Friday, March 16, 2012

Firesign Theatre - Dear Friends (1972)

This set is a distillation of the Firesign Theater's 21 hour-long weekly radio programs conceived and produced live on the air at KPFK in Los Angeles between September 9, 1971, and February 17, 1972. These tapes were then whittled down to 12 one-hour shows and syndicated under the title Dear Friends, and were subsequently broadcast throughout North America on burgeoning underground FM stations. Unlike most other Firesign Theater recordings, the emphasis here is on improvisation, with a keen ear toward the medium of radio. The Firesign Theater actually incorporate and refer to the medium throughout their impromptu sketches as if it were the fifth member of the troupe. The four human Firesigns are: Phillip Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor. Their background includes several other short-lived series for radio, including Radio Free Oz and the Firesign Theater Radio Hour. For Dear Friends, scripts and other preconceived notions were dismissed in an effort for the members to explore the possibilities of congruous verbal improvisation, incorporating many of the same techniques that musicians employ when performing live. The major difference being the absence of instant audience feedback as radio, which is infinitely more insidious -- practically invading the homes and autos of willing participants. The Firesign Theater of the air deftly construct premise after premise with verbal sparring and wordplay. The freshness and spontaneity in their oft-times bewildered retorts is contagiously funny. No matter how many times you hear a routine, the impeccable timing never fails to garner a smile at the expense of the audience's expectations. Dear Friends, originally issued as a two-LP set, consists of comparatively short extracts relating to four subheadings: "A Properly Religious Opening," "The T.V. Set," "Animals, Vegetables & Minerals," and "It's Sure Realistic." Many infamous characters and bits that would exist beyond Dear Friends include: "Freezing Mr. Foster," "Deputy Dan Has No Friends," a collective glance into the "T.B. Guide," "Balliol Bros.," and "Poop's Principles." The latter features the fictitious Principal Poop from More Science High School -- a character being concurrently developed by the troupe on the Don't Crush That Dwarf Hand Me the Pliers album. Locating a copy of the 1992 CD reissue of Dear Friends on the audiophile Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab might be difficult, as it was limited in edition and likewise became an unfortunate casualty of the demise of the label in the late '90s. For enthusiasts of the Firesign Theater, it is a mandatory find.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Firesign Theater - I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus (1971)

Picking up exactly where Don't Crush That Dwarf left off (with the sound of an ice cream truck), I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus isn't so much a revelation as its predecessor. This is another concept album, this time about technology, the future, and humanity's place in the equation. There are less obvious laughs this time out, and the album really needs repeated listens to begin to make any sense of it (indeed, in the Mobile Fidelity reissue, two of the members of the group contribute essays in an attempt to make it less incomprehensible). Still, there are some really fine moments that immediately click, like "Breaking of the President" and the visits from the Holygrams. Repeated listening will bring out all the album has to offer.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Firesign Theatre - Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (1970)

Firesign Theatre's previous work had already proved that the troupe wasn't particularly interested in releasing conventional comedy albums. While earlier albums had longer pieces, Don't Crush That Dwarf is the first time they dedicated an entire album to a single theme. Although initially it sounds like a loose collection of semi-related items, it later becomes clear that the whole album is a look through the past of a single character, George Leroy Tirebiter, with a few flips of a television tuner knob taking you through his early days as a child star all the way up to a This Is Your Life-style reflection and beyond. Television and movie parodies still figure prominently throughout: "High School Madness" is a hilarious spoof on wholesome '40s boys' adventure films, but the group also takes on war films, televangelists, commercials, and more. In many ways, this is a comedy concept album. What's more, it moves past comedy in places, proving that you can be funny while remaining intelligent. The group even throws in a touch of poignancy at the very end. Masterful.

01 Tingings: This Side
02 Tingings: The Other Side

Peter Bergman, Firesign Theatre founder, dies at 72

Peter Bergman, founder of the surreal comedy group Firesign Theatre, and the man who coined the term "Love-In," died Friday morning in a Santa Monica hospital. He was 72, and had been suffering from leukemia.

Firesign grew out of a radio show Bergman hosted at KPFK in the late 1960s. The group made two dozen popular comedy records — the most popular of which included “We’re All Bozo’s on This Bus,” and “Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” — and continued performing live into last December.

On his own, Bergman produced a political satire series for KPCC called “True Confessions of the Real World,” which ran in 2002 and 2003.

I'll be posting a couple of Firesign Theatre's more famous records here soon...