This was the album that was my introduction to The Firesign Theatre. On the emphatic recommendation of my friend Dan, who somehow knew about things other high schoolers did not (perhaps because of a brace of older siblings?), I dug deep and paid full price for a comedy album. Not only that, but I paid it at a record store I hardly ever visited, in the spring of my high school senior year, 1978.
There used to be quite a lot of seemingly exotic stores that advertised heavily on the local radio stations — exotic because they were in far-flung locations like Albany and Troy that at that point in my life I seldom got to visit. For years, I heard ads for the Nite Owl News in Troy that made it seem almost mythical in my mind (turns out: it was a newsstand. A big one, but still). There were various music, stereo and record stores that advertised constantly that I would likely never visit, like Just-A-Song in Albany, or the Music Shack in Albany and Troy. When you’re 17, those places may as well have been on the moon. Going to Wolf Road to get dinner at The Cranberry Bog (somehow considered the height of affordable sophistication) or see a movie at the Fox Colonie was about as far out of town as we got in high school. The idea of driving to Albany to go to a record store — well, why would you? Still, they seemed like exotic destinations, and the constant references to them on the radio seemed like a tease.
One place that was a little more in reach was called Drome Sound. Drome was (and is) much more of a musical equipment and lessons store, but back then they also carried records and stereo equipment. And I think the only reason I remember having bought this album there so vividly is that it was the only time I went there. This was in the early days of car-based independence. I had my license, and had frequent use of my mother’s car, a ’71 Pontiac Ventura, and in those days when you’re just getting to know how to even get around, little exploratory drives are part of the adventure. And so one of those little exploratory drives was out to Drome Sound, a place I wanted to check out and which I thought I knew how to get to, roughly. (Hey kids, in the old days, you really had to plan out your route ahead of time, using paper maps. If you got lost along the way, you had to stop the car and try to get your bearings.) Indeed, I did find my way. I recall that their record selection wasn’t huge, but it was a bit eclectic. it was here that I picked up two comedy albums I had not seen anywhere else: “Rutland Weekend Television,” a brilliant work by Eric Idle and Neil Innes that received no attention in the US whatsoever, and this Firesign Theatre record.
I had at that point only the slightest sense of what Firesign was about; I believe I had read the Nick Danger script or part thereof, and I think I thought I was in for a parody of radio drama. No. Not this time, anyway.
This is the story of a computer hacker (this is from 1971, remember) named “uh, Clem” who goes on a visit to a Future Fair (“a fair for all, and no fair to anybody”). He meets holograms and gets on a bus to the fair with a bozo. The fair, a very Disneyesque affair, has exhibits on the history of the world, the development of science, model government and an animatronic President Nixon. Clem hacks into the computer system (“Doctor Memory”) to ask it the riddle, “Why does the porridge bird lay his egg in the air?” The second time this is asked, it causes the computer to completely crash trying to solve the riddle. Then it turns out the whole thing may be nothing but a vision conjured by a fortune teller.
As a kid who had just taken his first computer programming courses, I was more than a little stunned to hear some very real phrases from early programming incorporated into the dialogue — many of them were commands from the DEC PDP-10, which was the time-sharing computer our high school had access to certain afternoons of the week, through a paper tape reader and a modem that cradled a telephone handset. That there was someone out there (several years earlier, in fact) who not only knew what that language was but had incorporated it into a very realistic comedy scenario was mind-blowing. That they were already making fun of a world that didn’t really exist (but which would!) in 1971 should boggle everyone’s mind.
And there are so many quotes from this that never leave my head:
“The Future Fair! A fair for all, and no fair to anybody”
“Go, squeeze the wheeze! Many people like to.”
“You know, my ma always said, ‘You gotta start young if you’re gonna stick it out.’”
“I must go where the bozos go.”
“Yes, some uncomplicated peoples still believe this myth. But here, in the technical vastness of the Future, we can guess that surely the Past was very different.”
“In the late Devouring Period, fish became obnoxious.”
“Together, we made enough noise to keep the wolves awake!”
“It comes in and goes out like anything!”
“I say live it, or live with it!”
“Sure, understanding today’s complex world of the Future is a little like having bees live in your head.”
“Well, Mr. President, where can I get a job?”
“Hey, Paolo! He broke the president!”
“You have violated Robot’s Rules of Order, and will be asked to leave the Future immediately. Thank you.”
(Oh, if you have Apple’s Siri, tell it “This is worker speaking. Hello.” You’ll get a Firesign Theatre Easter egg. Then ask it “Why does the porridge bird lay his egg in the air?”)
I listened to this endlessly that spring and summer, and pretty much all the time after that. I quickly picked up the albums I’ve already mentioned, tried to create converts of everyone I knew. I would implore people: if you think Monty Python is great, you must listen to Firesign Theatre. (This was before everyone knew who Monty Python was, by the way. They were still very much a fringe thing in 1978.) Somehow, I still have only one copy, that first one I bought, whereas I have multiples of several of their others because it just seems like the thing to do.