Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dickie Goodman and Break-In Records

In the history of popular music, very few origins are certain. There are hundreds of arguments, and discussions to be had about who did what first, who did what best, who did what without selling out, blah blah, and the debates go on and on in bars, basements, coffee shops, record stores, chat rooms, and blogs, throughout the world and the world wide web unabated and undecided, and likely will forever. As an art form, popular music is routinely neglected by "serious" historians as, at worst, unimportant, and at best, less important than "high minded" classical or jazz music. And even among researchers of popular music a hierarchy exists regarding what is true research and what is just journalism. Folk music gets serious cred, as does Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Sun Records. You can get a PHD writing about these things at respected universities - the symbolism of Bob Dylan's poetry; the socio-economic significance of rock and roll on the South in the 1950s; the introduction of the blues into popular music; the impact of The Beatles on western culture... these are the topics which sequester the attention of the intelligentsia of popular music and as a result, it will be a long time before other important questions receive receive serious attention. So, for better or worse, it is up to people like us to decide these things for ourselves. Who were the first punks - The Sex Pistols, Richard Hell, or The Ramones? The first metal band - Sabbath? Cream? Blue Cheer? Who invented rap music - Kurtis Blow? Kool Herc? Who invented sampling?

Now, wait, there's a question with an answer. But it may not be one you'd expect. According to Wikipedia, sampling is "the act of taking a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or different sound recording of a song". While that may be a horribly insufficient definition of the term, it works well as a description of sampling as a simple technique. Though it has a long and turbulent history, marred by numerous lawsuits and vehement controversy, these days sampling has come to be regarded as not only a respected art form, but an ubiquitous one as well. Snippets from songs, movies, and commercials, hell even political speeches are commonly harvested from old 45's and LP's to enhance the work of artists from Jay Z to Suffocation, and, sampling has held as one of the most profitable tentacles of the music industry, despite the general confusion about the future of said industry. But in the beginning, it was all a joke.

Though he may not look like it, Dickie Goodman (left) was one of the most important individuals in the history of popular music. Not only is he the man who, for all intents and purposes, invented the art of sampling, he is, more importantly, the person most responsible for it's popularization and legitimization.

Dickie was born in Hewlett, NY in 1934 to the family of a General Electric attorney who had a taste for musical parody.

"My grandfather was an attorney," says Jon Goodman, Dickie's son and author of The King of Novelty, a memoir about his father's life.

"Somehow he knew the president and he did a song parody of 'Casey at the Bat' called 'Franklin at the Bat'. The song was a tribute to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and my grandfather presented the record to FDR and FDR autographed a copy for my grandfather. Maybe that's where it all began."

According to this very trustworthy and well written article Dickie attended NYU in the 1950s before teaming up with another struggling songwriter, Bill Buchanan, to write pop songs. In between cold calling record executives from pay phones to solicit meetings, Buchanan and Goodman came up with the idea to produce a parody of Orson Welles' infamous The War of the Worlds radio hoax (above), which purported to be an authentic newscast of an alien invasion of Earth. But instead of a seemingly real newscast, Goodman and Buchanan developed the idea of splicing snippets of popular music into the story as responses to the query's of a fictitious reporter. The result was "The Flying Saucer", which used samples from artists such as The Platters, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry. The record was self-produced and primitive. In many ways the record was juvenile and highly suspect from an artistic point of view. But it was also ingenious and incredibly hilarious, and most of all, wildly popular. Within a few weeks of it's production the pop music phenomenon of the 'break in record' was born and the eventual 'King of Novelty' had begun his strange journey.

"He was very funny," says Jon Goodman. "He had to make a joke out of everything. When he did "Mr Jaws" the record company executive asked who to make the check out to and Dad said 'Cash'. The record executive said he would need a corporation named CASH in order to do that. So my father incorporated a record label called CASH just so he could have a check made out to 'Cash'. That's either funny or insane."

"Mr Jaws", a parody of the hit film Jaws in which a reporter interviews the shark about his exploits, would go on to earn Mr Goodman a number one record on the Top 40 charts, and the title of "#1 Novelty Record of the Year" by Billboard, as well as three gold records.

But the success Mr Goodman would later enjoy didn't come easily. Initially ignored, "The Flying Saucer" was released on Luniverse, a label created by the Goodman, but was quickly picked up and distributed by larger agents. Despite it's popularity, it was banned by several radio programmers that hadn't forgotten the confusion caused by the debacle surrounding the original broadcast of The War of the Worlds. And, as the popularity of “The Flying Saucer" grew, others began to produce copycat recordings in search of a quick buck. Eventually, Goodman and Buchanan began to draw the attention of publishing houses and record labels - and they weren't looking to wine and dine the duo, or sign them to lucrative multi-record deals. Instead, they were looking to sue them for their efforts, claiming copyright infringement, even though they had been collecting royalties on the recordings from a previous settlement. The trial took place in November, 1956 and concluded shortly thereafter with the judge concluding that Buchanan and Goodman's recordings were "interesting novelty records" and claiming that he couldn't "determine whether or not the defendants have exceeded the bounds of fair competition". In short, break in records were considered parody and satire, and the judges decision essentially transformed the technique of sampling into fair game, if not a legitimate art form.

"The legal battles they fought were almost as important to musical evolution as the innovations themselves," says Dr Demento (right), world renowned scholar of popular music and host of the ultra-awesome, long running syndicated radio program The Dr Demento Show.

Buchanan and Goodman responded to their legal troubles by producing a second break in record, "Buchanan and Goodman on Trial" as well as a parody of their own parody with a piece entitled "The Flying Saucer Goes West".

"In those days you didn't have many choices," says Jon Goodman. "You had three television channels and the main newscasters on those channels were the guys everyone on earth was watching. Same with radio. Dad walked right into the biggest radio station on earth and asked them to listen to his recording. Even if you could do that today, walk right in and have someone actually listen to you, which one would you walk into out of the millions of media outlets now available?"

Buchanan and Goodman would part ways in 1957, but both continued to pursue careers in the music business, creating break in records and writing pop songs throughout the golden days of rock and roll, into disco, and beyond. Though he is not the focus of this story, Bill Buchanan was as important as Mr Goodman to the development of sampling and is due a great deal of respect. Though his discography does not approach the epic proportions of Mr Goodman, he did work with The Three Stooges, which is hella awesome in my book.

While the duo lasted, "The Flying Saucer" remained a lucrative theme and they produced several martian themed break in's.

In regard to the newscast format:
"'The Flying Saucer' imitation of John Cameron Cameron was a parody of then famous newscaster John Cameron Swayze," says Jon Goodman.

John Cameron Swayze was a pretty cool dude (and I'm only throwing this in because, much like myself, Mr Swayze is a Kansas native). He was born in Wichita, KS (a terrible little city, if you ask me, that has produced little of mention outside of Mr Swayze and the BTK Strangler, as well as several skinhead jerks with a penchant for sucker-punching Crass fans in the face, and one near saint, Mr Chris Stong, a personal idol of mine, but most importantly the Nu-Way sandwich shop, home of the most delectable loose-meat sandwiches on earth - if you ever travel through Kansas be sure to stop at Nu-Way - trust me, you will not forget it). In addition to being a prominent news personality in the 1950s, Mr Swayze is most fondly remembered as the face of Timex watches and their "It takes a licking and keeps on ticking" advertisements. Oh, and he was also a sixth cousin of Patrick Swayze, the patron saint of this blog.

(Back to normal)
But the duo's influence was greater than simply allowing artists to appropriate the work of others to enhance their own recordings. By using original recordings in their samples, Buchanan and Goodman helped to spur interest in artists who had been intentionally ignored by the radio because of the color of their skin or the type of music they played.

"His influence on pop culture is far more dramatic than people know," says Jon Goodman. "Just the mere fact that his first record used the original artists rather than socially acceptable cover versions was huge. Stations that would not play 'race' music in the fifties were forced to play Elvis and Little Richard rather than the Pat Boone versions [of popular songs] because listeners called in to request those songs after hearing them on 'The Flying Saucer'."

"That trend was already gathering momentum before 'The Flying Saucer'," says Dr Demento. "But by freely mixing R&B records with those by white artists, Buchanan and Goodman did their part to bring R&B into the mainstream."

Goodman also regularly used his work to satirize current events and the world around him. In "Energy Crisis '74" he lampooned Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and other world leaders for the ineptness, greed, and outright stupidity that caused the fuel shortage of of the mid-1970s. In "Berlin Top 10" and "Russian Bandstand" (the latter recorded with Mickey Shorr under the name Spencer and Spencer) Goodman poked fun at the oppressive tactics of the Soviet Union. In "Election 1980" Goodman satirized both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Whimsical Will (right), an acolyte of Goodman's work who has produced his own ingenious brand of break-in recordings since the early 1980s forThe Dr Demento Show, suggests that Goodman's work also serves another important function: historical artifact.

"I like to think of Goodman's 'break-in' interviews as audio time capsules, in which he would mock query a popular movie character or personality of the day and use bits of current top 40 songs as answers. Listen back to say, 'Mr Jaws' and be treated to a quick summary of the big hits of 1974-75, with the blockbuster movie of the year as it's theme."

(As I've already posted "Mr Jaws", I've chosen to post Goodman's "Kong" instead as an example.)

When it comes down to it, all of the questions about Mr Goodman and his importance to popular music really aren't that, well, important. Though he received numerous awards and accommodations throughout his career, he is best remembered as an entertainer, the Neil Diamond of the novelty record, someone whose quirky brand of comedy never failed to produce a smile, at least, for the listener. Like an aural version of slapstick, Goodman's recordings are hilarious for both their unpredictability and absurdity. Think of a Marx Brothers movie or an old Charlie Chaplin short: while you might know the basic plot, you never really know what's coming next, and once it happens it seems both outright impossible and terribly appropriate. In Goodman's "Luna Trip", "Walter Funkite" (a parody of Walter Cronkite) interviews the astronauts of Apollo 11 about their trip to the moon. When he asks Col Michael Collins (aka, the one that stayed in the ship) how he occupied himself while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the moon, Collins replies with "Listening to that good old rock and roll!", a clip from an old Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys song. Later "Funkite" asks the astronauts what they missed most about Earth and is met with a response from the Rolling Stones: "The Hawww-awww-nky Tonk Women!", all while being to "Shut Up!" by the Alvin and the Chipmunks-like voice of the "Moon Man" that witnessed the landing. The whole thing is a chaotic mish-mash of comedic stick and move that would be frustratingly confusing if it wasn't so damn funny.

Throughout his career, Goodman's work seemed to return to a few central themes. Popular movies were a constant reference point and, in addition to Jaws, Goodman also recorded parodies of ET and Star Wars, among others. But he also loved to poke fun at popular obsessions. Comic books characters like Batman, and monsters from now classic horror films were regular subjects of Goodman's wit.

"On a technical and performance level Goodman has influenced my style by demonstrating that less is more," says Whimsical Will. "Keep the song snippets brief and the questions rapid-fire. Don't reply to the song replies, a trap many break-in newbies fall into, and keep the edits smooth and tight."

Wolf Roxon, co-leader of fabled St Louis punk innovators The Moldy Dogs, also cites Goodman as a major influence,particularly during his formative years before forming his first band Wolfgang and the Noble Oval. As a teenager, Roxon cut his teeth making break in records of his own with co-conspirator Jon Ashline.

"By imitating [Dickie's] craft, Ashline and I became successful, in our own world and on a very small scale, doing something that was considered an art," Roxon recalls. "Of course, we discovered many songs by listening carefully to lines we could sample for our recordings. In other words we developed ears in finding samples, inflections of lines and words, and worked with recording equipment. I doubt Wolfgang and the Noble Oval would have happened without us first getting together and attempting to master Mr Goodman's skills."
"It certainly led us in the right direction as far as our love of music and it's fascinating power," adds Ashline.

Though he is remembered primarily for his break-in records, Goodman was a true man of the music industry, and he wore several hats in the course of his career. For instance, Goodman also recorded original music and hardcore music geeks worldwide will recognize his presence on some classic songs, some parodies, some wholly original compositions. The most memorable is "Frankenstein Meets the Beatles", recorded under the moniker Jekyll and Hyde, with Bill Ramal (who worked with Del "My Little Runaway" Shannon).

Goodman also worked as manager and producer. In the early 1970s Goodman, along with Ramal, recruited a group of aspiring musicians to form a group called The Glass Bottle. The band was nothing more than a promotional gimmick for the glass industry, which was facing competition from plastic and aluminum in the lucrative soda bottling industry, and the band didn't last very long. The very trustworthy and well written article I mentioned earlier tells the story better than I can, but here is a clip from the most memorable song The Glass Bottle produced.

Jon Goodman, who has worked hard to preserve the legacy of his father, even making his own break in records, has only one regret about his father's career." The biggest failure of the whole thing is never having brought his records into TV or movies,"he says. “He never made that happen and I have never been able to make that happen. I grind my teeth when I see programs on TV about UFOs and things in that genre, when they cover the modern day origins of how those things are related to pop culture and they fail to play a clip from 'The Flying Saucer'."

Dickie Goodman died in 1989. Since his death he has been honored with a posthumous Grammy award, and recognized by both Billboard and The Guiness Book of World Records as the most charted novelty artist of all time. His legacy can be seen throughout the music industry, and any artist that has ever sampled a line from a movie or a "beat" or chorus from a song owes him a serious debt of gratitude, and not just for his pioneering work with sampling or the legal battles he fought, but for his commitment to sampling as a viable artistic tool.

“Dickie and Bill pioneered the use of samples, fragments of previously existing recordings, in creating a new work," says Dr Demento. "This ultimately led to the extensive use of samples in hip-hop music, and today's popular "mash-ups. Despite constant litigation, Dickie was able to keep virtually all his work on the market with minimal alterations, something that would have been all but unthinkable before "Flying Saucer."

"[They], created a whole new genre of music that hadn't existed before,” he continues. “And Dickie enjoyed a long, if intermittent, success with it. That's quite an accomplishment right there."


Shelby Cobras said...


epic post, thanks for putting the work in. "Mr Jaws" and "Flying saucer" are hilarious, how had I never heard of dickie Goodman before (besides in your other post)?

Jack said...

shelby - i know, right? i'd never heard of mr goodman either until i started working on stories about ashline and roxon, but now it's something i'm getting a little obsessed with (and inevitably i'll start spending the hard earned money that should be going into my kids' college fund on tracking down his stuff)...
and thanks for calling this piece 'epic' - i appreciate it.

Unknown said...

thanks for the great tribute to Dickie G. glad it was us that turned you on to his work and that we were part of the process as artists as well.
Screamin Mee

Unknown said...

thanks for the shining tribute to Dickie G. Glad it was us that turned you on to his work and glad that we were a part of the process as early artists.
Screamin Mee

Jack said...

thanks again, mr ashline. you rock.

BILLONEY! said...

A sealed Mr. Jaws LP is one of my most prized possessions.

Thoom said...

This is ridiculous. Dickie Goodman should get no credit for artist who sample records to create music.

All Dickie did was take a pop culture icon or myth, and anthropomorphize with snippets from other people's music. The only thing he came up with was the lame segues between snippets.

And I wanted to "gnash my teeth" when his son had the nerve to get peved because TV shows about UFOs in pop culture fail to mention his dad's flying saucer song. You kidding me? Mention the X-Files, ET, Close Encounters...Mention War of the Worlds but why mention Flying Saucer? That song was a rip off of H.G> Welles and Orson Welles' work. So not only did Dickie get accolades from taking other people's music, he also stole the idea for Flying Saucer.

And Jon Goodman had the nerve to credit his dad with ushering in hip hop because of the whole sample thing. Man, please. Hip Hop DJs sampled the breaks of records so rappers who have something to rap over. That had nothing to do with "break in" records. And as far as the legality of samples, he didn't teach the rappers anything: In 1992, Biz Markie had his album shelved due to a dispute of a Gilbert Sullivan sample. No one learned anything from DIckie, because his "work" had been long forgotten by then.