Going Back To Wellsville: Six Great Musical Moments From The Adventures Of Pete & Pete
Michael Stipe as Sludgesicle-peddling Captain Scrummy.
Like a defiant cannonball splash disturbing the tranquility of an adult swim, the Nickelodeon series The Adventures of Pete & Pete lives on. Over three seasons between 1993 and 1996, the show followed the adventures of two brothers each named Pete Wrigley, their parents, their friends, and the entire population of the fictitious suburban town known as Wellsville.
Barely noticed at the time, the cult of Pete & Pete has slowly gained traction in the intervening years. In tribute to that fact, the original cast reunited in Los Angeles last November for the first time since 1996. It's New York's turn on Friday, when the Bowery Ballroom hosts two shows titled "An Evening With the Cast and Crew of The Adventures of Pete & Pete."
Then, as now, Pete & Pete defied description. It came on like a warped Wonder Years, mixing surreal details and odd plot twists with an unusual, wholesome sweetness. But Pete & Pete truly distinguished itself in at least two ways. First of all, there was the galaxy of guest stars: LL Cool J and Violent Femmes singer Gordon Gano portrayed elementary school teachers; Adam West played the principal; Steve Buscemi showed up as a suburban dad; and Ann Magnuson was a postal carrier.
But perhaps more important was the music. These days, one can hardly watch three commercials without hearing some obscure nugget taken out of context, but that was certainly not the case in 1993. Pete & Pete was among the first longform shows, cable or otherwise, to incorporate indie-rock and underground bands into its very fabric. The long-running Connecticut band Miracle Legion performed the title track under nom de plume Polaris, and provided background music for most episodes. Years before 69 Love Songs cemented Stephin Merritt's place as a renowned songwriter, Pete & Pete used Magnetic Fields and 6ths tracks as bed music. Even the town name "Wellsville" was a deliberate hat tip to Wichita cult heroes The Embarrassment.
In honor of this Friday's reunion, here are six of Pete & Pete's most memorable musical moments. If you didn't score tickets in time to attend, pour yourself a hot cup of Kreb Full O'Nuts coffee and enjoy these clips.
(Disclaimer: I had a hand in suggesting some of the show's background music. However, I didn't work directly on the show itself, nor was I paid for my input.)
1. Little Pete finds a song to call his own (Episode 8, "A Hard Days Pete")
Have you ever left a show amazed by a band you'd never heard of before, only to have forgotten every single song the next day? It's frustrating, as little Pete finds out firsthand in this episode. Riding his bike one day, he stumbles across Polaris practicing in a garage. He is blown away by the song they're playing, the jaunty and energetic "Summerbaby." Pedaling home, he realizes to his horror that he's forgotten it. He spends the rest of the episode trying to bring it back, even putting together a band with his meter man (Marshall Crenshaw) and math teacher (Syd Straw).
2. The Wrigley brothers go crazy to a Kiwibeat soundtrack (Episode 22, "35 Hours"fast forward to 4:19 in the below clip)
The Wrigley parents go out of town, which means it's party time. Rather than prancing around like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, though, Pete and Pete bowl with a frozen turkey, use eggs as golf balls, ski across the lawn with the help of a riding mower, and launch a plastic Santa Claus into the heavens. Narrating this chaos: "Flowers" by Chug, a Flying Nun band featuring ex-members of Look Blue Go Purple, Goblin Mix and King Loser. In addition to being an upbeat, tremolo-heavy song with just the right amount of nervous tension, credit must be given to the show's sound editors for fading the song out just before keyboardist/vocalist Norma O'Malley drops an f-bomb.
3. Everybody hurtseven ice cream men (unnumbered pilot episode, "What We Did on Our Summer Vacation")
It wouldn't be summer in Wellsville without the telltale chimes of Mr. Tastee's ice cream truck. But when the local kids try too hard to crack his cone-shaped, smiley exterior, Tastee vanishes without warning. On the boardwalk, Big Pete encounters Captain Scrummy (Michael Stipe), who rides a white bicycle and looks as if he hasn't washed or shaven for days. In that earnest, serious tone of voice we've come to know over R.E.M.'s three decades, Scrummy reveals the truth: "Why do you think he wears that plastic head all the time? To keep kids like you from asking too many... personal... questions! Don't we carry 49 different flavoriffic flavors, including Pineapple Blurt? What else do you want from us?" Kate Pierson shows up in the same episode. No matching towels spotted on the beach, though.
4. Fat Tulips help bridge the generation gap (Episode #25, "Splashdown")
Big Pete is working as a lifeguard at the Wellsville Pool. He's in line for promotion to Senior Lifeguard. But before he can sit high atop the pool in the Krebstar 2000 Hydro-Thruster (complete with coffeemaker), he has to make sure little Pete stays out during the dreaded Adult Swim session. As this complex combination of generational warfare and workplace sabotage plays out, "So Unbelievable!" by Nottingham indiepop band Fat Tulips. Led by Katy "Sheggi" Clarkson, the Tulips' recordings were among the very finest examples of Talulah Gosh/C86-styled crashpop, while staying nicely irreverent about their place in the music world (once they were photographed burning a Heavenly t-shirt, apparently with Heavenly's approval). "So Unbelievable!" is from Starfish, their only album.
5. Iggy Pop embarrasses his daughter at the school dance... (Episode #26, "Dance Fever")
Of all the many Pete & Pete guest stars, Iggy Pop was arguably the most entertaining. As the father of Nona Mecklenberg (Michelle Trachtenberg), he exuded both paternal concern and Stooges-style mischief. Here, he is chaperoning the school dance. With some encouragement from Wayne Pardu, a.k.a. "Wayne the Pain," he takes the stage, addresses his beloved daughter, and croons a love song with help from backing band Luscious Jackson begging for "one lousy dance." She's mortified, of course, and her friends can't stop cracking up laughing. It doesn't matter whether your dad is Iggy Pop or Don Wrigley: nothing could be more embarrassing.
6. ...but everything works out in the end ("Dance Fever")
As Nona's father finishes beseeching his daughter for a dance, school bully Pitstain greases himself up and speeds across the school floor. He is in hot pursuit of little Pete, who's been afraid to dance the whole night. In the background, "Wonderment" by Washington, D.C. indiepop band Racecar plays. They meet up in the school gym for one final confrontation. Luscious Jackson breaks into "Here," little Pete finds his inner groove, and everyone else joins in (including big Pete, who'd been crushing on LJ's Gabby Glaser all night). It becomes the kind of joyous event that resembles no real school dance in American educational history. It also sums up everything weird and wonderful about The Adventures of Pete & Pete.
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