Saturday hangover

When producer Ralph Sall set out to assemble his Saturday Morning Cartoons' Greatest Hits album--which takes the concept of the tribute album to its extreme, blurring the line between gimmick and genius--he first decided which songs he wanted to use. A self-proclaimed "developmentally arrested" cartoon junkie fixated with the cartoons of the late '60s and early '70s, he wrote down a list of 50 songs that ranged from the well-known ("Speed Racer," "Popeye the Sailor Man," "Scooby Doo, Where Are You?") to the obscure ("Open Up Your Heart and Let the Sun Shine In," culled from a Flintstones episode in which Pebbles and Bam-Bam imagine they're rock stars), and trimmed it down to a still-staggering 19 tunes.

He then made a list of bands he would ask to re-record those memorable and forgotten songs, aware of how daunting a task it would be to stretch 30-second themes into three-minute tunes, and how silly an album like this could turn out if done without the most serious consideration. Some of the choices for artists seemed obvious to him (Matthew Sweet doing "Scooby Doo"); others, he labored over for more than a year before bringing them into the project. But, he insists now, he got all the bands he wanted--including three from Dallas.

Finally, at the beginning of this year, Sall began touring around the country recording such artists as the Ramones, Tanya Donelly and Juliana Hatfield, Liz Phair and Material Issue, Matthew Sweet, the Butthole Surfers, the Violent Femmes, and Helmet, gathering their straight-faced and smirky renditions of such long-lost gems as "The Tra La La Song (Theme from 'The Banana Splits')," "Spider-Man," and "Sugar, Sugar."

During the recording process, about two months ago, Sall came to town to set up shop at Planet Dallas recording studios--first to record the Toadies' rendition of "Goolies Get Together" (from the long-forgotten "Groovie Goolies"), then to put to tape a hastily organized and amazingly arranged-at-the-last-minute version of "Jonny Quest" and "Stop that Pigeon" (from "Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines").

The following week, back in Los Angeles, Sall recorded Tripping Daisy's homage to singer Tim DeLaughter's heroes, H.R. Pufnstuf and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters creators Sid and Marty Krofft. The track that made it to Cartoons' Greatest Hits, "Friends/Sigmund and the Sea Monsters," sounds as though it were written by the Daisy itself--appropriate, since during a recent guest-host shot on MTV's "120 Minutes," DeLaughter repeatedly spoke of his affection for the Kroffts.

"There's a long-form video that goes along with the album," Sall says by phone from his L.A. office, "and all the bands did videos for it, and it just so happens they were filming a segment for the special with Drew Barrymore when the Daisy was recording. I took Tim over and he got to meet the guy who plays H.R. Pufnstuf--he hasn't put the suit on in 20 years--and Tim was really excited."

On December 5, MCA Records will release Saturday Morning Cartoons' Greatest Hits, and around the same time, the Cartoon Network will air a 90-minute special hosted by Barrymore and featuring videos from all the artists (most of which consist of "live" performances with the appropriate archival footage sprinkled in liberally). And as an odd, added bonus, Marvel Comics is putting the finishing touches on an accompanying comic book that will feature all of the artists on the disc and their Saturday morning cartoon counterparts engaged in a plot "to save the future from really bad music," Sall says.

Sall, who was responsible for the project from inception two years ago to final execution, lists among his creditis the Less Than Zero soundtrack and the Grateful Dead (1991's Deadicated) and Eagles (Common Thread in 1993) tribute albums. In fact, the Dead album was the first tribute on a major label, and the Eagles disc still ranks as the most commercially successful of the bunch, which means Sall is in no small part responsible for the glut of half-assed tribute albums that are usually no tribute at all.

Sall often likens Cartoons' Greatest Hits to his Deadicated album, insisting the Dead album legitimized that band's influence a few years before it was realized outside their rabid following. But when the Butthole Surfers tackle "Underdog" (with Gibby Haynes' voice blurred to a gruff grumble underneath so much rockabilly distortion) or Tanya Donelly and Juliana Hatfield assume the good-girl voices of "Josie and the Pussycats," the songs don't quite transcend their status as novelties. Then again, Matthew Sweet's rendition of "Scooby Doo, Where Are You?" and the Violent Femmes' "Eep Op Ork A A" (from an episode of "The Jetsons," shame on you) are so identical to the originals and still so much like one of the artist's own tunes, they almost erase the line between influence and irony.

That's not to say Cartoons' Greatest Hits isn't without its wonderful, redeeming moments--The Rev's version of "Jonny Quest/Stop that Pigeon," for instance, sounds almost orchestrated and larger-than-life, a tailor-made throwaway not so different from the "Psychobilly Freakout" that was the highlight of the band's debut CD Smoke 'Em if You Got 'Em; and Frente's sweetly unsettling "Let the Sun Shine In" redeems its forgettable "career."

But the album is still an homage to kitsch, an attempt to rescue childhood memories from the garbage bin of nostalgia. For the most part, they're songs you barely remember from shows you can hardly recall; in fact, many of the series from which the tracks were taken--including "The Bugaloos," "Gigantor," and "The Groovie Goolies"--were short-lived, running for less than two years.

Sall, however, insists these songs are anything but kitsch; to him, they're good rock songs that have been masquerading all these years as novelty throwaways, three-minute marvels dying to bust out of their 30-second shells. He points to their moment of creation as "the most fertile period in rock and roll," and though the cartoon songs were usually knockoffs of popular songs to begin with (see: The Archies' hit single "Sugar, Sugar," covered here by Mary Lou Lord and Semisonic), Sall insists they have merit even if it comes second-hand.

"It's a blurred distinction at best," he says. "The Beatles were the genuine article, the Partridge Family were a made-for-TV fabrication, and the Archies were a completely animated rock group, but they all had No. 1 hit singles and TV shows. You give me the critical thinking of a kid sitting in front of the TV on a Saturday morning. There is none. That's kind of what I'm getting at.

"One might look at it as kitsch, but I don't. If I did, I don't think I would be able to make the record you hear. I like the stuff, and I wanted to make the ultimate party record. If you take the disc home and put it on at a Christmas party, people will stop and listen to every song and sing along, and it's cool."

Sall says he chose the Toadies for "Goolie Get Together" because he liked the idea of matching frontman Todd Lewis' "dark vision" with a "monster-themed cartoon"; the resulting track, though it bears little resemblance to anything the band's ever done, came out "sounding Blue Oyster Cult-like," Sall figures, "and I think the Toadies kinda sound like that, anyway."

For his part, Lewis says he didn't remember the song till Sall played it for the band, and they had only one day to learn it. As for his "dark vision," Lewis just shrugs: "Uh. Yeah.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky