Beyond the Fringe

05.05.22

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Invariably we start the show with some quote from the Firesign Theatre. By we I mean Frank Radice, who has a seemingly endless warehouse of Firesign references for every occasion. I was lucky to know and interact with the group, but was not as well-versed as many others in their work. What attracted me was the confluence of their many influences, the improvisational feel of their recordings, and the internal recording process they commandeered to derive that feel with complex overdubbing and tightly scripted performances by the four-man group. Of course, it was reminiscent of the titans of the time—Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, and the rest—who wrote, recorded, and performed their own material. To many of us, the Firesign were the Beatles of comedy. For me, the Beatles were the Firesign of music.

The two groups intersected through the early career of Beatle producer George Martin, who ran the Parlophone specialty label under the EMI umbrella. Martin had an early success with several groups of comedians, most canonically the Goons of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan fame, and the Monty Python forerunners of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore ‘s Beyond The Fringe troupe. Iconically, the crowd and applause reactions in Sgt. Pepper come from live recordings of the Fringe that Martin appropriated for the transition to Ringo’s Little Help from My Friends track. When the band first met Martin after their EMI audition, George Harrison cracked a joke about the straitlaced older producer’s tie that paved the way for Martin’s signing the ragged foursome and triggering the replacement of the drummer with Ringo.

In today’s topsy turvy reshuffling of tech stocks and work-from-anywhere, the prospective deal for Elon Musk buying Twitter private has a similar feel to that moment in the mid-sixties when the artists appeared to be taking over the asylum. Spike Milligan would check out of a mental hospital to write the next script for the BBC’s weekly Goon Show, then check himself right back in. When David Geffen formed his own label for Warner Brothers, he named it Asylum Records. Wall Street has never been too sold on Twitter, and the free-ranging Musk presents all sorts of wild cards. It’s not so much who’s in charge but who to charge.

Musk has made much (several tweets and a pitch deck to raise funds for the buyout) of transitioning from advertising to subscriptions. What would that look like, you ask? One clue is Twitter’s acquisition of its Revue newsletter tool, which competes with Substack for a cut of writing and now podcasting and eventually video product housed behind a paywall. As mainstream media becomes a grab bag of You’ve used your last free view for the month and various strategies to lure us into subscribing, streaming television is doing the same thing to mainstream cable. The big hit on Netflix earnings as they showed signs of running out of new subscribers was the first of many signals in the market correction with tech stocks showed signs of being deFANGed. And yet, Musk and a mix of old and new VC money seem to be gathering steam.

Fans and foes alike of Musk’s moves are unsure of how this will turn out, just as fears of a major market rout are only as far away as the next day of trading. But certain truths seem to become evident as the battle for success moves from the initial Twitter experiment to the more moderating influence of newer meteors like TikTok entering the gate. The more scaremongering there is about Musk’s flinty personality, the more his once-unlikely successes continue to neutralize the pushback. And the idea that he could ruin Twitter? He should get in line. Frank, time for a Firesign quote? Our forefathers took drugs, they intoned in Everything You Know Is Wrong.

I wouldn’t bet against Musk, the Street seems to be saying. Even though I was thrilled that Trump was banned from the platform, does restoring his privileges do much more than validate his waning power. Reality has a tendency to wear down the fear of the future, and it also gives new blood the opportunity to rise to the occasion.


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