From the liner notes to Dance Sing and Listen Again (1963):
THIS RECORDING IS A TOTAL EXPERIENCE. It exposes your child to controlled body movement, provides a stimulus for imagination and creativity, and presents a range of though, music and sound from things medieval through today's electronics. NOTHING LIKE IT HAS EXISTED BEFORE!
The above is pretty much correct. While album liner notes are often full of boasting or unfounded statements, Bruce and Esther were doing something special, and they knew it. Here's my overview of their recordings (hint for the impatient: the part about the weirder records is further down the page).
The first three Dance Sing and Listen records run the gamut of topics and styles. The self-explanatory "Clap your hands" and the square-dancing piece "Children's Hoe-down" have the listener doing basic physical activities, but then there are more imaginative pieces like "Shadows", where the listener is instructed to pretend that he is his own shadow, winding and curling around trees and getting larger as the sun sets, or "Clocks", where the listener pretends to be a cuckoo clock, a grandfather clock and an "invisible clock" (?). There are also regular stories where activity isn't expected, such as "Coco the Coconut", about a coconut looking for a tree to live in, or "Fireworks", about life in ancient China. There are silly songs too: try to imagine what "Eine Kleine Gebouncemusik" sounds like, or ponder the chorus "No matter where I am-burger/There's nothing like a hamburger" from "The Hamburger Song". There are songs based on medieval music, and also songs with excerpts of classical music, both with spoken introductions giving a brief music history lesson, or definitions of musical terms.
If you are familiar with the work of Perrey and Kingsley, you'll have a good idea of what to expect from Bruce's music. It's very uptempo, full of unusual sound effects, blips, sudden stops and other playful elements. I have never found reference to Bruce using an actual Moog on these records (although he did use one on The Electric Lucifer), but a lot of the sounds seem like they could have been made with a Moog. These records never have the dreaded Casio or Yamaha DX7 sounds that one often finds on electronic children's records; in fact, Bruce's music is generally much more sophisticated than you would think would be possible from using electronic instruments and computers in 1963.
All three Dance Sing and Listen records were released in 1963 and are imaginative and unique, but not quite FAR OUT. Their 1968 release, The Way Out Record for Children (perhaps a reference to Perrey and Kingsley's groundbreaking The In Sound From Way Out?) has that peculiar liner note that refers to "reverse psychedelics" and being "turned on", but the record itself is stylistically similar to the previous three. However, the next record, The Electronic Record for Children (1969) and 1972's Dance to the Music are so far out there that it is tempting to attribute the differences between them and the previous records to pharmaceutical experimentation on the part of their creators. I have no idea whether this is actually the case; Bruce and Esther could have very well been straight-edge and never touched anything mind-expanding. However, these two records advocate the same kind of inner-awareness and cosmic exploration that are typically associated with LSD trips in the popular imagination. Whatever the case is, these two records are really wonderful, and really bizarre.
Of all the Dimension 5 releases, The Electronic Record for Children has the most psychedelic cover, featuring a naked man and woman surrounded by 7 naked children, with a large sphere (perhaps it represents "Spaceship Earth") behind them with the title of the record on it. Orbiting the sphere are two children in spacesuits, and two children naked except for space helmets and backpacks. The cover was drawn by Chris Kachulis, who also sings on some of the record and has a wonderfully sedate and almost spooky voice (I wish he was on other records; his songs are really cool). You know this record is going to be different when you hear the spoken introduction on side 1:
Miss Nelson, do you dig being a traveler in space?
Miss Nelson: Groovy, Bruce! From here we can see everything. Look, over there is a meteor shower! And isn't that somebody standing on a small asteroid?
Bruce: Yeah, it's Chris, and he's rapping with some children. Let's listen....
The record has some of my favorite songs on it, including "Dance" (a Russian-inspired dance piece with sped-up Chipmunk voices), "Listen", a Chris song that starts with spooky overlaid whispers and has great stereo separation effects, "Saint Basil", where we visit the Planet of Singing Mice (?) and hear a Greek children's chorus singing to this Doors-like organ piece, and "Upside Down", a poignant and somewhat somber pop song about childhood. Throughout the record, there are little echoes, reverbs and background noises that seem designed to reward the careful (or entranced) listener with a more mind-expanding experience.
The only problem with this record is that the cassette version of it that is available now has some huge differences in song choices from the LP version, which (in my opinion) makes for a lesser record. However, the other really wild record, 1972's Dance to the Music is the same on its cassette release, and well worth ordering.
Dance to the Music is my favorite of all the Dimension 5 records, maybe because it's the first one I heard, or maybe because of the amazing songs on it. Although there are a few LPs from this time period I haven't yet heard (and they could be even better than this one), to me, this is Bruce and Esther at their peak. "When the music's over" (no relation to the Doors song) is their version of Musical Chairs, instructing the listener to do some activity when the frenetic music stops. There's a great instrumental part at the end with various giggles and laughs and yeehaws when the music stops. You cannot help but smile when you hear this song. "Squarefinger" is a square dance for your hands, with perky music and bubble machine sound effects. "EIO" is a cover of sorts; the chorus is "Old MacDonald had a form", introduced by the statement that "your form results from the way your genetic programming programs you"."Soul Transportation" is quite simply, Bruce and Esther taking you on a guide through your inner space. If you were going to make a record instructing someone in the art of taking a trip without psychedelics, and what they might expect to see along the way, this is pretty close to what you'd come up with. I've listened to this song several dozen times and it still astounds me. This song alone makes this record worth your time.
I have now (October 1998) acquired a copy of Together (1971), which is not quite as psychedelic as Dance to the Music or The Electronic Record for Children; nor is it really as oriented towards activities and storytelling as the three Dance Sing and Listen records.What it is is a fine pop record, with a lot of moments that seem like they were originally written for a "rock" record. Assuming that it was recorded after Bruce's 1970 solo album Electric Lucifer (which I don't know, I'm just guessing from the date sequence), that would make some sense. For some reason, Bruce released this LP (and no others) under the name "Jackpine Savage".
Esther's vocal participation on this one is limited: a few introductions where she instructs the listener "when the music stops, be the sound you hear" (on "Abracadabra") or to "take out crayons and paper and draw what you hear" (on "Colors") and big parts on "O.K Robot" and "Touch". On "O.K Robot", she and Bruce give a robot commands, and it responds with nifty sound effects, with the song finally segueing into a square-dance number.
"Touch" is my favorite song on this record, not only for the lyrics, but for the great driving dance beat which is just waiting to be sampled and looped by some "electronica" musician for a dance track. "Touch" is the only traditional children's activity song on this LP,with touching activities in both the spoken introduction and the chorus.There's a great part In the middle of the song where Esther says "Sit on the floor, cross your legs, put your hands on your knees, close your eyes and Do Not Think" (keep in mind that one of Esther's biographical sketches reveals that one of her hobbies is yoga) and then the music stops. There's 18 seconds of absolute silence before the sound resumes with the command "Now start thinking, get up, and touch things while you dance".
Science fiction themes and pop culture references pop up more on this record than any of the others I've heard. "Rain of Earth" has an introduction which tells of "Children who 'set their controls for the heart of the sun'", referring to Pink Floyd's song of the same name on 1968's "Saucerful of Secrets"."Colors" includes a lyric about "the King who was Crimson", (like the band, I'm assuming) and "O.K Robot" has the line "Send our regards to HAL 9000" (remember, 2001 was released only 3 years before in 1968).
This record is missing two usual elements: first, there are very few children's voices on this LP. During "Intermission" a young girl shies away from saying much into a microphone, and "Outermission" was composed by one of the children who appear on other records, but it has no vocals or lyrics. Also, there is no classical interlude from Praxiteles Pandel, although he is credited as being a musical consultant for this LP. Although this LP isn't available on cassette, it's worth hearing if you can track down a copy.
The only record I have heard besides the 7 discussed above is 1976's Ebenezer Electric. This is a basic retelling of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, except for at least two instances when it turns into a children's activity record, with instructions from Esther. Although it's on Dimension 5, this one is more Bruce's project than Esther's; the credits are for Bruce and Ted (aka Praxiteles) Pandel, with Esther being more of a "featured player". This record is good, and it does include a nice booklet in case your theater group should want to stage it, but somehow it just doesn't achieve the imagination of the other records (maybe because of the basic restrictions of the source material?). Although it is really good for a Christmas record, so that may be enough.
Bruce's last record was 1981's "Bite", which I have never heard, but is listed in an "International Discography of the New Wave" that I found in the library. The only description of it says that 49-year old Bruce played synthesizers on it and teamed up with a 13-year old vocalist named Ed Harvey. I have heard that it's an "angry" record, which may explain why it's listed in a punk discography and why no libraries in the US seem to have it even though Bruce's other works are fairly well represented.
Bruce Haack died in 1988 from heart failure, having had a history of previous heart problems. I am still attempting to locate an official obituary, which I will post when I find.
Esther Nelson continued the Dimension 5 label, and in 1986, started a series of cassettes featuring nonsense and camp songs for children, with Praxiteles Pandel doing the music. These feature a lot of the material in Esther's books of songs for children. I'm not going to say much about these cassettes or Esther's books because neither are where my primary interest lies. Suffice to say these songbook cassettes are not as interesting as the earlier stuff, mainly because they're just covers of old nonsense classics like "On Top of Spaghetti" and "Great Green Gobs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts"; they aren't bad, but they aren't thought-provoking or unusual; they're just wacky. Esther's books are primarily for teachers, librarians and parents and feature either songs for children, or songs and movement activities for children. It's been a while since I've looked through them, but I remember that her books from the 1970's have some of the activities and stories from the early records in them. They are an excellent resource for people who work with children, but I don't really have anything else to say about them.
Intrigued by this summary? Then check out my discography. Or you can just look at the album covers.
This page updated Nov. 22, 1998 by lara7.