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Today we’re going to talk about a record that wasn’t a rock and roll record at all — in fact it was a novelty record, and regarded as such. But it was a record that would have a huge impact on the whole history of the record industry, in ways you really wouldn’t expect from a silly little track. Today, we’re going to talk about “The Flying Saucer”.
“The Flying Saucer” is an extremely early example of what would come to be called sampling. It’s a novelty record that in most ways is no different from the kind of thing Stan Freberg was doing at the time with records like “St George and the Dragonet”:
[Excerpt: Stan Freberg, “St George and the Dragonet”]
Before video, and before even widespread adoption of TV, there was a large market for audio comedy, and we’ll see as the series goes on how audio engineering techniques developed for comedy would be repurposed for use in rock and roll music. For comedy records, you needed to be able to make strange and unusual sounds — and that kind of thing would come in useful when trying to develop a sound that would catch the ear of young people.
The track we’re talking about today, “The Flying Saucer”, was put together by the songwriting and production team Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman. Buchanan was a songwriter who specialised in comedy songs — for example he wrote several albums’ worth of material for the Three Stooges:
[Excerpt: The Three Stooges, “We’re Coming To Your House”]
Goodman, meanwhile, was a producer, and it seems like he only had one idea. That idea was something that he called “break-ins”, but would later be better known as sampling or mash-ups.
In a break-in recording, there would be a spoken-word narrative, but bits of other people’s records would interrupt the narrative, usually acting as punchlines to a set-up. “The Flying Saucer” was the first, and most successful, of these.
Flying saucers were very much in the zeitgeist in the early fifties. The term had come to prominence in 1947, as a result of the famous Roswell incident, and for the next few years — a time of increasing paranoia in the US as the USSR had developed their own nuclear bombs, and there was a real possibility that the world might be rendered unfit for human habitation at any moment — a lot of the paranoia was filtered into belief that the world was being watched over by malevolent aliens.
“The Flying Saucer” tapped in to that, and into the other new craze that was sweeping the nation, rock and roll, and merged the two. It took the format of Orson Welles’ famous radio version of War of the Worlds, and parodied it, first having a DJ interrupt the record he was playing — “Open up That Door” by Nappy Brown — to announce that a flying saucer had landed, and then having an on-the-spot reporter interview witnesses and the aliens themselves — and having all the dialogue from those witnesses be excerpts of current hits, including songs by Chuck Berry, Elvis, Little Richard, Frankie Lymon, Carl Perkins, and Nappy Brown’s “Don’t Be Angry”:
[Excerpt: “The Flying Saucer”]
Nothing like this had ever been done before — there had, apparently, been a single other record, decades earlier, that had included samples of other records, but that had been as part of a comedy sketch with people turning the dial of the radio and hearing different songs — it had been diegetic music that they were listening to. This was something else, and something for which the music industry wasn’t prepared.
Buchanan and Goodman tried to get several record labels to put it out, but had no success, and eventually took the tape directly to WINS radio, where several DJs, including Alan Freed, played it, and it got an immediate response from the audience. The next day, they took the recording to George Goldner, who you may remember from the episode on “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” as having a near-infallible ear for a hit record.
He agreed to put it out, and set up a new label, Universe, for Buchanan and Goodman’s record. But after they’d pressed up a few thousand records, he discovered there already was a Universe Records. Rather than waste the money, Goldner, Buchanan, Goodman, and a few of Goldner’s employees spent all night drawing the letter L at the beginning of “Universe”, changing it to “Luniverse”.
The track became a massive hit, but also a massive legal headache. The record company cut deals with the licensing agencies responsible for the songs sampled, which meant that they ended up paying a massive seventeen cents in songwriting royalties per eighty-nine-cent record sold (by comparison it was not unknown for songwriting royalties to be as low as a cent a record). And that should have been enough to cover them, at a time when there were no federal copyrights on sound recordings, but they were sued nonetheless by Imperial Records, Chess Records, and artists Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis.
The lawsuit was ruled in Buchanan and Goodman’s favour, as the record was clearly parody by the standards of 1950s copyright law, and they celebrated with a followup single, “Buchanan and Goodman on Trial”, which followed the same formula as “The Flying Saucer”, and was a minor hit:
[Excerpt: Buchanan and Goodman, “Buchanan and Goodman on Trial”]
The two men made one further record before Buchanan went on his way, but Goodman kept making records under the Buchanan and Goodman name, with records like “Flying Saucer Goes West”, “Flying Saucer the Third”, and “Frankenstein of ’59”.
Goodman kept doing this for decades, churning out supposed novelty records long after the novelty had well and truly worn off, and usually trying to cash in on some hit film, with records like “Superfly Meets Shaft”, or “Kong” (a parody of the King Kong remake). One time, amazingly enough, he did manage to get to number four with one of these, “Mr Jaws”:
[Excerpt: Dickie Goodman, “Mr. Jaws”]
The follow-up, “Mrs. Jaws”, based on Jaws II, didn’t do so well, and “Mr. Jaws” would be Goodman’s last big hit. He died in 1989.
Next week, we’ll look at the only group other than Buchanan and Goodman ever to release a record on Luniverse…