Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals

This awe-inspiring book and CD set brings to life a phenomenon far too obscure for anyone's good, but doubtless of interest to anyone who creates artisinal content: the industrial musical.

I'll let the promo copy for the book's web site tell the story:

"Once upon a time, when American industry ruled the earth, business and Broadway had a baby. This mutant offspring, glimpsed only at conventions and sales meetings, was the industrial musical. Think Broadway show, except the audience is managers and salesmen, and the songs are about how great it is to be working at the company.

"Through the rare souvenir record albums presented in EVERYTHING’S COMING UP PROFITS, an alternate show-biz universe emerges: a universe in which musical theater can be about selling silicone products, or typewriters, or insurance, or bathtubs. Some of these improbable shows were hilariously lame. Some were pretty good. And some were flat-out fantastic."

I've been very excited to see this publication appear; I've collected MP3s of this stuff for years, foisting it on hapless friends as I went along. If this kind of thing floats your boat, the book is well worth purchasing. The art is well rendered and wide-ranging, the text thorough, insightful and hilarious.

Here's a look at some of the productions covered by this publication. Appropriately enough, you'll often find the video content preceded by an ad.

American Standards' "The Bathrooms Are Coming" (1969) stands as both one of the weirdest and best-known industrial musical artifacts. I'll let this entry on WFMU's blog offer not only the full bizarre tale but a complete MP3 collection of the tracks-- there was apparently a full stage show at one time, but the LP tracks are all that remain in terms of documentation. At any rate, here's the jewel in the crown of this collection, wherein we're told that "my bathroom is a very private place... to dream, and cream..."

General Electric's "Got To Investigate Silicones" (1973) is another milestone-- an epic song cycle extolling the virtue of these powerful polymers that people apparently didn't know much about at the time. Once again, WFMU comes through with complete tracks and more info. But in this case, as we'll see, fully developed film content was shot and cut; this effort stands as one of the most ambitious in the world of the industrial musical.

This Chevrolet sales convention musical (1954) embodies the rare example of an industrial musical captured on film. Thrill to the same song and dance routine presented to the assembled sales representatives of the era:

These productions provide an odd mirror to the Eastern bloc propaganda produced around the same time-- except in this case the results had far higher production values, were concealed from the masses rather than proffered to them, and for the most part were even duller than their Communist counterparts.

Which reminds me of a notion I read once, though I can't remember whose thought it was... in any case, whoever it was said that the difference between American and Soviet propaganda was that we Americans tend to believe ours. Which I think is at least part of what makes these artifacts so awkward to witness: on some level they embody a mythology drilled into us so deeply, yet so subtly, that it's embarrassing to see it stated so plainly.

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