Listen to our Fictional Bands playlist
I knew about the Monkees before I knew who the Beatles were. As a child of the 1970s, the television was my babysitter. This was widely accepted in an era that predated helicopter parenting and water-filled juice boxes. Back then, it was pretty easy to dig the Monkees. They were four funny guys who sang catchy songs, and their syndicated reruns played twice a day on one of only 10 available TV channels.
Then, one fateful day, my neighbor Donnie Fursman’s older brother Doug offered some playground wisdom: the Monkees weren’t a real band. They were prefabricated by TV producers to cash in on Beatlemania. His assertion knocked the wind out of me, like when I found out Santa Claus didn’t exist. It was a dark realization that also invited the shadow of doubt to ask: what about the Partridge Family? Or the Brady Bunch? At first I was sad to learn that they, too, were prefab bands. But thankfully, I was raised on pop music – I tend to care more about what’s entertaining than what’s legit. So it didn’t take long to start obsessing about other prefab bands as well as fictional bands (including cartoon groups like Gorillaz or the Archies) and how much of their music was written by nonfictional songwriters.
Years later, I would discover that the Banana Splits’ 1968 LP contained songs penned by Barry White, Gene Pitney and Al Kooper. Both the Monkees and Partridge Family had the Wrecking Crew playing on their recordings. The Monkees eventually wrote some of their own songs, but did you know that Neil Diamond penned their hit “I’m A Believer?” They also had help from such songwriting luminaries as Carole King, Harry Nilsson, Michael Martin Murphy, Frank Zappa, Barry Mann, Pete Seeger, Neil Sedaka and Paul Williams. It turns out Williams wrote many real songs for a lot of fake bands, including the Muppets, the Phantom Of The Paradise soundtrack and Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in A Star Is Born. I actually saw him open for Kristofferson in San Francisco, and it was amazing. He told hilarious stories about being too drunk to work with Muppets and played some of the songs he wrote for our felt and foam friends, like “The Rainbow Connection.” Actual songwriters’ contributions to fictional artists are pretty normalized now — the television series Nashville wouldn’t have succeeded without T Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller’s work, not to mention the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who penned “Bitter Memory” for actress Connie Britton’s character Rayna Jaymes.
While curating the Fictional Bands playlist on Pandora, I realized there are a lot of songs that are unavailable, either because the soundtracks don’t exist or because a lot of fake bands use real, complicated licensing. So while Diane Lane’s 1982 punk band the Stains are as glaringly absent as the Barbusters (Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett’s 1987 silver screen rock band) and Lenny and the Squigtones, we do have some gems to share. Eddie and the Cruisers made the cut, as did Mary Rose Foster, a Janis Joplin-inspired character played by Bette Midler in the 1979 film The Rose. And let’s not forget cartoons who make music, like Belzebubs, Dethklok and the Soronprfbs. We also have more rootsy selections by other movie bands like the Blues Brothers, the Soggy Bottom Boys and Jeff Bridges’ character Bad Blake from 2009’s Crazy Heart. And of course, we had to throw in fake bands that lampoon real bands: the Rutles, Spinal Tap and the great Dewey Cox.