A 40th anniversary look at Alvin, Simon & Theodore’s recording career with Disney’s Buena Vista label.
THE CHIPMUNK ADVENTURE
At Last! Alvin’s First Motion Picture Soundtrack
Buena Vista Records (Disney) #62526 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP / Stereo)
CD Reissue: Hip-O Records HPD-40088 (1998)
Originally released in September 1987. Album Producers: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian. Composer: Randy Edelman. Film Producer: Ross Bagdasarian. Writers: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian. Director: Janice Karman. Running Time: 28 minutes.
Original Songs: “Off to See the World,” “Flying with the Eagles” by Randy Edelman; Mexican Holiday” by Randy Edelman and Ross Bagdasarian; “Weekend in France, Italy, England, Amsterdam, Greece” [sic] by Randy Edelman, Ross Bagdasarian and Janice Karman; “My Mother” by Randy Goodrum; “The Girls of Rock and Roll” by Jay Levy and Terry Shaddick; “Getting Lucky” by Barry DeVorzon; “Diamond Dolls” by Donna Weiss and Elysée Alexander.
Pop Songs: “Yi, Yi, Yi, Yi / Cuento Le Gusta” by Mack Gordon, Harry Warren, Gabriel Ruiz and Ray Gilbert; “Wooly Bully” by Domingo Samudio.
Instrumental: “The Chipmunk Adventure Theme Song” by Randy Edelman.
Like Smurfs, Monkees and Partridges, it’s been armchair easy for some to diss and dismiss Alvin and the Chipmunks between their debut and within each era of their revivals, yet the repeated successes they enjoy—either through new audiences or devotees of a specific incarnation—baffle and frustrate their detractors like so many cursing Snidely Whiplashes.
Forty years have passed since The Chipmunks made their theatrical debut as animated characters (over sixty years after their debut) in a feature that many believe to be, with reservations, a film with a lot going for it. In particularly it boasts the work of a stellar group of artists—including Ron Dias, Glen Keane, Dave Pruiksma, Andy Gaskill, Corny Cole, Dan Haskett, Heidi Guedel, Susan Kroyer, Will Finn, Kevin Lima and Bill Plympton—who entered the project from neighboring Los Angeles area studios at various points, adding one brilliant touch after another.
The Chipmunk Adventure also yielded a fine soundtrack album. Perhaps not the kind of album that fans of the original Chipmunks might have cherished if, in a magical parallel universe, 1961’s The Alvin Show was such a hit that it inspired a theatrical Alvin Movie. There is a gentle nod to the original David Seville and the Chipmunks in The Chipmunk Adventure: the character of Mrs. Miller (voiced by veteran comic actor Dody Goodman) is heard warbling “Witch Doctor” and “Come On-A My House”).
In this reality, the NBC Saturday morning series was already in its second incarnation by the time this feature was in theaters. Because of the talent involved at the time, there is something uniquely special about The Chipmunk Adventure. The impression is that a lot of effort was made to give it a theatrical quality, despite occasional seams that show. However, if the intent had to produce the film off as just a clone of the Saturday morning version—which it is not–it could have made as much (or more) profit than it did. As it turned out, The Chipmunk Adventure was a respectable success that continued to sustain the franchise and was repeatedly reissued on home video. Its box office was overshadowed by 2007’s CG/live-action Alvin and the Chipmunks, which led to three sequels.
The globe-trotting jewel robbery caper premise created a very episodic storyline, which turned out to allow flexibility in the long run. Ron Dias, who received an opening title credit for background color styling, recalled it as a challenging production, mired in stops and starts. Sequences were planned and dropped. One deleted song ended up on the album: “Weekend in France, Italy, England, Amsterdam, Greece.” The crossed-out countries in the title of the song are deliberate, perhaps as a behind-the-scenes nod to deleted sequences. In the Bagdasarian tradition, the other songs in the score are a blend of original and familiar tunes.
Buena Vista also produced The Chipmunk Adventure as a read-along audio cassette and book set (284-DC; vinyl had been discontinued and CD read-alongs had not arrived). Members of the cast reenacted the story in order to compress the action into less than fifteen minutes, including the song, “The Girls of Rock and Roll.” The 24-page book contained cel and background set-ups from the film, providing fine examples of the detail that went into making the feature. Some music beds from the feature can be heard in the background, but most of the music is from the Disneyland/Vista read-along music library.
Buena Vista released a second read-along based on a season two episode of the NBC series produced by Ruby-Spears and written by Joe Ruby’s son, Chris, with Elana Lesser called “The Greatest Show-Offs on Earth.” Retitled The Chipmunks Join the Circus, it sustains the tradition of animated and live-action characters (from Rudolph and Frosty to The Monkees) who save struggling circuses by starring themselves in the shows and raise money to pay off villainous mortgage owners. The theme to the series closes out this read-along, which is also illustrated with film stills and narrated by William Woodson (“On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence…”). The background music in this production will also be immediately familiar to Disneyland/Vista read-along listeners.
SOLID GOLD CHIPMUNKS
Special Anniversary Collection
Buena Vista Records (Disney) #62530 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP with Book / Stereo and Mono)
Released in 1988. Compilation Producers: Ross Bagdasarian Jr., Janice Karman. Music Producers: Ross Bagdasarian Sr., Ross Bagdasarian Jr., Janice Karman. Running Time: 30 minutes.
Chipmunk Classics: “Witch Doctor,” “The Chipmunk Song,” “Alvin for President” by Ross Bagdasarian, Sr.
TV Soundtrack Songs: “We’re the Chipmunks (Theme)” by Chris Caswell, Janice Karman; “Captain Chipmunk” by Ross Bagdasarian Jr., Janice Karman.
Pop Songs: “Beat It” by Michael Jackson; “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” by Robert Hazard; “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” by John Martin Sommers; “Leader of the Pack” by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, George Morton; “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys/Chipmunks” by Ed and Patsy Bruce.
The appearance of Alvin and the Chipmunks on Disney’s Buena Vista Records label was no more unusual than Peanuts, Garfield, ALF, Star Trek, Goonies, Gremlins, E.T., Star Wars, or various Rankin/Bass, Spielberg or Lucasfilm property on either Disneyland, Vista or a special label created just for the license (e.g. “Charlie Brown Records”). As history tells us, Lucasfilm’s first partnership with Disney was not through theme parks or an acquisition but through records.
The Chipmunks had reemerged on Pickwick’s Excelsior label, then on RCA Victor and Kid Stuff/IJE before Disneyland/Vista. What made this visit significant was a story shared in a previous Animation Spin about how Walt Disney asked his record company to do a Christmas record about mice who form an orchestra. The resulting 45 rpm EP of Ludwig Mousensky and the All-Mouse Orchestra and Chorus did not become a phenomenon in 1957 for several reasons–some of which Ross Bagdasarian addressed and improved upon the following year as David Seville, first with “Witch Doctor” (a catchy hit with one unidentified sped-up voice) and then “The Chipmunk Song” (a classic standard with three distinct personalities telling a little story).
Disney’s Donald Duck and Chip ‘n Dale characters released their own interpretation of “The Chipmunk Song” (or “Christmas Don’t Be Late”) twenty years after David Seville and the Chipmunks changed the world of pop novelty music with their version. “The Chipmunk Song” then made its second appearance on a Disney record label for 1988’s Solid Gold Chipmunks, but this time it is not the 1958 Liberty Records version, but the 1981 version from the RCA album A Chipmunk Christmas, tying in with the Chuck Jones-directed animated TV special (more about all of that in this Animation Spin). The version of “Witch Doctor” is also a newer one, from the IJE soundtrack LP of the Saturday morning cartoon, Songs from Our TV Shows.
There is only one early Chipmunk recording on the album: “Alvin for President,” which is the song “I Wish I Could Speak French” from the 1960 LP Around the World with The Chipmunks with different lyrics. This particular song might have been owned under a different contract as it was also used on a “bonus record” sound sheet accompanying the 1983 Chipmunks “On-Tour Traveling Van Play Set.” Alvin’s campaign song was chronicled in this Animation Spin.
While it might be assumed that the newer versions were chosen simply because they were more recent, the realities of music rights and licenses could prove otherwise. Quite often it is actually less costly to re-create a hit song with the original artists than to use the original recording. This is often why the original version of a well-known hit is substituted for a remake. The vintage version may not be available (or affordable) in its most familiar form. The newer Chipmunk recordings were very likely much more accessible under contracts more recently negotiated with Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. and Janice Karman, where the Liberty contracts were made under different circumstances and could have cost much more.
This may explain why The Alvin Show has not been released in full on home video. The songs are contracted separately and the investment in the expensive re-licensing of them requires a return in sales. When a portion of The Alvin Show was released on DVD, the sales must not have been enough to match the cost.
In yet another Disney/Chipmunk irony, many of the songs were released on video, but without the rest of The Alvin Show around them. Only five years after The Chipmunk Adventure and Solid Gold Chipmunks were released, another division of Buena Vista Home Video released two VHS compilations of “videos” from The Alvin Show song segments: Ragtime Cowboy Joe and Working on the Railroad.
These were sold as part of Disney’s popular “Sing-Along” video series, in which various film clips played with the lyrics keyed underneath. It’s an example of how what’s old becomes new again, because the sing-along cartoon was a bit of a throwback to the early Fleischer animation days that decades later yielded dozens of VHS titles for Disney and other video companies.
The songs in Ragtime Cowboy Joe were augmented with additional percussion and remixed for stereo. The new mixes were collected on a CD and sold separately, not by Buena Vista Records, but CEMA Special Products (LK-53914/S21-17333), a division of EMI-Capitol, which controls the original Chipmunk catalog to this day. This fact seems to back up the theory of conflicting ownership rights between the Chipmunk characters, shows and recordings that have kept The Alvin Show a sparkling jewel still too pricey to package.
There was no special augmented mix for the follow-up VHS, Workin’ on the Railroad, the songs were presented as they first sounded. There was also no CD, but Buena Vista did include a bonus audio cassette with the VHS tape. The audio cassette was not labeled except for a Chipmunk logo, nor did it come with its own packaging. As evidenced by the catalog number S41-17809, this looks to be am EMI-Capitol CEMA Special Products release as well (The Chipmunks Go to the Movies audio cassette is CEMA Special Products number S41-56756).