The Cowsills In Books

Bubblegum Music
Is The Naked Truth
The Dark History of Prepubescent Pop, from the Banana Splits to Britney Spears
Edited by Kim Cooper & David Smay
Feral House
May 10, 2001


This is a collection of essays by various authors. The following speak of The Cowsills:

Pages 58-59
The Cowsills by Brian Doherty

The Cowsills don't like being called "bubblegum." This might be why Bob Cowsill, after some initial encouraging responses to my overtures, eventually ceased returning phone calls about being interviewed for this book. Defining bubblegum is a chewy problem this whole book grapples with, but a band whose biggest hits were cheery, eminently hummable confections written by forces outside the band ("Indian Lake," "Hair," "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things") surely qualifies. The Cowsills - while as organically generated as any '60's pop band from a burning desire to emulate the Beatles - screamed "cornball" with their mom-and-the-kids family routine. (Yes, they really were a family named Cowsill.) The Cowsills coulda been even bigger contenders - or at least more frequent sights on depressing "where are they now?" nostalgia programs: they were the inspiration for The Partridge Family show, but turned down a chance to actually act in it because they wanted their real mom to play mom; the producers wanted Shirley Jones instead. However, any Cowsill who wants to cavil can point - and proudly! - to the songs on their LPs, particularly the peculiar masterworks Captain Sad and the Ship of Fools and IIxII. These self-penned songs portray the dark, death-obsessed psyches of people forced too often to focus only on the sweetly sunny side of life.

In there swinging with the Left Banke in terms of skillful, complicated vocal/horn/string/obscure keyboard arrangements - at least on Captain Sad and the largely band-written but less gonzo We Can Fly - the Cowsills stripped down to more purely rock/folk arrangements on their darkly obsessive 1970 masterwork IIxII, an album awash in apocalyptic imagery and imprecations on the human race, with a strong Biblical background. After the past two years trying to understand my own queer attraction to this LP (found for $3.00 at Record Surplus in West L.A. - the clerk was piqued indeed that it had been priced so low, grumbling "where'd you find this?" and muttering darkly of the pricer's foolishness), I'm almost glad I didn't get to ask it's producer Bob Cowsill what they were up to with this record - better to let my own imitation run wild. Coincidentally, Bob stopped returning messages right after I left one on his voice mail while listening to IIxII - and telling him how much I loved it.

Captain Sad, with only a few band-written tracks, contains intriguing hints of the weird obsessiveness that would mark it's successor LP. The title track is a character study of a fraudulent '60s guru type, followed up by "Make the Music Flow," on the surface a strange encouragement to keep one's sitar properly tuned, which I suspect has some metaphorical meaning I'm too dense to suss out. IIxII is fully marinated in the dark side of their times. Their top 10 hit "Indian Lake" was all "fun in the summer sun," but what to make of the title track - a jaunty, happy tune (written by Bill Cowsill, for some reason under the pseudonym David Ray) in which the singer assure the Lord that he's ready to get on some sort of modern day ark? Left to dark implications is the destruction of all the rest of life on Earth that the ark story signifies. As side one progresses, in "Signs" the Cowsills remind us that "half a million died on the road last year" in a rather incoherent song that seems to be, on one level, a public-service announcement about paying proper heed to road signs. At the end of side one, the last words we hear are "You may find a hostile out space/If you try to spread the human race."

On side two, a stunningly lovely take on CSN-style hippie harmonizing (but a better song that those grizzled fools ever managed) called "Don't Look Back, " at first merely melancholically suggestive of a love coming to an end, suddenly advises, "Gather all the things you cherish/Please do something as you perish." Slightly shivery even out of context, but coming as it does on the heels of a cover that seems more reflective of the Cowsills real concerns than "Hair," the Revelations horror show "The Prophecy of Daniel land John the Divine," it's positively frightening. "Prophecy" tells of the coming of the antichrist as warned in biblical prophecy, with a young ambisexual voice in the middle eight intoning eerily that "finally one day she was cast back into the sea from where she came so that she would never torment ... man ... again!" Then the whole family bursts out gleefully with: "It's been written down in Revelation/Daniel and John explanation/Whenyou read you will find/ It's a sign of warning for mankind!" This song was actually release by MGM as a single, and the Cowsills performed it on The Tonight Show.

IIxII's bizarre obsessions with death and judgment are a warning against letting one's cover-song spouting automatons have free rein as writers, and gives some due as to why most bubblegum artistes were never given such liberty. (Alas, the easiest to find, and worst, Cowsills album is In Concert featuring nothing but familiar pop covers like "Monday Monday," "Please Mr. Postman," and "Good Vibrations.") Bob Cowsill, while leading a modern Cowsills revival with a set of songs he and his wife wrote on the CD Global, has also returned to those In Concert roots. Every Saturday night on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley he can be found on a stage in the corner of Pickwick's Pub, belting out Beatles tunes and a smattering of other classic oldies favorites on an acoustic guitar,and bantering with the audience of regulars. On the night in August I made the pilgrimage to see him, his daughter was in the crowd, gently jabbing at Bob for throwing away a personally signed letter from John Lennon complimenting his guitar playing. "Do you know what you could get for that on eBay?" she chided. I didn't have the nerve to shout out fro "The Prophecy of St. Daniel and John the Divine" (six is the number ... six is the number ... of a maaaaaan! Six! Six! Six!).

Page 197
No Gum Chewing On The Bus, Please by Lisa Sutton

....... As absurd as the premise sounds today, the story of five musical kids recording pop albums with their mom was based in reality. Orginally, The Partridge Family was to be The Cowsill Family. Show creator Bernard Slade had actually come up with the idea for a singing family in the late '60s, but it took the success (and vaporizing) of The Monkees to interest Columbia Pictures Television in the idea. Once the yet-to-be-titled series was in development, Slade caught a performance of the Cowsills on The Tonight Show and decided to develop the show around the singing siblings and their Mom.

It wasn't long before the Cowsills found themselves out of the picture. Right off the bat, those developing the show didn't like patriarch and former military-man, Bud Cowsill. It was no coincidence that it was soon decided to make the TV mother of five a widow. Although the folks from Columbia spent over a month observing the Cowsills, they always figured on casting real actors in the lead roles. Oscar-winning actress Shirley Jones (and her blonde Barbara Cowsill coif) were hired to star as Mom, and a cast of juvenile unknowns of various hair colors were brought in to play her brood. .......

Page 190-191
Sunshine Pop by Chris Davidson

....... The Cowsills
Optimism rock - family division. The vociferous Cowsill brood galvanized Rhode Island with the most gleaming pipes of all, a team of precision instruments tightly wound like a teenage Magnivicent Seven. After a few flop singles, the tribe exploded with towering, sun-basted material: "The Rain, The Park And Other Things," "Gray, Sunny Day," "We Can Fly," and, most euphoric of all, "All My Days," part of a Cowsills EP sponsored by the American Dairy Association (fully one-sixth of tiny R.I.'s milk supply is suspected to have been consumed by a Cowsill). .......

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