FIRESIGN THEATRE kicked off their 30th year Anniversary by releasing a cassette featuring some previously unreleased historical radio and pilot recordings culled from the immense taped archives of David Ossman. More Sugar, the group's mail order label, handled by Lodestone Media, has been leaking out various video and audio tapes and has plans to continue doing so with at least one 'new' archival product per year.
"The Pink Hotel" is an interesting tape for it gives us a historical perspective on the development of Firesign from the very beginnings up until David Ossman temporarily stopped performing with the group in the 1980's. It contains the earliest surviving recording, "International Youth On Parade" and the last foursome album demo, the title cut, "The Pink Hotel Burns Down". Interspersed throughout are examples of Firesign's commercial work for Craig Stereo, some immortal Jack Poet VW ads, and Firesign's NPR comments for 1979's "A Closer Look".
The majority of the material is derived from the scripted radio plays broadcast live from the Magic Mushroom over KRLA AM's version of Radio Free Oz in the fall of 1967 with the Firesign scheduled to a 20 min. segment of the 3 hour show.
Also from 1976 is a fine example of the team of Austin and Ossman who briefly appeared together for a few shows on the West Coast while Proctor and Bergman were busy fulfilling their tour commitments.
PP: What "The Pink Hotel Burns Down" represents to me is a loving gathering of some of our most inspirational spontaneously created material.
PB: I don't think the Pink Hotel tape is really of much moment, in terms of having any real effect on making a new market for the Firesign. I myself didn't have a whole lot of interest in it, to be perfectly frank. Those were older fragments and I thought it was of historical interest. For people who collect our stuff and want to have a prospectus on what we'd done at that period, I think that's good.
PA: But actually on Pink Hotel there's some really good things.
FZ: DO YOU HAVE ANY COMMENTS ON "THE INTERNATIONAL YOUTH ON PARADE" SKETCH AS THE FIRST RECORDED FIRESIGN THEATRE PIECE?
PA: I wonder if that's really true. It could easily be. I really don't remember where we made that. It must have been part of Radio Free Oz, I suppose. Part of the job of the Firesign Theatre in those days, before there even was a Firesign Theatre, was being a kind of link on commercial and non-commercial radio between what was thought of then as a youth movement and people that weren't part of it. The Firesign Theatre was like a gap - or rather a bridge over a gap. This is one of those pieces in which it's like we're trying to talk to older people and be reasonable and be funny about what was actually frightening people at the time. None of us will ever forget that Phil Proctor was characterized by some magazine as being "awesomely mod". And you can hear Phil being awesomely mod in that piece. It's a very Phil Proctor thing. I'm not saying he's entirely responsible for what we were writing. It's an early version of him and Peter, isn't it? I'm in there. I think I'm the girl. It goes on and on, unfortunately. That's pre what I would call Firesign Theatre. It's more kind of the writing coming out of Radio Free Oz.
FZ: IT'S CREDITED AS THE OZ FIRESIGN THEATRE.
PA: Is it actually billed as that? OK. The Oz Firesign Theatre is just like two or three appearances on Radio Free Oz, in which I would come out of the booth and David would come over from wherever he was working. And we would sort of fumble our way through these things and have really a good time with each other, which is more important than the material itself.
FZ: BUT IT IS HISTORICAL.
PA: Yeah, it's historical, so how awful can it be?
PP: Well it's not a studio recording, it's a radio recording.
FZ: BUT IT WAS PRE-RECORDED THOUGH.
PP: No it wasn't.
FZ: OH, IT WAS LIVE CUT?
PP: It was live. That's what I think David Ossman is talking about in terms of doing a Firesign show to be able to demonstrate some of that improvisational ability, you know, with the pre-recorded sound effects that we can drop in at odd moments and sound effects that we can create ourselves in front of the audience. I mean, to me the fact that we were doing radio and can still do radio so well together and particularly that kind of form that we created, that improvisational radio based on a script that somebody brought in or two people wrote or even the four of us wrote was still spontaneously created in front of a live audience, whether they were present or not. That is the wonder of it. That's why fire is so important in the name Firesign Theatre. It flares up and then it's gone. You know? It warms you for a moment and then it turns to ash. We're consumed by our comedy you know.
It was so typical of the art concrete nature, of the surrealistic nature of the surrealistic approach to our material, where nothing was sacred about the material. And nothing was even really sacred about the moment. Of course if you move the letters of sacred around it spells scared. Well none of us are scared to approach that kind of challenge. In fact I think we all found it very inspirational. That's another reason why we work well together because we like to surprise one another. We like to pull material on one another. We like to try out different characters. We're fully able and flexible in giving suggestions to one another, directing one another... There's no ego involved in it at all other than the desire to make the material the best that it possibly can be and/or to experiment, freely with the material, because failure doesn't exist in a comedic format. I mean, if you don't fall down while you're doing comedy, you're not succeeding. You just have to get up again.
So anyway that piece represents, I think, an example of the tremendous fun we had working together with material that was prepared and then took on new kinds of ramifications because it was preformed under very spontaneous conditions. Of course I could be completely wrong, "Oh no, we produced that in my basement!" but that's my recollection.
DO: It's the first existing piece with the four of us, that we had written, at least in part, written. I think it was Proctor's idea and it was inspired by the fact that the Paris Police had sewn lead into the linings of their cloaks so they'd have a weapon to use at the Hippie lie-ins, or whatever they were doing. This was so abhorrent to Phil that I think that was the kernel of the idea. And obviously when it got to adding all those things about the European radio and the BBC radio service and all of that stuff, suddenly we had a place to start. It's just pure radio. We come right out of the radio with this news broadcast which is exactly what we had been doing, really. That was the world we were living in. So it seems perfectly appropriate that we would have done it that way. We had done the things that we had done as a group at KPFK, previously, even as late as the French demonstration piece, "The International Youth On Parade". The jump from that piece to the summer at KRLA and the fall at the Magic Mushroom, let's say, the jump from that piece and "Exorcism In Your Daily Life". One is funny and the next one is profound. You know?
PB: Yes there was quite a metamorphosis wasn't there? We were moving along pretty quickly, really finding our form.
DO: What I was thinking is that that cassette needs program notes. Maybe I'll write program notes for the cassette.
FZ: I MADE SOME COMMENTS THAT IT WOULD HAVE BEEN NICE TO HAVE HAD SOME MORE LINER NOTES FOR THE CASSETTE, IN FIREZINE #2.
DO: No kidding. Anything that you have to read in type that small. I don't if I'll be able to do something this time for the album but I think that is a good point to be made, is that the distance between those 2 pieces in the writing and in the performance. But "Exorcism In Your Daily Life" is just a genius piece. It's colossal writing. It's a wonderful piece of writing that holds up to this day, also the performance.
PP: That was a stage piece, many times. Let pull my record out so I don't make a complete ass of myself. No wonder I'm having so much trouble, it's just a tape. I have these visions that everything we do is already a CD, maybe that's a good sign. There again if our audience is supportive enough and wide ranging enough, maybe we can put out CDs of these things, easily enough.
Let's see Magic Mushroom live broadcast. It was performed and there was an audience. So there you go, that's yet another kind, another approach to it. What I like about "The Pink Hotel Burns Down" is that represents a real spectrum of the different ways that we were required to create produced comedy. Our comedy is always produced in the sense that it has production values. It wasn't stand-up. And we all had to lie down after doing it, it was so exhaustive.
So that particular piece with its rudimentary sound effects, the same thing that we did with "The Giant Rat of Sumatra" (By The Light Of The Silvery) that has this marvelous kind of coked up energy, none of us were on drugs, you can't perform that way, it was the energy that just reaches out and grabs you with its incredible youthful vitality that we all had and the enormous enthusiasm and enjoyment that we were obviously filled with at the time.
FZ: IT'S VERY REFRESHING.
PP: It's very refreshing. It's non-stop stupid and funny but yet it's sharp and intelligent at the same time. And we did all these stupid sound effects on our own. We could have made them more sophisticated, easily, but we elected not to. Because, you know, who cares? It's just another approach to it. And the whole album is filled with that kind of excitement and discovery. I think it's fun for people who listen to it because they're going to discover aspects of our work that they've only heard on more sophisticated productions that they may have not realized before. It's also interesting because it shows you the basis out of which evolved the sophisticated and intricate production design.
FZ: I LIKE IT WHEN YOU DO THE VOCAL SOUND EFFECTS BECAUSE IT'S ALMOST LIKE A COMEDIC A CAPPELLA KIND OF THING.
PP: It's jazzy. It's musical. It's jazzy. We control the rhythms. We control the horizontal. We control the vertical. We don't control the puns. We're not responsible if they hurt you. I'm sorry about that. But at the same time it also shows that we held in our head a schematic for production design down the road. The image of the full-blown piece is represented by these fly-blown pieces that we create.
FZ: AND YOU CONTINUED TO PERFORM IT IN YOUR STAGE SHOWS AND TOURS.
DO: Yes we did. Then we re-wrote it and did it as Billville, later on. We use the same generic plot and put it to a much more complicated... we sort of made "Our Town" out of it.
FZ: I'D LIKE TO SEE YOU RELEASE ALL THE MAGIC MUSHROOM SHOWS, PARTICULARLY "A LIFE IN THE DAY" AKA "THE TV SET".
DO: The original background. Yeah, well one of the ideas is we would do that if had a CD Plus where we had a lot of extra room, an enhanced CD. Or we might do it in the package that went out that is our special, the so called 'coffee table' version of "Dwarf". So that's one of the ideas that's being talked about for that.
There are several performances of that piece because we did it on the road, the 1970 tour. That was the "TV" piece and "The American Pageant".
FZ: WHAT ABOUT "BY THE LIGHT OF THE SILVERY"?
PA: This is very close to what we would do at the Ice House in Pasadena and then at the club we played in Hollywood, The Comedy Club. When it went to stage it was done with an interesting and kind of an elaborate little set that went with it. We all have very fond memories of it and it doesn't really have much to do with the record that was made of it in the 70's, "The Giant Rat Of Sumatra".
FZ: OVER THE EDGE IS A GOOD TRACK?
PP: "Who's Peggy?", that's brilliant. That was something that David and Phil performed. It's just as funny as hell. That was to me, a great evolution and the best representation of our soap opera parodies. All of them were pretty funny. It's like Bob and Ray, I don't think they ever did a bad soap opera parody but to me, some of the stuff that David and Phil came up with was just the best.
FZ: DIDN'T PROCTOR AND BERGMAN ALSO DO A VERSION OF "OVER THE EDGE"?
PP: Yeah I think we did but I don't think that anything we did was that much an evolution from the original Firesign take on it. And I do think that what Phil and David did with the material is very uniquely their own and really very very funny and tremendously Firesign Theatre.
PA: The "Over The Edge" episode is really interesting because it's the only, that I know of, the only public publication of that show that David and I did. We did two of them, we did two shows. It's mostly my writing. I was surprised at how good the performances were. That's the Nazi thing through that whole show that was developed. It seems to spring out of nowhere. You hear a more sophisticated version of it on "Next World", the final episode of "Who's Peggy", which is I think, pretty much the end of that writing. But there are some moments on this one where there's some odd imagery - pie plates and the squirrels, for instance. The long passage - the announcer talking about the fire in the bank, the fire in the fire station - came out pretty well.
FZ: I THOUGHT THE "PINK HOTEL BURNS DOWN" CUT WAS GOOD.
PB: That was a take-off on games. That also did not get bought. I was very much into adventure games, and I got The Firesign Theatre to start parodying adventure games back then. "The Pink Hotel Burns Down" has some funny stuff in it. There's a game in each room of the hotel. This guy checks into a room in the Hotel and he can't get to sleep so he talks about all this stuff. He puts himself through it. He ends up on the ledge, suddenly there's a "Dungeons and Dragons" character, there's trolls, and there's game players. I was into that a long time ago. I think I started that in '77, '78 something like that. I thought what we did as demo for Warner Bros. back at that time is a great moment.
DO: I think The Firesign Theatre does well in that futurist mode. At least we did at a certain time, and in the last things we were writing. It's also on that Roland Sound Sampler but that's only half of it. Fred Jones re-mixed the first scene. I said "Why didn't you mix them both. He said, "I didn't like the second one very much." I said "Fuck You Fred!" That's ridiculous because it's a really nice mix, a careful mix. Phil has the tracks and we can always re-mix the whole thing anyway we want. It's about 10 minutes and it's the pilot of this piece that's an adventure game. That was written in 1981 at the very earliest point of having observed that kind of interactive game. Game over. The life is game over, return to your low points. It's the story of a brave guy who could never make the grade. So we really were looking at the '80s, in that we were looking forward into the '80s, like in "Fighting Clowns". I think they're all that futurist mode, that is something we all do naturally.
PA: It has its moments. It's like it's not funny but especially the first two or three minutes of it is good. To me it's amazing, where Peter got that Burt Lancaster voice I'll never know. But he's really good at it, it's really cool. We suffer a little bit from having David be the straight man there, because we lose some voices from him, I thought. It's a little over produced and it made me think about working on it again.
PP: "The Pink Hotel" bit, the cut itself, that suffers, in a way, from over production. You see? And because it was not a completed piece, it was a pilot for a piece, we weren't able to really spend the time, at least this is my take on it, to investigate and refine it to the degree that is would have become more accessible. On the other hand, it's damned interesting. You know? And it does foretell, as all of our work tends to do, foretells the interactive revolution and the sophistication of CD-ROM games and all the rest of that. Had we done that work a little more contemporaneously, when CD-ROMs were existing, and should we have an opportunity indeed, to do a parody of interactive CD-ROMs, I can just imagine what it would sound like. You know? And that piece kind of inspires me to think about it and to write towards it.
FZ: DID THAT DEVELOP INTO THE "EAT OR BE EATEN" RECORD? SOME OF THE VOICES AND SOUND EFFECTS SOUND THE SAME.
PA: This was a demo for Warner Bros., for an album, which they did not buy. At this point we had been without a real record contract for 5 years. I'm sure that this is one of the things that drove David over the edge. But then again it's real like... did you ever read my liner notes to "Fighting Clowns"? To me this is much the same thing. It's just a period of time where we're not being funny. We can be clever and we be fast and some of the voices are good, and some performances and production can be good but you don't feel any really deep joke - where we're being funny for and with each other. It sort of reminds me of some of the really... and there's a lot of "Fighting Clowns" that's really good, I mean really good, actually, and funnier than this, but this isn't quite.
This is like playing around in the form of those early fantasy games that existed for computers at the time. It has, just as in "Bozos", when we were fooling around the very primitive psychological program that existed for primitive machines at the time, there's something good about the fact that we did that. Because we hit something basic and we're not screwing around with technology so much. We were looking at the kind of nuts and bolts of what we were dealing with. And here there's a possibility at work because we're dealing with very basic, simple things, like being able to save something, which is so basic to these kinds of games and that kind of programing thinking that I thought was one of the best things in it. He's able to save things, you know? And it seemed understandable to me from whether you had ever played these games or not, you quickly pick up what he's doing, and I thought that was real good. That had a kind of "Bozos" like feeling to it, that if we worked on this, and I definitely put it on one of my back burners to think about working on it again. That's one of the things I'd be interested in working on. When it tries to move on into an adventure and when we begin to start fooling around as to what the plot's going to be from that point on. What is the Dust Master? What is all that stuff? What is the adventure going to be? The best thing about all that, is the cars. It could have been good. It could have been funny. The cars, the fact that these things eat cars. But what wasn't going to seem to work to me was that the kind of "Mad Max" setting to it, wasn't going to work. Somehow that just isn't our sense of humor.
FZ: IT PROBABLY WOULD BE MORE FITTING TODAY THAN BACK THEN, I CAN IMAGINE.
PA: Yeah, and then, I in particular spent the next ten years, practically dealing with this kind of programing, how you write this kind of stuff because "Danger In Dreamland" is an extremely elaborate and many leveled version of basically this kind of game. That is a labyrinthian kind of interactive game. This is representative of that thinking as it began to develop. One of the scenes contains the famous "Spud Hunting Episode". You're in a movie in which they do things like some odd Clark Gable movie, in which the participants, like in some late 40s's noire film in black and white, in which you're tromping thorough the back woods of North Carolina in these huge fields. And what they're hunting, they hunt potatoes. It's called "spud hunting" and they hunt them with silver nails and these nail guns which you shoot at them. Someone is inadvertently killed with one of these nails, right through the heart. The coroner says something like, "Ah, 305 degrees, just right." Ha, ha, ha.
FZ: ON "A CLOSER LOOK" FOR NPR, WAS THAT A WHOLE SERIES THAT YOU DID?
PA: Oh yeah, that's from the NPR stuff we were doing in the early 80's. It was regular, it went on for weeks. These must be 'best of'. The "SkyLab" thing is Proctor, the front porch thing, they're sitting on their front porch. That's yet another version of Proctor's "Mutt & Smut" characters. It's kind of a later version, actually.
Senator Hayakawa is really good on that. I never did that character again, and it was such a joy to hear it. He's very funny. The whole thing's funny. Everybody's performances are really good on this.
FZ: AND OF COURSE THE JACK POET ADS ARE ON THIS.
PA: Yeah, I have to make sure that Jack Poet gets a copy of this. He's living in Santa Barbara. He called me recently. He was taking a college class and the college professor knew who he was and Jack suddenly realized he didn't have any of these things. So "Pink Hotel" will actually be Jack's copies of his own spots. There's this long piece that we used to do on stage every once in a while where we did all these used car guys at once. Which is usually just me and Phil, but that includes "I'll stand upon my head until this bird is dead", Bird of Prey Motors. And I forget what my character is called but he also shows up on "Roller Maidens" in the medieval piece. Peter does a great one and Phil of course does Ralph, and this Sam Hayakawa thing with Ralph working for him, is really good. Someday I would just really love to hear a sort of 15 minute piece of us just slamming all these used car ads all together.
FZ: ANY COMMENTS ON THE CRAIG STEREO AD?
PA: Great God, is that awful? Woof. Man, that's bad. Gonga, well it's like one of those things about being embarrassed about the antecedents of the Firesign Theatre. It's like Peter's wonderful statement somewhere recently, that it was a time when he could talk about astrology without blushing. And the fact that the very name of our organization is this and all this stuff. I mean it's gotta be funny. That's what our life was like at that time. That's where we actually came out of, was this huge welter of people our age, who were just hitting 30, having to deal with this huge world of the baby boomers coming right behind us, and you can feel us scrabbling to get to deal with it, in the sense of radio because radio was the medium of it at that time. And we get more sophisticated. And the early stuff is us trying to do comedy about people on the streets for useless causes.
In other words there's no anti-war material in this, so to speak of. This stuff is before the Tet offensive. You know? It's in the early days of girls on the Strip having bell bottoms as wide as the moon and hair in huge bouffants. It's the time when we went to a meeting once with the Monkee's producers and a guy was wearing a melted coffee can lid around his neck on a chain because he thought it was hip. He bought it at some store on Sunset Strip that dealt in hip merchandise. It was a day of incredible foolishness and it's unfortunate that we don't even like to dwell on it 'cause things got serious a couple of years after that and then everything got unserious during the Disco period. But there was a moment in there where the Firesign Theatre's best work comes out, over that transition between the 60s and the 70s. Where life was very serious for everybody. We were all in our 30s and we had gotten over this initial kind of mod period of the late 60s. So hearing these little bits and pieces from 67 or 68 and you hear us just as radio people trying to stay at work. And I wasn't involved very much in the commercial. I barely remember where that Craig Stereo job came in. I know I was certainly happy for the hundred dollars I must have gotten for it. It was a long way away from what really any of us were interested in doing. What was that in? 69? We would have made one album at least by then. In 69, 70, we begin looking around and saying, "Oh, we're artists now. We should be treated like musicians." and this kind of foolish stuff, and doing foolish stuff on the radio, foolish ads and stuff like that is gone. I think it's good for us to have it on an album like "The Pink Hotel", because it just keeps us honest. It's best to remember where we came from.