Imagine a single that sampled U2, Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana and a bunch of others — without permission — and then hit #3 on the Billboard charts, selling more than a million copies. That's right, you're imagining the mother of all lawsuits. You're also imagining something that pretty much already happened — in 1956.
That was when 21-year-old Dickie Goodman, along with partner Bill Buchanan, recorded "The Flying Saucer," parts 1 and 2, on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, parodying Orson Welles 'infamous War of the Worlds broadcast with a frenetic, freewheeling skit about an alien invasion, brazenly incorporating snippets of hits by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Bill Haley and about two dozen other musical giants.
REPORTER: Pardon me, madam, would you tell us what would you do if the saucers were to land?
WOMAN ON STREET #1 (Little Richard from "Tutti Frutti"): Jump back in the alley!
REPORTER: Thank you and now this gentleman there…
MAN ON STREET #1 (Fats Domino from "Poor Me"): What I'm going to do/ Is hard to tell.
REPORTER: And the gentleman with the guitar, what would you do?
MAN ON THE STREET #2: (Elvis Presley from "Heartbreak Hotel"): Take a walk down lonely street…
No one had ever done this before. It would be five years before electronic music pioneer James Tenney cut up Elvis Presley's version of "Blue Suede Shoes" on the musique concrete classic, "Collage #1 (Blue Suede)." No doubt about it, Dickie Goodman saw far beyond the curve. He was basically sampling and mashing up hits of the day to concoct manic melanges of sound years before the members of Public Enemy were even born. In the process, he pioneered the fine art of sonic copyright infringement.
Some 17 record labels sued Buchanan and Goodman for poaching their music, but being the wise-ass punks they were, the duo responded with yet another of what they called a "break-in record": "Buchanan and Goodman on Trial," which bit Nat King Cole, Little Richard, Elvis, the Dragnet theme and a bunch of Martians. They got slapped with an injunction, but New York State Supreme Court Judge Henry Clay Greenberg deemed the work a parody and therefore subject to fair use laws; Buchanan and Goodman, the judge opined, "had created a new work."
Buchanan and Goodman soon went their separate ways. Buchanan started a jewelry-importing business but Goodman continued to make break-in records for thirty years. His formula was simple and unvarying: He would act as on-the-spot reporter and his subjects would reply in the form of snippets of current hit songs. The '50s recordings explicitly trade on the complete freakiness of the rock & rollers of the time, making light of the contrast between the pedestrian comments of the prototypical man on the street and the rockers 'banshee-like ravings. It's fitting, then, that Goodman debuted with a piece about Martians — those early rockers really did seem to come from outer space. (And the jury is still out on Little Richard, bless him.)
While he anticipated a key aspect of the future of popular music, Goodman also saw clearly into the present: His oeuvre works as a remarkably comprehensive index of U.S. popular culture that spans virtually the entire Cold War era.
By the late '50s, Americans had become obsessed with flying saucers, ostensibly because of the advent of the space program, although surely the escalating Cold War had led people to transfer their anxieties about invasion and/or nuclear annihilation to space aliens (just as the Japanese personified the A-bomb as Godzilla and other monsters.) The Sputnik launch in 1957 only intensified the situation. Indeed, that embodiment of the capitalist-Christian complex himself, Santa Claus, winds up in "Sputnik jail" on the Soviet-phobic "Santa and the Satellite" (1957), which went Top 40. On "Russian Bandstand" (1959), all the music is backwards, and anyone who doesn't like it gets mowed down by a machine gun.
Amid the escapist mood of the early and mid '60s, Goodman took on cultural phenomena like Beatlemania ("Frankenstein Meets the Beatles"), the massive hit TV western Bonanza ("Schmonanza"), dance crazes ("The Cha-Cha Lesson") and Lawrence Welk ("Stager Lawrence"). But later in that tumultuous decade, politics dominated the nation's collective consciousness and Goodman released topical tracks like "On Campus," about campus unrest, and "Washington Uptight," in which Goodman quizzes 1968's various presidential candidates; California governor Ronald Reagan consistently answers with the chorus line from the middle-of-the-road classic "Windy." On the occasion of the first lunar landing in 1969, Goodman "interviewed" the astronauts in "Luna Trip":
REPORTER: What was the first thing you saw when you set foot on the moon?
NEIL ARMSTRONG (Desmond Dekker): Ohhhh-ho, the Israelites…
Goodman's over-caffeinated Long Island squawk was hardly Cronkite-like, but that was just part of the joke. In Goodman's heyday, journalism and show-biz existed in roughly separate spheres, which is why the humor worked then — and why it doesn't now. It was absurd to think of politicians and journalists in a pop cultural context, but today, presidential appearances are carefully staged media creations, the New York Times covers celebrity feuds and a former morning chat-show host anchors a nightly network newscast.
Things were a lot less fragmented then — we all watched the same sitcoms, movies and nightly news shows; everyone got the reference points and a lot more people followed the news. (Almost twice as many Americans watched the nightly news in the '70s as do now.) Goodman documented the nation's mood during the Nixon and Ford eras with tracks like "Watergrate" [sic], "The Constitution," "Mr. President," "Inflation in the Nation," and "Energy Crisis" (which made it into the Top 40), rarely taking sides, merely weathervaning with popular sentiment. At the same time, he dipped into the blaxploitation movie trend with a couple of his best productions, "Superfly Meets Shaft" (another top 40 hit) and "Soul President Number One."
Goodman kept recording and releasing records for years, and his work always popped up on Top 40 radio or the widely syndicated Dr. Demento show, but nothing made a significant dent in the charts until Goodman jumped the shark. It's hard to convey the obsession America had with Jaws, both as a magnificently scary film and as an unparalleled blockbuster — in the summer of '75, it was all anyone could talk about. Goodman took note, and with James Taylor, the Eagles, the Captain and Tennille, the Bee Gees, and other Bicentennial-era superstars on board, "Mr. Jaws," reached #4 on the pop charts and went gold, his biggest success since "The Flying Saucer" 19 years earlier. The following year, Goodman tried to ride the coattails of another movie monster — the would-be blockbuster remake of King Kong — but "Kong" bombed even worse than the movie. Dickie Goodman never charted again.
I was working at MTV News in late 1989 when a call came in from Goodman's son Jon: Broke and broken-hearted, Dickie had shot himself to death. I don't know which was a bigger shock — that someone so patently goofy could do such a thing to themselves, or the sudden realization that the same guy had made all those records for all those years. It's too bad — not only did Goodman miss out on using Pro Tools and probably never had the satisfaction of hearing sophisticated progeny like Plunderphonics and Negativland, not to mention documenting the fall of the Berlin Wall (just a few days after his death), Seinfeld, the O.J. trial, The Simpsons, the Internet, President Clinton's infidelities, Titanic, or the Iraq fiasco; he also never had the chance to sample hit songs that were composed of samples themselves. I'm not saying Dickie Goodman was a comic genius, but he was a visionary and part of the nation's pop cultural landscape. As another casualty of the American dream once said, "Attention must be paid."