the essential chipmunks

It’s hard to believe that 40 years have elapsed since the release of “The Chipmunk Song,” the debut of Alvin, Simon and Theodore, the three misbehaving brothers that forever immortalized their namesake executives at Liberty Records. It’s good to see the restored prominence of the definitive 1960s Chipmunks in recent items like visually accurate plush toys, musical Christmas ornaments and this new collection of many of the Chipmunks’ essential recordings.

Ross Bagdasarian’s endearing creations were originally rendered in an unappealing anthropomorphic style before their definitive makeover for one of the best-ever animated TV series, The Alvin Show, which was much closer to The Simpsons or even Calvin and Hobbes than its reputation today allows. The Chipmunks’ antics were to the continual exasperation of their adoptive father/producer/manager David Seville (hence the well-known scream, “ALVIN!” which would probably be subject to child-endangerment laws today). Dave was hardly their only victim: when their busybody neighbor Mrs. Frumpington attempted to institute a PMRC-type organization to ban pop music from the airwaves, the Chipmunks decided the best action to take would be to drive her insane — the closing shot of the episode shows her being taken away to the sanitorium, loudly singing music of the Chipmunks’ creation. How could this not be loved? The show’s inventive musical sequences, however, really distinguished The Alvin Show. Until The Monkees premiered 5 years later, nothing similar appeared on TV.

Greatest Hits is a comprehensive collection (predominantly in stereo) of the classic Chipmunks records, which were released from 1959-1969. Much to Ross Bagdasarian’s credit — musically and comedically — the “novelty” hasn’t worn off, his recordings still sounding fresh after four decades.

“Witch Doctor” appears in its Sing Again with The Chipmunks/Alvin Show version, not the original David Seville single. The sequence in the Alvin Show in which the Chipmunks use Dave’s African mask collection to interpret the song was particularly innovative and anticipated a lot of music video camera techniques that later became commonplace.

“Alvin’s Orchestra” (million-selling single, from Sing Again with The Chipmunks): I’ve always wondered if the figures Seville quotes in “Alvin’s Orchestra” were accurate. If session players made $2000 (“2000 times 50 musicians”) in 1959 dollars, “Alvin’s Orchestra” would have been the equivalent of “Good Vibrations” in terms of expense. One of Bagdasarian’s better setups.

“Japanese Banana” (from Around the World with The Chipmunks): A silly premise which exemplifies the Chipmunks’ proclivity towards driving Dave to distraction regardless of the locale.

“I Wish I Could Speak French” (from Around the World with The Chipmunks): An early Alvin vocal solo.

“She Loves You” (from The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles): A faithful arrangement of the Beatles’ 4th single.

“Alvin For President” (single): An instance of Bagdasarian’s habit of reusing music (much of the incidental music in The Alvin Show originated as tracks like “Sing A Goofy Song”) — “Alvin For President” is a remake of “I Wish I Could Speak French.”

“I Wish I Had A Horse” (from Sing Again with The Chipmunks): The Chipmunks had a fondness for westerns, demonstrated here.

“Alvin’s Harmonica” (single, from Let’s All Sing with The Chipmunks): A good place to mention that Bagdasarian was mixing Chipmunks records in stereo at a time when most pop records were primarily mono (Liberty Records was one of the earliest major labels to consistently issue stereo LPs). A million selling single, the quintessential Chipmunks record and the subject of David Seville’s memorable nightmare sequence in The Alvin Show (not to mention their best cha cha number).

“America the Beautiful” (from The Chipmunk Songbook): The Katharine Lee Bates standard, as overdramatic as can be imagined but still capable of inducing a smile.

“The Alvin Show Theme” (from The Alvin Show): The Alvin Show debuted in the 1961-1962 prime season, after which it moved to Saturday mornings (until 1965) and eventually syndication in the early 1970s, where it became critical to my formation and my favourite at age 4. It was not until Nickelodeon screened the series in the early 1990s that the wickedly clever opening and closing titles were restored. Unusually, this number doesn’t actually have any Chipmunk vocals.

“Chipmunk Fun” (from Let’s All Sing with The Chipmunks): The version on The Alvin Show contains the Person to Person parody and would have been better here, since the track was placed after “The Alvin Show Theme.”

“Please Please Me” (from The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles): The highest note hit by the brothers is at the end of this second Beatles cover...

“If You Love Me (Alouette)” (from Let’s All Sing with The Chipmunks): ... while this track contains a high note Alvin conspicuously misses to comedic effect.

“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius” (from The Chipmunks Sing With Children): The inevitable slide from smartly written concept working on two levels into safe amusement for children began with an LP recorded with a children’s choir. The result is uncomfortable to listen to; “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius” repeats the same high note scream gag by Alvin that was used in “If You Love Me (Alouette).” The Sing With Children LP itself isn’t a total write-off: my friend Randy Paske used to note that Alvin does an amusing Louis Armstrong impression on “Hello Dolly.” The oddly touching “Tonight You Belong To Me” would have been a better choice.

“The Chipmunk Song” (mono, single, later on Christmas with the Chipmunks): The perennial holiday classic, the one that started it all for the Chipmunks, spending 4 weeks at #1 and selling 4 million copies in seven weeks.

The musical selections end with “The Alvin Show Theme (Tag),” which is followed by a lengthy encore, “A Chat With Alvin,” a newly-recorded self-interview by Ross Bagdasarian Jr. The discussion is entertaining for his reminiscence of growing up in the presence of his father’s increasingly famous creations. Bagdasarian Jr., who launched a 1980s version of the Chipmunks, admits “we are still trying to reach the standard he set.” Even though he does an impressive Dave Seville (an opinion seconded by Alvin’s closing remark), to many, the Chipmunks retired in 1972 when Ross Bagdasarian Sr. died.

The 17-track set is missing several key singles and glosses over entire LPs. Bagdasarian Jr.’s liner notes (excerpted from his forthcoming coffee table book on the Chipmunks) are very enjoyable, but offer no insight or explanation toward the track selection. Greatest Hits contains none of the selections from 1965’s The Chipmunks A-Go-Go like the Bacharach/David cover “What’s New Pussycat” or Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Jazzy remakes of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (from The Chipmunk Songbook) and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” (from Sing Again) which highlight Bagdasarian’s skill as an arranger are missing. Singles like “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” and “The Alvin Twist” (also from Songbook) would have made better choices than “Japanese Banana” and “I Wish I Had a Horse.” The complete instrumental closing theme to The Alvin Show (never made available on LP) would have been preferable to the voiceover version taken from the Alvin Show LP.

In 1990, EMI issued a very limited set of Chipmunks reissues on CD and cassette, but surprisingly, 1962’s The Chipmunk Songbook and the very first Chipmunks LP Let’s All Sing with The Chipmunks were not part of it (although the latter is available as a budget cassette. The last two original Chipmunks LPs (released on Liberty’s Sunset budget label), 1968’s The Chipmunks See Doctor Doolittle and 1969’s The Chipmunks Go To The Movies, were not sampled for Greatest Hits.

©2000 Rodney E Griffith. All rights reserved.