10 August, 1979
When the film Americathon premiered, the opening sequence featured a clip of President Jimmy Carter giving a speech regarding an energy crisis. Narrator George Carlin then broke in, saying, “when America finally ran out of gas, an angry mob broke into the White House and lynched him.”
So began a zany yet prophetic movie set in 1998. The scene setting opening song, It’s A Beautiful Day, was performed by The Beach Boys, who, the audience is informed, have been at the top for forty years. “Roller skating, joggin’ or fancy bike,” it beamed, “you can get around most anyway you like.” With sunshine-sharp harmonies, the lyrics looked to a time when the USA had no oil left, people lived in cars rather than drove them and bikes and roller-skates were the only way of getting around.
The film, bizarre beyond belief yet accurate in several of its predictions, stemmed from the minds of Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman of Los Angeles’ experimental comedy ensemble (and Goon Show admirers) Firesign Theatre. Bergman had already won his place in rock history: he’d coined the word “love-in” in 1967, and ran the first such event in Los Angeles that year, when some 65,000 people turned up and turned on, and traffic blocked the freeways for miles.
Gary Usher, then Columbia Records staff producer, was so impressed that he offered Firesign Theatre their first recording contract. LPs including Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers (1970) and Not Insane (1972) followed, and in 1978 their play Americathon became a stage show. Soon after, director Neal Israel set about turning Proctor and Bergman’s satirical infant into a fully-fledged cinematic offering, one boasting a cast that included John Ritter, Harvey Korman, Peter Riegert, Cybil Shepherd, Zane Buzby, Jay Leno and Meat Loaf. Israel was on a high at the time, having just scripted Ringo Starr’s 1978 TV Special, a programme that not only featured Ringo as himself plus his fictional brother Ognir Rrats but also George Harrison, Vincent Price, Carrie Fisher and Dr John, plus music director Jimmy Webb.
“If you plan to miss this movie, better miss it quickly; I doubt if it’ll be around to miss for long.”
But, as far as Americathon was concerned, things didn’t quite work out - Proctor and Bergman soon bowed out, leaving other screen writers to reshape much of their original plot. A plot, such as it was, which involved the US President, having already sold off the White House and living in a condo named The Western White House, opting to run a non-stop 30-day telethon in order to pay 400 billion dollars and stave off foreclosure by billionaire Sam Birdwater (played by Chief Dan George) who’s in control of the National Indian Knitting Enterprise, otherwise known as NIKE.
Among the acts signed to save America were Oklahoma Daredevil, Roy Budnitz (Meat Loaf), who bravely jousts with the last working car in the land. For his part, Larry ‘Poopy Butt’ Miller (Jay Leno) fights his own mother in the boxing ring, while by satellite from ‘Limeyland’, where 10 Downing Street has become Thatcher’s Disco, there’s a sequence featuring the Earl of Manchester (Elvis Costello) singing Crawling To America to small crowd.
When the dust had settled, Columbia released a soundtrack album featuring The Beach Boys, Costello, Nick Lowe, Eddie Money and musical director Tom Scott. But few boasted about their participation. Jay Leno later told the Boston Globe: “It was so terrible I had to leave the theatre,” while John Ritter revealed to Hollywood columnist Marilyn Beck: “When I saw it, I remember smiling during the opening credits, then the smile faded and pretty soon my mouth was down to my chin.” The critics also pilloried the wayward project, the late Roger Ebert advising, ”If you plan to miss this movie, better miss it quickly; I doubt if it’ll be around to miss for long.”
So spare a thought for a film in which the main opponents eventually settled their differences and move to Vietnam to create a religion based around the songs of Donna Summer – and which, it should be remembered, forecast China becoming a capitalistic global force, the US tottering on the edge of bankruptcy, and NIKE becoming an international conglomerate. A glass should also be raised to one Ted Coombs, who roller-skated across the whole USA and back to promote the movie and gain a place in the Guinness Book Of Records.