Little Roger talks about the 1970s joke that ate the band.
If you were near a radio back in 1978 chances are you heard a takeoff on Led Zeppelin’s megahit at the time, “Stairway to Heaven.” The goof paired the melody to the lyrics of the theme of TV’s rerun mainstay, Gilligan’s Island. The song, “Stairway to Gilligan,” got so much airplay that Led Zeppelin’s manager successfully sued its creators, Bay Area club band legends Little Roger and the Goosebumps. The song wasn’t just taken off the air, but all copies were supposedly destroyed. Now Berkeley-bred Roger Clark (aka “Little Roger”), the man who dared to poke a hole in Led Zeppelin, and a rejuvenated Goosebumps band have a new CD, They Hate Us . . . Cause We’re Beautiful, a collection of what Clark likes to call “sugarless bubblegum.” The band’s also headlining at select Bay Area venues (for more info, visit www.littleroger.com). While he’s willing to talk about the song that made him momentarily famous, it’s clear Clark has moved on. All the way down to Mazatlan, in fact, where his day job is rehabbing colonial mansions. I buzzed Clark at his seaside villa recently to gauge the progress of his unprecedented comeback.
Paul Kilduff: How is reviving your musical career going to work now that you’re in Mexico?
Roger Clark: Well, it’s going to work. I mean, the age of the Internet is pretty amazing. And also it’s a three-hour flight. The weather down here in the summertime is so fucking hot that most people don’t hang out down here. I’ll be up in Northern California. I’m doing gigs every six weeks. I’m going to be back and forth here for the next six to nine months pretty regularly and if against all odds I’m able to get any sort of interest happening they have an airport here. I’m like any other grown-up musician. If it’s worth the effort and/or the money, it’s pretty easy to respond to any interest. There’s some interest and I’ve got a lot of residual big-shot friends in the music business but most of them are up high enough so that they can’t help me till I get something up on the radar. So slowly but surely. I’m in no hurry. My expectations are pretty modest here. When “Gilligan” happened, we were a really popular club band that did four sets a night of original material. “Gilligan” was just was a throwaway gag to fill space when we got bored by the end of the night. So, more than anything else, this is just picking up where we left off. I know how to make records now and I have a lot of songs that are as good or better than the ones that made us popular in clubs before. I mean, we were selling out clubs all the time before we had fucking “Gilligan” happen. “Gilligan” just got us attention outside the Bay Area.
PK: I know you’re ambivalent about the legacy of the song, but—
RC: My Little League trophy . . . that’s what it feels like to me. I’m happy to do it. Every time we play, we play the song. Grateful for it. But in terms of what it means to me, it’s the only reason why people pay any attention to me in the music business. Why would I have anything other than at least grudging respect for it? I mean, it was all circumstantial and all a fucking joke.
PK: It sounds like you would rather people appreciate the other things you’ve done and not just focus on that.
RC: Well, I’m not starving for that; I was able to accomplish that with making this “Lucy Me” record—I don’t know if you ever came across that?
RC: In 1998 I made this record. She was like a little Brenda Lee, Shirley Temple kind of model. And blowtorch voice. Totally great. Anyway, I made this record and paid for it and put it out and sold it to Polygram for a shitload of money . . . . The single came out on Island. But I got all the validation I ever looked for as a songwriter and as a producer. I pulled off the hat trick. I wrote it, produced it, and sold it. Timothy White of Billboard wrote this fucking amazing full-page rave about how magnificent the songs were and how magnificent the record was and this girl out of nowhere, blah, blah, blah. And then he died. That’ll show him. I got a big publishing deal with MCA. So I got all the things that I’d been trying to accomplish for 25 years. So all that validation of, like, OK, sonny-boy, you are a good songwriter after all. I got all that. It’s just that nobody who has any knowledge of me in the Bay Area at this juncture knows anything beyond “Gilligan.” So in terms of filling in the knowledge space, I wouldn’t mind having that happen. The people in the music business in San Francisco who know me well know I can do all that shit. But the general public, anybody who knows anything about Little Roger, that’s all they know is “Gilligan.”
PK: Exactly. And that’s how I sold you to the editors. You understand that.
RC: I don’t bristle at that whatsoever, but I have no career as a novelty artist and never did and never aspired to. It’s not my reference point. It’s just something we did that happened to get popular, that hit some cultural critical mass at the right time and was all over the fucking radio. There’s some really amazing stories around that record that happened, but it’s like 35 years ago.
PK: So you’d kind of like to get the monkey off your back.
RC: No, not really. Yeah, it’s an albatross but here I am talking to you.
PK: And I’m not exactly chopped liver, either, mein Freund.
RC: So I gotta be an adult about that. At the time I was resentful because it totally derailed a band that seemed to have some momentum in the public. This seemed to be legitimate and all of a sudden it became the joke that ate my band. And I had to accept it. And here I am, Paul, living out the most putrid show business cliché that there is: someone who gets famous for being silly, trying to get taken seriously. I mean, I gotta cop to that.
PK: I’m glad you’re fleshing this out for me. I can tell this is therapeutic. You describe “Stairway to Gilligan” as not being a parody but a “Frankenstein mash-up.” What the hell is that?
RC: Well, a Frankenstein mash-up, you old fart, is a current musical term for the kind of production stuff that’s big with the montage artists in the computer age where they mix all these songs together. It’s a conceptual step beyond just segueing disco songs together that have a similar beat and tempo, where they actually are able to isolate parts of songs that will mesh together and they make these big collages. It’s an art form, the mash-up.
PK: Does it have anything to do with sampling songs?
RC: Well, yes, in terms of the physical technology of taking a bite out of something and then putting it into a different context, yes. If sampling is chess, making mash-ups can be like three-level chess in terms of production technique. It’s a layered, montage art form that’s current. If you use the term mash-up, the kids will think you know what you’re talking about. I’ll cover for you.
PK: Good to know. Specifically, how is “Stairway to Gilligan” a mash-up?
RC: Well, in that it’s two songs that have been turned into one. I didn’t rewrite the lyrics to a song. The melody of Gilligan’s Island works over the chords of “Stairway to Heaven.” I didn’t change either song.
PK: How did you discover that?
RC: By accident. We had this sort of trash medley that we did at the end of the night where we would just do dozens of songs slammed together. It was like everything from Jeff Beck to TV themes to Mahavishnu Orchestra, back and forth. All these little snippets that would give you whiplash. And we needed to refresh it so we were, “OK, let’s throw Gilligan’s Island in here” and the guitar player starts playing it. To tell you the truth I don’t know who noticed in the rehearsal. That’s the thing about a great idea; everybody gets to take credit. We didn’t sit down and conceive of this. It was an accident of boredom in rehearsal.
PK: Were you guys high at the time?
RC: Gosh, Paul, I have no idea. I don’t think so. You know, getting high at rehearsal doesn’t accomplish much. Even back then I think I realized that. An esteemed member of the Fourth Estate visited upon this record after the fact some significant social commentary which was not intended although I understand where that comes from. And I think the accidental bullseye was that the people who thought “Stairway to Heaven” was profound also happened to be pot-smoking fans of Gilligan’s Island. Same people. So it just happened to hit some vein that reverberated, and for the people who hated “Stairway to Heaven” it was an opportunity for people who didn’t think it was profound and thought it was all bogus, it gave them an opportunity to poke fun at it by playing it. I mean, the thing that happened in a business sense that made it so big was we were making fun of the ’70s in the ’70s, as opposed to waiting till the next century. It [“Stairway to Heaven”] was the most-played record on FM radio. FM radio was king. It was a seven-minute song. At the time our record came out disc jockeys were fucking tired of having to play it. So having a three-minute, musically adequate version of it that actually poked fun and satisfied their business need to play this song for their constituency, they jumped at it. It was all over morning radio all over the country like in a couple of weeks.
PK: I remember. I was there, man.
RC: It was all just about the timing more than anything else.
PK: What were some of the theories as to its deeper meaning?
RC: It was just treated like it was heavy commentary.
PK: When it wasn’t.
RC: Not intentionally. That you would join something as frivolous as Gilligan’s Island and something as profound as “Stairway to Heaven.” I don’t know. What the fuck do I know? It was all bullshit to me.
PK: Apparently Robert Plant told Terry Gross that this was his favorite song take-off.
RC: Thanks for nothing, Bob. Well, I met him. He said, “Oh, I’ve always liked this record.” It was Jimmy Page and the manager that hated it. But that’s just like any business situation. “I love you, babe, but my partner’s got a problem.” And he’s a great guy. He’s a music lover. He’s a record collector. He’s a charming, spiritual guy. He was great when I met him and I’ve talked to him a couple of times. Led Zeppelin’s managers are friends with friends of mine. I could put this out again if I wanted. But the problem now, ironically, is that I could never get it past the Gilligan people. They hated it.
PK: “Gilligan” and “Brady Bunch” creator Sherwood Schwartz, Mr. Wholesome Entertainment, hated it?
RC: He let Led Zeppelin do the dirty work because Peter Grant, who was a psychotic British gangster, Led Zeppelin’s manager at the time, had a bug up his ass. And also the compounding thing was we were taking airplay royalty money out of their pocket.
PK: How do you feel about the enormous success of Weird Al?
RC: Success in show business is a difficult thing. You get an idea and if you have success with it you do that exact same thing for the rest of your fucking career.
PK: I can’t stand Weird Al, but here’s what I don’t understand. You didn’t do a parody but you did do a goof on a very popular song and you were sued. Today, Weird Al does the exact same sort of thing and it’s embraced by the artists. They’re complicit. What’s changed? Do they now see dollar signs in song takeoffs?
RC: I don’t know. Al said he got the idea for his career from our record. That’s what he told me. And I said, welcome to it. It sounds like a fake sentiment in retrospect, I guess, to say this, but boy, I’m sure glad I didn’t have to do that. His first song was, “Everyone Rides the Bus.” And he told me ’cause we played on the Dr. Demento 25th anniversary show at the Warfield and he was the headliner. We hung out. He said, “Oh yeah, thank you. I got my idea from you.” And I was like, “Jesus, please don’t tell anybody that, Al.”
PK: So you are the reason we have to suffer through Weird Al song parodies. That must weigh heavily on your conscience.
RC: I feel guilty.
PK: We have you to blame.
RC: Exactly. What a horrible thing to have unleashed on the populace. He’s a nice enough guy. And God bless him. He’s made a fuck of a lot of money. If the formula is making the most out of what little you have, he’s a genius.
PK: But has the climate changed? It’s almost as if when Weird Al covers your song, you’ve arrived.
RC: I don’t have an answer for that. There’s some business involved in it. And I think for a long time he didn’t expect that he was going to get any credit or money from any of the changed compositions. He just gave it to everybody for a while until they started making money and then he started being able to take credit for, OK, this a re-write. And they got all their permissions in advance. That’s the big reason. He’s not doing any without any permission in advance. I got no permission in advance and also I was fucking with two people, one of whom was not reasonable.
PK: Weird Al is pretty sanitized.
RC: It’s pretty superficial. All the fucking record geeks who do their silly little parodies just rewrite the lyrics. It’s pretty simple. It’s just a matter of following through with it. It’s not like his songs are particularly clever. The main criterion is this is a popular song and he now has access to the industry distribution stream that allows him to have the things up and running. He can get it out there while the original is still vital. That’s the key because if you’re doing this after the fact nobody gives a flying fuck. You’ve got to choose the songs that you think are going to be so popular people are going to be tired of them and they’re going to welcome this. And you have to be able to get it out there in the public so that the thing hasn’t disappeared. And you don’t want do it too early before people are tired of it. So, there’s a business strategy to it that he now has access to. He’s got a smart manager. And he likes what he does. He’s enjoying himself. He has an audience. God bless him. He’s got a successful music career. I don’t know. Where the fuck do I get off?
PK: And he’s making the world safe for white, nerdy guys.
RC: Exactly. He’s their hero. Not my hero.
PK: So he’s part of the music hype machine.
RC: He is. He’s been co-opted, and gladly.
PK: Who’s your audience? Obviously they’re going to have to know you from “Gilligan.”
RC: Well, the music business has discovered that there’s a segment of the aging population that grew up buying records that still buys records. They haven’t figured out who those people are. Whether it’s O Brother Where Art Thou? or The Buena Vista Social Club, all of sudden out of the blue there are these records that they can’t explain who’s buying ’em. And KFOG is a good example. They’re essentially the taste-makers for this format of music around the country. The kind of songs, the kind of artists, the kind of subject matter that people anywhere from 30 to 60 will understand.
PK: Is it geezer rock?
RC: Well, just some sort of more mature perspective on the same subject matter, whether it be relationships or social stuff or what have you. And not that I have any expectation of success, but I think that I’m good at doing the stuff that would fit into that arena. If I can get anybody to listen to it they’ll decide whether they like it or not. You can’t make people like records. All you can do is hope that they get a chance to listen to them so they can decide. And that’s essentially the worst part of the music business up until the Internet. Well, it hasn’t really cured that. But ultimately people can’t decide because they can’t hear it. And when people get older, it’s not that they don’t like music anymore. They lack the time or interest or inclination to sift through the shit that’s no good.