How a Fake Cartoon Band Made “Sugar Sugar” the Biggest Selling Hit Single of 1969

Rock crit­ic Lester Bangs described bub­blegum pop as “the basic sound of rock ’n’ roll – minus the rage, fear, vio­lence and anomie.” The short-lived genre had its roots in the Please Please Me era of the Bea­t­les’ minus the sex and the sar­casm. But from the Bea­t­les we can trace a pret­ty sol­id path to the Archies. Not that we deserved this band as an inevitabil­i­ty, but the car­toon con­coc­tion is one of a thou­sand vari­ants from that infec­tious strain of post-war pop.

The Archie’s last­ing lega­cy is one sin­gle: the bonafide ear­worm, “Sug­ar Sug­ar.” Writ­ten by Jeff Bar­ry and Andy Kim, it was a real num­ber one sin­gle (it knocked the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman” off the throne in 1969) sung by a com­plete­ly fake band, name­ly the cast of Archie Comics, the five or six per­pet­u­al teenagers that have been around since 1941.

How we got there, we must go back to the Bea­t­les. Once the Fab Four had start­ed to quick­ly out­grow their inno­cent image, King Fea­tures turned the four into a Sat­ur­day Morn­ing car­toon show in 1965 so their Richard Lester-inspired antics could con­tin­ue apace. This then led pro­duc­ers Bob Rafel­son and Bert Schnei­der to ask them­selves: why use the Bea­t­les when Amer­i­ca could man­u­fac­ture its own? The Mon­kees were born in 1966: three Amer­i­cans and one Brit sor­ta-mop­tops who starred in a sit­com based around their own hilar­i­ous, failed attempts to be as good as John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Music Super­vi­sor Don Kir­sh­n­er came from a career at the Brill Build­ing, launch­ing the careers of Neil Dia­mond, Car­ole King, and Tony Orlan­do, and on the Mon­kees, he was in charge of seek­ing out song­writ­ers for the group, along with stu­dio musi­cians, call­ing in the band to sing only when nec­es­sary. This led to “Last Train to Clarksville” (Boyce and Hart), “Day­dream Believ­er” (John Stew­art) and “I’m a Believ­er” (Dia­mond), all sol­id hits. But that dis­mis­sive­ness of the actors’ own tal­ents led to ten­sions in the band, espe­cial­ly Michael Nesmith, who had his own coun­try-lean­ing inter­ests. Upon hear­ing “Sug­ar, Sug­ar” as a pos­si­ble Mon­kees song, Nesmith absolute­ly refused. “It’s a piece of junk,” he told Kir­sh­n­er. “I’m not doing it.”

Kir­sh­n­er returned home know­ing that the song could be a hit. His son Ricky was read­ing Archie com­ic books, and the idea formed-—why not turn the com­ic into a band, and have them per­form the sin­gle. (The rights for the Archie char­ac­ters at that time were very afford­able.)

So take a reject­ed Mon­kees song, add a bit of Bea­t­les-style, cheapo ani­ma­tion, and a guar­an­teed pro­mo­tion machine (tele­vi­sion) and “Sug­ar, Sug­ar” turned into a hit. Ini­tial­ly reluc­tant to play a fake band, pop radio start­ed play­ing the sin­gle two months after its ini­tial release, from May to July, and it would go on to spend 22 weeks in the chart, four of them at Num­ber One. It was Billboard’s Num­ber One song of the year for 1969, a year bet­ter known for the crum­bling of the Sum­mer of Love. Rape, mur­der, it was just a shot away. But so was that “can­dy girl” and that “hon­ey, hon­ey” and why would­n’t peo­ple choose the lat­ter?

The Archies released five albums in total, only the first fea­tur­ing the com­ic char­ac­ters on the cov­er. But they all con­tin­ued in the bub­ble gum vein, writ­ten by a small sta­ble of song­writ­ers such as Ritchie Adams, Jeff Bar­ry, Robert Levine, Gene Allen, and oth­ers. Rob Dante sang the lead vocals; Toni Wine sang both Bet­ty and Veron­i­ca (the lat­ter had the high­er reg­is­ter).

Unlike the Mon­kees, who embraced the pop psy­che­delia in the cul­ture and put out a grand fol­ly of a movie called Head (with Frank Zap­pa! and Ringo Starr!), the Archies just kept bang­ing out bub­blegum until it turned into sun­shine (the name of their third album) and the fad had passed. Fifty years lat­er, “Sug­ar, Sug­ar,” remains a good pop song. Wil­son Pick­ett even cov­ered it, inject­ing some much need­ed soul into the pro­ceed­ings.

The idea of a fake, car­toon pop group has nev­er gone away. In fact, Damon Albarn’s Goril­laz project (which has been around for some 20 years now!) showed the ben­e­fits that can be had when car­toons take over the image and let the musi­cians work in the back­ground. Can we give the Archies some of the cred­it? Chew on that, why don’t ya.

via Rolling Stone

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Jimi Hen­drix Opens for The Mon­kees on a 1967 Tour; Then After 8 Shows, Flips Off the Crowd and Quits

The Bea­t­les Sat­ur­day Morn­ing Car­toon Show (1965–1969)

Sal­vador Dalí & Walt Disney’s Short Ani­mat­ed Film, Des­ti­no, Set to the Music of Pink Floyd

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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