THE DARK, ANGRY FATHER OF 'ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS'
Nov 10 2015
By Joe Blevins
November 10, 2015
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
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.
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
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.