Tim Burton, it turns out, was the wrong eccentric visionary to take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His 2005 film adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl children’s book left a sour taste in the mouths of viewers who snacked so voraciously on David L. Wolper’s 1971 version, starring Gene Wilder as outlandish confectioner Willy Wonka. One of those viewers was a seven-year-old Les Claypool, whose love of the original film probably had something to do with his own development into the mad, musical genius behind Primus. Ask Claypool for his opinion about Burton’s botched remake, and he doesn’t pull any punches in the accompanying press release: “[It’s] just unwatchable, and believe me, I’ve tried … Even my kids hated it.”
An eccentric visionary in his own right, Claypool wasn’t about to let Burton have the last word on Wonka. And so, at a New Year’s Eve performance at Oakland’s Fox Theater earlier this year, Primus performed the 1971 film’s soundtrack in its entirety, even going as far as selling original chocolate candies (care for a Bastard Bar, anyone?) and inviting bona fide Oompa Loompas to dance on stage. The whole occasion could hardly have been more Primus, with Claypool — dressed, of course, in purple waistcoat and brown top hat — at the center of it all, slowly realizing that he might be on to something here.
For anyone who attended that show or has followed Primus at all throughout their 30 years of existence, the parallels between the band and Wonka’s chocolate factory are as easy to spot as a shiny golden ticket. You hardly need to peel back the wrapping. Dating back to some of the earliest Primus shows, Claypool has been fond of quoting Gene Wilder’s line from the magical boat ride: “There’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going.” The line doubles as a sort of mission statement for the band, whose perma-stoned sound has oscillated from punk to funk to thrash to stoner metal to jazz in seemingly haphazard fashion over the years. Wherever they decide to go next, theirs will likely be the first footprints on the path.
The band’s latest direction is a proper studio recording of their Willy Wonka-themed set, entitled Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble. The album expands upon their New Year’s show and stars the definitive Primus lineup — Claypool, guitarist Larry LaLonde, and drummer Tim Alexander — on their first full-length album together in nearly two decades. Also appearing are the aforementioned Fungi Ensemble, consisting of longtime Claypool cohorts Sam Bass on cello and Mike Dillon on marimba and percussion. Having the band’s classic lineup together instills the proceedings with a dose of playful, absurdist energy that was somewhat missing on 2011’s Green Naugahyde. But it’s Bass and Dillon who really fill out the empty spaces, helping Primus sound more like an orchestra (albeit the strangest one you’ve ever heard) than three guys getting high and goofing off at Claypool’s Rancho Relaxo studio.
If you have a strong opinion about the original soundtrack to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, now would be the appropriate time to throw it away like the crinkly husk of a candy wrapper. This iteration, while using the same lyrics and roughly the same song structures, is its own beast — and a frightening one at that. If, as a child, you stayed home from school one day with a high fever, chugged six plastic caps of cough medicine, and watched the film in a sweaty, half-drugged stupor, you might have heard something resembling the songs on this record.
For those of you who missed out on that seminal experience, Primus offers an introduction to their state of mind with the album’s menacing opener, “Hello Wonkites”. Claypool’s bass plods along with the mechanical threat of a ceiling fan in a cold interrogation room, and LaLonde’s guitar slides only heighten the tension. This is clearly not your father’s Chocolate Factory — but then again, maybe it is. Roald Dahl was known for injecting his children’s books with a genuine sense of darkness and morbidity, two elements largely missing from Wolper’s film. Dahl apparently hated the adaptation, and though Claypool is an unabashed admirer, perhaps this is his way of doing right by the author.
The album’s next song, a twisted take on the beloved “Candy Man”, is similarly creepy. It’s also absolutely hilarious, transforming a perfectly innocent tune into the stuff of nightmares. Here, the “candy man” is more serial killer than confectioner; any sensible child would want nothing to do with this man “Who could take a sunrise/ Sprinkle it in dew / [and] Cover it in chocolate or a miracle or two.” When Claypool adopts an extra-sleazy voice for the line “He makes the world taste good,” he’s taking such obvious pleasure in his vision that you almost have to laugh along. This zaniness carries over to “Cheer Up, Charlie”, where his Kermit the Frog-esque impression of Diana Sowle falls somewhere between insufferable and inspired.
The album’s middle third is likely where it will win and lose the most fans. “Golden Ticket” marches along to a wildly funky bass line, and “Pure Imagination” stands out as the track that best incorporates the darkness and whimsy into something resembling a unified aesthetic. Both songs rank among the album’s best, but they’re also self-indulgent to a fault and will quickly wear thin on the listener who isn’t accustomed to the band’s normal antics. Ditto for the not one, not two, not three, but four variations of the “Oompa Loompa” theme song that litter the album’s second half. Sure, all four appeared at various points in the film, but they grow extremely tiresome when experienced so closely to one another.
But these criticisms are almost beside the point. One of the most refreshing things about Primus is their tendency to do whatever the hell they want, and that’s on glorious display here. Primus & the Chocolate Factory plays like one of Claypool’s many passion projects. It’s entitled to live by its own convoluted logic. Unlike Burton’s, Claypool’s vision is uncompromising and unwilling to pander to the camp-loving masses, even if it’s destined to win their wholehearted approval. And if it doesn’t? Well, there’s always the candy bar business to fall back on.
Essential Tracks: “Candy Man”, “Golden Ticket”, and “Pure Imagination”