Sunday, July 5, 2015

A Nick in Time for Firesign

Another significant loss came back on June 18, when Phil Austin passed away. Austin was one quarter of the comedic fab four known as Firesign Theatre. With roots in radio going back to the sixties, the Firesigns created what many would agree have been the most innovative and simply put, the best comedy produced in a purely acoustic format.

The Four Firesigns

As a baby boomer, most of my rather substantial record collection acquired over the course of the sixties and seventies, and into the eighties, consisted of musical recordings. It was not unusual, however, to also include a few comedy albums in your collection, and I myself had a couple dozen. A few were stand-up recordings. There wasn't all that much of that sort of thing at that time, before the big explosion of stand up in the eighties, but one of them was Woody Allen's double album. Then there were the Monty Python albums, which were great, although most of them were simply soundtracks from the TV show, funny as hell, but not created especially for audio. I'd rate them second to Firesign Theatre when it comes to sound recordings.

The way that I, and many others, explained Firesign Theatre's comedy recordings to others not familiar with them, is that they were like music. That is, for most comedy albums, you could listen to them once, maybe twice, and then they lose their appeal because you already know the punchline, know the entire joke. The Pythons you could listen to repeatedly because of their downright zaniness, the intellectual quality of their humor, and those marvelous English accents. But you'd never call what they did music, as opposed to the Firesign Theatre, who took things to a whole new level. 

Firesign Theatre's humor alone bear multiple listenings, the wordplay is nothing short of superb, but it's the complexity, the rhythm, counterpoint, and polyphony of the four voices, complemented by myriad sound effects expertly deployed, that turned a form of radioplay into something more, something that for lack of a better word can be described as musical.

Marshall McLuhan, Edmund Carpenter, and Tony Schwartz, along with Edward T. Hall, wrote about a phenomenon their referred to as acoustic space, or sometimes auditory space, and the McLuhan-inspired composer and media ecology scholar R. Murray Schafer extended the idea into the concept of acoustic ecology. And Firesign Theatre truly create acoustic spaces and ecologies through their recordings, immersing the listener in a total environment, albeit one based on the ear alone. In this sense, like music, Firesign Theatre created comedic soundscapes that could be listened to, indeed become immersed within, over and over and over again.

Their most popular album was their second release, back in 1969. We were never exactly sure what the actual name of the album was, because the cover presented two possibilities. The shorter one, All Hail Marx and Lennon, would seem to be the most likely, but in actuality it was the longer one, the improbable How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All that was the actual album title.

It was a title that perfectly captured the new electronic media environment, very much in keeping with Marshall McLuhan's observation that when we appear on television, we become its content, we are sent over the airwaves. The same may be said of our voices as transmitted via radio broadcast, or over the telephone wires. We are, indeed, in two places at once, as well as not anywhere at all. What a perfect way to describe the phenomenon that William Gibson referred to as cyberspace!

By the way, here's the back side of the album cover, featuring the four Firesigns once again:

What made this particular album especially popular was its B side. I suppose I should explain that back in the days of vinyl recordings, every record had two sides, and these sides were designated, you might have guessed, as Side 1 and Side 2, and/or referred to as the A side and the B side. This had particular significance for 45 rpm singles, where it was often the case that that side 1 was the song released as a single, in hopes of making it onto the Top 40 charts, while side 2, the B side, was not. "B side" therefore indicated a recording of inferior quality, or something less mainstream, more quirky, than the A side. Also known as the flip side, not having to conform to commercial requirements often gave "B sides" a charm all their own.

When the emphasis shifted from singles to albums over the course of the sixties, the two sides lost that particular significance, and simply indicated the order in which the various tracks on the album were meant to be played. Now, on How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All the two sides are relatively independent of one another, although there is a reference to "the other side of the record" on the flip side, as well as some additional mentions in an odd little coda that comes at the end. The joke loses its self-reflexive humor on the CD issue of the recording, and when listening to it online, instead morphing into a kind of accidental invocation of nostalgia within a track that is dominated by the intentional invocation of nostalgia.

Anyway, the B side on this album is the one that is more mainstream, and the reason for the recording's special popularity. The title of the track is, "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger," and introduces the character of Nick Danger, Third Eye, played by Phil Austin. Running a little over 28 minutes, it takes up the entire side of the record album, and is presented as an episode from a radio program circa 1941, featuring a private detective as the hero. It is at once a parody of the kinds of content common during the good old radio days, and a surreal sixties soundplay with many references to sex, drugs, and rock and roll, Beatles songs in particular. There are fans who have all or most of the dialogue memorized, and most of us can recite many of the lines from this recording. So here, why not just listen, and see, I mean hear for yourself (or if you know the album, treat yourself to another replay):

So, the "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger" is more accessible than many of their other tracks, including Side 1 of How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All, which consists of 6 tracks that are woven together in a stream of consciousness kind of flow. And it was successful enough that Firesign Theatre came out with a few other Nick Danger adventures, and Austin also did a solo collection of Nick Danger monologues, none of which lives up to the brilliance of this first and finest recording.

Phil Austin was not the first of the quartet to depart for that great sound studio in the sky. He was preceded by Peter Bergman over three years ago. And over the past half century, Firesign Theatre simply has not received the recognition they so richly deserve. It's time to rectify that, don't you agree?

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