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Does ‘Primus & the Chocolate Factory’ Earn A Golden Ticket?

“You either get it or you don’t.”

That’s pretty much all there is to say about any Primus album, but my editor probably wants me to string this thing out for a few more paragraphs so bear with me.

I am the perfect audience for ‘Primus & the Chocolate Factory.’ When the original film version of Roald Dahl’s book was released, I was a little boy. Many years later, when a promo copy of Primus’s ‘Frizzle Fry’ landed in my hands, I was a young man. In other words, I was the right age at the right time for both of those pop culture landmarks to hit my radar.

That’s a big part of the magic of art. ‘The Catcher In the Rye’ is a great book at any age, but there’s a window of time when we’re young when it’s the perfect book. Miss that window, and you may be left with a “what’s the big deal” feeling when you finally get around to reading Salinger’s great novel. Music is the same way: There’s a reason every generation’s frat boys love Bob Marley.

So it goes with 1971’s ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.’ The window of opportunity is small to believe that a kid can inherit and run a multinational business, or that winning a contest will get granddad back onto his atrophied legs. But perhaps even more so, one must be just the right age to hear the beauty and weirdness of the film’s songs, written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.

The songs themselves often contain an underlying hint of menace (as does Dahl’s book), but it is the brilliant Gene Wilder who brings them to life. ‘Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride’ was my introduction to psychedelia at an age when I was too young to even pronounce the word:

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I have no doubt that my fondness for surrealist painting, David Lynch, and freak out music all have as their locus ‘Willy Wonka.’ Tim Burton, too, so when 2005’s remake was announced I was over the moon. Johnny Depp? Danny Elfman? Come on!

Maybe I wasn’t the right age for Burton’s version. I remember bits and pieces, but for the most part both the film and Elfman’s music left me cold. The whole thing felt derivative, not so much of the original movie but of the Tim Burton filmography.

The same might be true of Primus’s reimagining of the Bricusse/Newley songs from the original film. Cover songs are a tricky business. The best remakes teach us something about the song that we didn’t already know. Garth Brooks demonstrated that KISS‘ ‘Hard Luck Woman’ is a pretty little country song, for example.

The worst are no more than note for note karaoke retreads that completely miss the point. Celine Dion’s version of the AC/DC classic, ‘You Shook Me All Night Long,’ might be the finest example of this phenomenon.

"They jam these into the meat grinder, and what comes out the other end is undeniably Primus."Primus’s take on ‘Willy Wonka’ is neither of these. Les Claypool and company retain little more than Bricusse’s lyrics, Wilder’s madness, and wisps of Newley’s melodies. They jam these into the meat grinder, and what comes out the other end is undeniably Primus.

Sometimes this works remarkably well, like in their version of ‘Pure Imagination':

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More often, though, so little of the original remains that the songs are unrecognizable. I don’t need a cloying, sugary remake of ‘Candy Man,’ mind you, but virtually nothing remains of that well known song. What we’re served instead is a Primus song with ‘Candy Man’ lyrics. Whether that’s good or bad depends upon your fondness for the band.

Or more specifically, your opinion is dependent upon how you feel about Les Claypool. It’s all here: the virtuoso bass performance, the tongue in cheek vocal delivery, the bouncy beats and noodly weirdness. Inevitably, ‘Primus & the Chocolate Factory,’ like Tim Burton’s film remake, sinks or swims not on the artistic merits of the source material, but rather on the character of its interpreter.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that either you get it or you don’t. If you’re around Claypool’s age and have a fondness for Gene Wilder-flavored madness, you’re probably going to dig this, but if your childhood Willy Wonka starred Johnny Depp, you probably won’t.

Regardless, if you’re a record collector take note: five copies of the album have been printed on gold vinyl. If you find a copy you’ll win free tickets for life, but more importantly you’ll have a true rarity in your stacks:

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Next: Adrian Belew On Frank Zappa, David Bowie — and William Shatner

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