The Dark, Angry Father of ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’
David Seville never really existed at all, and yet there have been at least three of him in the last 60 years. Dave, of course, is the human adjunct to those famous singing rodents, Alvin and the Chipmunks. He serves as their caretaker as well as the Brian Epstein to their Beatles, feeding and clothing them as well as shepherding their career in the music industry. The fictional backstory of David Seville is that he was a singer-songwriter who discovered the helpless animals by pure happenstance, took them into his home, adopted them, dressed them up in cute little outfits, and turned them into singing sensations. The novelty act’s official site calls him “the Chipmunks’ adoptive father, confidant, and songwriter.”
In their original heyday, which lasted from roughly 1958 to 1969, the ‘munks scored three Top 40 albums, six Top 40 hits (eight in total if you count two re-entries of their first single, “The Chipmunk Song”), 30 million record sales, and their own prime time TV series. And that was just the beginning. In its current, much slicker incarnation, the group has a successful series on Nickelodeon, the CGI-created ALVINNN!!! and the Chipmunks, and a fourth live-action feature film, The Road Chip, scheduled to be released this December.
And all this from just speeding up the vocals on otherwise-ordinary pop song covers? Not quite.
In reality, the seemingly deathless franchise began with a multi-talented and somewhat experimental singer, songwriter, producer, and actor from Fresno with the unwieldy Armenian name of Ross Bagdasarian (1919-1972). Nearly 40 when he found fame and success, Ross had lived a pretty interesting life before ever billing himself as David Seville, a WASP-y sounding pseudonym he took on at the behest of Liberty Records executives. The “Seville” part was a reference to the city in Spain where’d he’d been stationed while in the Air Force. Under his own name, he’d acted on Broadway, co-written (with respected playwright William Saroyan, his cousin) the loopy, harpsichord-tinged “Come On-A My House,” which hit #1 for Rosemary Clooney in 1951, and appeared in such classic films as Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), sharing screen time with Hitch himself in the latter.
None of those adventures, however, had made Bagdasarian a lot of money, and this was a man with a wife and three children to support. He’d already tried and failed to become a Fresno grape grower like his old man before moving to L.A. during the middle Eisenhower years to make it in showbiz. It was desperation, in fact, that made Ross a star. In The Wacky Top 40 by Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo, Ross Bagdasarian, Jr., the songwriter’s son and eventual inheritor of the Chipmunk franchise, remembered his dad spending $190 of the family’s last $200 to buy a tape recorder. It was while screwing around with that contraption, of course, that Ross, Sr. stumbled upon the squeaky-voiced gimmick that would make him famous. As for a hit song in which to apply his gimmick, The Wacky Top 40 cites a vintage interview with Ross, Sr.:
My mind was a little madder than its normal semi-orderly state of confusion. I looked up from my desk and saw a book, Duel with the Witch Doctor. All the teenage records that were selling seemed to have one thing in common — you couldn’t understand any of the lyrics. So I decided to have the witch doctor give advice to the lovelorn in his own language — a kind of qualified gibberish.
How much of that origin story is true is dubious. The only extant references to a book called Duel with the Witch Doctor, for instance, come from Bagdasarian himself. Liberty Records didn’t care; they were up to their necks in tax debt and needed a hit badly, according to The Wacky Top 40. What’s crucial about “The Witch Doctor,” which reached #1 in 1958 and prevented Elvis’ “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck” from topping the chart, is that it’s one of the original, newly-written songs upon which Bagdasarian the elder built his high-pitched empire. That first hit was credited to “The Music of David Seville.” When Ross ditched the witch doctor character and attributed the squeaky voices to singing chipmunks instead, he did so through another self-penned smash hit, “The Chipmunk Song,” a Christmas tune that pokes a little gentle fun at the materialism of the holidays. On that record, Ross himself played four distinct characters: obsequious, tittering Theodore; goody-goody, know-it-all Simon; selfish, anarchic Alvin; and hot-headed Dave Seville, a seething cauldron of rage.
Sure, the ‘munks did cover versions, too, like their gonzo deconstruction of “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” and their galloping “rock and roll” take on “Whistle While You Work,” but the group’s best, most famous songs were Bagdasarian originals: “Alvin’s Harmonica,” “The Alvin Twist,” “Alvin’s Orchestra,” and the satirical “Alvin for President,” in which the group’s tiny lead singer allows his political ambitions to sabotage a recording session, much to Dave’s chagrin. And then there are the truly odd ‘munks deep cuts, like “Japanese Banana,” which became a Dr. Demento Show favorite, “Eefin’ Alvin,” which features a sort of rural beatboxing technique, and a radical, late ‘60s remake of “The Chipmunk Song” with blues rockers Canned Heat. The Chipmunks were in the commercial doldrums by then, having been made obsolete by the Beatles, and the record poked fun at how out-of-step with the times they were.
Obviously eager to do some non-rodent-based music, David Seville would occasionally use the B-sides of his hit Chipmunks 45s for cool, jazzy, little instrumentals with self-deprecating titles: “Copyright 1960,” “Mediocre,” the insanely catchy “Almost Good,” and, perhaps best of all, “Flip Side,” a song that really should have been sampled on a half-dozen hip-hop records by now. Every once in a while, Ross would do strange little side records like “Yeah, Yeah,” a Beatles spoof credited to The Bedbugs. A lot of that originality went away when Ross, Jr. revived the Chipmunks franchise in the 1980s, parlaying the popularity of such all-remakes albums as Chipmunk Punk and Urban Chipmunk into a new NBC Saturday morning series starring his dad’s characters. From then on, the ‘munks were a glorified cover band.
What also got lost along the way was the core issue at the heart of the original Chipmunks records: anger. When one revisits the classic ‘munks singles from the late 1950s and early 1960s, what truly stands out is how pissed off David Seville sounds. He’s a stern, button-down guy who just wants to make some nice music for the nice people, and that goddamned Alvin keeps getting in the way. This lends the records an element of danger: Dave might really haul off and smack Alvin one of these days, the listener senses. Part of the reason Dave’s anger sounds so genuine is that it was rooted in reality. A 1959 story about Ross in Life magazine says that the tense Dave vs. Alvin dynamic is partially based on Ross’ relationship with his other son, Adam. Though the Life story is meant to be upbeat, this passage is a little upsetting:
When he does not want to be disturbed, Bagdasarian closes the doors of his den, and no one is allowed to enter. This is the strictest rule of the household. It means nothing, however, to 4-year-old Adam. The other children, like chipmunks Theodore and Simon, are well-behaved. But Adam comes in whenever he has something to say. He opens the door softly and, before the father has a chance to say, ‘Adam, you know you’re not supposed to come in here,’ the son is off.
Ross Bagdasarian died at the age of 52 from a heart attack, so it seems likely that he was a tense, stressed-out guy, though Munkapedia, the disturbingly-thorough Alvin and the Chipmunks Wiki, blames his overindulgence of Armenian food. Whichever was the culprit, Ross, Jr. certainly took the franchise in a different direction during the Reagan years. From then on, Dave Seville was less of a hothead with a hair-trigger temper and more of a hapless eunuch schmuck who was “very disappointed” when Alvin and his brothers misbehaved. And that’s still true today. For the last 35 years or so, Ross, Jr. has spearheaded the ‘munks empire, voicing all animated versions of David Seville and producing the live action films, in which ever-scruffy Jason Lee, not exactly a Type A personality, portrays good old Dave. The Seville of old is no more, having been lobotomized for a gentler age.
Alvin and the Chipmunks have virtually no credibility within either the comedy or music communities today. Indeed, they are popular satiric targets, representing the ultimate in saccharine cuteness, lack of creativity, and shameless hucksterism. In 2000, Bob Rivers released an album gleefully titled Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire, the cover of which depicted Santa with one of the rodents impaled on a wooden skewer. Patton Oswalt had a whole bit in his act deriding the ‘munks. “Get ‘The Chipmunk Song’ on record and play it slow,” he advised his audience, “because if you do that, all the Chipmunks sound like normal monotone guys, singing a really bad song about Christmas. And that guy, Dave, remember that guy that they hang out with? Now he sounds like this fucking demon from the seventh level of murderers and traitors.”
Meanwhile, for its first few editions, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, while begrudgingly acknowledging the Chipmunks’ success, also threw in some snarky jokes about Theodore’s paternity suit woes, Simon’s poppy seed addiction, and Alvin’s conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. About the only attention the ‘munks’ music gets these days from anyone besides undiscriminating children is when an internet parodist like Soundcloud’s chipmunkson16speed turns tracks from Chipmunk Punk into avant-garde audio art by drastically slowing them down.
The one hipster holdout when it comes to Alvin-bashing is John Waters, who has praised the Chipmunks repeatedly in his books Role Models, Carsick, and Crackpot, often describing their sound as “sexy.” He even included the ‘munks version of “Sleigh Ride” on the 2004 compilation album A John Waters Christmas and used an obscure ‘munks track, “Captain Chipmunk,” in his last film to date, A Dirty Shame. “I love the Chipmunks,” he told Vogue last Christmas, “because I cannot get enough of their voices.” Interestingly, the first live-action Alvin film from 2007 contained a brief poop-eating joke, so maybe the Prince of Puke has influenced the franchise to a degree.
And maybe, just maybe, John Waters is on to something when it comes to the music of Alvin and the Chipmunks, too. Admittedly, there is little to recommend about recent ‘munks recordings, which mostly are just soulless cover versions with sped up voices these days. (Anyone up for a Chipmunk cover of “Party Rock Anthem,” for instance? Didn’t think so.) But those original 45s and LPs, made under the aegis of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr., are darker, weirder, and more creative than people may remember. At the very least, they were the foundation for a pop culture institution that has lasted nearly six decades. And, after all, 30 million Alvin fans can’t be wrong.