Original Off-Broadway Cast, National Lampoon's Lemmings (Blue Thumb, 1973; Decca Records, 2002)

"Lemmings is a satirical joke-rock mock-concert musical-comedy semi-revue theatrical presentation, or none of the above." -- CD Liner Notes

Back when the National Lampoon was still a comic force to be reckoned with -- before National Lampoon's Last Resort, ...Senior Trip, ...Van Wilder, and other instantly forgettable titles soiled a once instantly recognizable and trusted brand name; even back when there was still a magazine called the National Lampoon -- they attracted the best comic talent available, many of whom went on to later stardom. Above the National Lampoon Radio Hour, and albums like That's Not Funny, That's Sick... (though classics in their own right), one National Lampoon product stands out as a legendary example of how talent and zeitgeist can combine to produce a timeless piece of satire.

National Lampoon's Lemmings is a parody of the Woodstock Festival. It takes the "peace, love, and music" idea and adds "mass suicide" to it. Half a million youth, gathered together on a farm in New York for the "Woodchuck Festival of Peace, Love, and Death" to commit mass suicide, an act that draws respect from "Farmer Yasser," who posits that this action of protest is "probably the best goddamn thing ever happened to this country" and that he, for one, is willing to ignore their differences because "long hair, short hair, what the hell's the difference once the head's blowed off?"

Mocking the seemingly interminable announcements given throughout the festival, John Belushi constantly interrupts the proceedings to make announcements of his own -- making particular note of such famous moments as the "brown acid" warning and the "rain chant." It helps to be familiar with the source in order to get some of the more pointed humor, but other sequences like "the All-Star Dead Band" can be enjoyed by anyone with a sense of humor and a basic knowledge of dead musicians, real and rumored.

Lemmings stars such future luminaries (Saturday Night Live would not see its debut for two more years) as Belushi and Chevy Chase -- two names that would become synonymous with the "National Lampoon" moniker through their film work on Animal House and the Vacation series, respectively -- as well as Christopher Guest, who has become the poster boy for parody and satire through his work on the "mockumentaries" This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. Also on hand are respected but less famous names like Tony Hendra (best known as the manager in Spinal Tap), Gary Goodrow, and Alice Playten.

Fans of Guest's newer work will appreciate that his talent for copying musical styles was already in full bloom during his work on Lemmings, responsible for co-writing half the songs in the show and delivering terrific impressions of Bob Dylan in "Positively Wall Street," James Taylor in "Highway Toes" -- where one can hear the tenor that he would later use as one of the Folksmen -- and, in a throwaway gag, Richie Havens, who is shot before he is allowed to become intelligible.

Chase puts in a deft turn as a John Denver-type in the darkly hilarious "Colorado," as well as a terrific though mildly anachronistic Altamont Hell's Angel riff. We are also treated to an early appearance of John Belushi's Joe Cocker impression during "Lonely at the Bottom," a song (co-written by Belushi) so loving in its mockery that it could easily have found its way to radio.

Not only real artists are mocked, however. Lemmings finds room for a couple of archetypes, as well. "Goldie Oldie" (Playten) announces that she and her group, the Oldies, are "going to play a medley of my hit for you" then segues into "Pizza Man," a 1950s "death rock" song along the lines of "Leader of the Pack" -- only more descriptive. Later, the "Motown Manifestos" deliver a musical rendering of Marx and Engels with their tune, "Papa Was a Running-Dog Lackey of the Bourgeoisie," a primer of eastern European politics that you can dance to. (The proletariat raise their heads at the beginning in the form of the supergroup "Freud, Marx, Engels, and Jung" who sing the "Lemmings Lament.")

And for those who are still alive at the end of the concert, there's a performance by Megadeath (not the modern day heavy metal band; they leave out the second "a"), about which a "Megagroupie" proselytizes that "pure rock sound can kill" and recommends putting your head right next to the amplifier.

This is a fitting end to an incisive satire of a period in time that is burned into our collective consciousness, an event that has created its own reality, its own mythology. Those who feel strongly about it will not be offended by this album, but will simply recognize the attention to detail that went into making this comic portrait of something that was once taken very seriously, and perhaps should be remembered affectionately, but that also was overdramatic enough to rate being made fun of. Lemmings is that portrait, done with care. That is why, like its forbear, it stands the test of time.


[Craig Clarke]