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Chews your idols: Celebrities upstaged by a wad of gum
08:16 pm

Pop Culture


“Celebrigum” brainchild, Steve Young—pictured here with The Gum
In August of 2010, a strange website called CelebriGum appeared on the Internet, without fanfare, conducting some sort of Dadaist examination of America’s unwavering worship of fame and celebrity. For three years straight, CelebriGum presented a barrage of images of famous celebrities who, without their knowledge, were photographed from a second story office window with a piece of old hardened gum on the window ledge that was always in the frame. CelebriGum featured a revolving door of celebrities of all kinds, but The Gum remained constant and unchanging. Celebrities were made to share photographic space with a piece of inanimate matter that eventually came to be as beloved, to some fans, as the celebrities themselves.

CelebriGum was the brainchild of Steve Young, who (up until May 20th of this year) was a 25 year veteran writer for David Letterman. But Young, a Harvard graduate who cut his comedy teeth writing for the Harvard Lampoon, has been involved in much more than just writing jokes for late night television. He has written for The Simpsons, most notably the season eight masterpiece entitled Hurricane Neddy.

In 2000, he won an Annie Award for his screenplay adaptation of the animated holiday special Olive the Other Reindeer. And he’s recently written what many consider to be the definitive history of the industrial musical in the remarkably strange and informative book Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals.

Given his background in creating and disseminating the odd and hilarious, a peculiar sociological project like CelebriGum was certainly not outside the realm of possible weirdness for Young. And as a writer for The Late Show, he could choose from an endless supply of celebrities as they were arriving at or leaving the Ed Sullivan Theater. He would linger at the second floor window and wait for the opportunity to snap perfect photos of some of the most famous people in the world—alongside an old piece of gum.

Needless to say, it wasn’t long before Young’s photos, which would always be presented on the website with some sort of witty caption or deep observation, began to acquire a fan-base. More precisely, The Gum began to acquire a fan base. True fans of The Gum understood what Young was up to with his surreal goofiness, and they looked forward to each new installment to see who was the latest celebrity being made to look ridiculous from above. CelebriGum was, as David Letterman described it, “a perfectly silly, genius idea.”

David Letterman and The Gum
CelebriGum ran for three years before Young voluntarily pulled the plug on the project—but during that time, he actually got to hold a New York Times reviewed gallery exhibition of his CelebriGum photos.

We were fortunate enough to pin Steve Young down for a few questions about the CelebriGum experience:

How long had you been taking photos of celebrities from your office window before you realized that those A-listers were being upstaged by a piece of old gum that was clearly visible in each photograph? What kind of an epiphany did you have at that moment?

Steve Young: It was actually the other way around. I noticed the gum first, somewhere around the beginning of 2010. I looked at it every day as I hung out by a window in the hall near Dave Letterman’s dressing room, and thought “maybe I can do a photo project of the gum enduring all sorts of weather until someday presumably it falls off.” I took a few photos, but it wasn’t really very interesting.  Then one day, the Eureka moment: I realized that celebrities were getting out of limos and SUV’s on the street below. I could get both at the same time.  CelebriGum was born: “Different day, different celebrity, same gum.” I launched the site in August of 2010.

“The Gum” itself, in a rare close-up.
Your photographs possess a keen sense of the absurd. Can you elaborate on any techniques you may have used to enhance the CelebriGum experience? Or did you find that the element of total randomness, as opposed to any staging or manipulation, produced the most striking images?

SY: There was a certain element of “the broken clock that’s right twice a day.” I found that after the initial conceptual notion of celebrity plus old gum had settled in, I was searching for ways to get pictures that were visually interesting within the very limiting framework I’d chosen. Sometimes it was just snapping a lot of pictures and later noticing the telling detail that made one particular shot a winner. Sometimes it was new conditions, like snow or a blinding onslaught of paparazzi flashes at night. Sometimes it was the lucky composition of a guest coming in on a gray day with an orange traffic cone providing the one vivid flash of color in the picture. And sometimes it was a magical moment of a star interacting with a crowd, or a star trudging along the sidewalk seemingly alone. But plenty of the photos aren’t very interesting. I only presented a very small percentage of what I shot.

I didn’t do much manipulation. Once in a while I did some overtly clumsy photo doctoring in the service of a joke, but mostly it was cropping and adjusting levels to get the picture I wanted.

Were cell phone cameras used for the majority of these photos? At some point there’s an upgrade in the quality of the photos. Can you tell us about your gear?

SY: At first I was just using the very modest camera in a circa 2007 Motorola flip phone. That was okay for the first few months, but I realized that I’d need something more sophisticated if I was going to continue when the days got shorter and it got dark in late afternoon. I bought a used Canon point and shoot camera on eBay to use as my CelebriGum camera. That did pretty well for a while, though night-time photos were still a challenge. I eventually bought a Sony RX100, which is an outstanding camera that can still fit in a pocket, not just for CelebriGum but for my other photography as well. And during the last winter of CelebriGum I bought a little light that I used to illuminate the gum on the ledge. It may be a cool photo of Mick Jagger down on the street, but if you can’t see the gum, it ain’t a CelebriGum photo.

Mick Jagger and The Gum
Your photos seem symbolic of something much deeper than the simple juxtaposition of famous people with a piece of old gum as a goof. CelebriGum seemed to be providing a winking commentary on the inherent ridiculousness associated with fame, and the possible dangers posed to those who seek it—a hammering home of the notion that fame and celebrity will eventually chew you up and spit you out. The poignant undercurrent running through the entire CelebriGum narrative is that fame is ephemeral and fleeting. Some of your images actually evoke a feeling of profound sadness. Was any of that intentional?

SY: That was always there, though I didn’t want to be heavy-handed about it. Ideally, the better pictures worked because they were weird and visually striking, and for each post I always tried to have a humorous riff inspired by the photos. But from the beginning, I thought that the juxtaposition of celebrity and old discarded gum had that potential built-in commentary. Just as you say; fame chews you up and spits you out when your flavor has been extracted. Looking back at the run of photos now, there are many instances in which a temporarily well-known person has fallen off the radar. In at least a couple cases, celebrities in the pictures have died.  Everything is temporary, even the excitement and glamour of an A-list star. Someday all that will remain of each of us is a wad of inert matter. But in the meantime, ooh, look, Tom Hanks!  Tom!  Tom!  Over here!

Tom Hanks and The Gum
How much of CelebriGum’s popularity do you think was based on the American fascination with celebrity schadenfreude? Do you think that the idea that famous celebrity millionaires were being taken down a notch and unknowingly made to look kind of silly by The Gum’s stoic presence in every shot was an element of CelebriGum’s success?

SY: From the aerial view, I got an interesting perspective on celebrity culture. It certainly doesn’t seem like much fun to be a celebrity. Sure, you get to ride in a luxury SUV, and an assistant carries your bottle of water, but parts of your life are dehumanizing, and not just because you’re being photographed with old gum. In many pictures, there’s a crush of paparazzi photographers waiting for the star to step out of their vehicle, and they’re not there because they care about Celebrity X, most likely, but because they need to make a buck. Nothing wrong with making a buck, but it just illustrates the cynicism of the machinery of fame. And if it’s someone who’s not a very big name, and the weather’s nasty, then there may be nobody jostling to get their photo, and that’s depressing in a different way. Then there are the fans. There were often many real fans excited to see a star and get a picture and maybe an autograph. But there was sometimes a creepy feral mob mentality to it. Dozens or hundreds of people screaming, supplicating, and if you didn’t feed the crowd and give them what they want and just dashed inside because you were late, “Boo!  You suck!” Meanwhile, twenty feet up, the gum serenely surveys the madness, unchanging. Yes, there are many wonderful entertainers and athletes and even politicians whose efforts enrich the world, but some days they would probably prefer to be the gum, literally and figuratively above it all. 

The element of the gum also was the great equalizer. Celebrity, assistant, security guard, photographer, fan, bike messenger, pedestrian: all equal in the presence of The Gum. Okay, the celebrity is special in one regard: they have to be there to provide the celebri- half of the equation. But I ended up regarding stars mainly as props for my photography.

After CelebriGum became more well-known, were you ever aware of any celebrities who arrived at the show hoping or expecting to be photographed from above with “The Gum?”

SY: There were a few celebrities who were aware of it, but it was generally after the fact. I’d give them a shout-out on Twitter, “Hey, look, you’re on CelebriGum!” and a few responded and were charmed. Alec Baldwin requested a copy of one of the photos. The only celebrity who ever looked up and acknowledged the camera was Jamie Oliver. He passed me as he came down the stairs from his dressing room after his appearance, and I said “Hi!  I’d like to take your picture from this window with this old gum once you’ve gotten down to the street! Could you look up and say hello?” He did look up but didn’t go so far as to wave. I’m sure it all seemed very odd.

Jamie Oliver and The Gum
Continues after the jump…

Posted by Christopher Bickel | Leave a comment
Pink Flamingos: Creator of iconic lawn ornament has passed away
07:27 am

Pop Culture


Sad news from Improbable Research: Donald Featherstone, the man behind the iconic pink flamingo lawn ornament, has died at age 79.

Don created the flamingo when he was freshly graduated from art school, and newly employed at a plastics factory. One of his first assignments was to create three-dimensional plastic lawn ornaments (up to that time, most plastic lawn ornaments were more or less flat). The flamingo was one of his earliest efforts for the factory.

Eventually he became president of the company. After Don retired, dire things were done, by his successor, to the flamingo, triggering a worldwide protest, which eventually led to a more or less happy rallying of the forces of Good, and a restoration of the plastic pink flamingo’s status. In 2011, the flamingo attained new heights, when the Disney movie Gnomeo and Juliet featured a plastic pink lawn ornament named “Featherstone”.


Featherstone’s lawn sculptures have become beloved badges of American suburban kitsch, adored ironically by probably about as many people as enjoy them sincerely. And of course, their ticky-tacky ubiquity inspired the title of John Waters’ breakthrough film Pink Flamingos, which has nothing to do with the ornaments. Waters discussed the connection in an interview with

“The reason I called it Pink Flamingos was because the movie was so outrageous that we wanted to have a very normal title that wasn’t exploitative,” Waters says. “To this day, I’m convinced that people think it’s a movie about Florida.” Waters enjoyed the plastic knickknack’s earnest air: Though his own stylish mom might have disapproved, the day-glo wading birds were, back then, a straightforward attempt at working-class neighborhood beautification. “The only people who had them had them for real, without irony,” Waters says. “My movie wrecked that.” Forty years later, the sculptures have become unlikely fixtures of a certain kind of high-end sensibility, a shorthand for tongue-in-cheek tackiness.

Featherstone is survived by his wife Nancy.


Posted by Ron Kretsch | Leave a comment
Meet Allanah Starr, the world’s first and only trans, double F-cup, porn star and stand-up comedian
10:11 am

Pop Culture


If you’re in Paris for the month of June, you have the possibility of catching a unique comedy performance, as Allanah Starr is performing at La Nouvelle Seine at 3 Quai de Montebello every Friday at 11 p.m. until the end of the month. The title of the show is “The Life of a Real Woman with a Fake Passport.”

The show’s promotional text runs in part, “Allanah STARR raconte son histoire, celle d’un petit garçon né à Cuba, devenu femme aux USA et qui est maintenant Show Girl à Paris,” which means something like, “Allanah STARR tells her story, that of a little boy born in Cuba who became a woman in the USA and is now a Paris showgirl.”

According to this interview with Abby Ehmann, Starr was born in Cuba, but her father was a “political prisoner” and left for the United States when his son was five years old. She has been living as a woman since 1998: “It was definitely the best decision I ever made regarding my personal happiness. I am 100% certain this was my destiny and that I was born with a gender identity disorder. Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a girl.” She has appeared on Maury several times, and her best-known movie is likely Allanah Starr’s Big Boob Adventures.

According to Tristan Taormino, Starr participated in the world’s first porn scene “between a male-to-female (MTF) transsexual and a female-to-male transsexual (FTM).” Starr’s counterpart in that scene was Buck Angel.

Starr’s cup size is listed as “FF” on the page with that interview, while over at Boobpedia she is listed as being an F cup. “I’ve had 30 actual surgeries and countless procedures,” says Starr. “Of course, I plan to do much more. My first operations were my nose job and an otoplasty (I had my ears pinned back). Since then, it has become a hobby of mine. I always say I collect shoes, handbags, Hollywood memorabilia and surgeries.”

In her show Starr tells jokes and lip-syncs to Eartha Kitt’s “Champagne Taste,” among other light classics. Here, check it out for yourself:

via Technikart

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
The weird world of cheesecake stock photography
04:58 am

Pop Culture


This is the third and final installation of posts from the influential graphic artist Art Chantry’s forthcoming book Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic’s History of 20th Century Graphic Design. The first is here, the second here. Chantry’s clear reverence for and deep knowledge of the history of his discipline, particularly in championing its seediest manifestations and its obsolete processes, informs a body of work which as much as anyone’s has been THE look of garage punk and grunge, and we’re grateful to Chantry and Feral House for letting us use his work in this form. —Ron Kretsch

We’re all familiar with stock photos. Nowadays, most professional photographers I know no longer take photos, but make stock images. These photos are sold through websites for download and reproduction. Designers grab these photos, sometimes actually paying for them, and then “re-work” them in Photoshop to create the desired image. Basically they take stock photos and make new photos out of them. Strange days.

Maybe not so strange. This system existed back in the earlier days of advertising and design as well. The images were often seconds, outtakes and highly adaptable images that could be used in any of a number of settings and advertising situations. The user would order it through the stock photo house (often out of a printed catalog). Then the stock house would send them either a slide or a print of whatever was needed for their use. The user would pay a “usage fee” depending on how the photo would be used. If it was to be used in a dummy or comp, the fee would be much smaller than if it were to be used in a brochure printed in the millions of copies and distributed worldwide. Very practical, and everybody made money. It would still cost much less than hiring a “live” photographer and working with them to obtain the custom photo image you might need.

In the postwar period—the glory years of “Mad Men”-style advertising—one of the most popular forms of stock photography was the “glamour” shot. This was an offshoot of model photography that would have a buxom, beautiful young woman posing in a variety of peculiar environments (and varying states of dress) that could be used for adverts or calendars or even be picked up by “men’s magazines” and used to entice America’s hormone-soaked males.

A lot of these glamour stock photo companies were little more than a single somewhat slippery fella with a studio, camera equipment and a lot of props. I think of this territory as classic “bachelor pad” photography—that weird fetishistic territory where the hot-shot handsome young man with a camera used the existing system to meet hot chicks and maybe get lucky. Then they would make some money on the side. It’s one small step above pornography. Indeed, back in the days of our fathers, this was viewed as “R-rated” pornography. Those old “morality code” systems disappeared in the late ‘60s and are almost forgotten.

Once in a while I’ll get lucky and find an old catalog of glamour photography stock photos. Some of the glamour photographers became quite famous, like Russ Meyer and Peter Gowland and even Bunny Yeager. Exactly what kind of advertising could this stuff be used for? Dunno. They all have terms and conditions of use on the cover and the rest of the catalog is only photos of buxom scantily clad babes in silly poses. I swear I’ve seen some of these images in old “men’s magazines” of the ‘50s and ‘60s with names like Cocktail and Duke.






Art Chantry is a graphic designer with more awards and accolades than he can shake a stick at, including a Golden Lionne from Cannes. Over his 40-year career, he worked on the dark side of the marketing world, concentrating on popular culture and broken clients.  during that time he managed to brand a cultural moment in time - grunge. His works hangs in the Smithsonian, MoMA, the Library of Congress, the Louvre, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. More recently, he’s been getting old and writing down his heretical notions about the work he immersed himself in. The results weren’t pretty. Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic’s History of 20th Century Graphic Design is due out on July 14th.

Posted by Ron Kretsch | Leave a comment
American Gothic version of Divine and John Waters
11:46 am

Pop Culture


There’s really not much to say about this fantastic painting of Divine and John Waters taking the place of the old prairie couple in Grant Wood’s iconic 1930 painting “American Gothic.” I simply dig it.

I had a hard time tracking down the artist as I misread the signature as GG Allin. To be honest for a few moments there I actually thought the late shit-hurling hate rocker painted this. The artisit’s name is spelled GIGI ALLIN and here are links to her Instagram and website.

The work in progress via Instagram
Via Divine on Facebook

Posted by Tara McGinley | Leave a comment
Beautiful vintage restaurant menu art as a study of social change
09:42 am

Pop Culture


Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
On June 13th, the Los Angeles Public Library will begin a multi-platform exhibition of their massive collection of vintage restaurant menus as part of a project called To Live and Dine in L.A.  The exhibition at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles (which will be presented along with a series of celebrity-chef panels) consists of more than 9,000 vintage menus collected from the L.A. area and archived at the library. The event is being held as a prelude to the June 15th release of a book by Angel City Press documenting the entire project called To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus and the Making of the Modern City by author, curator, and USC professor, Josh Kun (in collaboration with, and a forward written by, chef Roy Choi).

Josh Kun was the mastermind behind a similar project, Songs in the Key of Los Angeles, back in 2013, that incorporated pieces of sheet music culled from the archives of the L.A. Public Library—spanning the years from 1859 to 1959—to illustrate the history of Los Angeles through song. 

As for the historical importance of studying old restaurant menus in helping to understand the evolution of society in general, Kun told the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books:

Menus are social text. They’re urban text. They’re pieces of fiction. And they are written. How can we look at our city and its history through the window of menus? Through the menus, how can we see what was missing? We’ve got about 25,000 places to eat in L.A., but we are the ‘epicenter of hunger,’ according to the USDA. We live in both a foodie society and a food bank society. How do you reconcile those two things? How can restaurants and food be used to restore ideas around justice, around community and equality?


In other words, with many of them dating back as far as the 1800s, these vintage menus aren’t just beautiful to look at, they also serve as tiny time capsules, little printed microcosms that can be used to chart the progress of Los Angeles in regards to societal issues that have occurred over the past century. For example, studying these menus can illuminate the ongoing class struggle against social and economic inequality, the rise of car culture, improvements (or not) in race relations, or even how different types of foods have fallen in and out of favor throughout L. A.’s various historical eras due to immigration, drastic economic changes, or the fact that wartime rationing was in effect. 

According to Kun:

Menus are urban texts which give us a glimpse into a specific time and place by revealing cultural identity, class conflict, race, and gender disparities. Some of the menus we came across are food documents of privilege and speak to issues of food awareness and inequality. It is those kinds of histories that are buried within the menu.

Browsing through these menus may make you hungry, but if you delve in deep enough, you’ll come to the realization that there was a time when ordering from the “dollar menu” was something that only rich people could do. So, if your stomach starts growling as you study these works of delicious art, remember that it’s always best to take time capsules with food.

The menu collection at the L.A. Public Library’s website is searchable. We recommend searching by decade—you can get lost in that collection for hours.



Much more after the jump…

Posted by Christopher Bickel | Leave a comment
Never-before-seen photos of Brigitte Bardot
10:28 am

Pop Culture


Photographer Ray Bellisario, best known as “London’s first paparazzo,” was absolutely loathed by the Royal Family for his tireless pursuit of their private moments—Prince Phillip got him blacklisted from most British newspapers and joked about sending him to London Tower, and Princess Margaret used to refer to him as “that bloody Bellisario.” Photos of Prince Charles waterskiing hardly qualify as “tawdry” to our modern eyes, but at the time Bellisario was considered the most vulgar of characters—he was not considered an “artist,” to say the least.

Two years ago, Bellisario began selling off his collection—much of it unpublished—for charity; his previously unseen photos of Brigitte Bardot are now being shown at Dadiani Fine Art gallery, a far cry from the Euro-tabloids that made him famous. 13 Unseen Photographs, London 1968 show Bardot as a much more willing subject than the Royals. At this point in her career, she was already a massive star, and likely used to the camera. The pictures are beautiful, and not just because of Bardot. Bellisario has instincts for light and composition, and the random collection candids actually look like a high-end photo editorial spread.



More after the jump…

Posted by Amber Frost | Leave a comment
For Sale: Beatles ‘White Album’ signed by members of the Manson Family, including Charlie
07:48 am

Pop Culture


A curious artifact recently turned up on Listed for sale is a copy of The Beatles White Album, allegedly autographed by Charles Manson, and members of his “family”: Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, Charles “Tex” Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel. If this thing is real, it’s one of the most intense pieces of music/murder memorabilia we’ve ever seen. And it can be YOURS for the low, low price of only $49,005.00

The significance of the item won’t be lost on anyone with cursory knowledge of the “cult” of Charles Manson and the murders associated with the “Manson Family.” It was argued by Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in court and in his book, Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, that several of the songs on The White Album were interpreted by Manson as signs to a coming racial revolution that would lead to Manson emerging as a Christ-figure.

According to this UMKC site which also details Manson’s specific interpretations of White Album songs (at least according to Bugliosi):

Manson believed that the Beatles spoke to him through their lyrics, especially those included in the White Album, released in December 1968.  Several songs from the White Album crystalized Manson’s thinking about a coming revolt by blacks against the white Establishment.  He interpreted many of the songs idiosyncratically, believing, for example, that “Rocky Raccoon” meant black people and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” was a song about getting firearms to carry on the revolution rather than—more obviously—a song about sex.

The White Album played a key role in forging Manson’s warped ideology. 

According to Family member Paul Watkins, “Before Helter Skelter came along, all Charlie cared about was orgies.”

The listing from seller popculturesignatures seems legit:


The White Album of course contains the song “Helter Skelter”, very significant to the whole Manson saga.

All are signed in blue ballpoint or biro pen except Leslie Van Houten, who is signed in black. Manson added the inscription: “Can you live in sin or in it LAST WORD-NO easy, Charles Manson” and added a swastika through his signature.

The signatures were obtained by a gentleman who was at one time associated with the Manson family at the Spahn Ranch, I choose not to post his name here. He acquired them at the respective prisons where they are incarcerated in California, including Corcoran State Prison, and the California Correctional Institution for women.

The top and bottom seams are cut through with a knife, as the album was checked for possible contraband as it was brought into the prison. Because the seams were cut, the cover is now separate from the inner gatefold… The album cover shows other signs of wear, including a water stain in the lower left corner, the result of a fire in the previous owner’s home. Both vinyl records are included. There are a number of scratches on both which I expect would affect play.

As further provenance, I have two additional items from the same source: a bible from the prison chapel signed by the same five individuals, and a Life Magazine signed by Charles, see other photos. I am currently offering the bible here also. An iconic image of the sixties, and perhaps the ultimate signed Manson relic. I will also issue a certificate of authenticity with a photo of the item, the signing details, and will have it notarized as I sign it.



The price seems a bit STEEP to us—but it does include shipping, which is very generous of the seller. For spending nearly $50k, we’d hope, at least, for a Squeaky Fromme hand-delivery.


Posted by Christopher Bickel | Leave a comment
Garbage Pail Kids: Where are they now?
05:58 am

Pop Culture


Garbage Pail Kids are evergreen. Invented by cartoon legends Art Spiegelman and Mark Newgarden, the Cabbage Patch Kid parodies developed a cult following as juvenile gross-out art in the 80s. The trading cards are now revered by collectors, the depth and grotesqueness of each “kid” a treasure to enthusiasts. Garbage Pail Kids don’t really need an update, but art director Jake Houvenagle and photographer Brandon Voges collaborated on a modern take that really captures the spirit of the originals. Vosges explained how the project came about:

About a year ago, my friend Jake Houvenagle (a very talented local Art Director and Designer) and I (Brandon Voges, commercial lifestyle photographer at Bruton Stroube Studios) went to lunch to hang out, talk ideas, and drink good beer.  In the middle of our conversation, Jake tells me about this concept he has to shoot Garbage Pail Kids, 30 years later…as real people, in real situations, with backstories of how their lives have played out.  I then proceeded to crap my pants, tell him of his genius and get super excited.

I believe crapping one’s pants is the exact response merited by such a notion!

And how did the “Kids” fare? Welllll… it varies. Adam Bomb survived the nuclear blast, only to live a life of regret, while Clogged Duane turned his mangled lower half into a lucrative drain-snaking business. Armpit Britt works two jobs to support her five kids (but at least she can hold down a job with those pit-locks), and Bony Tony now takes it all off for the ladies. Barfin’ Barbara became a successful private chef and Noah Body became CEO of a pencil company—all in all, a pretty decent collection of adult lives!


More after the jump…

Posted by Amber Frost | Leave a comment
Radio Shack’s pre-recorded musical answering machine messages have to be heard to be believed
09:41 am

Pop Culture


In the 1980s answering machines first entered the consumer market in a big way—and everyone who owned one was obliged to record some kind of outgoing message to let callers know they had reached a machine. Some people (a small minority) were fond of rigging up high-production-value messages. The video at the bottom of the page represents Seinfeld‘s amusing take on this concept—that episode first aired in 1997, so if nothing else it indicates what smart folks from the 1990s thought of this oh-so-very-1980s concept.

In 2010 an WFMU employee purchased an incredible cassette at a library sale (for a dime) and posted it on their great blog. The cassette dates from 1985, and (for younger readers) the convoluted full title, “Radio Shack Telephone Answering Machine Outgoing Messages,” vaguely gestures at the idea that even then, it wasn’t super clear to all consumers what this product was actually offering. Basically, this amazing cassette offers Radio Shack’s version of George’s “Greatest American Hero” outgoing message. They cut ten 20-second (or so) songs, each with and without lyrics, and put them on this cassette for “whimsical” answering machine owners.

Let’s take a gander at the track listing to see what we’re in for:

1. Jamaican
2. 21st Century Funk
3. 50’s Rock & Roll
4. Rappin
5. Soft Contemporary
6. Vaudeville
7. Country
8. Jazz
9. Up-tempo Contemporary
10. Orchestral Pops

Oh, boy. I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say that “Rappin” and “21st Century Funk” and “Country” represent three singular, er, “highlights” from this execrable collection of “music.” The “21st Century Funk” track sounds like some debased version of Kraftwerk, and the “Rappin” one is so bad that it took me a moment or two to realize that I was in fact listening to the rap one. Meanwhile, the main thing that makes the “Country” one so bad is that it was entirely done on some Casio (or Tandy!) product.

The “lyrics” of each song, of course, are about how the caller has missed the recipient with a request to record some contact info on the machine. Here’s a representative example, from the “Jamaican” track:

I’m sorry that I missed your call
But you don’t have to worry!
Just leave your name and number
And a message at the tone
And I’ll be back to you in a hurry!

Here’s Side A (with lyrics) and Side B (without lyrics). Note that they also made a production error—on Side A tracks 1 and 9 (“Jamaican” and “Up-tempo Contemporary”) are the same track—when you switch to side B, the two tracks are not the same, so you can get some approximation of what the “Up-tempo Contemporary” was supposed to be.

The quality of the WFMU recording is, regrettably, not very good, but thanks to a blog called Tape Findings, we have versions of some of the tracks in considerably better shape:

With lyrics:
21st Century Funk
Soft Contemporary

Without lyrics:
21st Century Funk
Soft Contemporary


Note that this cassette was the “Music Edition”; Radio Shack had other editions on the market as well, including the following: “Office/Home Edition,” “Professional Edition,” “Comedy Edition,” and even the “Rich Little Comedy Edition.” If you want to listen to Little’s shitty impression of Rod Serling dealing with your missed call, all you had to do was ask. The other “comedy edition” is also available to listen to.

Continues after the jump…

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
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