various artists,
Saturday Morning
(MCA, 1995)
Heroes & Villains
(Rhino, 2000)
The City of Soundsville
(Rhino, 2001)

Sometime in the late '60s, there was a major shift in the relationship between cartoons and popular music.

Look at old Warner Brothers cartoons -- stuff from, say, the '40s and '50s. You'll see lots of references there to popular music. And I'm not talking about the cartoon soundtracks. Those are phenomenal pieces of orchestral composition, but they're the subject for a different time. I'm talking about those moments when the music clearly stops being a backdrop for the action, and the characters begin performing.

In the heyday of Warner Brothers, that usually happened by way of caricature -- those cartoons are populated by playful spoofs of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and other bigwigs of the entertainment world. But sometime in the '60s, the musical antics of cartoon characters stopped being purely imitative -- they began to reflect the personalities of the characters, and songs were written especially for the characters to perform.

Listen to "Sugar, Sugar," written for the Archies. You think the Monkees were prefab? You think Milli Vanilli was a laughingstock? The Archies weren't even real people. This was a song written for a cartoon band, played on a cartoon show.

And it was phenomenally successful.

Thus it began. Throughout the next decade, cartoons were populated by young hipsters who could break into song at any moment. Any cartoon that didn't feature a would-be rock band surely had a super-groovy rock 'n' roll theme song. That's quite a contrast from the Warner days, when Bugs, Daffy, Porky and anyone else under the Looney Tunes umbrella had the same studio theme music stuck on the ends of their films.

Lots of people my age grew up on those '60s and '70s cartoons and formed bands under their influence. Which is why a collection like 1995's Saturday Morning makes perfect sense.

It's a great album, for a lot of reasons. Producer Ralph Sall has the acuity to realize that kids' TV is inherently bizarre, and the music-biz connections to pull just the right people into the studio to illustrate that point.

Another great thing about this record is that the artists invariably keep the songs short and simple -- a crucial decision with music intended to be heard and absorbed in 30 seconds. Stretching it much beyond two minutes would be rough.

There's an amazing roster of musicians here, and all of them take on a cartoon theme song (or a song written for cartoon characters, like "Sugar Sugar") that somehow suits them perfectly.

Highlights are too numerous to list completely. I like 18 of the 19 tracks -- a lot. Only Wax's "Happy Happy Joy Joy" falls flat, but that's largely because I find the source material annoying.

Among the best moments is Matthew Sweet's jangly take on "Scooby Doo, Where Are You?" Also listen for hip-chicks Juliana Hatfield and Tanya Donnelly tearing into "Josie and the Pussycats" with the perfect mix of sugar and spice; Helmet's "Gigantor," with impact like a brick to the noggin'; and the Ramones ripping through "Spiderman" and the Violent Femmes doing up "Eep Opp Ork Ah-ah" (from The Jetsons).

This is phenomenal stuff, and I'm still not sick of it, seven years after its release. Which is saying something, considering that these songs aren't exactly complex and were written to be throwaway bits of pop culture.

But if you like this, and want more, check out the next logical step: music inspired by cartoons. I'm talking about 2000's Heroes and Villians, a collection of tracks by some of the most interesting names in pop music, all inspired by the Powerpuff Girls.

Don't laugh; this is an incredible album. It's got a couple of big names -- Devo offers a track, as does ex-Pixie and sci-fi weirdo Frank Black -- but it's mostly a collection of more obscure artists.

Black's "Pray for the Girls" is typical of his output carefully paced, occasionally manic, with a creepy lyrical narrative and a vague sense of foreboding. Japanese cuddlecore superstars Shonen Knife show up to do what they do best (rock out in cute, broken English) on "Buttercup (I'm a Super Girl)." And Japanese studio svengali Cornelius does what he does best (sprinkle high-tech fairy dust over beat-heavy samples) on "The Fight."

But the highlights here, for me, are distinctly American low-tech. Dressy Bessy's amiable "Bubbles" is so light and airy it threatens to float away with every listen, and Bill Doss (of Olivia Tremor Control) turns in a great solo effort with "Friends Win," a chugging chunk of low-budget psychedelia.

The album's best track is by Doss' friends and labelmates, Apples in Stereo. "Signal in the Sky (Let's Go)" is so catchy, so hokey, so well-written that it could stand with the best track from any Apples in Stereo album. Which is saying something -- the band's garagey take on the sounds of the Beatles and Brian Wilson is one of the most interesting things going in music these days.

And, to be fair, that can be said about most songs on this collection -- these artists put as much effort into writing good songs about a cartoon show as they would put into writing good songs for their own albums -- which is why this collection works so well.

Oh, if you need more of this, check out The City of Soundsville, a new, techno take on the Powerpuff phenomenon. And if that's not enough, I'm sure there will be plenty more albums based on cartoons -- and I'm sure some will be quite good.

Now that the connection has been made, it won't be going away.

[ by Paddy O'Furniture ]
Rambles: 11 May 2002

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