Chuck Barris: Confessions of a Populist Mind

Steven R Rosen, March 2003

(Steven Rosen talks to self-confessed CIA assassin Chuck Barris – inspiration to George Clooney – about the pop classic he penned back in 1962.)

CHUCK BARRIS’ PAST is an ongoing subject of fascination. For a start, the movie based on his life – the strange, weird Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – is now in theaters.

Adapted by director George Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) from Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography”, it is about Barris’ questionable claims that he secretly killed 33 people for the CIA while leading a very public life as producer of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game and producer/host of the controversial The Gong Show.

Coinciding with the movie, there’s a new CD-audiobook of Confessions, featuring Barris’ own narration. And the press has been filled with speculation as to whether Barris created the prototype for the unscripted, primetime “reality shows” now in such vogue.

Meanwhile, Barris is also getting credit for helping to make the 1960s swing by creating The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. With their bright sets and bouncy music, their young contestants and teasingly humorous sexual banter, they made a huge impact on popular culture. At the same time, they – and especially The Gong Show – angered older adults with their forays into questionable taste and salaciousness.

Barris, now 73 with his voice soft and his hair gray, was plenty willing to talk about his contributions to TV during a recent interview at Beverly Hills’ Peninsula Hotel. He’s coy about the CIA stuff – refusing to confirm or deny it, however.

But he’s most happy – ecstatic actually – when recalling his one-off contribution to rock ‘n’ roll. He wrote Freddy ‘Boom Boom’ Cannon’s 1962 smash ‘Palisades Park’. Explosively giddy, featuring Cannon’s exuberant shouts and the thundering bass-drum noise of the production, the song also had memorable lyrical specificity.

It was alive to the smells, sights and sounds of a thrilling place – the old-fashioned, sexy, teen-oriented amusement park. Indeed, along with the Excellents’ romantic ballad ‘Coney Island Baby’, its emotional flip-side, ‘Palisades Park’ constitutes rock’s greatest recognition of such places. Today, the song not only serves as a tribute to Americana, it has become Americana itself.

“I don’t know if I get any greater pleasure out of any other thing,” Barris says. “When people say to me, ‘Of all the things you created, what do you find the most benefit in,’ I have to say ‘Palisades Park’.’’

How Barris came to write this hit is intrinsically connected to the way the music industry operated at the time. It was an era of teen idols, girl groups and novelty dances. Dick Clark’s Philadelphia-based American Bandstand television show on ABC was the biggest hit-maker – Barris claims one spin on the program equaled 20,000 in sales.

But Clark had been tainted by the payola scandals – he had been forced to get rid of his conflict-of-interest investments in record labels, publishing companies and even a pressing plant. And he had to testify before Congress in 1959. According to Barris, ABC’s method to assure that the Federal Communications Commission would allow Clark’s show to continue was to hire a network on-site monitor the program. He got the job.

“It was ABC’s answer to holding onto him for the FCC: ‘We have a guy watching him, he’s not doing anything underhanded,’’’ Barris recalls. “That was stupid because I watched him from 9-5, but what about from 5 to midnight? But Dick and I had a great rapport because Dick realized I was his lifeline. As long as I was there, he was on the air. The rest of the people at his station thought I was a Benedict Arnold spy.”

During this stint, Barris says, he wrote ‘Palisades Park’. “It was totally apart from anything else, no connection to Dick,” he says. “I sent it out to Freddy, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon and a bunch of those guys. Freddy Cannon put it on the B-side of his record. He knew I was working with Dick, and I think he did it thinking maybe it would get a few points for him. But the song ‘June, July and August’ was supposed to be his hit.”

(Cannon’s label, Swan, had been one of the ones Clark had to sell his interest in. He was a Clark favorite, later having a hit with ‘Action’, the theme from Clark’s Where the Action Is television show.)

“And bam, ‘Palisades’ got the play,’’ Barris recalls. “And then Dick and I were very careful. I was from the network and him from payola, so long after he should have played that song and it had established itself as a hit, he waited – until it was in the Top 20.

“But the network called me in and fired me,” he says. “I begged and begged and begged. I told them television was my career and not music. I can’t even read music. In order to come back, I swore never to write another song. And I didn’t until I was on my own, and then I wrote the theme songs to my shows.”

© Steven R Rosen, 2003

(This has appeared in Rocks Back Pages and the Denver Post)

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