’s tough-talking, time-traveling caveman made for a peculiar protagonist even by comics page standards. Still, stellar artwork, a colorful cast of characters and surprisingly intricate plotting made Alley a big enough star to merit a 1960 tribute tune. The Hollywood Argyles were less a band than an assemblage of studio musicians (including legendary surf drummer Sandy Nelson) slapped together by L.A. songwriters Kim Fowley and Gary Paxton, but that didn’t stop the song from topping the charts.
Their ode to the prehistoric “toughest man there is alive” features an appropriately loose, lurching production, possibly attributable to the mass quantities of hard cider allegedly consumed at the session. Although various incarnations of Hollywood Argyles continued to record sporadically for several years thereafter (even releasing a less successful sequel called “Alley Oop ’66”), their most lasting legacy came as a David Bowie allusion. When Bowie paraphrased the song’s “Look at that caveman go” chorus on 1971’s “Life on Mars?”, he transformed “Alley Oop” from a trash-rock novelty into a pop culture archetype.
The Royal Guardsmen – “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron”
It’s weird enough that Americans embraced a comic strip narrative about a fictional dog waging an imaginary war against a real-life German military legend. It’s even weirder that they sent a pop song about said showdown to number two on the charts in 1966. The Royal Guardsmen’s energetic take on Charles M. Schultz’s overachieving beagle and his feud with WWI flying ace Manfred von Richthofen is as strange as its subject matter, intermingling goofy voices and shout-outs to The Great Pumpkin with a running count of the Red Baron’s actual kill tally. Odder still, the Florida-based band parlayed their big hit into a long string of Snoopy-themed sequels, including a Christmas version that finds the airborne rivals making peace and a 2006 update in which Snoopy hunts down Osama bin Laden. No, seriously. That exists.
Queen – “Flash”
Flash Gordon may have started life on the comics page as a poor man’s Buck Rogers, but Alex Raymond’s action-adventure strip set the template for dozens of sci-fi potboilers to come. The strip was adapted for radio, film and television many times through the decades, the most notorious version being Mike Hodges’ 1980 would-be blockbuster Flash Gordon. Hodges and crew opted to approach the material in the campiest vein available, and where there’s camp, there’s Queen.
The glam-rockers took to the material just as enthusiastically as you’d expect, drenching the score in enough synthesizers and falsettos to make Max Von Sydow’s Ming the Merciless look subtle by comparison. The soundtrack album even yielded the minor hit single “Flash,” a melodramatic rocker intermingling film dialogue (“Flash, I love you! But we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!”) with Freddie Mercury shrieking heady lines like “Flash! Savior of the universe! / Flash! You saved every one of us!”
Fred Schneider – “The Zippy Theme Song”
Is there a more perfect pairing of artist and subject matter than oddball B-52s front man Fred Schneider and Bill Griffith’s non-sequitur-spouting Zippy the Pinhead? Schneider called in a collection of musical pals like singer Phoebe Snow and half of The Manhattan Transfer to knock out this peculiar little vocal jazz ode to a guy who’s “a totally modular fellow / The maraschino in Jell-o” with “a heart as pure as Tastee Freeze.” Although Schneider himself doesn’t sing on the track, he reportedly intended to include it on a solo album. That plan never came to fruition, and the song now resides only on the Zippy the Pinhead website, alongside a pair of Griffith-penned Zippy tribute tunes performed by new wave band No Sisters.
Billy and the Boingers – “I’m a Boinger”
From the Rolling Stones playing a public school dance to Opus the Penguin trading places with Michael Jackson to the local denizens organizing a self-serving benefit concert called The Us Festival, popular music was a constant presence throughout the run of Berkely Breathed’s Bloom County.
One of the strip’s most celebrated storylines followed the meteoric rise of Billy and the Boingers (name changed from Deathtöngue under pressure from the PMRC), a hair metal band fronted by hairball-hacking, Friskies-freebasing vocalist Bill the Cat. Fans who purchased the paperback reprint collection Billy and the Boingers Bootleg were treated to an ingenious tie-in: a flexi-disc single containing two elsewhere unavailable Boingers tracks. On their valedictory statement “I’m a Boinger,” Billy and crew (as portrayed by The Harry Pitts Band) threw potshots at everyone from Boy George to David Bowie to Debbie Harry while laughing off the transitive nature of rock stardom (“Sure we look disgusting / But whose chops are we busting / In a year, maybe two, we’ll seem tame / And three years down the track / We’ll be a Las Vegas lounge act”). There are plenty of non-fictional bands that could benefit from that level of self-awareness.