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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

GREAT (?) MOMENTS IN COMICS HISTORY: "MAD'S PUNK ROCK GROUP OF THE YEAR" (1978)

NOTE: click on the images to see them in all their large, vile glory!

For far too long the American humor institution that is MAD magazine wallowed in periods of resting on its laurels and coasting through issue after issue of bland (though usually well-drawn) movie and TV parodies, tired SPY VS. SPY gags and the bottomlessly dull and unfunny "Lighter Side of..." by Dave Berg. But when it had one of its surges of brilliance, MAD was indeed a force to be reckoned with and if you were of the right age at the right time it was both eye opening and fucking hilarious, a good case in point being the hit-or-miss observations and social commentary found in the long-running "(FILL IN THE BLANK) OF THE YEAR" series. Two of those stand out in my memory as being absolutely vital in the forging of my sense of humor were "Mad's Karate Movie Producer of the Year" (MAD #167, June 1974), a piss-your-pants moment of brilliance illustrated by Jack Davis during the height of the 1970's martial arts movie boom, and issue #199's (June 1978) poke at the British punk rock movement when it reared its Mohawked head over here in the States.

I was just a hair shy of turning thirteen when "Mad's Punk Rock Group of the Year" came out and had only heard my first taste of the Sex Pistols — "God Save the Queen" to be precise — a few months beforehand on radio's THE DOCTOR DEMENTO SHOW, of all unlikely places, so I was exactly the right age to succumb to the scabrous influence of those vile, dentally-challenged British louts (who, to be fair, seem incredibly tame when compared to some of the acts that followed in their wake).

Written in the usual over-the-top fashion by Larry Seigel, the script fused perfectly with the art of Harry North, Esq., a gifted artist whose skill at rendering the ridiculous in a realistic fashion rivaled that of the esteemed George Woodbridge but did far too little work for the magazine for my liking (most notably the 1977 parody of the original STAR WARS), and if I'm not mistaken North is British himself, an aspect that may have lent a certain credibility to his depiction of a bunch of scurvy, first wave UK punks.

The article features "Anita Tryant," a parody of former ultra-white bread pop singer and Florida Citrus Commission shill Anita Bryant, who became infamous in the mid-to-late 1970's as one of the nation's greatest anti-gay campaigners, so her presence here as a witness to punk's would-be invasion of the US only ups the ludicrous ante (her battle cry here is "Oranges, Si! Rotten fruits, No!). Tryant is on the scene to witness the decidedly anti-Beatles-esque arrival of Sex Pistols stand-ins "Johnny Turd and the Commodes" as they land at an airport. Guided by top showbiz manager Bernie Rakeoff, Tryant is given a crash course in the alleged culture of punk rock and the band's lofty goal of protesting "whatever sanity and decency is left," and the foul antics of the group certainly live up to that aim.

Following a "meet (not so) cute" with the visiting musical luminaries — Johnny Turd, Harvey Belch, Hugo Sweatstain and the "weirdo" of the group, Jerry Greenblatt — it's off to the show, and what a performance it is, predating the real-life antics of GG Allin by a few years (GG was around at the time but had yet to develop his, er, unique style). First, the Commodes meet and greet with their adoring fans,

followed by an incredibly short (to say nothing of profane) intro number

that segues into the charming and evocative ballad entitled "The Bluebird of Happiness."

The Commodes then charmingly demonstrate the fine art of "gobbing"

as a warmup to voiding the contents of their stomachs all over the stage.

This deep and meaningful act of regurgitation — clearly a resonant statement on the pointlessness of modern society — sets the stage for a heartfelt golden shower,

which is itself a lead-in to the set's showstopping finale, namely the band fatally dismembering themselves onstage with knives, and act that prompts the horrified Anita Tryant to flee screaming from the theater.

When all is said and done, we witness the remains of Johnny Turd and the Commodes getting unceremoniously chucked into the back of a waiting garbage truck by a quartet of utterly apathetic trashmen, only to have Rakeoff inform us of the next big thing in punk: a band from Uganda called "Calvin and the Cannibals...And they've got a finale you won't believe!!"

I was aware that MAD had quite a rep back in the 1950's as a vile screed against all things right, decent and indelibly American, but was disappointed that the magazine didn't really register as such since the time I began reading it (1972); that role was filled by the theoretically "adults only" NATIONAL LAMPOON, which was everything one's parents didn't want their little darlings to read since it contained graphic depictions (and skewerings) of sex, violence, racism, drug abuse as recreation, language usage that would have given Richard Pryor pause, and a generally cynical "fuck America" attitude that was exactly what the Viet Nam and later Reagan-era country needed (in my own humble opinion). But despite its raunchy content, NATIONAL LAMPOON had very little trouble getting into the hands and households of kids across the nation thanks to it being displayed by clueless news vendors on magazine racks right next the infinitely more innocuous MAD, CRACKED and CRAZY, apparently said news vendors figuring that all humor mags were interchangeable. Obviously, such was not the case, so it was like a small miracle to see MAD finally stop fucking around and dish out something that was every bit as offensive (and funny) as I could have hoped for.

Cracking the hell up while reading this in my seventh grade Social Studies class earned me a trip to the Principal's office and a detention for "bringing squalid and inappropriate material" (a quote that I will cherish for the rest of my days) to school, the first in a long line of so-called after school punishments that were meant to be painfully boring but instead allowed me more time to read ever-worsening stuff, and it was sure as hell worth it. Thanks to this MAD story and Doctor Demento I ended up a rabid punk rock fanatic at the age of thirteen, delighting in the shock and outrage displayed by most adults who stood agape in the face of pierced lunatics who wore spiky leather, sported ridiculous and unnaturally-colored hairdos and had names like "Sue Catwoman" or "Klaus Flouride." One particularly fond memory from those halcyon days was seeing the look on my mother's face when Wendy O. Williams, the awesomely feral frontwoman of the Plasmatics, sat down for an interview on New York's LIVE AT FIVE afternoon news/talk show.

The late, lamented Wendy O. Williams. My kind of gal.

My mom just stared, slack-jawed at that modern day savage with the fucked-up hair and barely-concealed tits, fully convinced that she was witnessing the end of the Western civilization as we knew it, and she may not have been too far from right. Her oft-heard query of "You didn't spend my money on that mess, did you?" whenever some new affront to the very concept of music issued from my room would have found a whole other realm of interpretation had she seen "Mad's Punk Rock Group of the Year," and as the questionable (though fun) uncle to a number of future menaces to society I think it's only right that I share this masterpiece with them when they're a little older. (Come to think of it, my pal Cheri's first kid, Sadie-Rain, is definitely old enough to get it, although I have to wonder if, some thirty years removed, it'll have the same impact.)

6 comments:

RICK PARKER said...

Mr. Bunche--As one who was "there", I don't think it's entirely accurate to characterize the 1950's version of Mad as a "vile screed" of all things wholesome and American. To my adolescent mind, it was a remarkably-well illustrated humor magazine which held up so-called American institutions, pop culture, social mores of the time, advertising, and "American values" to scrutiny in a new light. It was eye-opening and mind-expanding (before drugs). To my knowledge, there had never before been, and there has not been anything like it (except maybe The National Lampoon). MAD used to be funny, clever, well done, well written, well drawn without being overly gross, disgusting, violet or "in bad taste". It upset parents and teachers alike, but we kids loved it. We owe the editors, writers and artists a debt we cannot repay for all the kicks we got, and especially for how MAD helped us see through much of the hipocracy and bullshit of the fifties and early sixties and see the other side of things-- the Mad Side--which was far more sane than the real side.

Bunche said...

Mr. Parker-

I did not characterize the 1950's MAD as a "vile screed" of all things wholesome and American, but was referring to its rep as such. I fucking love old school MAD and don't let anyone tell you different.

John Bligh said...

I remember reading this when it first came out and loving it, of course.

It's amusing that even though everyone involved with that parody was obviously middle-aged and really didn't "get" punk, they still made my 10-year old self curious as hell about it... I guess a snotty attitude and gross out humor crosses generational lines better than anything.

For my money, the 70's was the height of Mad Magazine... Of course, that's when I was coming of age. Those who grew up in the 50's and 60's might disagree, but it seems to me that most of the Usual Gang of Idiots all reached their creative primes around that time.

John Bligh said...

And I would argue that old school Mad - meaning Mad from the beginning until the early to mid 60's - has not aged as well as the stuff from '65 (or thereabouts) to 1980...

The humor seems far more dated to me and less universal (though it was still fairly sophisticated for it's "target" audience of 10 year old idiots).

But you could write a year worth of blogs on that...

What? Me Worry?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. This comic, back in '78 was the first time I'd heard of the existence of punk rock. Very cool time (music-wise) to be a young teen.

I found this article because I googled Johnny Turd & the Commodes, by the way.

Jerry Greenblatt said...

It's always fun to see people playing the "when did MAD peak?" game. Seems to me that it peaked and ebbed article by article, rather than in one particular era.

I wonder what it is that makes people obsess on this topic, when you almost never hear anyone arguing about when the golden age of Time Magazine was, or which stretch of Sports Illustrated was most influential, or what year Ladies Home Journal really started to go downhill.

They're still producing new MAD Magazines today... and some of it is still great!