Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Battle of the Bands ... Cartoon bands, that is.

If you were growing up hooked on Saturday morning cartoons in the seventies, there were only two rock groups for you: Josie and the Pussycats and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids. They were the serious hard-rocking (at least as hard as bubble gum music can be) cartoon bands, since Rick Springfield was a solo act on Mission: Magic, the Archies were slowly fading away and into history with the Bicentennial, the Chan Clan didn’t really play all that many gigs, Partridge Family 2020 was lame no matter how you look at it, and the less said about Jabberjaw and the Neptunes the better.

Having just watched every episode of each cartoon show, I thought it was time for a battle of the bands:


Both the Pussycats and the Sundance Kids have attained a bit of cult status based on only three seasons worth of total episodes. Let’s take a look at the two bands.

The Sundance Kids were actually a group of four espionage agents and their drummer’s pet dog. A massive computer known as Mr. Socrates would call Butch Cassidy, the only member of the band with a communication link to their base, in the form of a radio ring. 


In the group, Butch played lead guitar and handled lead vocals. He was like a young James Bond, but with cartoon luck instead of James Bond Luck (which as everyone knows, is only about 9/10ths as good as having Captain James T. Kirk Luck).


Merrilee was the blonde girl who played tambourine. She was both a bit aggressive and a bit clumsy. Stephanie played bass guitar.  She seemed to have more technical know-how than anyone but Butch. 

Steffy's brother Harvey was the drummer, who was rarely up for the many adventures they had, preferring to stay at home where it was safe. The character was voiced by the only celebrity in the cast, Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees.

Elvis was his dog who went along on their adventures, often being more useful than anyone else except Butch. He was also there every week for the opening bit of comedy relief, as Mr. Socrates was somehow allergic to Elvis. I’d like to think it was a built-in glitch that allowed the supercomputer to function faster in the end, but really it was just a bad joke that got out of hand and very old after episode three or four. 

Along with being what appeared to be pop stars akin to the Beatles, the Sundance Kids had access to loads of high-tech equipment, including a special jet and automobile. Their cover story usually had them booked playing some sort of benefit concert in a foreign country that had spy work that needed to be done.

Contrasting the organization of Butch and his friends, Josie and the Pussycats were considerably more slapdash. The band was popular, but no crowd ever broke through the barricades to try to steal pieces of their clothing for souvenirs, as the fans of the Sundance Kids were apt to do; the Pussycats were more wont to ramble into a town for a concert on the backs of donkeys or in rickshaws, or ending up swabbing decks to pay for their passage on a ship (because of Alexander's lack of business legerdemain).

Josie played lead guitar and did most of the vocals for the band.

Valerie was the African-American teen who played tambourine (and could give MacGuyver a run for his money in the brains department). The scatterbrained Melody was the drummer. 


On the sidelines, Alan was the group’s road manager (or just their roadie; it was often hard to delineate exactly what Alan’s job was, besides being the clean-cut strongman and love interest) and was the apple of Josie’s eye…

…and the eye of Alexandra Cabot, the sneaky and troublesome sister to the group’s easily frightened manager, Alexander Cabot III.

The band was rounded out by Sebastian, Alexandra’s cat who, like Elvis, was often of more use on an adventure than most of the others. Alexandra also secretly hoped to wrest creative control of the band from Josie to make the kind of music she liked, though what that might be was never quite explained.

As you can see, the dynamics of each band were somewhat similar up to a point. Both had an integral pet, an easily-terrified goober for comedic double-takes, and at least one person who was smart and technically inclined. The Pussycats had the added problem of having a member of their group constantly plotting to take it over, which was almost in diametric opposition to Mr. Socrates on Butch’s side. None of the Sundance Kids accidentally fouled up a plan because they were trying one up or trying to vie for the amorous intentions of one of their bandmates.

So which was the better band? Musically, they were both better than the Archies, given the snippets of original songs viewers heard in each episode. Of course, being noted as being better than the Archies is akin to being called nicer than Hitler, so that isn’t saying too much.  Since every song used the same animation to show the band performing, at least Hanna-Barbera went to the trouble of rotoscoping (animating over film of real-life performers) some folks to get the movement right, down to the motion of the girls’ hair. Of course, that also meant that every song the Sundance Kids performed ended with them giving the same bland movements to every song, be it a ballad or a peppy tune. Both bands gave great performances for being three- and four-piece combos, especially considering some of the songs had keyboards and rhythm guitars in them. Both bands also seemed to lug along an enormous bass fiddle and case just for plot-induced hysterics or the occasional Deus ex Machinas in the mysteries. 


One also has to take into account the face the bands give to the public: The Sundance Kids performed in polyester pantsuits and kerchiefs (though Merrilee had a mini-skirt to detract from the fact she was only playing tambourine), and the Pussycats … well, three pretty girls dressed up in skintight cat suits trump most anything. Yeah, yeah, I know that’s a tad sexist. I’m a guy. Sue me.


One would also have to give the Blue Ribbon to the Pussycats because of longevity. Both cartoons lasted one season (with infinite reruns, of course), but Josie and the girls came back for Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space, to cash in on the sci-fi boom of the seventies. Alexandra managed to get them locked into a spaceship during a promotional photo shoot and launched them off on a season of adventures with alien worlds and creatures. They somehow managed to have all their band equipment in the ship with them, so they could entertain intergalactic potentates as the plots required. They even added a second pet, an alien named Bleep-Bleep, which the theme song called their guide, but was only slightly more useful than Sebastian most of the time.


They also garnered their own live-action movie a couple of decades later, though the movie had little to do with the TV show. That was more along the lines of someone watching an afternoon of Boomerang and thinking “Wow, an all-girl band! That would make a great movie!” and getting a producer high enough to green-light the project. The Sundance Kids ended up being relegated to offhand roles on Sealab 2021, which while funny as all get out, just didn’t have the joie de vivre that pushed the Pussycats to their iconic status. Josie’s theme song was better, too. 

I believe that the entire Josie and the Pussycats series available on DVD. Unfortunately, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids are not legally available at the moment, at least to my knowledge. You can find snippets of it on YouTube and I’m sure there are torrents out there for the series, though a lot of the shows are a tad fuzzy from VHS duplication. They’re still worth a look if you enjoy this unique pop-music-cartoon mélange.

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