Veteran alt-rockers find safe haven in the kids' music bins
Where do rock stars go when they become too passé (read: old) for the youth market?
The original generation of rockers handled such ego-bruising career setbacks by transitioning their receding hairlines into the more wrinkle-forgiving country genre. It was a move that sustained Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Conway Twitty, Rick Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Elvis Presley, in his bloated final days.
That made sense for rural Southerners raised on country music. But it's hardly a credible move these days for veteran iconoclasts from Greenwich Village or the Chicago suburbs. For them, an increasingly viable strategy is to target the ultimate youth market, music listeners ranging from infants to tots.
In recent years, an under-the-radar movement of hip children's music has formed, finding appreciation from parents who grew up on indie-rock and can't stomach the saccharine sing-alongs of Raffi and other kids-music heavyweights. Ralph's World, a Chicago indie-rocker, merges power-pop craftsmanship with childlike whimsy; They Might Be Giants, alt-rock's most endearing two-headed song machine, have hooked up with Disney Sound to teach the alphabet to toddlers; Mark Mothersbaugh, former frontman of Devo, has composed music for the Rugrats; and Susie Tallman, a former backup singer for Cheap Trick (among others) founded the kids label Rock Me Baby Records in 1999, and has assembled a roster of rock artists eager to harness their inner children.
Ralph Covert, aka Ralph's World, is a prime example of how a baby-boomer pop classicist can become cutting edge when recontextualized into the kids market. The gangly, bespectacled Covert played for years in the Bad Examples, a Windy City band widely admired in their hometown but never able to attain national stardom. In the mid-'90s, two events led him toward the kids-music market. First, his daughter Fiona was born in 1995. The following year, while teaching the basics of songwriting at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, he was asked to take over the school's Wiggleworms class for kids.
"I said, 'No, children's music blows,'" Covert recalls. "But they said I could bring my daughter to class, and I thought, 'Getting paid for play time? I have to do that.'"
A playwright with a natural feel for clever wordplay, Covert co-wrote Bad Examples titles such as "Every Poet Wants to Murder Shakespeare" and "She Smiles Like Richard Nixon." In his children's classes, Covert found that the same rules of craftsmanship he'd relied on with the Bad Examples - minus the sardonicism - also applied to music for kids. "In my songwriting class, I taught the four components: lyrics, music (including melody, chords, and harmony), rhythm, and the emotional center. Those components are the same. You have to be pithier in a kid's song, but the art of pop songwriting is saying what you say with brevity anyway."
Covert's recently released The Amazing Adventures of Kid Astro, his fifth album under the Ralph's World moniker, and it brims with exuberance and sing-along whimsy. The title song, which suggests Ben Folds with a few prog-rock hiccups, sets up an irresistibly droll fantasy scenario: "He was born on a moon of Saturn/an ordinary kid growing up in outer space/then he was hit by a magic comet/you should have seen the look on his parents' face!"
Elsewhere on the album, Covert jangles it up for the power-pop raveup "Fee Fi Fo Fum," gets bluesy on "Dumptruck" and offers a life lesson about the perils of competitive ruthlessness with "Who's The Winner?" One song, the nursery-rhyme-like "Old Man Dan," was actually written by Covert in 1970, when he was 8 years old.
Not every alumnus of 120 Minutes could pull off this sort of thing, and it's unlikely that the likes of Siouxsie Sioux or Nick Cave would attempt it. But you sense that for Covert and They Might Be Giants, it's nearly been a seamless move. In fact, one song on Covert's Kid Astro album, the vaguely psychedelic "Sun In My Eyes," was actually intended for the Bad Examples, until Powers at Mini Fresh convinced him that it worked as a kids song.
"The practice of honing my craft at the highest levels with a rock band has helped me enormously with Ralph's World," he says. "A woman came up to me today and told me that her husband had wanted to do things with the kids, but didn't really know how. The other day, she saw him on the floor, surfing with the kids, with the stereo cranked up and playing `the Ralph's World song` 'Surfin' in My Imagination.' This music has literally brought families together, and that's an awesome thing." •