Monday, May 5, 2008

My childhood: Agapeland

I was killing time in Walmart when I just happened to see it: a 2-CD set in a tin of The Music Machine and its sequel (not the third one, though) for just ten dollars. So I bought it. I want to say it's for the nostalgia value, but the thing is, I never listened to the Music Machine albums before. Oh, I was familiar with the set-up. I had almost all the Agapeland videos when I was a kid, and I had the cassettes of Nathaniel the Grublet and the Music Machine Club album (which is not the same, mind you), plus I'd seen the animated versions (The Music Machine and Benny's Biggest Battle) and had a couple of the Character Builder book and tape sets. In fact, what really made me buy the CD set was that it promised a bonus DVD with four of the Character Builder stories on it. This turned out to be a LIE. It was a completely different DVD from somebody else's childhood (The Amazing Book related. I was never into that series). I contacted the company about this, but they haven't gotten back to me. Also, the images used on the tin and CDs and booklet are from the animated version, which features characters that don't appear on the albums at all.

And because I seem to be incapable of taking in any media these days without getting the urge to write up a synopsis for it (with sprinklings of commentary), here are volumes one and two of The Music Machine.
Note: The discs from this set are in the opposite order. Disc One is actually Volume Two, and vice versa. But I'm going in chronological order. Just so you know.

The Music Machine: The Fruit of the Spirit (from 1977!)
The album starts off with a longish instrumental intro to the first song "A Land Called Love." The song, once it gets going, is pretty slow and lullaby-ish. I really wouldn't have started off with such a slow song, but it is rather pretty in the bridge. Once the song ends, Stevie and Nancy, the two kids synonymous with Agapeland, have their first appearance, wondering where the heck they are. They have no clue how they got there, but they like what they see. With a magical twinkle, Mr. Conductor arrives (note that he actually introduces himself as The Conductor), apparently out of nowhere. He already knows Stevie and Nancy, and tells them they're in Agapeland. He fences their questions on where Agapeland is and what he does ("I do a lot of things"), but fortunately, the kids are quickly distracted by the titular machine itself, leading to the titular introduction song, of course, which starts off with a bit of music I recognize from the trailer for the Agapeland Home Videos, so it's kind of weird to have it not continue as I remember it. The song itself is fairly uptempo, and it wins me over by the musicalizations in the second verse, although the middle section could be left out. I also remember the kazoo part at the end as being the ending of the Agapeland Home Video Trailer, so it's nice to finally know where that comes from.
Although he just explained in song, Mr. Conductor explains again: put something in the Music Machine and it'll play a song about it. To demonstrate, he puts in his whistle and the Music Machine starts making noise. Now, that middle section of the previous song mentioned the sounds that the Music Machine makes before starting a song as "whir whir chuka chuka bomp bomp psst." I thought that was just onomatopoeia, but no, the sounds the machine makes are actually a bunch of voices saying those words set to a high pitch and slightly mechanized. The song that comes out, "The Whistle Song" features both fifes and whistling, and lists all the things, animate and inanimate, that whistle, and posits that they're singing songs of praise. It's actually kind of jazzy, in a kids' chorus kind of way.
All the songs on the two albums are sung by either the kids' chorus, random soloists (both kids and adults), Mr. Conductor, or some combination thereof, by the way. After the song, Stevie notes that the whistle came back out of the machine, and Nancy wishes she had something to put in. Mr. Conductor tells her to smile into the machine's slot, and sure enough, a song about Smiles comes out. This is the most kiddy sounding of all the songs, really, and feels slightly offtune to me, but I think it's supposed to be, in a carousel wurlitzer style.
Nancy loved her song, but Stevie is quick to put something in himself: a piece of string, which inspires a madrigal about the things string can and can't do (fix a friendship, for example). Since the machine has suddenly turned educational, Mr. Conductor proposes that they put in a verse from the Bible to see what songs come out. He means Galatians 5:19-23, which is about the Fruit of the Spirit. Nancy misinterprets this as real fruit, so he lists a few off to clarify. And then the verse is put in, and the machine just about breaks down from the sound of it. The first song starts, and then there's a crash. Guess the machine really did break. No, wait, that's just part of the song. The first song is "Patience (Herbert the Snail)," which is the one everyone remembers, from what I've seen online. Probably because the chorus vocals are slowed way down, which kind of annoys me now, but I'm sure if I were a kid would be hilarious.
There's no break between the first and next song, "Gentleness" (which is the longest song, btw), one of the random soloists plus kids chorus songs. Very soft and gentle, naturally, although the examples of gentleness seem more like peace to me. After that song, Nancy declares she understands about the fruit thing now (although I don't really get how, since the songs haven't really been talking about applying them to your life or anything, just what each one is). And Stevie makes a terrible joke which everyone laughs at, but I'll forgive them, since the kids are just kids after all, and Mr. Conductor is obviously just pity-laughing. Mr. Conductor gets the machine going again, and there's a rousing number about Faith that I wish was longer, even though the lyrics are pretty much the same thing over and over.
The next song, "Joy" is all calypso and apparently sung by a teens' chorus (that's the nearest I can figure, anyway). There's a bit of a pointless interlude between this song and the next, "Peace," where a kid soloist sings of the things that bring peace in a child's life, which is immediately followed by a country-western song about Goodness that merely talks about random things that are good and expects this to show why we should be good. The next song, "Love," starts with a funky kind of intro before turning into a twangy duet. After this, the kids take a break to enumerate which Fruits there have been songs about (seven) and Mr. Conductor informs them that there are two more to go, so the machine gets going once more with a song about Self-Control. Now, in my youth, I did see the book that accompanied the record of this album, basically the lyrics with illustrations. The only one I remember was the pictures for this song, which freaked me out something terrible back then. Thinking on it now, I just feel bad for Stevie, since the illustrations (as I recall anyway) showed the bad things that happened to him from lack of self-control, even though the singer is a random adult. The last song, "Kindness," is one of the more interesting ones, as it plays out as a Caribbean lullaby, basically stating that kindness begets kindness. It's also the second-longest song, with more instrumentals than the others.
Once the last song is over, Mr. Conductor basically just sends Stevie and Nancy away, and they don't even protest! I mean, they mysteriously ended up in this amazing place and all they did was listen to some songs, and now they have to go without seeing hardly anything! Besides, don't the kids in that kind of situation (mysteriously in a strange place, I mean) usually say things like "Do we have to?" when it's time to leave? Anyway, they say their goodbyes and fade away (their voices do anyway), and Mr. Conductor states, "They'll be back." As a cynical adult, I'd like to imagine him saying this darkly, under his breath, almost a threat. Before we can consider the implications of his statement, a reprise of the titular introduction song starts up from the kazoo part, ending the album. The whole thing is a little over thirty minutes, by the way.
Songs that get stuck in my head: The Whistle Song, Music Machine, Patience (such an earworm!)
You can actually see the pages from the booklet that came with the record here, courtesy of the only Agapeland fansite.

The next album didn't come out until 1983, six years later. This one won a Grammy and a Dove award, which is pretty cool. I also like it a little better than the first album because it reveals that Mr. Conductor is kind of, well, adorkable, if you know what I mean. I probably won't do justice to this in the synopsis, because it's all in the little things.

The Music Machine: All About Love
Like the first album, this one starts with a slow song, "When Love Lives in Your Heart," but unlike the first album, after the first verse and chorus, Stevie and Nancy arrive, remarking on how they are somehow in Agapeland again, and they go off in search of the Music Machine to find out where the song is coming from. (BTW, the random adult soloist has an annoying way of singing.)
Stevie and Nancy easily spot Mr. Conductor working on the Music Machine. They want to help, but Mr. Conductor says he's just doing "a little work," prompting Nancy to ask what's wrong with the machine. Mr. Conductor tells her, "Well, nothing really," in a tone that indicates (to me) that something is wrong, and he's just covering up by saying he's giving it a tune-up. The Music Machine springs to life and plays a song about tune-ups of its own volition. Twangy guitars feature heavily here. By the end of the song, Mr. Conductor is ready to test the machine, but the kids want to be the ones to put something in. Stevie and Nancy confer, and decide to ask the Music Machine a question. Mr. Conductor has no objections, so they proceed: What's the most wonderful, spectacular, colossal, super, fantastic, stupendous thing in all Agapeland? While the Music Machine does its thing (you know, the whirs and all that), Stevie and Nancy hypothesize about what the answer will be, but the song that comes out ("The Greatest Thing of All") shoots down all their ideas quite specifically and instead says that the greatest thing is Love. Which makes sense, since that's what Agapeland is named for. This song is very fun-sounding with a driving backbeat.
Stevie wants to know why the answer was Love, so Mr. Conductor informs him that God Is Love. Suddenly, the Music Machine starts up on its own again, causing Mr. Conductor to proclaim, "I thought I fixed that!" which proves what I said earlier. This song ("Love Never Fails") is my favorite from this album, even though the lyrics are not the greatest. But the actual music gets me every time. It's kind of odd, but there's a lot of the things I love, like clarinets and oboes, plus the random adult soloist sounds good, which is a plus.
After the song, the Music Machine tries to play another song, but shuts down completely. Mr. Conductor insists it isn't broken, it just needs some "adjustments." So he tinkers a little and a song comes out ("Glad to be Me"), sung by a random kid soloist with a terrible twangy accent, all about how animals don't want to be like other animals, so we should be glad to be ourselves. The Music Machine keeps going, with a strange country western duet about things that go together (some choices are questionable, such as "Like a yankee and a doodle") to illustrate that "I Was Made For Love."
Stevie and Nancy take all these songs as signs that the Music Machine is good as new, and remark on how they're learning a lot about love, when suddenly strange noises come from all directions. And then there's a noticeable break where it must have been time to turn over the record. Mr. Conductor reveals that the sounds are Sloops, but when the kids ask what the heck Sloops are, he answers with a not very revealing song that mostly names a lot of random things that Sloops are made of (Stevie and Nancy's favorite things, apparently), and the most important part is love. While talking about the Sloops (colorful, carrying flowers), Stevie and Nancy start slipping into a twangy accent for no apparent reason. The Sloops introduce themselves: they all have names that start with B, although whether this is actually Bea (Stevie later asks why they all have the same first name) or B. (Mr. Conductor refers to them as the B family) isn't really clear. Most of their names are standard puns (Be Kind, Be Patient), but they do throw in a couple of nonstandard ones as well (Be Haves and Be Lieves). Nancy asks the Sloops to put something in the Music Machine, and B. Humble is the first to come up. With Mr. Conductor's permission, he puts in his flower, and a song about a Humble Bumblebee comes out, sung by another random kid soloist who is only partially comprehensible. The fast clip of the song doesn't help, either.
Stevie wonders if there are more Sloops out there, and Mr. Conductor tells him that there are indeed, but the ones they're with now are all reminders of what love is supposed to be like. To that end, he invites B. Faithful to put one of her flowers in the Music Machine. The "I Love You" song is another random kid soloist song, a prayer listing all the things she loves, especially God. Mr. Conductor starts to explain the song, but B. Patient interrupts him, asking "What about Herbert the snail?" Unable to elaborate, Mr. Conductor has to translate: do the kids remember Herbert the snail? To prove they do, Stevie and Nancy sing a snippet of the song from the previous album. Satisfied, Mr. Conductor calls forth a new song about Herbert ("Love Waits a Long, Long Time") and his mother (obviously a man doing a fake falsetto), which is catchy in its own, kinda smarmy, way.
With that song out of the way, the other Sloops crowd around Mr. Conductor, each wanting to put their flower in the slot. So Mr. Conductor suggests having everyone put their flowers in all at once, since the Music Machine is working again, just to see what'll happen. I get the feeling that this is how the Music Machine broke in the first place. The Sloops cheer, toss in their flowers, and from the sounds the machine makes, it nearly breaks again, and when a very twangy country western song comes out, I'm not so sure it didn't break. The song ("Everybody Needs a Lot of Love") states the things you can't do to love, but we still need it. It also includes the unfortunate couplet: "You can't mop it like a floor/Can't stop it like a door/You can't keep it like a horse in a stall," with the word "horse" drawn out so that it sounds like something else before the end kicks in. This song leads immediately into another, "I Love You, Lord Jesus," with the kids' chorus.
After those two songs, Stevie and Nancy once again remark that they've learned a lot about love, and Mr. Conductor reminds them not to forget, since it'll come in handy soon. But he refuses to explain what he means by this. Instead, he tells them it's time to go home, and distracts them with a reprise of "The Greatest Thing of All." During the song, Stevie and Nancy find themselves leaving Agapeland (I want to know exactly what's going on. Are they teleporting, being lifted in the air, or what?), and they wish everyone goodbye as a reprise of "When Love Lives in Your Heart" by an adult chorus (and the random adult soloist) swells and closes the album.
Songs that get stuck in my head: The Greatest Thing of All, Love Never Fails, I Was Made for Love, Everybody Needs a Lot of Love.

All in all, these albums are pretty cute, and the songs are very apt to get stuck in your head. Don't be too surprised if you see some other Agapeland-related stuff pop up here or on Youtube, now that my nostalgia's been piqued...
By the way, here's Love Never Fails.


Esther said...

I remember this series too. Oh the memories... though I did only see Nathaniel the Grublet growing up, I remember wanting to see the others as well.

C.TWICH said...

I have recently come across one of my favorite books when I was little, "Learn More about Love, The Broken Jewel" I would love to share this story and songs with my daughter but I no longer have the cassette. Do you happen to have one or know someone who does? They don't sell them as books anymore unfortunately.