Friday, January 24, 2014
Books of the Year: Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals
This is the sort of pop culture book I prize above all others: A beautifully designed, smartly written examination of a corner of culture so obscure I was barely aware that it existed at all. This volume, by Letterman writer Steve Young, focuses on "industrial musicals" -- elaborate live productions staged by corporations in the hopes of motivating (or at least momentarily entertaining) their employees. Sometimes, they were astonishingly elaborate affairs with music and lyrics by the same guys who brought you "Cabaret." Other times, these were done on the cheap, with small casts and songs that consisted mostly of taking a current hit tune and replacing key words with "sewing machine" or "ceiling tiles." Either way, they were tough to see then (you had to, after all, work for the company in question) and tougher to remember now, surviving only in the form of distant memories and increasingly rare soundtrack albums.
Thankfully, Young began collecting those albums to use as comic fodder for the "Dave's Record Collection" segments on Letterman's show, and as his interest grew, he became an accidental expert on this forgotten subculture. He shares his knowledge in this brand-new book, a thick-as-a-brick, strikingly designed celebration of the industrial musical. The book traces the history of the, ahem, artform musical by musical, offering photos of the albums, samples of the lyrics and other ephemera, all presented with Young's witty observations. Every so often, fellow collector Sport Murphy chimes in with a subject-specific sidebar, offering more thoughts and a few additional jokes. (Young met Murphy when they were bidding on the same LPs.) The book is very funny, but it never gets too jokey, letting the absurdity of full-blown musical numbers devoted to, say, bathroom fixtures find their own humor. As a bonus, the book looks great, using the vintage graphics and photos to create a real sense of just how damn stylish things looked back in those days. It's really a tremendous tome, one of the most interesting and pure fun volumes I've read in a long time. If I had one minor criticism it's that, this being a book, you can't actually hear any of the songs from the musicals...
... except, wait, you can. Young, Murphy and company have thoughtfully created a website devoted to the sounds of these shows. Just go to www.industrialmusicals.com, and before long, you too will have the tunes of "I've Got a Lot of Features" and "An Exxon Dealer's Wife" permanently lodged in your brain. Have fun!