Sunday, August 14, 2016

Under the Big Top # 33: “Pop Art”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Magic Bus”
Album: Released as a single
Release Date: September, 1968

About two months ago, I made an effort to explain my appreciation of the Who to Cousin Jack (after great feedback from him about The Kids Are Alright film where he brought up Ringo’s promotion for the movie; the Beatles drummer sitting sternly in an armchair stating “Hello children….you know who I am…. I know who you are….but we all know who The Who are!”).  I put it this way to Jack: “You know, in those days (the mid-70s’) we were all about Red Sox, Bruins, Lost in Space and Wacky Packs.  I look at the Who as simply an extension of all that.” Since then I’ve been meaning to expound upon just what I meant by that comment.  Now is the time. 

Jack’s reminder of the Ringo promotion was the catalyst for that specific reply by me.  There are several reasons for this.  First off, Jack and I were products of our times.  We had what could best be defined as pop sensibilities. The term ‘pop’ is simply an abbreviated term for ‘popular’, and in the context of ‘pop art’ it is having an affinity, maybe even a fascination, with mainstream (as opposed to elitist) art and culture.  Many in prior generations found this a bit odd (including my Dad).  Their appreciation for the upper-crust things in life; classical music and books, traditional art galleries, powerful historical figures, fine dining, Greek and Roman ruins and the like, was noble for sure, but these had taken a back seat for most of us baby boomers.  There was now brand new interest and insight into what was brilliant, sunny, cool and funny. 

There was and continues to be a significant visual aspect to pop art.  Makers of album covers, comic books, games, sunglasses, clothing, shoes, sitcoms, musical instruments, lunch boxes, you name it, all spruced up their acts after the advent of pop.  Heck, even sports cards got livelier in the 70s.  Perhaps this was simply an inevitable follow up after the dawn of color TV.  Who knows?  What I do know is that for Jack and I and many of our friends and family members, it was all borderline addictive. 

Rock and Roll has for many years fed off of this visual aspect of the pop phenomenon, starting with the psychedelia of the late 60s and never really abating much since.  And it was not just the aforementioned album covers.  It was also the stage acts, the personas, and the songwriting. Bands like the Kinks started writing about the average guy in songs like “Mr. Pleasant” and “Muswell Hillbilly”.  David Bowie and Elton John out flanked one another on a weekly basis with their garish stage acts.  The Rolling Stones built up an outsider tax-exile image in Southern France. It all factored in to what was accessible to the average guy and gal.

Of all the bands that capitalized on this pop culture, The Who took the cake.  They were, from my perspective, the most visual extension of my pop-generational mindset.  To use the analogy of this blog series, this band was the main act in the Big Top tent:  A rock and roll circus extravaganza!  There was so much going on in their 4-piece live act that it would often border on sensory overload.  With the Stones, you could focus on one instrument or another. With Neil Young and Crazy Horse, you could simply take in the totality of the sound. The Who?  Well, there was this powerful visual essence that went with the music.  There was Pete Townshend all over the stage, wind milling, strutting, hovering, sliding and spiritualizing.  There was John Entwistle, anchoring, thunder-fingering, harmonizing, focusing, and decompressing.  There was Keith Moon flailing, pacing, innovating, master-minding and intensifying.  There was Roger Daltrey, whirling, swirling, internalizing, prancing and encapsulating.  This was pop art in pure form:  It was incredible.

With this pop sensibility of my generation came a collector/hobbyist mentality as well.  Savvy promoters with a creative touch knew how to tap into my mass-appeal market.  We witnessed “collector’s additions” for just about anything. Even the prizes inside cereal boxes were fair game (see below).  It was a blast to strive for the complete set of anything (I don’t think I ever got there with any of my collections, but it was sure fun trying), and to understand the value of any particular item (often based on demand and quantity produced), and to trade with your friends. 

At the surface this all had an air of superficiality about it.  But there was something deeper going on.  All this stimulation led to personal creativity for many of us on the receiving end.  Our minds were opened up to out-of-the-box ways of thinking.  I’m not sure many of the synapsis in my brain would have ever been used without my pop-art interests.

With all this said I’d like to delve a bit into a big part of what made my adolescent world so fascinating.  Let me start with a gift I got under the Christmas tree when I was 5 years old.  It was a blue box of animals, each of them elastic-strung into their slots and labeled.  This collection was created with passion I am sure, as every detail of these animals was exquisite:  The sculpting (for lack of a better term, considering these were plastic molds), the painting (this was no shoddy rush job, as even the eyes were handled with care) the scale coordination (each animal was perfectly sized relative to the others).  This collection opened my eyes to the diversity of life on the planet.  Yes the standard creatures were there: Lions, giraffes, elephants, and zebras.  But there were also unusual animals that no one I knew had ever heard of: Tapirs and okapis, elands, spring bucks, anteaters, and ibex. 

When my parents received the package in the mail several days before Christmas, they spotted that the tiny platypus was missing.  They knew this bizarre creature would be a big hit with me and promptly contacted the toy store to inform them and ask what could be done.  On Christmas Eve, so the story goes, the duck-billed platypus arrived on Santa’s sleigh just in time to be tucked into its tiny slot beneath the elephants. 

No one else I knew had this animal collection.  Believe it or not, I still have a number of the figures from that set (alas, not the platypus, a victim of a neighborhood bully hurling all my animals into the woods).  I had hours and hours of fun with those animals, particularly with friend Phil, who concocted fantastical character development for every one of them (for example, the ibex was a detective who came to many of his insights by sticking his nose into the elephant’s ear).  

For years I’ve tried to track this “Britain’s LTD Animals” collection on the web.  I’ve found individual animals here and there, but never in that original blue box complete set.  Finally, just recently when I started compiling this entry, I checked again and found it!:

Next up: Battling Tops.  In this game (which I received as a gift when it came out in 1968) you would roll your Top in a string and prop it up into its fighting corner.  Then you would pull the string and go to battle:  Last man standing and spinning wins.  Often a Top would be knocked right out of the ring.  I include this game here because it has a pop art feel about it.  I loved the names of the tops: Hurricane Hank, Tricky Nicky, Dizzy Dan, Twirling Tim, Smarty Smitty, and Super Sam:

Ok, below is one of my favorite collections of all time:  Funny Fringes.  These were collected out of Kellogg’s Fruit Loops boxes.  My favorite was Sniffinge (middle top row) and then Snozinge (far right middle row).  I pictured these two as sort of Laurel (tall, lanky, goofy) and Hardy (short stumpy, gruff) friendship.  Fringe was their sidekick (top row second from left next to Sniffinge).  Phil gave him a sort of super power:  He could spit wood (I am laughing silly as I write this).  Other favorites included Spinge (bottom row middle), Twinge (bottom row left) and Puddinge (middle row middle). I had a toy convertible car that I could perfectly stuff them all into; so perfectly that I could tip the car upside down and none would fall out.  Sniffinge was at the wheel.  Snozinge road shotgun.  Believe it or not, I still have a few of these guys:

When Cousin Jack and I, (along with our brothers) stayed over Aunt Margaret’s home, she would surprise us with Monster Models to put together, including Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Dracula, Mummy, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the Phantom of the Opera, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Forgotten Prisoner (this one Phil had at the entryway to his multi-roomed cellar, which scared the daylights out of you if you let your mind wander).  We would also pick these up at the very cool hobby shop in downtown Franklin.  Every one of these models had an expression of horror on their faces.  It made the experience of gluing them together and painting them all the more intense.  I have the Creature from the Black Lagoon propped up in the study of our home:

I mentioned sports cards earlier. The one collection that stands out the most for me was the Boston Bruins of 1971. This team was astounding, and brought me into the world of sports.  They had the top 4 point scorers in the league that year (and 7 of the top 10!) led by the best hockey player of all time, Bobby Orr.  And they were a marvel to watch (though in some ways they spoiled me).  I loved everything about this team and these cards, but for whatever reason that I can’t quite explain, it’s the background color (each team had its own color identity) that connects with me the most, which again has a sort of pop-art feel about it: 

Another type of collector card that was popular in Junior High School was Wacky Packages. These cards swept me into the wonderful alternate world of the bizarre and maybe even on their own, opened me up to non-conformity.  How?  Well, Wacky Packs gave me a bit of clairvoyance into contemplating the true meaning of success.  It was fun and insightful at the same time and included twists on common products such as “Blunder Bread”, “Chock Full of Nuts and Bolts” (the Heavily Coffee”), “Crust” (toothpaste), “Vile” soap, and so much more:

Comic books were a craze for me for about four years in the mid-70s.  Great friends, Bruce and Mac, along with me would go down to the Franklin News Store on Thursday’s and help unpackage the new shipments that arrived that day just to get our hands on them first.  The comic company of creative edginess in the 70s was Marvel (their competitor DC was so past their prime at the time – Batman, Superman, others – that we referred to the DC acronym as standing for “Dog Crap”).  Marvel comics worth reading in those years were the ones that had the best writers assigned to them.  These included the X-Men, the Avengers, the Defenders, the Amazing Spider Man, and the Incredible Hulk.  There was a lot of interesting character development (for example, Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, was an alcoholic who struggled mightily at times with his addiction and Wolverine was a not-so-nice team player on the X-Men) that would eventually play out nicely on film.  One thing that drew me into this world was the illustrations.  The detail could often be very dramatic and would contribute greatly to the storyline: 

Although not so much pop art (but still extremely visual), this entry would not be complete without mentioning coins.  My favorites were the pennies, nickels and dimes.  We (friends and family) collected coins in many ways, including by digging them up (using metal detectors) and as stocking stuffers.  The most creative way we collected however was to roll up the ones we already pored over and then exchange them for other rolls at downtown stores (the best to get were from old stores that had cash registers with rolls in the back that were not touched in decades!).  It was so much fun populating our coin books like this one below of Mercury Dimes:

Finally, there were the ’45 records and accompanying picture sleeves, particularly the Beatles, which in my late high school years ended up being the last collectible I ever really got into.  This was pop art in the hands of the musicians themselves.  To this day, I still love looking at these:

This week’s song is “Magic Bus” ( because along with the big top circus analogy, these two words capture the Who journey for me.  When played live, the song would often be stretched out into a jam, the Who often trying to flesh new sound for new material.  Pretty cool when you think about it:  The band riding the Magic Bus on stage in an effort to create and explore.  The song was a proverbial palette to work with.  You could go anywhere on the Magic Bus!

I recently read a Pete Townshend interview where he talked briefly about the uniqueness of Who fans (as opposed to fans of other bands).  He said something to the effect that we are a fascinating, creative bunch.  Good people, interesting, deep thinkers.  Having met many myself over the years, I have to agree.  I believe that this entry gets to the core of what Townshend meant:  The Who as a visceral product of their pop-culture times appealed to us fans in the same way that all the above products did.  And this appeal led to wonderful lives for many of us.  It complimented who we are, what our career choices were, how we committed ourselves to our families and our faith, how we took risks, how we reasoned, and how we opened our true selves up to those we love. 


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