Cult children’s film gets given a makeover thanks to cult bass rockers
When I first heard that Primus was going release a version of Wily Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I didn’t know how to take it. If you’ve never seen Wily Wonka and the Chocolate, first off why not? What did you do with your childhood? Go outside and get exercise? For the 1% of us who haven’t seen it, I’ll briefly outline the story. A boy called Charlie Bucket lives with his parents and his four bedridden grandparents in a shack in an unnamed town. In this town there is a chocolate factory. It’s mysterious as no one goes in and no one comes out (then how do they load up the chocolate, bit of a plot hole for me). Then randomly one day, the owner (Willy Wonka) decides to let five people in. He has placed five golden tickets in five random Wonka-Bars. Panic ensues as the world goes Wonka crazy trying to find the golden tickets. Eventually the five are names, but the last one is a fake. As luck would have it Charlie gets the last golden ticket. For an unknown reason he takes one of his bed ridden grandparents (Grandpa Joe) with him. When they get to the factory Willy Wonka meets them (played by Gene Wilder as his insane best) and the tour begins. One by one the children are eliminated due to their greed and gluttony and Charlie (being good of heart) gets to take over the factory. Right, now we’re up to speed. If you have seen the film you’ll remember all of this and that its one of the most bizarre, freaky, terrifying and brilliant films ever made. What other children’s film has a beheading of a chicken in it?
So how does Primus’ version compare to the original? Quite well in fact. Even to the point that in five versions of the vinyl there are golden tickets that give the finder entrance to Primus gigs for free for the rest of their life. Bassist Les Claypool has kept the feeling of the original soundtrack, yet he has stamped their bass oriented rock all over it. Hello Wonkites kicks the album off. It slowly builds tension through scratchy guitars and echoy bass, whilst incorporating motifs of Pure Imagination (more on that in a bit). The first track from the original soundtrack tackled is Candy Man. What’s striking is that they’ve stripped all the saccharine from it, but what left with still has power and impact, although now I’m thinking of Tony Todd in Candyman, instead of Gene Wilder making sweets. Golden Ticket is the next big track in Primus’ sights. It starts off as a sad lament on how many bad card’s Charlie’s lift has been dealt. The music is downbeat, but then BAM, he’s got Golden Ticket and suddenly life is great! This is classic Primus. Musically they have skewed the perception of what the song should be. Which, let’s face it, the film is about. A boy has nothing, then through sheer chance he has everything.
Pure Imagination is up next. This is subverts the original. Claypool’s bass is the driving force of this song, until the verse and chorus when Larry LaLonde’s guitar playing comes to the fore. It’s somewhere between demented ice-cream van jingle and psychotic fairground march. There are also elements of math-rock in the chorus. Sadly the Oompa-Lumpa tracks are a bit of a letdown, as they seem a bit formulaic and pedestrian, and after the first one you don’t want to hear another one. So I’ll skirt of them for the main course. The Boatride.
Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride is the stand out track on the album (as it is on the original soundtrack). The original is a psychedelic gem. I still don’t know how they got it in the original film. Primus’ version is just as powerful. Tension is engrained through this track. With each echoy bass note the tension if heightened until at the end it reaches its peak and just as quickly as it starts it’s over. Claypool never reaches Wilder’s original insane vocal delivery, but he gets close. The rest of the album follows the formula laid down on the first eight tracks. Closing track Farewell Wonkites closes the album with motifs of Pure Imagination pepper it’s swirling bass maelstrom.
“It’s kind of strange, but it’s fun” is a line Grandpa Joe says to Charlie in the film. This is an apt description of the album as a whole. The album works well and the jokes don’t get boring. Sadly however Claypool’s vocals do grate after a while, but this is a complaint on all Primus releases, not just this album. Ultimately Primus were the perfect band to tackle this album. Since their breakthrough album Sailing on the Seas of Cheese they have been purveyors of surreal, subversive rock, so this is a piece of cake (what? I had to get it in here somewhere) for them. The only downside is after this initial listening binge I don’t know how often it will get played, but that is a problem with all Primus albums.