During the 70s the comedy duo of Cheech And Chong came to embody everything that was rampantly hedonistic about the (not so) underground counterculture of sex, drugs and rock & roll - probably with the emphasis on drugs from their perspective. Unashamedly championing, and simultaneously lampooning, the ‘stoner’ and free sex ethos, Cheech And Chong became heroes to a generation of rebellious teens (and undoubtedly a few ageing hippies), though I hasten to add I belonged to neither demographic at that time. Comedy and music, and the combination of both, became the vehicles by which the duo first came to prominence in the U.S. during the early 70s, and their 1973 top 20 hit ‘Basketball Jones’ boasted one of the greatest rosters of backing musicians ever assembled on record.
Canadian born Thomas ‘Tommy’ Chong actually began as a guitarist with the rock band Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers. After relocating to the U.S., Chong was a founding member of the comedy improv troupe City Works, through which he met up with comedian Richard ‘Cheech’ Marin. The pair continued to work together post City Works, and took on the moniker of Cheech And Chong, honing their musical comedy act on the club scene during the late 60s/early 70s. The blissed-out stoner motif became a fan favourite, and soon the on-stage music took a back seat to the duos spaced out, pot induced rants. In the 70s it wasn’t unusual for popular comedy acts to score major label recording deals, and in 1971 Cheech And Chong released their eponymous debut album on Warner Bros. (US#28). The album featured one of the duos best loved (and remembered) sketches ‘Waiting For Dave’, which epitomised their comic personas. The duo had also scored a Christmas hit in 1971 with ‘Santa Claus And His Old Lady’ (US#4), the song returning to the #3 spot over the next two festive seasons.
Later in 1972 Cheech And Chong released the follow up album ‘Big Bambu’ (US#2), produced by Lou Adler, who had worked with the likes of established music artists Sam Cooke, Mamas And Papas, Johnny Rivers and Carole King. The album was packaged to subversively include a bogus giant rolling paper (Doobie Brothers anyone?), and featured the track ‘Sister Mary Elephant’, later released in 1973 as a single (US#24). Some established sketch characters returned from the first album alumnus, and some new one’s were introduced, and Cheech And Chong were fast perfecting their trademark comic formula on record.
Cheech And Chong returned brasher and bolder than ever with the 1973 album ‘Los Cochinos’, their second US#2 album in succession, and scored a Grammy Award for ‘Best Comedy Performance Single or Album’. The usual suspects returned in a new selections of sketches and musical numbers, but the albums highlight was undoubtedly the side splitting ‘Basketball Jones’ (no relation to the author of this blog). In the context of the song title, ‘Jones’ represents a slang term for ‘craving’ or ‘addiction’ The track featured the vocal services of one Tyrone Shoelaces (voiced by Cheech Marin, possibly with hand held firmly on crotch), and was a parody of the 1972 US#16 hit ‘Love Jones’, by Brighter Side Of Darkness. Shoelaces delivers a first person narrative of his love of, nay addiction to, the game of basketball, and boasts about his freakish abilities - “Here I come, that‘s a hookshot with my eyebrow” - my personal favourite. Producer (or is that coach) Lou Adler called on a star studded roster of guest players for the on court production of ‘Basketball Jones’. Cheech And Chong were joined by all-star backing band featuring; George Harrison (guitar), Klaus Voorman (bass), Nicky Hopkins (piano), Billy Preston (organ), Jim Keltner (percussion) - bit of a Beatles connection there - Jim Karsten (drums), Carole King (electric piano), Tom Scott (saxophone), and a squad of cheerleading backing singers called The Blossoms, which included Darlene Love and Michelle Phillips. ’Basketball Jones’ dribbled onto the U.S. charts during September ’73, and scored a game high #15 before year’s end, in the process becoming one of the slam dunk novelty hits of the year. An animated short film was produced as a promotional tool, and captured the songs hilarity perfectly. I can recall seeing a snippet of the animated ‘Basketball Jones’ video in the motion picture ‘Being There’, when the lead character Chancy Gardener (Peter Sellers) was watching a television in the back of a limousine. The legendary Barry White combined with comedian/actor Chris Rock to record a version for the 1996 animated feature ‘Space Jam’.
In 1974 Cheech And Chong notched up their third consecutive U.S. top five album (OZ#18), with ‘Cheech And Chong’s Wedding Album’ (where have I heard that title before?), which spawned the US#9 hit ‘Earache My Eye’ (OZ#26), featuring fictional glam rock star Alice Bowie (a popular Cheech Marin character), but it was one of only a handful of highlights on an album which lacked the comedic inspiration of earlier efforts. The follow up singles ‘Black Lassie’ (US#55) and ‘(How I Spent My Summer Vacation) Or A Day At The Beach With Pedro & Man - Parts I & II’ (US#54) kept Cheech And Chong’s names in the charts over the next year, and in 1976 they released the album ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (US#25/OZ#84). It yielded the US#41 single ‘Framed’, which was a comedic cover of the B-side to Ritchie Valens’ 1958 hit ‘Come On, Let’s Go’. The duos last foray into the singles charts, prior to their foray into motion pictures, came with ‘Bloat On’ (US#41/OZ#78) in late ‘77, credited to Cheech And Chong featuring The Bloaters. It was a parody of the 1977 US#2 hit ‘Float On’ by the Floaters (see future post).
Having conquered the club and recording mediums, Cheech And Chong took the logical step of translating their cult comic appeal to motion pictures. 1978’s ‘Up In Smoke’ became an instant cult classic, and spawned a soundtrack album (US#162/OZ#80). The duo largely focused on their film career over the next few years, and only released one album with 1980’s ‘Let’s Make A New Dope Deal’ (subtlety announcing the album’s predominant theme), which sold in modest numbers (US#173) - I guess most Cheech And Chong fans had spent their well earned at the box office (or on other….err… recreational imperatives).
After a string of formulaic film offerings, Cheech & Chong recorded one final album together in 1985. ‘Get Out Of My Room’ (US#111/OZ#96) featured the minor hit single ‘Born In East L.A.’ (US#48/OZ#53), a parody of the Bruce Springsteen song ‘Born In The U.S.A.’, and a cheeky take on the whole issue of illegal aliens. The song was featured in the 1987 motion picture of the same name, which starred Cheech Marin as a U.S. citizen, born in East L.A., mistakenly charged with being an illegal alien from Mexico.
As the American cultural climate edged toward a more conservative take on things, particularly the issue of illicit drugs, Cheech And Chong’s pot inspired brand of humour became less relevant, and less popular, and following the ‘Get Out Of My Room’ album, the duo went their separate ways. Tommy Chong retreated from the limelight (possibly into a smoke haze), but after a few years on the periphery of popular culture, Cheech Marin returned to prominence during the 90s with a string of acting roles in high profile films, including the Robert Rodriguez classics ‘Desperado’ and ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’. After a period of estrangement of nearly twenty years, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong rekindled their comedic partnership during 2008 with a series of shows, and other creative projects in the pipeline - so to speak.