"Box of Danger" - A Review by Phil Fountain



...it all came rushing back like a hot kiss on the end of a wet fist..."
                           ---Nick Danger, Third Eye

I was just a sprout, growing up at the foot of Mt. Baldy on the fringe of the vast Southern California desert when I first heard it. It was late at night and blinking lights, shimmering power lines and the hot, white glow of not-so-distant Los Angeles was the view from my suburban neighborhood. In those days most families like mine ate dinner and huddled around the glowing blue TV until the stupor forced you and your numbed-out brain to bed. It was in those hours, when I should have been sleeping, that I entered a wonderful, alternate world -- just by turning on my radio.

In the mid-1960's Los Angeles radio was king. Southern Californians lived in "Boss City" where new rock and roll, soul and jazz mingled on the dial. Wolfman Jack howled from his border blasting XERB in Mexico with the raunchy, nasty Rhythm and Blues that L.A.'s FCC wonked AM stations were afraid to play. Vin Scully filled summer evenings with melodious accounts of Dodgers baseball on KFWB while the Real Don Steele, B. Mitchell Reed and Lloyd Thaxton spun Top 40 discs for us kids on stations like KRLA and KHJ. I lived within sight of Pomona's KWOW antenna where beer-fueled C&W played from a little cinderblock building next to the Southern Pacific's infinite railroad tracks.

Into this mix of hot-rod Kar Kulture, surf guitar, Sting-Ray bicycles and the oppressive teen angst that was my world in 1966-67, I happened upon a midnight airing of a show called Radio Free Oz , that if memory serves, was broadcast from a real or imagined Sunset Strip club, The Magic Mushroom on KFWB (I think). What I heard was "The Wizard" holding court over the weirdest onslaught of puns, non-sequiters, deranged word play and dissident humor that my little white boy ears had ever glommed onto. I was amazed, titillated and a little confused by what I was hearing, but I knew it was intelligent (a rarity on radio in those days), witty, cerebral, stoned-out, surreal, but most of all -- it was outrageously funny. I couldn't get enough.

Soon, the "Underground Radio" phenomena started springing up on the still relatively obscure FM dial. Stations like KPPC, out of Pasadena, and KPFK began airing long, uninterrupted blocks of music (album cuts!) interspersed with mellow, paisley-tinged DJ patter and no (or at least very few) commercials. The format was still considered "experimental" and daring in those early years. Listeners were likely to tune in and hear anything from Mozart to Frank Zappa to Lord Buckley. Radio was now becoming ultra-cool and the airwaves in SoCal were being dominated by The Freaks.

Around 1969 or early 1970, the weirdness I had first experienced on Radio Free Oz had found a home on KPPC. Live, improvisational comedy that is best described as The Goon Show, Spike Milligan, Lenny Bruce, Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg and The Marx Brothers all riffing on really good acid. Brilliant off-the-cuff parodies of late-night L.A. TV mixed in with stream of consciousness word play, counter-culture references and a budding parallel universe inhabited by Shakespearean thespians, bozos and used-car salesmen. Not to mention the take-offs on old movies and familiar Baby Boomer icons. This troupe of incredibly gifted voice actors (and superb writers) held down their time slot billed as The Firesign Theatre.

Legend has it that the moniker "Firesign Theatre" was used because all of the group members, Phil Austin (Aires), Philip Proctor (Leo), Peter Bergman and David Ossman (both Sagittarians) were born under astrological "fire signs". As with most of the Firesign Theatre's bits, the name worked on several levels. There had been a Jane Wyman TV show called "Fireside Theater" and, of course, it was a play on FDR's famous "Fireside Chats" (the World War II era America being the stage for many of FST's most brilliant pieces). It wasn't long before Columbia Records took notice and signed the 4 or 5 Crazy Guys to a record deal. (The group maintains that when the four of them get together, a 5th member of the group emerges from the individuals and makes them the FST, a magical transformation that only occurs when they are in each other's presence).

If The Beatles captured the 60's spirit and were the generation's de-facto kings, then the Firesign Theatre were the court jesters. Their humor came in at the end of Lenny Bruce's run (and his life) when George Carlin was still in a suit playing Vegas and well before Cheech & Chong's one-dimensional doper shtick (not that I didn't enjoy Cheech & Chong). What The Beatles were to music, the Firesign Theatre were to comedy. They were experimental sound magicians and maestros of the studio while also being totally hip, literate and hilarious. Like the Beatles, they were light years ahead of anything anyone else were doing. They also spawned their share of imitators (Ace Trucking Company, Duck Breath Theater, et al) and set the stage for clever, youth oriented, irreverent comedy enterprises like the National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live.

The group made ten albums for Columbia between 1968 and 1976, all of them little sonic masterpieces. From their first release, Waiting For the Electrician, Or Someone Like Him, to the present day, their canon plays like one continuous piece with a million little side trips, aural tromp l'oeuil vignettes, spot-on parodies, subplots and unforgettable characters. Foremost among their recurring inventions is the hard-boiled private detective, Nick Danger, Third Eye.

Nick Danger made his debut on FST's second album, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All, as a side-long radio play, "From the Archives of The Original Firesign Theatre Radio Hour. As First Broadcast December 6, 1941. Rebroadcast Courtesy Of Loostners Bros. Soap Co." complete with sound effects, commercials and a slew of Beatles' White Album references. It was brilliant.

Phil Austin gave voice to the lead role of the Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillaine-ish hard bitten detective (only not quite as bright) while Philip Proctor played the Peter Lorre inspired Rocky Rococo (yep, a play on both the Beatles' Rocky Raccoon and the ornate Rococo period of 18th century French art). Peter Bergman was both Nick's nemesis on the police force, Lt. Bradshaw, and his love interest "Nancy" (as in "everyone knew her as Nancy"). The butler, Catherwood, was ably voiced by David Ossman. The troupe maintained, more or less, the same characters over dozens of additional "episodes" like "The Case of the Missing Shoe" and "The Three Faces of Al", all of which comprise the four-disc anthology, Box of Danger: The Complete Nick Danger Casebook.

In addition to the complete officially released episodes, the box set contains a veritable gold mine of more obscure installments done over the course of the group's on-again, off-again career. It's in these lesser known pieces that legions of "Fireheads" will revel in finally hearing and makes this release a must for any self-respecting Seeker to own.

During their four decade career, the Firesigns managed to create an entire alternate, surreal world filled with insight into our own. They wrote prophetic pieces that foretold of the coming cable television, internet dependent environment while staying true to the great legacy of American humor that dates back to the days of Mark Twain successfully bridging two worlds, the real one and the one built from imagination and the absurd. When these worlds meet, mingle and intertwine it gives us a new, truer perspective on the so-called "reality" we find ourselves encumbered with. When we see the world through this funhouse mirror, we laugh. There are a lot of laughs in this Box of Danger. I suggest you put your feet up by the cellophane and dry out with the 4 or 5 Crazy Guys and their most enduring character, Nick Danger, Third Eye.

COURTESY OF PHIL FOUNTAIN