Turtle Power! Bart Rules! Cowabunga! Ay Caramba! Mention the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Simpsons in the same breath on any grade school playground today, and you're likely to spark the most spirited "Who's cooler?" duel since the Monkees versus the Beatles. Rat Fink versus the Trolls. Goofy Grape versus Rootin' Tootin' Raspberry.
No kid stands on the fence in this debate. It's black and white--or rather, green and orange. Every moppet's either nutty for the Ninjas or bonkers over Bart. And they wear their favorites proudly on their sleeves. Not to mention their lunch boxes, their watches, their combs, their key chains, their shoelaces, their socks . . . Is it any surprise that the two cartoon competitors would eventually record their own rock albums? Released within mere weeks of each other, the Turtles' MCA debut Coming Out of Their Shells and the Geffen release The Simpsons Sing the Blues are now neck-and-neck on the playground playlists, blaring combatively from cranked-up My First Sonys. Suddenly, the Turtles and the Simpsons aren't just colorful graphics and goofy voices. They're bona-fide rock stars. Heck, with sales topping the $3 million mark, the Turtles have already moved more records than Wilson Phillips and Bell Biv DeVoe combined. And Bart Simpson's made the cover of Rolling Stone and the heavy-rotation charts on MTV.
All that's left for each set of characters to do is take on living physical forms and go out on tour.
Alas--and send the kids out of the room for this part--neither the Turtles nor the Simpsons are real. The Simpsons, admits their publicist Linda Brown, cannot conduct an interview without a conference call hookup between their creators and voice actors. They need to know the questions in advance so that suitably witty repartee can be developed. Plus, they require at least two pots of coffee. And forget booking them into Madison Square Garden. Their animated likenesses make for lousy human-size costumes, as witnessed by their less-than-credible Ice Capades appearance last summer.
And the Turtles?
Whoa! Cowabunga, dude! The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are real--or so insists their record company. And to prove it, four characters looking very much like the live-action, Jim Henson-designed creations from the blockbuster movie have taken to the road on a full-scale forty-city concert tour, signing autographs for bug-eyed believers and doing Oprah.
"You gotta understand something," says Raphael, the "cool but rude" Turtle over the telephone from a pizza-strewn hotel room somewhere in Baltimore, Maryland. "Those Simpson guys are cartoons. We're real. I mean, has Bart Simpson ever called you on the phone? Are you gonna go see him live onstage? There you go, dude. Those are characters that are cartoons, and that's the extent of their existence. We are, like, living, breathing, happening mutant turtles that have cartoons fashioned after us."
What's more, insists Raphael, unlike some of today's pop artists, the Turtles really sing and play their own instruments onstage despite the rather obvious handicap of being equipped with only three fingers per hand. "Donatello [the `science nerd'] took care of that problem," Raphael quickly retorts. "He adapted instruments specifically for our own requirements. Like Michaelangelo, he's got a three-string guitar. You know, he tunes it to an open E and he can bar chord."
The green giants staunchly deny the rumors that their music is either prerecorded or performed by real musicians hidden from the audience on their elaborate stage. They prefer to credit the state-of-the-art technology of Donatello's gizmos for their slick studio sound.
"What happens is, like, Michaelangelo's guitar goes through a special amplifier that will modulate it and make it sound just like a regular guitar," Raphael explains. "I don't play a lot of saxophone in the show, 'cause I do a lot of singing. So I play mostly percussion. I got stuff like this little Octa-Pad, which is a kind of remote-control drum kit. And I can go any place on the stage and still trigger my drum kit offstage. It's totally cool!"
AND TOTALLY BELIEVABLE, at least to most of the kids in their audience. These are, after all, the same tykes who swallowed Milli Vanilli's act--and weren't all that outraged when the news came out that the dynamic duo was artificially produced. Adult rock fans may bemoan the lack of any real, honest-to-goodness, non-lip-synching performers for their kids to fawn over today, but their offspring aren't fazed by the phoniness. Instead, they're happily scooping up cassettes by a growing number of characters who seem to be leaping right off the Toys R Us shelves into the recording studios. Besides the Turtles and the Simpsons discs, there's also the California Raisins, who've been making hit records since 1987. And then there's the reunited Chipmunks, who recently celebrated their 25th anniversary in rock 'n' roll with an all-star TV special. Even Barbie has gotten into the act, releasing an album with a glamorous eat-your- heart-out-Whitney-Houston cover titled, appropriately, "The Look." The reasons for this "tot-rock" explosion are clear, notes the New York Times, citing recent statistics which reveal that children between the ages of six and fourteen now control an estimated $6 billion a year of their parents' disposable income. Acts like the TMNT and the Simpsons, observes the Times, are simply "riding a successful hype, moving into one more entertainment niche because it's there."
But cassette and CD sales are only a small part of the rock 'n' roll business today. The seven-figure success of concert tours by flesh-and-blood kiddie faves like the New Kids on the Block have animators and toymakers working around the clock to devise a way to bring their Saturday-morning stars to life and send them packing 'em in on the road.
It's a tall order, to be sure. Where are you gonna find twenty midgets who can sing like adenoidal Bon Jovis and endure four months of blue body paint to put that "Smurfin' Safari" show on tour? So far, only the Turtles have managed to make that mutation. And, from Raphael's reports, they're already living the rock 'n' roll life in high style.
"We got to hang with Billy Idol in the studio," says the sewer-dwelling terrapin. "Our producer, Keith Forsey, also produces all of his records. And I got to meet [Bruce Springsteen's sax player] Clarence Clemons in Los Angeles recently--you know, the Big Man? That was a real thrill for me, being a sax player myself. I was shakin' in my shell!"
If there really is an actor under that seventy-pound shell, he's learned to play the part of a rockin' reptile flawlessly. He manages to stay completely in character, even while revealing his own personal rock influences.
"Actually, you might not hear it to listen to our album," Raphael says, "but our main musical influence is Bruce Springsteen. You know, his music comes from a feeling of isolation and being insecure and uncertain and stuff. And when we were growing up, those are the same things we felt. We were down in the sewer, you know, and it was just the four of us and Master Splinter [for anyone not versed in Turtle lore, the wise old rat responsible for training Raphael, Michaelangelo, Leonardo, and Donatello in the martial arts]. And we were isolated from everything else. We were just in our own little world. And it wasn't 'til we got older that we discovered everything that was around us. Just like Bruce!" Guess one turtle's sewer is another man's New Jersey.
He's unflappable, too, while relating how the TMNT came to work with the few human beings actually credited in the tour program, like creative directors Bob Bejan and Godfrey Nelson.
"We just kept practicing and practicing and getting better and better; then one night we met up with these two guys when we were listening to music at a club in New York."
Wait a minute, you say, sensing a fantasy faux pas. The Turtles were actually club-hopping around NYC?
"Sure!" Raphael rebounds. "In some of those places down in the Village after midnight, you can walk in there and if you're green, no one notices."
THE TURTLES' AIRTIGHT ACT may fuel the fantasies of their young fans. But the group members' refusal to even acknowledge it gets hot in those costumes ("Well, we are wearing costumes," Raphael teases, "but the costumes are just, like, this denim jacket that's got my name on the back") can try the patience of a serious reporter digging for the facts behind the phenom.
"That's why we offer the media both a Turtle encounter or an interview with one of the show's producers," states Diane Blackman, publicity director for L.A.'s Tour-Tortoiseshell Productions, the tour's promoter. "Some journalists feel uncomfortable interviewing, say, Michaelangelo as Michaelangelo. So we also offer interviews with some of the real humans associated with the show."
But even a talk with the production's all-business Bob Bejan does little to shed some light under the Turtles' well-fastened shells. According to Bejan, in fact, the Turtles even write their own songs.
"They've already got five new ones they're performing live, which may or may not be on the next album [a songs-from-the-road epic tentatively titled "Moving Through the Food Chain," a good-natured poke at the tour's $20 million Pizza Hut sponsorship]. It depends on what else they come up with. They're just writing like crazy on the road."
IT'S UNLIKELY the touring tortoises will ever pose for People unshelled, as all the film's actors did last April in a particularly illusion-shattering move. Not as long as the high-dollar hush money keeps rolling in from the box-office receipts.
"Even if they weren't real Ninja Turtles," Diane Blackman says coyly, "we wouldn't want to reveal their identities. That would be like revealing the identity of Superman." She's dead serious. "I mean, truly. We present them as real because it's part of the fantasy, part of the fun."
From the wide-eyed looks on the lucky kids who've gotten a chance to spy the hard rockers on a half shell, the Turtles' keepers are doing a bang-up job.
"Are these the real Turtles?" asks one cynical ten-year-old at a north Phoenix elementary school when handed an official MCA publicity shot of the fabricated four. "They don't look like the same ones in the movie."
"That's just 'cause they're wearing their rock-star stuff," offers a friend as a swarm of pint-size pop fans immediately encircle the color glossy. "You know, they got on their sparkly eyebands and rock jackets."
The first boy continues to examine the photo for several minutes, studying the shot like a scientist viewing the latest documentation of the Loch Ness Monster. "He just discovered `the truth' about Santa Claus this past Christmas," whispers his mother, explaining her son's skepticism. But apparently the lad is still not entirely sure about his favorite cartoon heroes.
"They're not real," he says finally, looking up at mom for reassurance. "Are they?"
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will perform at Desert Sky Pavilion at 7 p.m. on Friday, January 25; 10:30 a.m., 2 and 5 p.m. on Saturday, January 26; and 1 p.m. on Sunday, January 27.
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The Turtles have already moved more records than Wilson Phillips and Bell Biv DeVoe combined. And Bart Simpson's made the cover of Rolling Stone.
"We are, like, living, breathing, happening mutant turtles."
Where are you gonna find twenty midgets who can sing like adenoidal Bon Jovis and endure four months of blue body paint on tour? "Our main musical influence is Bruce Springsteen."
"We wouldn't want to reveal their identities. That would be like revealing the identity of Superman.