|Bob Thompson Music|
By Jonathan Ward
(This article originally appeared in Perfect Sound Forever, in March, 2002.)
In 1963, the Xerox Corporation was the Cinderella story of the business world. When they introduced their weighty 914 copier in 1959, they had the ability to produce only 5 models a day, and costs were in the tens of thousands. Few thought that a bulky slab of metal like the 914 would perform well at all, much less revolutionize the copy business. Lucky for Xerox, the critics were wrong. In fact, they were way off. The 914 became known as the most successful product in history, doubling and tripling Xerox's sales figures over the next several years. In 1961, Xerox sales had reached 61 million. In 1962, they hit 104 million - far more than company president J.C. Wilson could ever have imagined. In 1963, Xerox was poised to introduce their first desktop copier - the 813. Since Wilson had flown his entire inner-circle of managers and salesmen to London the previous year to celebrate the 100 million mark, he wanted to try something different this year. Something rewarding, something that Xerox employees would remember forever.
What would he do? Well, Xerox quickly hired the Jam Handy Organization, a pioneer in the industrial film business. Jam Handy in turn hired Wilson Stone, an experienced film and Broadway composer. A cast and crew were hired, and voila! Xerox introduced Take It From Here, a musical about the company that was performed for their leading salesmen and executives at a banquet for two nights only, and then pressed in miniscule amounts as a souvenir record strictly for the attendees. The songs were big, brassy upbeat numbers following the adventures of Charlie, a good-natured rookie salesman for the company who learns why Xerox holds the key to a wonderful future. On the back cover was a note from J.C. Wilson himself. It began:
To Xerox People:
This album has been prepared so that we will never forget a happy occasion of great significance to Xerox - the introduction of the 813.
Yes, Xerox made a musical about their company, something that in fact had been done many times before, by all types of corporations, though few would know it today. These records had absurdly limited private pressings, and they were given to employees only, never for public consumption. This elusive and almost completely unknown genre, known as the "industrial musical" or "industrial show", is one of the strangest and complicated types of music that has existed. It's not advertising music, nor is it quite Broadway. It's propaganda, yet it's also fun. It puts the listener in an odd place, as you are privy to the intimate dreams and the visions not of say, Tony and Maria, the doomed teen hero and heroine of West Side Story - but of U.S. Steel, or General Electric, or Maremont Mufflers. Yet it's with the same fervor that these lost records resonate. The coiled feelings of hope, industry and greed, coupled with a happy Broadway bounce and a joyous corporate cheerleading squad, singing anthem after anthem to boost the coming prosperity.
A Dream of Destiny
The industrial show had its humble beginnings during the post-WWII boom. Two types of industries began experimenting with the idea: the retail industry and the automobile industry. As far as show collectors know, a department store was the first to jump into the fray - Marshall Field's with Give the Lady What She Wants, a show celebrating the store's history and anniversary, produced in conjunction with a published book of the same name (pictured). Even this early, Marshall Field's started the trend of nabbing top talent to produce these gems - in this case a man named Lloyd Norlin, who would go on to pen shows for Ford, Pepsi and Hamm's Beer.
And to elaborate on the scarcity of these items, only one single copy of this record seems to be in existence. Fancy, big-budgeted, yearly auto shows had been around for many years prior, and with the long-play record coming into vogue in the early '50's, the opportunity to use recording technology for purposes that were longer than a 3-minute song must have been tempting for the major players. By listening and tracking the automobile industrial shows (released largely to promote new models) produced throughout the fifties, you can see how both corporations and composers gradually worked together to not only, say, explain some delightful new features in next year's line of Oldsmobiles, but to get their troops in a selling mood. This would become a common trope in nearly all future shows. Take, for example, this song from the 1957 Ford Car Introductory Show:
Wait 'til you see how low it is -
Or, a more earthy version for the 1959 Ford tractor show, written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who in a few short years would go on to write Fiddler On the Roof:
Gonna be a golden harvest in 1959!
Gonna have a lot more buyers in 1959!
With the new Ford tractors the future's lookin' fine -
Now's the time to roll your sleeves up, 'cause if you rise and shine
Gonna be a golden harvest in 1959!
- "Golden Harvest", from Music to Ford-I-Fy Your Future, 1959
By the late-fifties, these deliriously happy anthems began having a positive effect on the country's workforces - at least for the night or two that they lasted. Large companies like Chevrolet wouldn't blink an eye to literally spend millions on a gala event like an introductory show. As with Ford's '59 tractor show, budding composers would often jump at the chance of composing an industrial as the pay was outrageously good. So would budding talent. For instance, Florence Henderson starred in an Oldsmobile industrial show almost every single year in the fifties - and many of these shows were hosted at a Broadway theater. The pressing of an album to commemorate the event was relatively cheap compared to the costs of throwing the gala - perhaps the companies innately understood that the souvenir record would in many cases sit on the shelf only to be discarded at the thrift store or the dump years later, that indeed the uplifting feelings would be ephemeral, that the record would remain a "souvenir". It was the spirit of the moment that brought the workers together.
"Ideally, people would leave the show still singing the songs, reinforcing the messages the company wanted them to hear," says Steve Young, a New York City writer for the Late Show and proud owner of the largest collection of industrials in the world. "Some of the songs were more serious anthems, painting a stirring picture of why working for the company was a noble, almost sacred calling. Yes, when you work for Coke, you're doing well for yourself, but you're doing something great for America and all mankind. I've heard that this sort of song, powerfully orchestrated and performed, could bring middle-aged company men to tears." On the back cover of Ford's '64 Tractor show The New Wide World of Ford there's a quote from an attendee that says it all:
"Today was the most beautiful day of my life!"
A few men of vision saw the need
Unyielding corporate loyalty wasn't the only musical mainstay that came out of the fifties industrial shows. By the late-fifties, industrial shows had moved slightly beyond the auto and retail industries and had spread to other areas of American production. Standard Oil released The Big Change in 1957 and Westinghouse Appliances released a brilliant record called the shape of tomorrow: a musical introduction to 1958 Westinghouse Appliances. This record, slathered with gusto, represents the beginning of what makes some industrials truly transcend the genre into special listening: the unabashed commitment to cram every single detail about a seemingly random piece of equipment, fixture or appliance into a three-minute song - and do it with reasonable panache, spirit and honesty. This was sinister and joyous, it dares a listener today to take it seriously.
The new cold-injector sends a jet-stream of air -
To bring colder temperatures to all the foods there!
The cheese server, butter server, meat-keeper too -
Makes sure your food stays fresh, and stays in view -
And here on the front is a magnetic door!
But don't run away 'cause there's plenty more -
This is the shape of tomorrow, that we've got right here for you today!
- "Tomorrow - Today", The Shape of Tomorrow, Westinghouse, 1958
Far from sounding like a commercial, it's meant to educate the listener, which in this case would be a salesman. It's meant to excite him, to motivate him with facts and figures that he in turn can dole out to easily persuaded housewives and cowed husbands who don't yet realize that they need a cheese-server. The customer is lovingly seen as a wallet with a mouth that the members of the mammoth conglomerate need to pay attention to - against the well-arranged punches of a hip brass section. the shape of tomorrow is meant to bring the excitement back into owning ranges, or an icebox. It fueled the excitement of consumption in general. Indeed, the motivational forces and the instructional forces, coupled with the best talent in musical theater would lead the industrial musical into its most fruitful twenty years.
The Look of The Leader
While the 1950's were considered glory years in Broadway history, it wasn't until Broadway's success and industry success met head-on in the 1960's that industrial shows began their own peculiar vanguard. While Hello Dolly, Mame and Hair were playing to audience throngs, Singer Sewing Machines released Sing A Song of Sewing, Pepsi treated their staff to Pepsi Power, Phase 2 in 1960, Coca Cola began a string of shows that sounded like military drills, especially The Grip Of Leadership, in 1961:
Packaging and pricing - a pair of pliers?
Simple as ABC -
Pliers to get a grip on profit - profit for the business, yessiree!
Gonna squeeze the starch out of competition
With my great big pair of pliers -
Squeeze so hard he'll have nothing left
But his unrequited buyers!
- "Packaging and Pricing", The Grip of Leadership, Coca-Cola, 1961
IBM, J.C. Penney's, Dupont and GE all released multiple musicals during this period as did many smaller companies. Not all budgets were high, it just seemed like most medium to large-sized companies thought putting on an industrial show was a great idea. Some shows, like the two by GAF Floor Products, were just a piano and a few singers recorded in a hotel suite. For the larger corporations the budgets remained high, but the souvenir albums often had gatefold covers and programs. For instance, included in the Woolworth's 1965 show Mr. Woolworth Had A Notion was an 8-page booklet that listed cast biographies and the cost of each individual piece of clothing the cast was wearing - just in case you wanted to know the price of a "white mohair blend shell with a little girl collar and ruffled detail."
And the music got better. Perhaps it's because of the budgets, or perhaps it was just their tireless efforts, but some great songwriters worked in industrials during these years, gradually building a reputation as the industrial "Wrecking Crew" as it were. Michael Brown, a veteran of Broadway, had a knack with tricky wordplay in his numerous shows for Penny's, Dupont, Belk's, Holiday Magazine, Woolworth's and Singer, to name a few. Hank Beebe and Bill Heyer wrote a slew of wonderfully crafted shows with catchy compositions - Diesel Dazzle, for the Detroit Diesel Engine division of GM, The Seagram Distillers Distributors Meeting in '65, Going Great for Rambler in '64, and perhaps their crowning achievement, Got To Investigate Silicones, the 1973 show by G.E.'s Silicone Products division.
Lloyd Norlin continued to write through this period, Sonny Kippe wrote two wonderful shows for Monroe Calculator and one for Royal Typewriters. Skip Redwine's four shows for York Air Conditioners quite simply, rock. These composers succeeded because they took time with their medium, even though it was clear the main reason they were in this game was the money. Not all of the material is completely straight-faced, in fact, much of it is pretty funny, even with it's underlying themes of "doing what's best for the company." Steve Young has chronicled many of these composers invisible industrial work and says "The best composers weren't cynical about it. They took pride in doing their best work all the time. Once I got past the initial hilarity of the subject matter, I realized there was a lot of fine work being done."
In it for the money as well was Hal Linden, who appeared in the 1965 New York Herald Tribune musical The Saga of the Dingbat, as well as Diesel Dazzle, as did David Hartman. Hartman also joined Loretta Swit in Listerine's 1964 show The Name of the Game. Valerie Harper made an appearance in General Electric's Go Fly A Kite, their 1966 double-album industrial written by none other than songwriting team Kander and Ebb, who would later write Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Even electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott got into the game by composing A Man Named Brown, a musical for the 100th anniversary of the Brown-Forman Distillers Corporation.
Topically, the shows were variations on a number of themes, which tend to be alternately amusing and thought-provoking. For instance, Hamm's beer wanted to educate their sales staff regarding all the potential beer drinkers coming of age in 1965:
Be nice to us!
J.C. Penney's added a warning to their sales education:
Don't buy too much but buy enough -
Pretty harsh. A theme in many songs was the idea of progress and change being the only way to succeed in the competitive market. Take this example from Colgate/Palmolive's Team on the Beam record from 1962:
Think big of things you'll do next year -
Progress will not stop, it's now, it's here -
Keep ahead and moving boxes, outsmart those other foxes -
Keep building up the profit, you'll be winning when you've got it -
Think Big, Mr. Colgate, Think Big!
- "Think Big Mr. Colgate", Team on the Beam, Colgate/Palmolive, 1962
Education again came in the form of product information for the salesmen, and as with the Westinghouse extravaganza of 1958, some of the most absurd song topics grew out of that need to inform. Part of the fun in listening to these songs in particular is hearing the singer grapple with the lyrics. In 1964, G.E. needed to turn over the cold, hard facts about their new line of furnaces and air conditioners, except this time they chose a calypso beat:
Here in Alaska - Cold days, used to be my blue days
Way up north - my God, I'm turnin' blue day -
How I yearn for Trinidad
But now, they're all heavenly BTU days -
Thanks to the great GE furnace line that has everything.
And that includes:
The better than ever K-Line, with it's cast-iron heat exchanger
With heating that warms you from head to toe -
And the fine LUB-line, now it is equipped with enlarged control box
And simply amazing newer and higher air flow!
- "Furnace Calypso", Pattern For Success, G.E, 1964
Along with the countless songs that told of big profits, or the songs welcoming everyone to this year's Big Show, there were a few songs that extolled an almost cultic devotion to a particular company, as if to suggest that the company could do no wrong and in fact would never lead the worker or the customer astray. A startling example of this was Westinghouse's Sixth Future Power Forum musical of 1969, Perspectives For the 70's. It's a musical primarily about the benefits of nuclear power. Knowing today that there hasn't really been any growth in the domestic nuclear power industry since the Three Mile Island disaster, the low-grade 5th Dimension vocals are almost uncomfortable:
Make the power flower!
Make the wattage bud!
Keep the power flowerin'
It's America's life blood!
You're the one we're counting on to take us all the way -
C'mon and sock it to our sockets with your energy bouquet!
We'll put violets in the vases and pretty roses in the parks
While your filling up the outlets with a trillion kilowatts!
We'll be romping in the daisies out there on the village green
Always secure, always pure, making the high, high-voltage scene!
- "Power Flower", Perspectives For the 70's, 1969
It's easy to spot the similarities between these songs and songs of patriotism in general. In industrial musicals the promises are always kept, and the ultimate freedom is seen as the freedom to spend. Concurrently, the Soviet Union was producing happy-go-lucky, pro-Communist film musicals as seen in the recent documentary East Side Story. Both the Soviet musicals and the industrial shows of the '60's are remarkably similar in tone, as if at times all of life is one big sing-along advertisement for one large company - your country.
Adding another dimension to a complicated subject is the role of women in industrial shows. For the most part, these shows were for men - the executives, salesmen and owners. Never mind that this masculine bunch thought the Broadway musical - a decidedly melodramatic format - was the way to proceed with entertaining their men. There were a few songs written from the overworked secretary's point of view, but the most interesting examples were written for the wife of the salesman in attendance. For instance, Clark Equipment's show This Is Clarkmanship includes a woman's lament called "My VIP":
I wait here with a big pot roast
Dreaming how dinner should be...
But he'll grab a sandwich late again
So I've a dried-out roast for company.
Yes, we're those things called salesman's wives -
We gave up living when we chose our lives
But one truth stands - it will always be -
We love those men, our VIP's.
- "My VIP - Tribute to Salesmen", This is Clarkmanship, Clark Equipment, 1970
Hank Beebe and Bill Heyer's song "One Man Operation" from Diesel Dazzle isn't quite as bleak, but it portrays a woman who suggests that she gave up part of her life to a faceless, industrious worker drone... yet now, thanks to hard work and Detroit Diesel, he's a human being again. In Beebe's and Heyer's hands, the results for some reason sound kind of sweet:
Now he has two mechanics, a parts and service man -
A girl to take the calls and keep the books -
He spends weekends giving the children all he can -
And telling me how young his wife looks!
There for the longest while, I never saw him smile -
Now, his smile's what he's famous for -
Because the one man in my life, is no one man operation,
He may take two-weeks vacation, maybe four
Because my one wonderful man is no one-man operation anymore!
- "One Man Operation", Diesel Dazzle, Detroit Diesel, 1966
Things really didn't improve much by 1979, when Exxon staged Put Yourself In Their Shoes for their gas station owners. The song "An Exxon Dealer's Wife" is a barrage of demands that the dutiful wife should be performing, should Mr. Gas Station owner need:
A dealer's wife is a woman through and through -
Yes, an Exxon wife is a woman through and through!
Helpin' out my baby, 'cause I love him, I do!
I can write up a thousand customer follow-up cards
While I'm cookin' up a lunch.
And I can give up a holiday to pump some gas
When it comes down to the crunch.
And I can cheer up Harry when he comes home
And his octane is mighty low.
And I can give him the premium attention he needs
That makes a man get up and go!
What I'm sayin' is this dealer's wife is a full service island!!!
- "An Exxon Dealer's Wife", Put Yourself In Their Shoes, 1979
Then again, few would suspect America's corporations to be on the cutting edge of equal rights. Although there was, once, a somewhat perverted try. One of the most notorious and sought-after industrial shows was released by American Standard (makers of bathroom fixtures, urinals, etc.) in 1969, called The Bathrooms Are Coming. The plot concerned the mythical goddess Femma, "the epitome of all women's attitudes, reflections and desires and the leader of all women's movements", who wants to start a "bathroom revolution." She and her group declare plumbing a "feminine business" and enlist other women to help fight bathroom oppression. The results of course were the new line of fixtures by American Standard: Economy Wall Surround, Ultra-Bath, Proximatics and Spectra 70!
By the late-'70's, it's easy to detect a decline in the quality of the souvenir records. Fewer gatefold covers, fewer photos of the audience enjoying the stage show - this was just a preamble for the decline and fall of the industrial musical on record.
Finale & Exit Music
By the time the now defunct Money Magazine privately released their 10th anniversary musical One For the Money in 1981, it was pretty easy to see where things were going. The money was obviously gone. The cover was plain white with some lettering, the music was annoying if not completely forgettable and with a heavy emphasis on cheap synths. Compared to the monster shows of years past, it was lackluster. You can detect the same sort of sound in other shows of the 80's, such as the 1986 Pepsi Advertising Premiere and the 1986 Volvo show, I Am Rolling. The casts still sound like they're still trying to bring down the house, except the house left for Silicon Valley. In fact, 1986 may have been the last big year for industrials, though Steve Young has noted some cassettes of post-1986 shows. The industry trend of pressing a souvenir record, tape or CD even of a music-related corporate event seems to have vanished by 1990.
Of course, big corporate events and conventions still exist (many with song and dance numbers still!), but a number of factors contributed to the industrial musical's demise. There were technological reasons: the advent of home video allowed companies to produce cheaper corporate videos for similar effect, and today a multimedia or Powerpoint presentation would be even more common. Actor's equity fees rose, making the throwing of a big show and pressing a record more of a hassle for a company today than thirty years ago. Also, listening to or watching a Broadway musical was more of a unifying experience during the shows' heyday. It would be hard to imagine the staff of Iomega or Herbalife really relating to the messages contained in an industrial show.
In fact, as much as companies would like, people just don't have the kind of corporate loyalty they had thirty or forty years ago. To think a person will finish their working career with one company is ridiculous, although that was precisely the kind of feeling you were meant to have in 1963 after you saw the Xerox show. What ends up becoming clear is that all the corporate messages contained in the shows are, in hindsight, lies - propaganda to get you to work harder. Workers know now that companies don't last forever and they know that at a moment's notice they could be laid off with little warning. Ultimately, what would a recently laid-off worker from Ford think about when listening to the 1957 Ford Car show? Hell, what would Alaskans feel after listening to Exxon's Spirit of '76 musical? And anyone remotely familiar with the 1984 incident in Bhopal, India would feel chills listening to Union Carbide's patriotic show Direction '76. Strangely, all of these complexities seem to make the genre more interesting. That and the terrific music. It's very odd, this mix of artistic ideas and cold, business pragmatism.
Corporations have never written about it. It has never been studied. In fact, it was never meant to be listened to by the general public. Only a small handful of shows are mentioned in soundtrack guides. Several years ago, an import CD called Product Music was released though that's very difficult to find. It's only been through the dogged perseverance of show collectors, especially Steve Young, who has almost single-handedly crafted the history of the genre through his collection, that there has been any recognition at all of this incredibly rich subject.
Of course, a big thanks to Steve Young for his time.
Note: Although not mentioned in the article, you can hear Bob Thompson and Alan Alch's Industrial Musical, That Agency Thing, for CBS Spot Agency Sales.
Spenser Thompson shares anecdotes, music, and videos from Bob Thompson's music career plus thoughts on artists from Duke to Devo.