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|It's the start of the Reagan-era '80s, and the 101st Fighting Clown battalion brigade wants you! This album combines Firesign's full-frontal live "Eight Shoes" vaudeville-style song & revue show with additional in-studio improvisations, captured just as the Sappy Seventies gave way to the belligerent and self-satisfied Empty Eighties. Semper Humorous, indeed.|
Written, Composed & Performed By
THE FIRESIGN THEATRE
IF THIS ISN'T ESCAPE, WHAT IS?"
"Odd how heavy the tensions are. The 80s - what a bomb!"
[DO's Diary, 26 January 1980]
What you are about to hear is a recruiting show for the Reagan Era. Three big acts on the Center Stage - America's Favorite Love Boat People - The Eight Shoes! Supply Side Balladeers - The 101st Fighting Clowns! And - Just say No! to Fuddz! Hostages, hot tubs, freedom fighters and nuclear war! Free! Only the interest on a trillion dollars!
This album got going in mid-January 1980 when TFT made a date to play The Roxy, a handsome Sunset Strip rock club, on the coming Leap Year weekend. We'd been in the big glitter box a couple of times before, with new comedy reviews - "The Owl and Octopus Show," "The Joey Demographico Show," but this loomed as a unique opportunity to strut our newest stuff to a new decade. It also loomed very soon.
We were covering the 1980 election campaign for NPR's "Morning Edition," and we would continue to argue about politics and policy among ourselves while we did so for months to come. We were writing song parodies profiling many of the hopefuls in the presidential field, contemplating post-modern biographies of Carter and Reagan, and testing alternative candidates like Vice President George L. Tirebiter and Phil Austin's implacable ex-movie star, Daffy Duck.
We were also arguing among ourselves about what direction The Firesign Theatre itself should take for the Eighties. We had a national radio outlet in an election year. People were talking to us about starring in a TV show. We were all interested in getting into the movies without buying a ticket. Taking the Roxy gig made us focus on preparing a show that might really show us off. As the show took on an identity it became a musical revue.
For the next four or five weeks we were together three or four days at a time, writing sketches about the invasion of Afghanistan and America's come-on with the Soviets. A Brechtian rant appeared (we had recently appeared in a Brecht piece, with music by Hindemith, playing violent clowns, live in Ojai), then Phil A's reggae named "Bill," and finally the Eighties Generation juicing up on 245TTCDDDESDDTCE. There was a lot of war talk in the news and folks were hotly partisan. Our show would be dressed in Cold War colors - Dead Black & Hot White.
February llth marked 100 days in captivity for the hostages in Iran. We wrote them in too - into a piece we called "The Towel Play," because towels figured as costumes in each of the blackout sketches. The blindfolded bureaucrats joined singing sailors-on-leave from several WWII musicals, punk wannabes from the Valley Mall, and coke-snorting Hollywood hot-tubbers in commenting on the confrontational times.
After a day or two of smoggy Spring, it rained. It rained day after day in mid-month and work mud-slid to a halt. The Phils' houses flooded. I tried to drive Peter home one afternoon. We drove - or dove - to the axle-deep bottom of Deep Canyon, where we got turned back by a neo-mythic road crew, looming out of the tropical twilight mists, a truly life-saving Spielberg moment.
Reaching high ground in the Valley for that night, we were introduced to a TRS-80 and an "inter-active" game to play on it. It was spiffier than video games, and video games had outstripped pinball for pizazz. The pixelated options of the Pentagon's ultra-simulated war-games were already heat-seeking trigger-happy young consumers, and now we could adventure in cyber-space. These notions landed first in the opening number of Fighting Clowns, and a year later in "The Pink Hotel Bums Down," a ten-minute demo for some high-concept entertainment software.
We were still writing on a second vaudeville sketch called "Meanwhile in Billville" (about the Olympics, I think) when band rehearsals (led by the excellent Richard Parker) began at The Roxy on February 25. The next day an album deal mushroomed - we'd record all six Roxy performances 24-track and make an LP from them! Zowie! The performances went very well, especially Leap Year Saturday. (Those are real audience reactions you hear, natch.) Double zowie! By the following weekend, it seemed we were going to have a movie deal too, at MGM. Triple zowie, but in negotiation.
By mid-month March we were spending weekends at Cherokee with Fred Jones, sweetening takes from the Roxy, laying in new music tracks (Jeff Baxter's blazing guitar riffs, and the brass section) and writing, improvising and recording new material. "Did the Hot Tub scene - 3 hours writing and 3 minutes recording," I wrote in my diary. We were still arguing about the Future, and it wasn't hard to wind ourselves up for the Fuddz scene, in which we fight, briefly, about breaking up the group. The Carter Song (chronicling the never-to-be Liberal Democratic Succession) vanished from the concept (to be issued much later as a "picture-disc" single, and included on this CD as a topical footnote).
Yet nothing seemed to hold a Firesign album together as the finished pieces accumulated until the last day in the studio, when we improvised the short wraparound scenes in which an audience of Us Clowns is hustled into the Big Show. "Something very simple and introductory," I wrote. "This album seems almost to be a segue from Bozos."
As Election Year dragged on, the first recording contract vanished, leaving the album to be issued in November on "Firesign/Rhino." We wrote our "How Can You Be?" adaptation of Homer's Odyssey only to be scuttled (along with Metro's mini-moguls of the moment) on the studio's way to ruin. We even ate lunch with Julia Phillips, pitched the "Airplane" guys, got a new manager, new agents. By November we were writing another show for the Roxy and preparing a national tour - among the last things we would do together for the rest of the teflon decade,
Fighting Clowns captures the "full-frontal" on-stage performances of February 1980, the in-studio improvisations of March, and the belligerent, self-satisfied mood of the Empty Eighties still to come. For the 1981 tour, we interpolated the following scene into "The Eight Shoes Present The American Pageant." Read it first. It'll help make Reality less painful!
"Hey! This way for the recruiting show-starring The Fighting Clowns! C'mon, get inside quick, you paid for it already! Hurry up! It'll make reality less painful."
When we were forming and performing Meanwhile in Billville at the Roxy on the strip - which was to become The Fighting Clowns show, I was going through a slew of painful personal changes: a second divorce, this time with a tiny daughter's lifestyle at stake; fighting floods which threatened to wash away my canyon home; and feeling like a hostage in my own country, still in shock after years of assassination and political turmoil.
A perfect atmosphere for comedy!
I love the dark, driving world-weary energy that propels this piece. Austin's sharp, compassionate lead vocals, and the sweet and sour harmonies that support him, the cabaret-like stylings reminiscent of the pre-nazi music of Weill and Brecht, the lyrics loaded with slippery images that juxtapose harsh sideshow realities with rose-colored musical-comedy evasions.
Or, as one of the doped-up dudes in Pam Jurgensen's hot tub rhaphsodizes: "Oh, maaan, if this isn't escape, what is!?"
Frankly, I'm not sure what this album is really about. Is it just a pleasantly paranoid, paradoxical, pre-Reagan parody, or a vinyl Time Capsule, designed to demonstrate once again how slowly we evolve?
I mean, it's 13 years later and everyone's still broke, civil wars still rage, Russia's still faking it, we still live under the threat of nuclear terrorism and toxic wastes, and public debate still rages over deadly delinquents, violent, dumb entertainment, fad drugs, puerile punk music, sex, and lawyers!
But - "one thing's for sure for the Final Four, they know this bus won't go to war... ." We've got enough to fight for right here at home. So, get on board "the bus that isn't going," and take a ride with us. Maybe you'll figure it out! Rilly, fer shur - whatever... .
(Sing along, please, Mr. Smith!)
"Everyone's a bozo on this bus, zips and beaners sitting next to us. Are you a hostage? Are you a spy? Or just some berzerker who's prepared to die?"
The name "Fighting Clowns" is my own invention and was meant at the time to be both a tongue-in-cheek and yet quite literal description of the Firesign Theatre as it existed in the hoary year of 1980 after some twelve years of ups-and-downs, with a few ups left in sight. Clowns. Fighting. It had to be funny, right? It had to be tragic, right?
I meant it to be a cold-hearted description of what this third manifestation of FST was like to work in. I did not say "Fighting Men" nor did I mean "Fighting Artists," nor "Fighting Partners." Clowns was the key word because clowning was what I thought had become our collective fate. I had once entertained higher ambitions for us, needless to say, although clowning is certainly a wonderful thing, unless you are a clown in which case it's a job.
To me, there is a great difference between a humorist and a clown, and I had hoped that life for the Firesign Theatre would have led more toward the world of Mark Twain than the world of Beepo. The humorist is a happy soul; he comments from the sidelines of life, safe behind the keyboard or pen; not forced to mold his thinking to the direct response of an audience, he has indirection on his side. He has time to think. Beepo, on the other hand, takes his chances directly facing - or mooning - the audience; a buffoon, a patsy, a performer, he is out in the open and his audience, unlike a humorist's, becomes necessarily half-friend and half-enemy. By 1980, I thought we needed many more friends than enemies, since we had driven our own tenuous friendships through so many ruts and potholes that we were something beyond friends, and will always be. (This is not entirely a bad thing, by the way.)
By 1980 we were, sad to say, without a record contract; we were split into competing factions. There was something out there calling itself the Firesign Theatre that seemed to me to be undermining our business in a very deliberate way although it turned out to be merely Proctor and Bergman. As I understood it - and I will never understand it - Philip and Peter felt that David and I did not want to move fast enough, play nightclubs and tone down our material to more plebeian tastes and they therefore felt compelled to move forward on their own. Which they did. To be sure, David and I were not really talking much to each other either, after our "Dr. Firesign's Theatre of Mystery" tour of the west coast, which was meant to be an antidote to confusion but which had not turned out to be much fun at all. We both felt increasingly helpless in the face of these events.
Back in 1976, on the last album for Columbia, authored by David and myself (but enfolding Philip and Peter in the performance and last-minute improvisation), we presented a production called "In the Next World, You're On Your Own." The title had a ring of truth to it, to be sure. It seems to me now to have been the last attempt on our collective part to make a work which fulfilled the dreams set forth in the original records; that of an entire piece that is an audio play set in several levels of time or space or understanding. Starting with the disastrous "Not Insane" and then the Sherlock Holmes parody of the "Giant Rat of Sumatra," and "Dear Friends," an album that detailed our most one-dimensional (not that it isn't funny, it often is) improvisatory meanderings on the radio, and a "Greatest Hits" compilation, the Firesign Theatre's presentation of less-dimensional work than the ideal had, to me, begun to cut seriously into the solid base of our primarily intellectual audience. I thought - and I was alone in this - that the audience could subsist happily on a diet of original and brilliant productions at the rate of something less than even one a year and would not respond well to an onslaught of necessarily - by comparison - second-rate material, no matter how amusing. It seemed to me that the core Firesign Theatre audience was not a collection of stupid "fans" and could not be expected to buy just anything and everything that we might do. The better work of the middle seventies, particularly "Everything You Know is Wrong" and "Next World," reached smaller and smaller audiences as the public became less pleased with our output and reputation and the record company began having doubts about sales. Already someone had begun leaking news of our 'breakup" to the press and Columbia Records was being encouraged to give up on us by persons unknown. A series of "solo" albums by Proctor and Bergman and one each by David and myself didn't help to dispel the public's sense that the Firesign Theatre was, in fact, over and done with.
So it was that, about a year before this album was created, in 1979, frustrated with these developments, I called Peter one winter evening and carefully revealed to him my desire to make some kind of peace and resurrect the four-man Firesign Theatre as best we could. He had come to many of the same conclusions as I and he and Proctor agreed to back off their activities for the most part and so we proceeded on a course that rather quickly resulted in a series of shows presented at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles and eventually five records (one for a defunct company and four for Rhino) as well as a film script for MGM called "The Odyssey." The business side of these projects was superintended by old friends Lanny Waggoner and Richard Schulenberg and enhanced by new friends John Hartmann and Steve Girard.
The shows were presented on the Sunset Strip at the Roxy and culminated eventually in the recordings which are the basis for this record. They were: "The Owl and the Octopus Show"; "The Joey Demographico Show"; the "Nick Danger; Men in Hats" show; and the production called finally "Welcome to Billville." Each production was enthusiastically received in Los Angeles and critically praised. Typically, quite a lot of this material, in hindsight, seems much better than I thought it was at the time. It represents two or more years of our lives performing to packed audiences in a medium-sized nightclub on a little stage with no financial backing, four clowns presiding over what looked to be the end of the Firesign Theatre's unlikely run at glory. You have to remember that only a few years previous we were being compared to James Joyce and were knocking them dead at Camegie Hall.
What all this writing lacked, it seems to me now, was the final painstaking four-man-going-over that might result, because of the elaborate compromises and leaps of faith that the process had come to represent, in a masterpiece at the level of "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers," or the other early works.
After the making of "Fighting Clowns" and the resultant nightclub and beer-hall tour that followed in 1981 (and the subsequent departure of David in pursuit of more profitable ventures) until 1989, when Peter and I finally closed down our offices at Lorimar Studios, we managed to field as many as three FST people for several projects which now seem quite a bit more inspired that I had suspected at the time, particularly the Grammy-nominated album for Rhino, "The Three Faces of Al," and the last of several long-form video presentations: "Eat or be Eaten" for RCA/Columbia. David, as well, managed in spite of his busy career far away from the rest of us, to keep George Tirebiter alive and well in a series of creative manifestations.
So it was that, in 1980, I found a good deal of solace in music, continuing on from the experiments of "Roller Maidens From Outer Space," my solo album (somewhat misleading, because it is the only FST "solo" album that stars the entire Firesign Theatre). I missed the experiment of group writing, I tend to think more than anyone else, although now I miss it not at all having gone on to other types of writing which have turned out, much to my surprise, to be intensely satisfying.
The songs and music on the "Fighting Clowns" album were a great pleasure. Since the writing of them devolved on me (the lyrics are from all of us) and I was as well the chief singer and also played rhythm guitar on stage, I got to hang with Tim and Eddie and Richard as part of the band which was really fun. All other instrumentation is either added later or, in the case of the Bozos song at the end, created by the four musicians and then elaborated upon by contracting players like Jeff Baxter. Jeff was a major factor in the album and his wacky solo (the whole tune is one long solo for him) on "Violent Juvenile Freaks" and soulful chording on "Hey Reagan," make the whole album worthwhile whether you laugh or not. He added a complete layer of overdubbed musical jokes that are subtle and wonderful.
Fred Jones moved over from the engineer's chair to help co-produce the project, which I badly needed, given my extra chores with the music and my general feelings of doom about everything else. I had never felt like this as a producer, on all the other Firesign Theatre albums over the years, and Fred quickly became one of a long line of creative engineers in the tradition of Bill Driml and Phil Cross and Andy MacDonald whose sense of humor and dedication to audio would help mold our recorded output into the high-class stuff that I believe it to be.
I was tired of being a clown, I guess. I think I was getting afraid of what the future might hold. As it was to turn out, Oona and I were about to buy our house and settle down and stop wrangling with the Firesign Theatre and move ourselves onward and upwards. To this day, we are both on and up. Ask Oona.
For all of this, as I listen to "Fighting Clowns" now, it strikes me as interesting that the hot-tubbers are so prescient, that the Afghans are so wise, that the Bozos are so peaceable and that the punkers are so old. Maybe "Fighting Clowns" is a whole lot better than I thought. And it is, certainly. But still, what will always be missing for me are the extra layers of meaning and thought and comedy that would have made the production a success worthy of standing with the earlier work of the Firesign Theatre. Music, I was to find, could never entirely make up for the lack of density in the writing, although it certainly supplied needed color and texture,
What is missing on "Fighting Clowns" are two pieces of a larger puzzle. I now believe them to be "Welcome to Billville" and its companion piece "The Presidents In Hell." "Billville" was a bizarre story - an educational film - that detailed the maneuverings of Mayor Penisnose and his cronies in Billville to poison the water of the town with steroids in order that their children's necks might become so big that one of them might win some Olympic medals in Neck-Skiing. The "Presidents In Hell" featured Ike, Nixon, Truman and Roosevelt stuck in a strange half-world of accusations and dreams and alcohol. These pieces were featured on stage but never recorded and had we been able to mix them into the writing and recording, it seems to me now that we would have had something dark and rich and amazing. So much for hindsight. As it is, 'Fighting Clowns" seems to me to be dark and shallow and amazing.
This record is what it says it is, a "Full, Frontal Entertainment." For better or for worse, it comes right at you and it turns out that it is both better than expected and worse than what might have been anticipated. Not a bad summation for the Firesign Theatre itself in that year of trouble which was 1980.
Music Arranged By Richard Parker and Phil Austin
"Fighting Clowns Theme" and Horn Arrangements by Richard Parker
Recorded in time for April Fool's Day, 1980
at Cherokee Studios & The Roxy Theater, Hollywood
Engineering by Fred Jones, Frederick Ampel and Larold Rebhun
Original Cover Illustration and Design by Phil Hartmann
Black and White Scratchboard Art by Blitz
THANKS BOZOS!; Diane Davisson, Taps; Jeff Bruner, Glockenspiel;
Mike Freas, Pinball; The Mystery Woman at the Center Table;
Lanny Waggoner; Susan Tanner; Miss Piggy & Big Mike; Michael Schwartz;
Thom Scott at Tangent Systems, Inc.; Con Merton; Coco Brandon;
Michael Stocker; the entire Cherokee staff;
and the Staff and Audience at The Roxy.
Written Material © 1980 by The Firesign Theater
All songs published by Firesign Music
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