Fans of ’70s pop music and classic TV sitcoms lost someone special this week: actress Suzanne Crough, who portrayed Tracy Partridge, the youngest member of The Partridge Family. She was far too young at just 52.
In remembrance of Suzanne and her adorable way with a tambourine, let’s salute ten bands of the classic rock era who, in keeping with the Partridge Family, were calculatedly designed and manufactured by television and/or music industry moguls for the express purpose of selling records along with any and all possibly associated toys, games, t-shirts, posters, novelizations, lunchboxes, and, in some cases, kissable lip pillows.
That some of these cobbled-together groups happened to put out great music was just bubblegum-flavored icing on everybody’s artificially baked cake.
The following TV-based, radio-friendly unit-shifters each put out real albums and real singles and some of them even played real concerts. Talk about faking it till you make it!
Josie and the Pussycats
The Tube: Josie and the Pussycats, CBS (1970-72)
In the wake of CBS’s success with turning the comic book character Archie Andrews and his Riverdale pals into both a Saturday morning cartoon and a hit-song-generator, the network tapped another title in the Archie Comics line.
In the funny pages, Josie and the Pussycats were an all-girl rock trio whose stories largely mirrored the high school comings and going of the Archie gang. On TV, Josie and Pussycats was modeled after ABC’s cartoon hit, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, and the rocker gals embarked on various madcap adventures. Things got really weird in 1972, when the series was reinvented as Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space. The intergalactic version also ran for two seasons.
Cartoon studio Hannah-Barbera assembled a live-in-the-flesh Josie and the Pussycats to record an album and, potentially, make appearances before the show even hit the air. The bubblegum trio consisted of Cathy Douglas playing frontwoman Josie, soul singer Patrice Holloway as bassist Valerie and, on drums in the role of Melody, comely young Cheryl Ladd, who would later replace Farrah Fawcett on Charlie’s Angels.
The Rest: While the Pussycats never generated any radio hits, the cartoon series proved enormously popular and influential, even spawning a satirical live-action big screen update in 1999 titled, appropriately, Josie and the Pussycats.
The Tube: The Heights, Fox (1992)
Premiering in August and off the schedule by November, The Heights tracked the doings of an eponymous suburban rock combo, fronted by momentary teen heartthrob Jamie Walter as Alex O’Brien.
The Tunes: The Heights: Music From the Television Show (1992)
On the show, the fake group Heights never scored a #1 record. In real life, the fake group the Heights actually did, when the program’s glossy, lite-rock theme “How Do You Talk to an Angel?” topped the bona fide Billboard singles chart.
Despite the public’s curious embrace of the show’s ’80s-style ballad in November of a year when grunge and alternative rock was in furious ascent, Fox cancelled the low-rated series less than a week after the song reached #1.
The Rest: Unbowed by being axed and obviously inspired by “How Do You Talk to an Angel?,” the creators of a syndicated (and later MTV) series called Catwalk scooped up a number of The Heights’ songwriters. It, too, was about a rock band of the same name and the show had a peculiar post-apocalyptic setting. Freaky pop chart lightning, alas, did not strike twice.
Lancelot Link and the Evolution Revolution
The Tube: Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, ABC (1970-71)
As the title implies, Lancelot Link was both a spy and an actual chimpanzee, starring in his own James Bond spoof series alongside other primates dressed in way-out hippie costumes and dubbed with actors’ voices. Coolest of all, Lance fronted his own rock band, the Evolution Rev that communicated secret messages via song in each
The Tunes: Lancelot Link and the Evolution Revolution (1970)
Accompanied by Mata Hairi on tambourine, Sweetwater Gibbons on keyboards, and Bananas Marmoset on drums, Lancelot Link played lead guitar and sang in the Evolution Revolution. Of course, for the group’s self-titled (and only) album, studio musicians pumped out a series of harder-than-you’d-expect, riff intensive bubblegum tunes.
The Rest: These monkeys never landed a hit song, unlike of course, their rivals, the Monkees. Television also didn’t seriously attempt another talking ape show until NBC’s short-lived orangutan-goes-to-Washington sitcom, Mr. Smith (and he was mostly played by a puppet).
The Banana Splits
The Tube: The Banana Splits Adventure Hour (1968-70)
As hosts of a cartoon/live action variety series, the bubblegum band the Banana Splits consisted of a beagle named Fleegle who sang lead and played guitar; Bing, a drumming gorilla; Drooper, a lion bassist; and Snork, a mute elephant who manned the keyboards. Unlike Lancelot Link, however, actors in funny animal costumes portrayed the Banana Splits. Also unlike Lance, the Splits nabbed themselves a hit.
The Tunes: “The Tra La La Song” (One Banana, Two Banana),” from the 1968 album We’re the Banana Splits, hit #96 on the Billboard chart in 1968. Speed-demon L.A. punks the Dickies also launched an enduring underground anthem with their 1978 cover.
The Rest: After a relatively brief network run, the Banana Splits ran for more than a decade in daily afternoon syndication. Originally the show was cartoon studio Hannah-Barbera’s attempt to cash in on the psychedelic costume-and-puppet kiddie programming produced by Sid and Marty Krofft (H.R. Pufnstuff), who actually created the characters’ costumes.
The Kroffts fired back in 1970 by creating the wacked-out hippie-insect-band series, The Bugaloos and later even borrowed the Banana Splits format for 1977’sThe Krofft Supershow, which was hosted by their attempt to rip-off Kiss, the legitimately amazing Kaptain Kool and the Kongs.
Jessie and the Rippers
The Tube: Full House (1987-95)
John Stamos, as you likely know, co-starred as Uncle Jessie Katsopolis on the generationally beloved family sitcom, Full House. Between wrangling various Olsen twins, contending with Kimmy Gibler, and professionally imitating Elvis, Uncle Jessie followed his musical muse with the group Jessie and the Rippers.
The Tunes: Although no Jessie and the Rippers album ever saw official release, the group is credited as the artist on the 1992 single, “Forever.” The song, in fact, “Forever,” originally appeared on the 1972 Beach Boys album, Sunflower. The Beach Boys re-recorded the ballad with sometimes-member John Stamos on lead vocals in 1992. Somehow, that version went to #1 in Japan.
The Rest: As he’s also done with the cast of Saved by the Bell and the titular rock group of the teen-com California Dreams, Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon reunited Jesse and the Rippers in 2013 to perform a medley of their finest efforts.
Jem and the Holograms/The Misfits
The Tube: Jem, syndicated (1985-88)
Toy manufacturing giant Hasbro scored synergistic gold in the first half of the 1980s by creating the cartoons G.I. Joe and Transformers expressly to promote endlessly buyable action figures, vehicles, play-sets, comic books Halloween costumes, and other ephemera generated by the programs.
By mid-decade, Hasbro set its sights on separating little girls from their allowance money and, after teaming with Marvel Comics, they freshly invaded after-school programming with Jem, the animated saga of pop combo Jem and the Holograms.
Splashy, electrically pastel-hued, and hugely influenced by Japanese anime, Jem chronicles the Holograms as they deal with being rock stars who have secret every day identities. They also clash with rival bands the Stinger and, most especially, the Misfits (not the Glenn Danzig act, rest assured).
The Tunes: Jem and the Holograms bypassed official albums to issue the group’s music on a series of cassettes that came packaged with dolls and other items based on the show.
The Rest: Very much in keeping with its forebears G.I. Joe and Transformers, Jem and the Holograms is being made into a live-action blockbuster film starring Aubrey Peeples of the ABC series Nashville dying her hair pink for the lead role.
The Tube: All You Need is Cash, NBC (1978)
The Rutles, a savage parody of the Beatles nicknamed “the Prefab Four,” arose in 1975 as part of Rutland Weekend Television, a sketch comedy series created by Monty Python member Eric Idle and Bonzo Doo-Dah Dog Band musical mastermind Neil Innes.
After Idle hosted Saturday Night Live the following year, he and Innes teamed with SNL filmmaker Gary Weis and actual Beatle George Harrison to launch the brilliant mock-rockumentary All You Need Is Cash. The film premiered on NBC in March 1978 and, somehow fittingly, finished dead last in the TV ratings. Naturally, it became an instant cult classic.
The Tunes: The Rutles (1978)
Each Rutles song, written and performed by Idle and Innes, is an uncanny evocation of particular Beatles numbers while also being multilayered send-ups of the group’s mythology and the culture at large that surrounded them. All You Need Is Cash also incorporates spoofs of the Beatles’ early music videos. “Cheese and Onions” is one particular knockout: an animated reimagining of the acid-blasted Yellow Submarine movie that seems like it can only be an outtake from the original film.
The Rest: Idle and Innes have revisited the Rutles numerous times, even creating a likable 2002 sequel, The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch. For all of televisions innumerable Beatles knock-offs and send-ups, the Rutles still stand as the best—rivaled only perhaps by 1966’s The Beagles.
The Tube: The Archie Show
The Archie Show,a popular cartoon adaptation of the classic comic book series, debuted on CBS in 1968 and then strangely evolved over the ensuing decade, changing titles and sometimes formats from season to season. Among the nonstop reinventions were: The Archie Comedy Hour (1969), Archie’s Funhouse (1971), Archie’s TV Funnies (1971), Everything’s Archie (1972), The U.S. of Archie (1974), and The New Archie and Sabrina Hour (1977).
The one consistency through every animated Archie incarnation is that Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, and Jughead were in a band and they performed at least one bubblegum pop number per episode, accompanied by super-groovy psychedelic visuals. Yes, even deep into the 1970s.
The Tunes: The Archies (1968) Rock impresario Don Kirshner, later famous for hosting NBC’s post-Saturday Night Live music showcase, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, oversaw the creation and production of the Archie’s music. He was the right man for the job.
Just a few years earlier, Kirshner handled the launch of the Monkees from TV concept to pop superstars, a seemingly sweet gig that soured when the band members protested not being able to write their own songs and play their own instruments. Kirshner split from the Monkees and eased happily into the Archies project. Cartoon characters, it turned out, fussed a lot less than actual actors and musicians!
Fronted in the studio by singer Ron Dante, the Archies scored a perfect pop #1 in 1969 with “Sugar Sugar” and went on to produce a few less enduring hits. The group, to date, has never reunited.
The Rest: The smash success of “Sugar Sugar” hurled Filmation, the studio that produced The Archie Show, into overdrive. In 1970, they quickly spun-off Josie and the Pussycats and Sabrina and the Groovie Goolies, the latter of whom were a literal monsters-of-rock quartet, and aped the Archies formula for a cartoon take on The Brady Kids.
The Partridge Family
The Tube: The Partridge Family, ABC (1970-74)
Inspired by and modeled almost directly after real-life pop-singing siblings-and-mom sensations the Cowsills, The Partridge Family cast veteran film star Shirley Jones and teen heartthrob David Cassidy (Jones’s real-life stepson) as the mother and eldest song, respectively, of the keeping-it-relative music group of the title. The show’s theme, “C’mon Get Happy,” lays out the program’s premise in happy sing-along style.
Paired on Friday nights by ABC with The Brady Bunch, the far more with-it and witty Partridge Family proved to be a fast (and still ongoing) pop culture phenomenon. Shirley Partridge became Jones’s signature role, adolescent wiseguy Danny Bonaduce proved to a natural comedian (and, later, a multimedia trainwreck who is at least always in on the joke), Susan Dey went on to a distinguished career and David Cassidy’s sold-out Madison Square Garden appearance incited riots.
The Tunes: The Partridge Family produced ten albums and David Cassidy put out five solo LPs during the show’s network run. He sang lead on each, backed by studio musicians. Almost each release sold more than one million copies. Of the numerous hit singles, several are enduring classics, including “I Think I Love You,” “I Woke Up in Love This Morning,” and “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted.”
The Rest: Although the Partridge Family quit making music when the live-action series wrapped up, the characters returned as cartoon guests on the scantly remembered Scooby-Doo knockoff Goober and the Ghost Chasers, then got spun off in 1974 into their own the head-scratching pseudo-Jetsons cartoon series, The Partridge Family 2200 A.D.
The Tube: The Monkees, NBC (1966-68)
In the wake of Beatlemania, producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider came up with the concept of The Monkees, a madcap TV comedy series with music inspired by the madcap Beatles movies A Hard Days Night and Help! They held now legendary auditions before casting grown-up child actors Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones alongside folk musician Peter Tork (who beat out his good friend Stephen Stills) and hat-adorned country-rocker Mike Nesmith (contrary to urban myth, Charles Manson did not audition). Rock producer and music executive Don Kirshner was hired to manage the music.
The Monkees debuted to great ratings and warm public reception. The show was fantastically funny and visually inventive, the group members were instantly lovable, and the pop-rock songs were some of the very best mainstream efforts being generated by anyone, anywhere at the time. Like its contemporary TV phenomenon Batman, though, Monkeemania flamed out after two seasons, but the show remained huge in syndication, particularly as a Saturday morning staple on CBS well into the ’70s.
The Tunes: With the release of their self-titled first album, the Monkees became one of the hugest acts of their era. With songs crafted by masters on the order of Neil Diamond, Carol King, and Harry Nilsson, they dominated the radio right alongside the Beatles (the Fab Fourwere fans: check out Peter Tork’s face on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).
“I’m a Believer,” “Last Train to Clarksville,” “Daydream Believer,” “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone,” “Words,” “Valleri,” “She,” “Mary, Mary”… the list goes on. Any succession of Monkees hits plays like the soundtrack to multiple generations.
The Rest: For all the fun and frolic of the series and the sunny disposition of much of their music, the Monkees deeply resented the devil’s deal they felt they made to become rock stars. Incredibly talented musicians and performers in their own right, the members decided to end the entire endeavor with a surreal psychedelic freak-out big-screen musical masterpiece, Head. Co-written by Jack Nicholson, Head is a surreal phantasmagoria of wild ideas and barbed images that begins and ends with the Monkees hurling themselves to suicide. It, and they, will live forever.