Graded on a Curve:
Ohio Express, Yummy Yummy Yummy: The Best of the Ohio Express

When it comes to the shams, scams, and sleight-of-hands that categorized mid- to late sixties bubblegum music, there are few better examples than the Ohio Express. Chewing gum songsmith for hire Joey Levine wrote and sang most of the hits backed by studio musicians, while a band of ringers (whose name was changed not by them but by Buddah Records and Super K Productions’ legendary producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz) were shanghaied into bang-shang-a-langing the songs on the bubblegum concert circuit.

As Becky Ebencamp notes in Will the Real Ohio Express Please Stand Up?, Levine and the guys who played live and appeared on the album covers rarely crossed paths. And there was hardly a ruse Special K wouldn’t stoop to—the Ohio Express’ first single “Beg Borrow & Steal” wasn’t a cover of fellow Special K act the Rare Breed’s song of the same name—it was the exact same recording, with the Ohio Express’ moniker slapped on it.

These shenanigans carried risks—the touring members of the Ohio Express once found themselves before a paying audience shouting out for “Chewy Chew”—a song no one at Special K had bothered to tell the band existed. This left the boys with no recourse but to flee stage left, lest they die in a storm of Chiclets. Compared to the Ohio Express, The Archies were the real thing.

The Ohio Express has long been derided for making candy-coated music for the monkey bars set. Going the kiddie pop route was a canny move on Buddah Records’ part—they were amongst the first music labels to tap into the playground demographic. The downside was that no one over the age of ten took the Ohio Express seriously. Which is too bad, because had they overlooked the children’s sing-song rhymes, they’d have discovered the makings of a very good garage rock band.

The evidence lies on 2011’s Yummy Yummy Yummy: The Best of Ohio Express. The opening riff and snotty vocals of “Yummy Yummy” are slathered in garage floor motor oil, while the lascivious vocals on “Chewy Chewy” seemed aimed less at ten-year-olds than their 16-year-old sisters.

And the Ohio Express can’t even be bothered to hide the horny slobber on “1 2 3 Red Light,” a great expression of frustrated go all the way that conflates the classic baseball metaphor with a stop right there traffic signal. This baby’s so cool the Talking Heads covered it during their CBGB days, although an asexual David Byrne may well have missed the song’s filthy connotations. Nor did most parents of the era, who had they paused to reflect on to the song’s sexual implications they would have picketed the local record store for corrupting minors.

But I’ve saved the best for last. The first is the Sweet-like glam/punk amalgam “Quick Joey Small,” a triple time run from the law with panic attack drums, female backing singers, and nasal vocals laying out the storyline—Joey goes over the prison wall, chain, striped suit and all and makes for the highway, pursued by the sheriff, shotgun and blackjack at the ready. Both Slaughter & the Dogs and The Bosstones have covered “Quick Joey Small,” but their versions don’t come close to capturing the original’s light on its feet bounce and spit snot vocals.

The oddest—and most brilliant—of the songs on the compilation seem to have come out of nowhere—I can’t discover a single thing about who created them and when. Suffice it to say they prove the Ohio Express were as good as the best of the garage rock bands of the period. “Yummy Yummy (Garage Mix)” is the original played at warp speed with a guitar that is pure menace, while the “garage mix” of “Down at Lulu’s” is the Ramones with a radio DJ and barking dog tossed in. Both are sheer joys to listen to, and some mystery person out there deserves to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The remaining songs on the LP are a confusing dog’s breakfast of mediocre tunes. Most are live versions of Ohio Express hits and lackluster covers recorded long—perhaps decades—after Levine flew the coop to write advertising jingles, leaving one of the world’s greatest ever kiddie rock bands to play the oldies circuit (how ironic is that?).

The worst track is a disco version of “Simon Says (Put Your Hands in the Air”). Coming in at second place is a cover of Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” that somehow manages to be worse than the original. Third place goes to the band’s second-rate cover of second-rate English glam band Mud’s second-rate “Lonely This Christmas.” And some of the compilation’s songs aren’t much better.

There’s no denying the Ohio Express were a cog in the Chewing Gum Industrial Complex, but that shouldn’t stop us from imagining what might have been. The proof lies in their cover of The Standells’ “Try It,” which is inexplicably omitted from the compilation. The Ohio Express’ version beats the Standells’ hands down, drenched as it is in freaky organ and fuzz guitar. And the Ohio Express could play oiled-up funk as well as demonstrated on “Jacksonville Station,” another song you won’t find on the comp. Your pre-pubescent kid sister’s gain was your loss, even if “1 2 3 Red Light” was the first song to put dirty ideas in her head.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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