The Banana Splits Show was around for about a year, in 1968 or 1969, when I was between 12 and 13. It was an American show that was shown about 5.00pm, the ideal time for getting back from school and having fun before tea and homework took over. I was the right age for it, just discovering the possibilities of absurdity: the greatest era of children’s TV is when you’re between 12 and 13.
It was about four guys dressed up as giant furry animals, running around some massive American fairground (Six Flags over Texas, it said, a rare early instance of me actually reading the credits). They’d meet in a clubhouse, tell outrageous jokes and puns, play songs, run after the bus, take out the trash, cower in fear from the Orange Crush Gang, eight year old girls who danced around, and be wonderfully, wonderfully silly.
And there were cartoons, and a live action serial titled ‘Danger Island’ which we all watched religiously, and we’d shout ‘Uh-oh Chongo!’ to each other, after one of the characters in the serial, and avoid talking about the girl with the long blonde hair, because we weren’t quite ready for that yet: well, I certainly wasn’t.
Then, inside the first two minutes of the second series, the Banana Splits, who’d been like real-life animated characters, turned into actual animated characters, and it was rubbish, and I never watched it again.
Years later, it kept reappearing, and I’d video episodes hoping to capture those one or two songs that had stuck in my memory, I mean, really stuck in my memory, from one, or maybe two hearings. By then, I’d discovered a taste for mid-to-late Sixties clean-cut American pop, bordering on but not actually bubblegum, and there was one Banana Splits song that was so perfect an example that I’ve never been able to understand why it wasn’t put out as a single and become a big hit.
Fast forward to about a dozen years ago and one of those late Sunday night cross-country drives, bringing the kids back from seeing their father. From somewhere, the conversation turns to the Banana Splits and those great songs, and their not having been released, until simultaneously we think of the internet. And, sure enough, a search as soon as we get in turns up this CD, in California, at an easily affordable price, and ten days later it arrives.
It’s an oddball of a compilation. First, there’s the We’re the Banana Splits LP of old, plus nearly a half-dozen bonus tracks from the series. Then it’s paired with another Sixties cartoon album, Here Come The Beagles, taken from the cartoon series ‘The Beagles’, which, to the best of my knowledge, was never broadcast over here, which provides ten tracks, but after that is another four bonus bonus tracks from the Banana Splits, which is weird programming.
Apparently, the CD was an unofficial release, mastered from the vinyl copies, with the benefit of noise reduction processing (which works incredibly well), but it covers the vast majority of the groups’ recorded output, or rather, let’s be honest here, the various combinations of LA session singers and musicians (which include Al Kooper, Barry White and Gene Pitney!) used to produce these tracks, who were working on a purely commercial basis.
I’m not usually into manufactured music, but you can’t love Sixties music as I do without recognising that a considerable amount of it was created as a purely commercial enterprise, overtly or covertly, by professional songwriters and producers, and yet so much of even that is art itself: happy, warm, living music that belies its cynical origins to sparkle.
The Beagles (and we can guess where that name comes from) were a two-piece who apparently took off Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as their personas (but then the wonderful Top Cat took off Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko, so let’s not quibble). Their songs date two to four years earlier than the Banana Splits, and it shows in their relative flatness: they’re responses to the British Invasion and lack any true inventiveness, where the Banana Splits music is derived from American pop and bubblegum: it’s original inspirations are further back, allowing a richer, more vivid palate to surface.
The styles of songs range too widely to be the ‘product’ of a single band. They’re catchy, but not all that memorable, except for the three tracks which make this CD worth keeping, one from the album, one from the bonus tracks and one from the bonus bonus tracks. Extracting these tracks and playing them together is a clear reminder that this is session work, for the lead vocals differ significantly from track to track.
But ‘Wait till Tomorrow’ is that perfect piece of cleancut pop, light, airy, with the most gorgeous, yearning chorus, all love from that time when holding hands is still a major breakthrough, all love lost but there to be recovered, given time: wait till tomorrow/we’ll find each other again/just wait till tomorrow/tomorrow we will learn to love again.
‘I enjoy being a boy (in love with you)’ (which was only ever given away with Kellogg’s box-tops) is a slice of psychedelia, with gravelly vocals and fantastic imagery and is one of the few songs ever to use the word ‘mellifluous’ in its lyrics.
And ‘I was the very first kid on my block’ is again a piece of pure pop, guitar based, a song on the edge of maturity as its narrator relates how he was the very first kid on his block to fall in love, with a girl who used him for fun, manipulating him without thought for his feelings. The song is his rueful acceptance of his experience, his dealing with the hurt and emerging strong, yet not unchanged: ‘I’ll forget about her in a while and then/I’ll be the very last kid on my block to fall in love again’.
I could easily rip those tracks, add them to a CD of my own making, but I like to hear them in their context. The golden age of children’s TV is between 12 and 13, and these were the only unmediated pop music I heard in a household where my parents hated the sound of it. This CD allows it to still be there.