Monday, July 15, 2013

Visualizing the Seventies: the cartoon "music videos" of Deceased Artiste John David Wilson



Continuing along from the mind-boggling Sixties world of Fred Mogubgub (see below), we hit the early Seventies work of the recently departed British animator John David Wilson. Wilson died last month at the age of 93, leaving behind an interesting body of cartoons and collaborations. I want to showcase his work crafting cartoon “music videos” for The Sonny and Cher Show. They’re odd little creations that, as with the Mogubgub shorts, serve as perfect time capsules for an era.

But first, a little background: Wilson’s biography is best sketched on the website for his company, Fine Arts Films. There is an article he wrote in 2002 outlining his career (which should have been an entire book). He was an arts student before being drafted into WWII. After suffering a serious injury he was sent back home to England and went back to art work. He found employment in the art department of Pinewood studios and then worked for GB Animation, a J. Arthur Rank company.

He moved to the U.S. with his family in 1950 and found work at UPA, where he worked on the “Gerald McBoing-Boing” and “Mr. Magoo” series, among others. His next stop was Disney, where he worked as an animator on Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp.

In 1955 he founded his own company, Fine Arts Films, to produce the Japanese-themed short “Tara, the Stonecutter.” His premiere achievement around this time was “Petroushka” (1956), the first-ever animated TV special (which aired on NBC as part of the “Sol Hurok Music Hour”). The cartoon was based on Stavinsky’s ballet, with Stravinsky himself conducting the orchestra.

Among the projects he worked on during the late Fifties and early Sixties were commercials created by Stan Freberg and The Flintstones for Hanna-Barbera. One of the more fascinating Wilson/Fine Arts creations is this animated trailer for Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce. Said Wilson, “[The film] was all about Parisian prostitutes romping about in Montmartre, and animation could apparently make it acceptable.”


Fine Arts supplied a series of shorts to the educational NBC show Exploring from 1964 to ’66. Wilson’s most prominent creation, however, was yet to come: the 1971 feature cartoon Shinbone Alley based on the archy and methitabel stories by Don Marquis (and the play co-written by Mel Brooks). Carol Channing and Eddie Bracken supply the main voices (with Alan “Fred Flintstone” Reed and John Carradine, among others, lending support). The whole picture is currently up on YT:


Throughout the Seventies, Wilson and Fine Arts supplied animation to Laugh-In, The Midnight Special, and The Carol Burnett Show, but one of the Fine Arts creations that was seen by the most people worldwide was the credit sequence for Grease:


To close out the biography section of this entry, I’ll note that Wilson (right) did produce one complete music video, the one for Dylan’s cwazy Kwistian anthem “Gotta Serve Somebody” (which is not online). Wilson was quite busy in children’s television in the Eighties and Nineties working as either an animator or animation director on shows like Fraggle Rock, and Madeline.

But onto his cartoon “music videos.” These little suckers made quite an impression on me when I was very young watching The Sonny and Cher Show (because you watched variety shows in those days, you watched all of ‘em, whether or not you cared about the hosts — since there was always a chance you’d catch a good guest star. And besides there were only three networks….).

The Wilson/Arts cartoons for S&C were indeed forerunners of music videos (and the descendents of the many musical cartoons of the Thirties and Forties). Wilson was wise to concentrate on the “story songs” of the time, in order to create repeating characters and have the viewer “connect” with the piece in a very short span of time.

The shorts were drawn in a simplistic, funky-looking style, and someone (probably the S&C producers) decided that goofy sound effects should be added to the soundtrack. Fourteen of these cartoons were made for the show between 1970 and 1973.

In most cases the songs were sung by Sonny and Cher, but in certain cases the original vocal was retained. Some of the S&C vocals were replaced by the originals on the VHS collections of Wilson’s shorts that came out in the Eighties (and are going for outrageous amounts on eBay).
In some cases they were made to entertain children in the viewing audience, as with the cartoon for “Candy Man”; others below could be watched by kids, but they could only be understood by adults. One of the more interesting uploads is one gent’s appropriation of Wilson’s cartoon for the Tony Orlando and Dawn hit “Sweet Gypsy Rose.” 
His rendition is dubbed over the S&C version of the song, but it’s still worth catching because the cartoon is so bizarre — Wilson decided to make the errant stripping wife so freaky that the crowd runs out of the strip joint when she undresses:


As for something that works both for kids and adults, there’s this cartoon video for Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” which Cher sings as innocently as Melanie did (sexual metaphor left in the lyrics only):


Wilson clearly did want to illustrate story songs, but one of the odder choices was Randy Newman’s “Love Story” (sung to absolute perfection by Harry Nilsson). True to form with Randy (and Harry), the song is both incredibly moving and insidiously realistic — the lovers’ tale ends with them having children who send them “away to a little home in Florida” where they’ll play checkers all day “until we pass away.” (Randy’s sharp closing being the aural equivalent of the Buster Keaton film that ends with His and Hers gravestones.)

It’s an odd choice for an adorable cartoon on a prime time variety show, but things were *much* different in the early Seventies, and so we have the trajectory of a relationship, but (for obvious reasons) the figures involved are the Bonos (who were always hard to view as a loving couple given their arguing shtick — and the eventual fact that they’d continue on as a show-biz couple even after their divorce).

The moving nature of the song is blunted by the cuteness of some of the images and the inclusion of S&C, but at least they retained the sudden ending of the lyrics:


The one time that a vocal by Cher was warranted was, natch, when Wilson animated one of her solo singles, “Dark Lady.” As with many of the story songs from this period, the lyrics imply a certain menace (and lo, a gun appears in the narrator’s hand!). This song was clearly intended as a follow-up to her hit “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.”


Now, finally one of the cartoons with the original singer on the soundtrack! One of the biggest hits of the early Seventies, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” rendered in cartoon fashion. This is the Wilson ‘toon I remembered the most vividly from my childhood (the other being the Joni entry below).

The oddest part of this fun little picture: Sonny and Cher being superimposed as bartenders.


The next one is fascinating choice: an album track from the Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies album, "Alcohol" (called here "Demon Alcohol"). It’s a very catchy tune, but as always with Mr. Davies’ best efforts, is also a wry piece of social commentary disguised as a hook-driven pop tune.

It’s very bizarre that Wilson chose to animate a song that was not a hit single; his credits at the Fine Arts website indicate that the Kinks' original version was used on the S&C show, but studio singer Wayne Carpenter is heard here. Pretty gloomy stuff for a prime time network variety show:


Now for a hardcore dose of the early Seventies, we turn to the impossible-to-forget “One Tin Soldier,” a song that became a hit several times, but is now and forever identified with the Tom Laughlin film Billy Jack.

The song has an odd history — it was written and originally recorded by the Canadian group the Original Caste. When it was adopted for the Laughlin film, they recruited rock vocalist supreme Jinx Dawson, who chose to credit her recording to her band Coven (more of them in a future blog post, I love their stuff).

This cartoon literally “spells out” the tune’s story and was re-used on the S&C Xmas show, mixed in with “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” thus making it an Xmas carol (if you click that last link, stay tuned for the absurd last image — yeah, S&C *loved* each other, a whole bunch!)


I close out with the two best Wilson cartoon music-vids, if only because they represent the yin and yang of early Seventies pop-rock. First comes the aforementioned menacing pop-hit story songs. Perhaps the oddest and most haunting example of this phenomenon is Helen Reddy’s “Angie Baby,” a catchy and creepy tune about a psycho-girl who kills a boy who's stalking her.

Reddy was the queen of psycho-girl songs – “Leave Me Alone” and “Delta Dawn” being her other two classics in this small but potent sub-genre. Alan O'Day (the singer-songwriter who gave us one of the most creative songs about masturbation, “Undercover Angel”) wrote the song and it still is a curious, weird little ditty.

A neighbor boy “with evil on his mind” haunts our radio-obsessed heroine and she ultimately gets revenge – he enters her bedroom and is “pulled off the ground” by the music. He disappears, and we're left with the image of a “crazy girl with a secret lover who keeps her satisfied.” (One assumes Angie has stowed the guy in the closet and removes him for her own purposes.)

Wilson/Fine Arts took a very interesting approach to the super-creepy song by making the character of Angie a broadly goofy barefoot hippie girl who actually IS a radio. Included are images of pop-rock artists (Elton John, The Beatles, Jim Croce, Stevie Wonder, etc.).  I understand why they had to somehow soften the images conjured up by the song, but it STILL is a wonderfully weird cartoon:


And lastly, the best-remembered of all of Wilson's musical cartoons, his take on musical goddess Joni Mitchell’s catchy-as-HELL ecological anthem “Big Yellow Taxi.”

In this instance Wilson and crew really seemed to love what they were doing, crafting imagery that once again “spells out” the song, but also has fun with Joni’s imagery and jovial tone. It's no wonder this is considered the best of these fascinating artifacts:


Images in this blog post come from the Fine Arts Films website.

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