PRIMUS AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY: IT'S FINALLY HERE
The day has finally arrived, you mushroom-eating indie chowderheads; the music world has been all atwitter and on Twitter about Primus’ new epic album, Primus and the Chocolate Factory. Unless you are one of those children kept in a shed your whole life or you happen to live in Provo, you will know is based on the 1971 legendary movie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Indie-heads and Primus freaks alike have been more excited about this remake than Tim Burton’s Johnny Depp-laced fiasco in 2005, and if you’re not super-pumped as well, examine your conscience. This is genre-defining.
I’m just going to have to speak in this review as if most of you know the deal with Primus. As a huge fan of theirs since Frizzle Fry and as a bass player myself, they have been such an integral part of my formative years that I simply can’t imagine my reality without them. In a decade like the 90s where it seemed every indie band was unique, interesting and destined to become legend, Primus stood out even from that foray. First of all, a band fronted by a bass player? Never been done. But what a bass player. It was easy to see after your very first listen to Les Claypool on his 6-string wooden bass with his cracking, gap-toothed redneck-cum-tweeker vocals that this guy was not going to be standing to the side of any guitarist catching the residual poon that the rest of the band didn’t want. Both personality and talent made Claypool the frontman, no arguments about it.
Let’s not discount the rest of the band in all this, however, because the backing guitar (sounds so weird, right?) of Larry LaLonde gave the band its hardcore edge, without which we might just be dealing with a slightly schizophrenic bass-playing savant sitting on the porch of a house in the Adironcacks somewhere throwing his whittled beavers at passing cars. A truly divine confluence of events took place to bring Primus together, and so as we sailed the Seas of Cheese and drank Pork Soda with Claypool and LaLonde, we happily listened to their Tales from the Punchbowl, reveling in one of the few glimmers of musical hope which carried us from 90s to the 00s. Now all those puns areas much much summing up of the discography of Primus as I’m willing to do. If you don’t know their steez up until this point, I really don’t know what to do with you other than say I guess start here and work your way backwards. It won’t make sense otherwise.
This is not the first time Les Claypool and Primus have chosen to do their own take on a classic piece of work. Most notable was Claypool’s arrangement and performance of the old Charlie Daniels Band Classic “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” on their 1998 EP Rhinoplasty, where they teamed up with animators Mike Johnson and Paul Berry to make an amazing claymation animated short. This allowed Les Claypool to really stretch out on the board his redneck roots, which he’d been hiding in plain sight for many years, and give the bluegrass we all knew lived in his belly a much needed airing. It was a hit among Primus’s many hits, and the video made WatchMojo’s Top 10 Animated Music Videos of all time. It also has appeared for many years in Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation, and is considered a favorite at that and many other animation festivals.
PRIMUS - THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO GEORGIA
I tried to keep it short on the intros, because what we’re really here to celebrate is the release of this epic and experimental album, so here we go. A lot of media outlets have been saying that Primus reunited for the purpose of bringing this vision to fruition, but none of the original members ever really stopped creating, and this idea has been clanging around in Claypool’s Heisenbergesque brain for many years. Who could blame him, really? The seminal work by Roald Dahl and the almost as legendary film have been inspirational to scores of artists over the years, but let’s be real: no one can touch the original film and what director Mel Stuart and star Gene Wilder did with it; or couldn’t until now.
When Tim Burton re-made the film in 2005, he made sure to entitle it “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” rather than “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory;” a stipulation that it would not be like the 1971 classic, and Burton himself made many mentions to the fact that he stayed truer to the book than the film, but the departure was far from complete. Rather than taking the film and soundtrack to a totally different place, it was still clearly just what Burton thought was a modernized version of the 1971 film, and contrary to Tim Burton form, he actually took some of the sinister creepiness of the books and film out of his version, making it more family friendly and, frankly, a little hokey. The only performance in the Burton film that was comparable to the Stuart version was Johnny Depp’s. Depp managed to make the role his own and not try to one-up Gene Wilder, but create his own Wonka while paying homage to Wilder’s exquisite performance.
Rather than making any kind of departure from the original soundtrack of the 1971 film as some might expect, Claypool and friends took a page from Johnny Depp’s sides with Primus and the Chocolate Factory. The band intrinsically knows they can’t improve on perfection. Why would they want to, really? The album follows almost to the note the original soundtrack, complete with the Wonka Mobile track (Bubble Machine), all the Oompa Loompa songs, and the honk as Veruca Salt falls into the incinerator. The only addition/change is the intro, which is very “Seas of Cheese,” and which I believe is meant to set the tone and bring the audience into the Wonka/Primus world for the duration of the album or performance.
So what’s all the ruckus if this album is only, in essence, a cover album? Well, if my four ranting intro paragraphs didn’t give you a hint, the answer is because it’s fucking Primus. While sticking to the basic structure of the original soundtrack, the band has put their own glorious Primus twist on it. That is to say, any inkling of a children’s movie or book is pretty much completely gone. The images conjured up in the listener’s head while going through this Primus-ized world of pure imagination are not of pretty streams of chocolate and gummi bears. There are probably candy mushrooms, but I’m pretty sure Les will be goddamned if there’s anything less than a deep cycle marine battery in those white sugary dots. If the snozzberries taste like snozzberries, you should probably be fucking terrified of snozzberries.
As Les Claypool understands it, the album came into being from a re-working of the first full track on the soundtrack, “Candyman,” which he turned into something that sounds more like it should be the opening warning song to “Supersize Me.” The band also played a full cover of the soundtrack for a New Year’s show a few years ago, in Oakland, so there is where the idea of a full album began to take shape. From “Candyman” into “Cheer Up Charlie,” where it sounds like the band is making fun of Charlie for being an overly optimistic dope, to “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” which Claypool was worried might sound a bit hokey but which really is a great foreshadowing to what kind of crazy and unexpected misfortunes can come with unbridled optimism, the opening tracks of the album provide a gloriously cynical take on the beginning of Charlie’s story.
The pivotal foreshadowing scene in the 1971 film where we get an inkling of the darker side of the journey the kids are about to take is on the “Semi-Wonderous Boat Ride,” where Gene Wilder as Willie Wonka scares the absolute crap out of the golden ticket winners with fearful images and a fever pitch voice crescendo to the song. Primus’ version combines that with what sounds like the opening to Sailing the Seas of Cheese, and extremely fitting marriage, and makes this the apotheosis of the album, where with the original score in mind they take it one step further into completely scrambling the listener’s brain. Before this pivotal track, the listener may be sort of half paying attention and delighting in the darker Primus take on a beloved childhood soundtrack (if you were doing this, you’ll have to start over at the beginning), but when “Semi-Wonderous Boat Ride” hits, you’ll forcibly be made ready to listen to the album as intended: with all senses piqued and under no illusions that this will be an easy trip. If you intend to ingest a psychotropic substance while listening to this album or during one of the band’s shows on the tour (as Claypool will also inevitably do), do so before this track hits. It’s for your own good.
PRIMUS - THE WONDROUS BOATRIDE
For my own part, as I listened to this album from re-worked intro to dénouement (a sickly and wonderfully crafted version of “Pure Imagination,”) with images in my head similar to those conjured up by Primus’ albums in the 90s spliced with those from the movie: the Fat Blue-Collared Tweekers bearing down on terrified yet heretofore oblivious children to teach them a lesson about real life; that giant crazy pig from Pork Soda as the fan in the ceiling of the fizzy lifting drinks room, ready to tear us all to shreds; and Gene Wilder in the middle of it all, with claymation purple and black swirls pumping out those images from the boat tunnel along with Heffalumps and Woozles and all manner of other poignant childhood images.
This album is far from fantastical, however, and just by it being Primus who is doing the covering of the soundtrack, we get a whole different perspective; one with more obscure musical style, but also one which more definitively drives home the points the books and the movie were trying to make. The lighthearted, piccolo-driven whimsy of the 1971 film is replaced with heavy basslines (obviously) and a challenge by Primus to stare into the fear, pratfalls, and abject madness that can come from pursuing ones goals. The end we’re all hoping for where our tiny little glass box breaks free of the mundane and we see the wide world as a place of all possibility and happily ever after is not assured. What is assured is the journey. For better or worse, that’s what life can give us: one hell of a journey. Primus gives us just that in this classic rework: one hell of a musical and image-filled journey. It’s musically more wacky and experimental than the original soundtrack, but philosophically more matter-of-fact about the message it tries to teach.
This album was made to be experienced live, as Claypool claims that’s how this whole thing started, and so the shows on their tour will be an audio-visual experience which should definitely not be missed. If you’re planning on seeing Primus on this tour with the Fungi Ensemble as backing band, don’t go expecting to hear “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver” or “Professor Nutbutter.” It’s all about Primus and the Chocolate Factory this time, so drop your acid in the bathroom line, sit back and get ready for a good old-fashioned mind fuck. Before you catch a show, do I need to mention again that today’s the day you can finally purchase the album on any number of websites and players, but I recommend going straight to www.primusville.com, the official website where you can also see which show you can and will go see in your city. So many, many cool points are on the line if you miss this. The album has also been leaked for streaming by the New York Times for a couple of weeks, so if you’d like to listen before you buy, this link’s a good place to do it (just scroll down a bit).
I did mention at the top of this article that Primus and the Chocolate Factory is an epic artistic work, and even in the face of Primus and all their own epic discography, I would like to re-iterate: this new release has been worth the hype, and you must either buy or stream it immediately, sit in a darkened room (sober or otherwise, dealer’s choice), and experience the most adult, intelligent and emotive rework of both book and film recorded since 1971.
About Layla Marino
Layla Marino is a music and street art blogger with 17 years in the industry. She focuses exclusively on underground music, art, and culture, and loves working with BitCandy to find and bring new artists to a wider audience.