mon 17/02/2020

Extract: That's Not Funny, That's Sick | reviews, news & interviews

Extract: That's Not Funny, That's Sick

Extract: That's Not Funny, That's Sick

In Ellin Stein's book about National Lampoon, she charts the accidental rise of the Blues Brothers

'The Blues Brothers’ success had little to do with their musical ability'

Christened the Blues Brothers, Elwood and Jake’s first public appearance was as the warm-up act Lorne Michaels used to put the studio audience in a receptive mood before the show started. The audience became so warmed up that in April 1978, Michaels put the Blues Brothers on the actual broadcast, backed up by the SNL band. A contract with Atlantic Records, the label of several of the artists the Brothers emulated, materialised in short order. Belushi and Aykroyd found themselves in a dreamlike state where the slightest creative whim could be realised as a viable commercial product (indeed, it was as “a viable commercial product” that Paul Shaffer, in showbiz mode, introduced the Blues Brothers’ first SNL appearance).

Displaying impeccable musical taste, Belushi and Shaffer, the act’s musical director, assembled an all-star lineup of R&B heavy hitters that included members of the legendary Stax/Volt studio band who had accompanied Otis Redding himself. For Belushi and Aykroyd, it was yet another instance of fantasy merging with reality — the musicians whom they had listened to so often were now backing them up.

I realised you didn’t have to be black to sing the blues, you just had to have the emotion

The whole thing was all the more remarkable because Belushi had only recently been turned on to this kind of music between the second and third seasons, when he was in Oregon filming Animal House, the first Lampoon movie. “The music just blew me away,” he recalled. “I thought to myself ‘Man, where have you been all these years, listening to the Bee Gees and that disco shit?’” Filled with the missionary zeal of a recent convert, he told Aykroyd that the Blues Brothers “was our chance to bring back some of the greatest stuff that’s ever been recorded. We’d make people listen,” although according to [record producer Bob] Tischler the act did not inspire their younger, overwhelmingly white audience to track down the Brothers’ sources of inspiration.

Belushi and Aykroyd’s enthusiasm for the music led them to open a downtown hangout called the Blues Bar, essentially a cleaner recreation of the seedy after-hours club Aykroyd had run in Toronto. The new club’s main attraction was a jukebox stocked with soul favorites, as well as with more esoteric blues and R&B singles. Open by invitation only, the ersatz but funky juke joint drew an unlikely combination of blues musicians, Hell's Angels, and movie/rock stars.

As for whether enthusiasm could substitute for dues, “I realised you didn’t have to be black to sing the blues, you just had to have the emotion,” Belushi opined in 1979, and he wasn’t going to let either his race or his status as a highly paid television star get in the way of feeling sufficiently oppressed. Unfortunately, one problem remained.

"The only weakness was the frontmen,” the clear-sighted Aykroyd admitted. “We got by, we did a pretty decent job, but we knew our limitations,” he said with a humility his partner may not have shared. At any rate, Aykroyd usually refrained from singing except for growling out the bass harmony and stuck to playing harmonica. In the end, it may have been irrelevant whether Belushi could sing or not. Having grown up in a world that — unlike the sheltered Fifties — was perhaps a little too exciting, the band’s young fans did not mind authenticity at one remove, and the Brothers’ cover versions might have been more appealing than the originals, resonant with echoes of injustice and suffering.

If the Blues Brothers’ success had little to do with their musical ability and still less to do with a renewed public interest in the blues, it had everything to do with Saturday Night Live’s high profile and the fact that it was great party music interpreted by America’s premier party animal. When on the eve of SNL’s fourth season the band recorded nine concerts in LA, “the response was incredible,” Tischler recalled. “People showed up in Blues Brothers costumes. The album sounded like a party” — a party partially financed by Belushi, who sunk $100,000 of his own money into the live recording. It proved to be a wise investment. The result, Briefcase Full of Blues, sold a million copies within a month.

As the Blues Brothers became a more-than-viable commercial product, the line between fantasy and reality blurred even more. “Everyone was knocked out by how the album took off,” said Tischler, who produced it. “John and Danny became the Blues Brothers. They became more important than SNL,” and Belushi’s co-workers were made to know it. In January 1979, Belushi, who had just turned 30, had “the Number One record, the Number One movie, and the Number One TV show, all at the same time. And I was a madman, okay? I was mad!” he said three years later, explaining, “It’s just so much pressure, so many things going on, so many parties, so many people paying attention to you.” The TV show — not actually number one, but close enough — was Saturday Night Live, the record was Briefcase Full of Blues, and the movie was National Lampoon’s Animal House.

  • That's Not Funny, That's Sick: National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream (Norton) is out now in the UK as an audiobook and as a book in the US
The music just blew me away. I thought to myself, 'Man, where have you been all these years, listening to the Bee Gees and that disco shit?'

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