It all started with a jukebox. Don’t you wish more stories started with a jukebox?
The jukebox in question was a beat-up Wurlitzer that used to blast out the hits of the day at Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe, a popular teen hangout in the small Midwestern town of Riverdale back in the 1960s. One snowy afternoon in December of 1966, a couple of pretty teen-aged girls, Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge, were at Pop’s, giggling and dancing to the brand new 45 by their favorite singing group, The Monkees. “I’m A Believer” was just beginning its short journey to the top of the pop charts, but it was already # 1 with a sugar-coated bullet as far as Betty and Ronnie were concerned. And they played it over and over and over again.
The activity at the jukebox did not go unnoticed by the boys at Pop’s, particularly Archie Andrews and Reggie Mantle. These two boys and two girls had known each other since childhood, and they had a tangled relationship. Archie and Reggie were frequent rivals for Veronica’s affection, while Betty was head-over-heels infatuated with Archie, and therefore Veronica’s de facto rival; Archie, for his part, could never seem to decide between Betty and Ronnie. Yet the rivalries never tore them apart; Betty and Veronica remained always the best of friends, and while Archie and Reggie certainly got on each other’s nerves, they generally stayed on somewhat friendly terms, at least.
And on this particular afternoon at Pop’s, the two jealous boys were cooking up a scheme together. If the girls seem so interested in a rock ‘n’ roll group, they reasoned, why not form a group of our own? Bet that’ll get the girls intrigued, for sure!
But what began as a simple (okay, make that convoluted) ploy to impress the opposite sex led to the formation of one of the most fondly-recalled pop bands of the late ‘60s, The Archies. It was an inauspicious beginning; neither Archie nor Reggie was really a musician, but Archie did have a battered folk guitar (a left-over from an earlier summer camp escapade) and was able to fumble a few chords, and hyper-active Reggie attempted to flail away on the drums. Archie brought in his best pal, Forsythe “Jughead” Jones, to try his hands at the keyboards, and this embryonic version of The Archies was born.
And they were terrible. An inept garage band with no chops to speak of, all they had going for them was the exuberance (and, dare we say, arrogance) of youth. Still, that’s often all you need in rock ‘n’ roll, and as they kept at it, thrashing their way through covers of the hits of the day, they got a little tighter, a tiny bit better. The girls were impressed with The Archies’ efforts, but not in quite the way the boys had imagined. Before long, Betty and Veronica were members of the band, both singing and banging on tambourines (“The only kind of banging either of ‘em did back then,” Reggie would later recall wryly.)
While the instrumental roles were perhaps oddly chosen–Veronica had played piano since grade school, and would have certainly been better on keyboards than Jughead, while Betty was a more than competent guitarist—it’s likely that the girls were initially relegated to vocalist/percussionist positions simply because it was deemed more ladylike in pre-Women’s Liberation Riverdale. Nonetheless, the addition of their singing voices transformed The Archies immediately, from a fledgling garage band to…well, a fledgling garage band with killer harmonies, the kind of harmonies you can’t get outside of a group of people that have sung together their whole lives.
Still, The Archies remained just another one of hundreds of garage bands toiling in obscurity across America, and their story might well have ended right then and there, if not for a concerned, protective father and a spurned music mogul, and the weird way their paths collided.
Veronica’s father, wealthy industrialist Hiram Lodge, had never been terribly fond of Archie, and always felt his daughter was wasting her time with him. Now that she was frittering away her ambitions by being in–ugh!—a rock band with that Andrews boy, things had gone too far. Lodge was not an unkind man, nor an unwise one, but he knew there had to be a way to show Veronica that The Archies would never amount to anything. To do that, he contacted an old acquaintance: Don Kirshner.
Kirshner, an ultra-successful music executive, had just parted ways with what was probably his most successful project ever, The Monkees. Originally hired as The Monkees’ musical supervisor, Kirshner had helped the band become the most popular rock ‘n’ roll group in America. But The Monkees bristled under Kirshner’s tight control, and eventually rebelled, dismissing Kirshner from his duties. Furious, Kirshner vowed to find another band to supervise, one that wouldn’t question his authority.
Like, maybe, a band of teenaged amateurs from Riverdale.
Hiram Lodge arranged for Kirshner to hear The Archies play, figuring that Kirshner would make them see that they had no real future in the music biz. But Kirshner loved The Archies—not because they were a great band (Lord knows!), but because he saw potential in their look, their image. “America’s typical teens!,” thought Kirshner. With The Archies under his aegis, Kirshner was sure he could make the world forget The Monkees had ever existed.
The Archies were ecstatic—who wouldn’t be, in such a dizzying environment? Although they certainly wouldn’t be playing on their records, they would provide all the vocals. Kirshner did (wisely) suggest some changes in their instrumentation, as Reggie moved to bass, Jughead became the drummer, and Veronica settled in at the keyboard; Betty was still stuck with a tambourine for the time being. The Archies increased their concert schedule, and began recording their first album, The Archies, which was released in 1968.
Unfortunately, The Archies’ initial chart action was unlikely to make The Monkees quake in their Thom McCann’s. The first single, “Bang-Shang-A-Lang,” made it to respectable (if unspectacular) # 22, but the album never got past a pathetic # 88. Sensing that perhaps his time-tested formula might finally be ready for some tweaking, Kirshner did what would have been unthinkable for him when he was supervising The Monkees: he let the band have a bit more involvement in the recordings.
Such a simple thing, such a big difference. The Archies had become a pretty good combo by now, and Betty was even finally allowed to fatten the group’s sound with her own guitar playing. The next single, “Feelin’ So Good (S.K.O.O.B.Y.-D.O.O.)” had already been recorded by session musicians, and it missed the Top 40 entirely. But The Archies’ third single would feature singing and playing by Riverdale’s Finest. And, to further Kirshner’s revenge, it would be a song previously rejected by The Monkees, an irresistible pop confection called “Sugar, Sugar.”
Words can’t express how huge the “Sugar, Sugar” single was. # 1 for four weeks, and by some accounts the biggest record of 1969, “Sugar, Sugar” made The Archies into superstars. The concert tours became bigger, the TV appearances more frequent, the dollar signs written larger in bright lights and starry eyes. Briefly, brilliantly, The Archies were on top of the world.
As is so often the case, such giddy success sowed the seeds of its own demise. These five teenagers had been so close for so long, and that’s likely the only thing that kept them stable in the eye of this hurricane. Because they were together now all the time—in planes, hotels, recording studios, everywhere—and all the old complications became even more magnified. Archie and Reggie argued constantly, and the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle remained unresolved. Jughead was content to keep the beat and scarf down an endless supply of hamburgers (his relatively benign vice of choice), but the band was in imminent danger of imploding.
The Archies were unable to translate their singles success into album sales. The awesome “Jingle, Jangle” single (featuring Betty on a shared lead vocal, the first time Archie hadn’t sung all the leads on an Archies single) made it to # 10, but the album of the same name—as brilliant a pop record as anything released in 1970—languished at an utterly shameful # 125. The end was at hand.
By the time of The Archies’ fourth album, 1970’s Sunshine, the long-simmering rivalry between Archie and Reggie had reached a boiling point. Reggie was particularly unhappy; he was stung by criticism that the group hadn’t played on its earliest records, and was now seething with jealousy as one of The Archies’ old opening acts, Led Zeppelin, was fast becoming one of the hottest groups around. Reggie was done, and he announced his intention to leave The Archies and form his own hard rock group, Old Man Weatherbee (flippantly named for an administrator at Riverdale High School). Archie had already tested the solo waters with a country single, “I Need Something Stronger Than A Chock’lit Malt,” and was likewise ready to move on. However, in a final show of solidarity, The Archies rallied to make their last record a great one. Sunshine is a sublime rockin’ pop album, a fitting farewell from this often-misunderstood band. The highlight of Sunshine was undeniably “Who’s Gonna Love Me” an exuberant track that inspired Andrews to give his most soulful, commanding vocal ever. Ultimately, after all the bickering, The Archies parted as friends. Archie went on to his solo career (though his solo debut, This Is Love, was credited to The Archies, to fulfill a contractual obligation, and a legal issue prompted him to use the pseudonym Ron Dante for his second album, Ron Dante Brings You Up); he eventually moved into artist management, and even wound up as the publisher of the highbrow literary magazine The Paris Review. Reggie moved to England and remained a fixture on the hard rock circuit for years to come; he produced Spinal Tap’s Shark Sandwich LP, and is rumored to be the bassist on KISS’s 1979 disco hit “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.” Jughead became an in-demand session player, Veronica began a film career, and Betty retired from show business entirely. For years, The Archies repeatedly turned down multi-million dollar offers for a reunion tour, though they did agree to a touching, emotional on-stage reunion at Live Aid. That reunion was temporary for the band, but far more permanent in a matter of the heart: Archie and Betty rekindled their relationship, and were married in 1987. Veronica was the maid of honor, Jughead was the best man, and Reggie, bless ‘im, presented the happy couple with a voucher for unlimited studio time at his recording complex south of London—just in case they were ever taken with an urge to get back into the game.
In 2005, all five of The Archies returned to Riverdale for a retirement ceremony honoring Pop Tate, whose teen bistro Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe had been the start of everything for them. The same jukebox was still there. Sure, the records had been updated and changed many times over the years—and each of The Archies’ singles had earned a permanent spot on the jukebox—but THE record was still there.
Giggling like the teens they once were—and, in many ways, would always be—Betty and Veronica rocked the coin right into the slot, and the decades melted away as Micky Dolenz again testified that he was a believer. Sometimes just believing is its own greatest reward.