The slick pop of Sugar Sugar by cartoon band The Archies was the penultimate number 1 of the 60s, sitting pretty in the top spot for close to two whole months, and only narrowly missing out on the Christmas number 1 spot.
Artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan had made self-penned songs fashionable, and for most of the 60s, it was they and others of their ilk that often reached the top spot. But as the pop audience matured and moved on to buying albums, the gap was starting to be filled by bubblegum pop – squeaky-clean commercial songs, like Dizzy, made to order by hit-making teams, much like in the 50s, and given to singers such as Tommy Roe.
It would be a lie to say this type of thing had ever really gone away though. Motown aped the production-line of the car factories of its hometown Detroit, and The Monkees were a pop phenomenon whose songs were mostly written and recorded by other musicians, until they broke free. And it was Don Kirshner, the man that had been dumped by The Monkees, that came up with the idea of turning a comic into a band in 1968.
From his point of view, it was a no-brainer. All had been going well until The Monkees got too big for their boots – why not start over, only this time, why not remove all pretence that the band is real? And why not use cartoon characters that already had a huge audience to give the project a head start? After all, it had worked in the 50s – Alvin and the Chipmunks had been and still are very successful.
Kirshner was hired by CBS in late 1967 to be musical supervisor on their new Saturday morning cartoon series The Archie Show. Based on popular characters from The Archie Comics, which began in 1941, it followed the adventures of a bunch of all-American teenage friends from Riverdale High School that had formed a band.
17-year-old Archie Andrews was the central figure, lead singer and rhythm guitarist. His best friend Jughead Jones was their drummer, with wisecracking Reggie Mantle on bass. But unusually, this wasn’t just a boy’s own setup, very unusual for that time. Rich girl Veronica Lodge also sang and played keyboards, and tomboy Betty Cooper was lead guitarist and percussionist. Girl power!
The show had a 17-episode run, premiering in the US in September 1968 until January 1969. Kirshner’s job was to hire the songwriters and musicians for the songs The Archies would be performing. He wasted no time in hiring Jeff Barry to co-produce with him. Barry, together with Ellie Greenwich, was responsible for some of the biggest pop hits of the decade, including Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me and Do Wah Diddy Diddy, a number 1 for Manfred Mann in 1964. He had co-written Tell Laura I Love Her with Ben Raleigh, which had been a UK number 1 for Ricky Valance in 1960, and worked with Kirshner on The Monkees’ hits, including producing their UK chart-topper I’m a Believer.
For their eponymous debut album, The Archies music was performed by singer Ron Dante, drummer Gary Chester, guitarist Dave Appell, bassist Joey Macho (great name) and keyboardist Ron Frangipane (even better name). Kirshner had wanted Kenny Karen to be the vocalist, but Barry liked Dante, who had been the singer novelty parody band The Detergents. He was also in the rock group The Cuff Links.
The first single released, Bang-Shang-A-Lang (sounds like a Bay City Rollers song title) did okay, reaching number 22 on the Billboard chart in the US, so the project continued.
For the sessions for second album, Everything’s Archie, Kirshner left Barry to produce alone. Among the material was a song by Barry and Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Kim. Sugar Sugar was catchy as hell, and encapsulated bubblegum pop totally. It was all wide-eyed innocence, as sweet as the title suggested and contained hook upon hook. Kim also plated guitar and joined Dante on the vocals, and Toni Wine performed the female voices. Wine was a songwriter too, and had co-written A Groovy Kind of Love with Carole Bayer Sager for The Mindbenders. Joining them and the line-up of the debut album was guitarist Sal DiTroia and Ray Stevens provided the all-important handclaps.
Sugar Sugar was so strong, they decided to release it before the LP was completed. Allegedly, because previous single Feelin’ So Good (S.K.O.O.B.Y-.D.O.O.) hadn’t performed well, Kirshner decided not to reveal the identity of the band behind Sugar Sugar when DJs got their hands on it in May 1969. Whether this is true or not, it was some time before it became really big. It eventually climbed to the top in the US that September, and the UK a month later.
I totally get the reasons for Sugar Sugar‘s enduring popularity, for all the reasons I’ve given above, and more – mostly the infectious keyboard interjections in the chorus, obviously. It has all the ingredients needed for a pop song. But it’s never done much for me. Even as a child, I found it a bit too sickly-sweet and cloying. I found the lyrics silly and the ‘band’ irritating, having never actually seen the cartoon, just the clips compiled to make a music video.
As an adult, it’s all a bit too cynical and professional for my liking. Don’t get me wrong, I no longer feel, as I did in my 20s, that music is only any good if the artist is ‘4 Real’, but try as I might, Sugar Sugar mostly leaves me cold. The ‘Pour your sugar on me, honey’ line is quite good though, and sung with some much-needed passion.
Sugar Sugar was the best-selling song of 1969 and stayed at number 1 for eight weeks – a feat that was last achieved by The Shadows with Wonderful Land in 1962. I can only assume the TV show was being shown in the UK at the time and doing well too, otherwise, why would it perform even better here than in the US? Whatever the reasons, it was a sign of things to come in the following decade, as bubblegum pop continued to sell hugely, and innocent acts like The Osmonds entrancing children. The idea of cartoon bands surfaces in the charts from time to time – Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, for example.
Filmation continued to produce various Archies TV shows until 1978, but the musical project had ground to a halt before then. Nothing matched Sugar Sugar, and after follow-up Jingle Jangle (not featuring Jimmy Savile), the band’s success tailed off sharply. Fourth album Sunshine in 1970 (which has great sun-drenched, slightly sinister artwork that wouldn’t look out of place on a Boards of Canada release) was the last to feature Jeff Barry and Andy Kim properly, and was more grown-up than previous releases. 1971’s This Is Love was the final regular release.
Barry became interested in writing music for film and television afterwards, and Kim had a solo hit in 1974 with Rock Me Gently. After a short-lived solo career, Dante moved into production and did very well at it, producing hits for Barry Manilow. In 2008 he returned to the Riverdale teens, singing on The Archies Christmas Album. Kirshner continued to work in music for TV shows. He died of heart failure in 2011, aged 76.
Archie Comics continued to be mined, with Sabrina, the Teenage Witch proving to be the other most popular character. Archie Andrews was killed off in 2014, shot in the stomach while saving the life of his friend, Senator Kevin Keller. Riverdale was renamed Archie Andrews High School in his honour. 2017 saw the debut of TV drama series Riverdale, which turned the premise of the characters on its head, with the lives of Archie and co proving much darker than the original comic-strip could ever have been.
And while we’re on the subject of ‘dark’, if Sugar Sugar had lasted at number 1 a further week, it would have been Christmas number 1 and the final chart-topper of the decade. However, it was pipped by another hugely popular children’s song, now sadly infamous thanks to the singer.
Can you tell what it is yet?
Written by: Andy Kim & Jeff Barry
Producer: Jeff Barry
Weeks at number 1: 8 (25 October-19 December) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*
Scottish actor Gerard Butler – 13 November
Rock drummer Michael Lee – 19 November
Conservative MP Sajid Javid – 5 December
TV presenter Richard Hammond – 19 December
Bandleader Ted Heath – 18 November
Princess Alice of Battenburg – 5 December
15 November: Regular colour TV broadcasts began on both BBC One and ITV.
16 November: The BBC One debut of much-loved children’s stop-motion animated TV series Clangers.
17 November: In a move that had a far-reaching effect on the British press, The Sun newspaper, previously a left-wing broadsheet, was relaunched as a right-wing tabloid. Despite falling circulation, it remains influential and one of the most popular newspapers in the country.
25 November: John Lennon returned his MBE in protest against the British involvement in Biafra, as well as supporting the US in Vietnam. The Beatles as cuddly establishment moptops seemed a long time ago.
10 December: It was announced that organic chemist Derek Barton had jointly won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with the Norwegian Odd Hassel.
15 December: Barclays Bank purchased Martins Bank.
18 December: The abolition of the death penalty was made permanent by Parliament.
Also that day, the sixth James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was released. This was the first and last to feature George Lazenby, after Sean Connery had quit the role.