Perfect Sound Forever


Cult TV classic
By Kembrew McLeod
(September 2006)

Rat puppet? Check. Dancing children, septuagenarians, and twenty-something hipsters? Check. A song performed by Cynthia Plaster Caster, the artist/blow-job-queen who created molds formed by the private parts of 1960's rock stars like Jimi Hendrix? Um, check. In other words, it's the kind of television show that makes you drop your remote control, your jaw, or both.

Unsuspecting channel surfers who stumble across Chic-a-Go-Go, a Chicago-based public access show, are confronted by a head-scratching cast of characters. First, there's an ugly rat puppet paired with a cute human hostess. Next, like in a demented version of American Bandstand, children and adults dance to a genre-smashing array of music by, for instance, indie elder statesmen Fugazi, now-defunct R&B act Destiny's Child, 1960's popsters Beau Brummels, cartoon punkers the Misfits, and the black transvestite pop star RuPaul. Lastly, there are famous and infamous "guest stars" such as Jello Biafra, Cheap Trick, and the aforementioned Cynthia Plaster Caster (her primary claim to fame, appropriately enough, was never explained during her brief stint on this kiddie show).

If MTV stands at one archetypical end of the music television continuum, then the exact opposite of that focus-grouped hellhole has to be Chic-a-Go-Go. Those born after 1980 live in a world where there has never not been an MTV--a sobering concept, indeed. For a decade, Chic-a-Go-Go, which bills itself as "Chicago's Dance Show for Kids of All Ages," has created a kind of alternative-universe-MTV by demolishing traditional notions of audience demographics with a dizzyingly eclectic aesthetic. In each episode, hosts Ratso (a joke-telling rat puppet) and Miss Mia (the human host) rev up the dancers and introduce guest musicians.

Much like on American Bandstand or Soul Train, the visiting artists lip sync to their own records. Artists include alt-country torch singer Kelly Hogan, the all-girl Japanese dada-pop trio Shonen Knife, two-tone ska pioneers the Specials, Funkadelic album cover artist Pedro Bell, 1950s Chicago doo wop legends El Dorados, and, curiously, post-rock noodlers Tortoise, who could not really lip-sync during their appearance... because they only play instrumental music. Between guest acts and the surreal sock hop dancing are pre-taped backstage interviews-conducted by Ratso and Miss Mia-featuring the likes of Vanilla Ice, the Monks, the Cramps, and girl group legends the Shirelles. In one particularly amazing segment, we get to watch an annoyed Ian Mackaye converse with a sock puppet while his Fugazi bandmate Guy Picciotto sends up the group's humorless D.I.Y. reputation by telling the kids to "make your own puppets." It would be an understatement to say that a lot is going on.

However, the real stars of Chic-a-Go-Go are the colorfully dressed dancers of all ethnicities and ages. Among the children dressed in their street clothes were indie rockers in outrageous sunglasses, super-freaks in wigs, and a man in a panda bear costume with fake platinum jewelry and the words "Notorious P.A.N.D.A." inscribed on his chest. "It's a pretty freaky sight," says Miss Mia, a.k.a. Mia Park, 35, a member of the Chicago band Kim. "I don't know anyone who is a lukewarm Chic-a-Go-Go fan. They either think it's really weird and they run away from it or they embrace it to their bosom." One can understand why the costumed hipsters like the show, but what in the hell do the little boys and girls think? There appears to be a universal sentiment amongst the shorties.

"It's really fun and there's lots of good dancers," said Daniel, who was 12 when I interviewed him.

"I like the dancing," mumbled Benjamin, 7, a regular on the show who frequently upstages the adults.

"It's fun!" said Miss Mia, adding, "Life and music are the same thing for me. I'm a musician and a fan and someone who likes to dance."

The cult status of Chic-a-Go-Go makes it a popular stop for touring groups. "Bands really want to talk to Ratso, because tapes of the show are getting around," says Jacqueline Stewart, 36, the show's co-producer and an internationally renowned film scholar at Northwestern University. Stewart's husband, Jake Austen, 37, plays Ratso and co-produces the show. He also does double duty as the publisher of the stellar music zine Roctober and as the vocalist for the spooky, kooky quartet the Goblins. "I'm married to my high school sweetheart, I've been in a rock band for twelve years, and I helped create this TV show. I feel very lucky," says Jake. He goes on to explain the show's appeal for the regular dancers. "College kids, their commitment is more short-lived. The more grizzled thirtysomethings are in it for the long haul. And then there are families with kids. Some kids who still dance, who are teenagers now, they've been dancing since they were infants." A new addition to the cast of dancing babies is Jake and Jackie's daughter, whose first appearance on the show was in 2002, right after she was born.

This interracial couple--a black film scholar at a prestigious Ivy League school and a longhaired white garage rocker--embody the eclecticism of the show, and also the cultural diversity of their hometown of Chicago. Chic-a-Go-Go's origins can be traced to another unique and even more obscure Chicago music television program from the 1960s, Kiddie-a-Go-Go. Jake recalls his first encounter with the show in his 2005 book TV-a-Go-Go, a history of rock 'n' roll on television. "Though the concept seemed simple-kids dance around-the show was mind-blowing," he writes. "Elaine (as Pandora, the mod harlequin) led a hootenanny that was raw, ridiculous, and sublimely surreal. The editing and camerawork were as instinctual, imperfect, and dynamic as the best garage rock."

Soon after watching a dubbed videotape of Kiddie-a-Go-Go, the couple started Chic-a-Go-Go in 1996. "Jackie and I were always interested in dance shows. We were very fascinated with them," said Jake, noting that Soul Train was originally a local Chicago-based show before it went into national syndication. Given that, it's not surprising that one long-running segment is "the El Train line," a take-off of "the Soul Train line," where dancers get to show off their acrobatic moves and groovy threads. "We wanted to make our dance music show really Chicago-centered," said Jake. "Chicago has a really rich heritage, but much of it isn't really appreciated outside of the city." On each of the fifty-two shows that will lead up to the show's tenth anniversary episode, Chic-a-Go-Go will present one award to a Chicago music legend. "Some of the awards will be given posthumously," says Jake. "We're going to make the whole year special."

As you might imagine, writing a story about the world's weirdest music television show lands one in quite odd situations, like talking to rat puppets and members of Cheap Trick. "Do you see yourself as a role model to children and rats?" I asked Ratso, who speaks in a high pitched squeak. "Aaawwww, well, you know, I'm just out here doin' my thing," said the rat puppet, mocking the clichés spouted by rap and rock stars. "I'm not any kind of role model. If the kids wanna look at what I do, they could choose a worse rat, ya know whut I'm sayin'? I get good grades and practice my lines and tell good jokes, and most of all, I love the kids. I'm just doin' it for the kids."

Speaking with Cheap Trick's Rick Nielson about his band's appearance on the show, he recalled, "They had wigs and there's a really excited host and a puppet, too." When I emailed Mr. Nielson a follow-up question asking him to compare Chic-a-Go-Go to another program, he replied, simply, "It's like nothing else I've ever seen."

"What being on non-commercial television allows us to do is actually 'broadcast,' which you can't do on broadcast TV. A dance show on commercial TV would be 'narrowcast,' aimed at only a single demographic," says Jake, discussing the importance of public access television at a time when massive conglomerates dominate global media systems. Also, by producing the show in the cable access studios, they interact with a wide range of people. "I've crewed on Haitian Bahai shows, Muslim talk shows, and an all-black vampire drama, and all those producers have crewed on our show," Jake says. "The Internet is not the same as television," Jake reminds us. "If you're flipping through the TV, people can see at least a nanosecond of you. And if your nanosecond looks good enough, they'll stop. You might see a guy hosting a talk show with a turban, or a Christian puppet show. Even people with radical politics who have no voice otherwise get a chance to be heard on cable access."

"I've done many things in my life," Jake Austen writes in TV-a-Go-Go, "but few have been as satisfying as getting Robo from [seminal punk band] Black Flag to tell the kids, 'School is cool,' having the Shirelles sing "Happy Birthday" to my puppet, or watching the members of Cheap Trick flirt with a rat made from an old sock."

Sample Song List From An Episode:

Jerry Butler, "I'm Goin' Left"
Stereolab, "Les Yper-Sound"
Bernie Worrell, "Woo Together"
Beau Brummels, "Still In Love With You"
RuPaul, "Shady Shady"
Yello, "Oh Yeah"
Prince, "Kiss"
Shadows Of Knight, "Let It Rock"
Alvin Cash, "No Deposit No Return"
Missy Elliott, "Get Ur Freak On"
Janet Jackson, "Someone to Call My Lover"
James Brown, "Funky Men"

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