These days it seems as if every time you go to the radio, there's another classic of rock integrity being sacrificed before the almighty dollar -- "Like a Rock" hawking pickups, "Instant Karma" moving shoes, even the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," a defining garage moment from the Only Band That Mattered, snatched up by the British branch of Levi's. Well, the next time you begin to despair over the diminishing distance between sensibility and cents, rush right out and pick up Product Placement, the debut LP from the Atlanta-based Advertisements. Composed of rock renditions of ten famous jingles, the album may mark the first pure fusion of aesthetics and economics.
The four Advertisements, all in their mid-twenties, use pseudonyms taken from the advertising world -- in addition to guitarist, lead vocalist, and chief spokesman Mr. Whipple, there's keyboard player Mikey, drummer Mac Tonight, and bassist The Michelin Man. Friends since they met in a mid-Eighties Southern-rock outfit named Red Dash, Whipple and Mikey first conceived of the Advertisements last winter. "He and I were just sitting around watching TV, and he started to sing the GE song. `GE, we bring good things to living, we bring good things to light,'" explains Whipple. "On a whim, we went down to his basement and recorded it, and it sounded great. So we called up the other guys, who we knew and had worked with, and that was our band."
In the fine tradition of outfits like the Residents, the Runaways, and the Slits, the Advertisements are a band with a gimmick, certainly. But are they a band that has anything other than gimmick? In a word, yes. Vocally, Whipple is a dead ringer for Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter, with a world-weary delivery that drips with authenticity. Founded on an organ-laden sound that recalls the glory days of the Attractions, the band crackles (and snaps, and pops, of course) with so much energy that the lyrics, grating at first, soon become irrelevant, as they are in Kriss Kross's "Jump," or "Surfer Girl," or any number of infectious classics. From the sunny cheer of "Coke Is It" to the grungy crunch of "The Wiener Song," irresistible harmonies upholster the market-tested hooks. And while a few numbers are bogged down by radical genre revisionism -- "You Can't Drink It Slow If It's Quik" comes on as a swoony "Earth Angel" ballad, all plinking piano and precious reverb -- the LP is, for the most part, unconflicted pop.
The album runs the gamut of the American marketplace, from appliances ("GE") to coffee ("Good to the Last Drop [Maxwell House]") to fast food ("Aren't You Hungry for Burger King Now?"). But with so many commercials to choose from, how did they make their final cuts? "We had a terrible time with the final track listing," admits Whipple. "For instance, we knew we couldn't do more than one cereal song, and we picked Lucky Charms over Cap'n Crunch because we wanted to do this `Within You, Without You' bit, Eastern-sounding guitars and a little raga. But we had to shelve some stuff that we loved, like a hellacious instrumental version of `The Copper-Top Battery' with these crashing keyboards and thundering drums."
In an era when every critic is hypersensitive, sometimes to the point of sanctimony, to the issue of appropriating pop songs for commercial purposes, this naive inversion -- appropriating commercial songs for pop purposes -- is surprisingly powerful. It's an instant cataclysm, a semiotician's wet dream that asks this vital question: Once you've recognized the element of commodification in pop music, why not remove the polite boundaries and go all the way? The Who hinted at this possibility 25 years ago with the cover of The Who Sell Out, and Yes made its own lumbering statement by naming the 90210 LP, or whatever it was, after the Universal Product Code number assigned to the album. But the Advertisements haven't sabotaged their own mission by recording original songs ("I Can See for Miles" was not a binocular ad). And they're not exactly corporate stooges, either. Unlike Ray Charles's ubiquitous "You Got the Right One, Baby" and other lucrative pairings -- Elton John for Diet Coke, Little Richard for Taco Bell -- the performances on Product Placement are unsolicited, not endorsements of the products so much as endorsements of the jingles. The Advertisements aren't seeking corporate sponsors, and aren't receiving a corporate dime. And that's the beauty of it.
Despite the intense feelings they are bound to rouse in purists -- one East Coast critic has already referred to the band as "the latest, and most dangerous, in a long series of Anti-Christs" -- the Advertisements insist they are not trying to pull the consumer wool over anyone's eyes. "We recognize these people as artists," explains Whipple. "They're artists working within commercial constraints, but they're still artists. And we credit them in the liner notes, songwriters like Tom Dawes, who wrote `Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz,' and Richard D. Trentlage, who wrote `The Wiener Song.' These songs are an essential part of Americana, and we want them to get the credit they're due."
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But carrying the torch for the much-maligned jingle is a difficult task, and Whipple concedes that the band may be an idea ahead of its time. "We recorded the album on our own, and then found that it's hard to explain it so it doesn't seem like a joke or some sick parody," says Whipple. "When we've tried to tell record companies that `no, we're not a comedy act, we're a real band and these are songs close to our heart,' they kind of back off and look at us like we're putting on some spin. Most executives want to read this as a novelty, or a satire like [Neil Young's] `This Note's for You,' and it's neither of those things. So we were happy to find a label who could respect our perspective." They settled on Chocolicious Records, a tiny Chicago independent.
The irony of going outside the corporate major-label beltway for a product so blithely corporate is not lost on Whipple. But he remains convinced that his band's approach is not only acceptable, but quintessentially American. "We have a free market, we have products, and we have advertising, and the process by which people connect with that system, man, that's one of the most exciting things around," he says. "About six years ago during the baseball season there was a ball that was hit deep, and the centerfielder had to climb the outfield wall to have a shot at it. Well, Eastern Airlines had rented the wall space, and in the newspaper the next morning there was a picture of this player catching the ball in the middle of the air, suspended in front of these giant wings. I was uplifted. When you see art and consumerism come together all packaged together like that, it sticks with you."
As the debut LP struggles to find its way, the band has already chosen the material for its second album, which will combine unused tracks from the Product Placement sessions with historical investigation. "We're going further back in time, taking some radio spots from the Forties and Fifties," says Whipple. "And these are songs with even more complex arrangements, jazz-influenced. We might have to send out for some string players." But what about that fateful day when the band runs out of jingles to cover? With the talent they've shown for fleshing out such skeletal compositions as "I Love What You Do for Me, Toyota" and "Reach Out and Touch Someone" -- which comes complete with a funky breakdown during which the band members yell improvised phone dialogue over Michelin's slap bass -- have the Advertisements ever considered supplementing their commercial homages with original material? "No way, man," says Whipple, a small smile teasing the corner of his mouth. "That would be selling out.