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Powerhouse: The Cartoon "Assembly Line" Music

There were six members of the Raymond Scott Quintette.  Scott didn’t call it his “Sextette” because he thought the word “Quintette” had a “crisp” sound.

“Powerhouse” by the Raymond Scott Quintette is one of those songs that most people know, but don’t know the title of.  First recorded on February 20, 1937, this odd composition was not written for cartoons but it had a frantic, cartoonish feel that was hard not to notice.

The song stood out even among other jazz compositions of its day.  What was strange about it was the way it was really two compositions sewn together in a kind of crazy quilt.  Sometimes the two parts of the piece are referred to as “Powerhouse A” and “Powerhouse B”.  “Powerhouse” is sometimes referred to as the “assembly line music” often played in cartoons.

Live performance of “Powerhouse” by the Raymond Scott Quintette, April 16, 1955

“Powerhouse A” is the opening part of the song.  It’s played at a fast tempo, with a clarinet figuring big.  “A” evokes less of an assembly line feel and more of a wild chase.  The song then switches to “Powerhouse B”, played at a slower, yet driving tempo.  This is the part that most gets associated with the assembly line.

“Powerhouse” figured big in the Quintette’s repertoire in both concert halls and on radio performances.  Many of Scott’s other compositions had the same frantic, cartoonish feel to them, often boasting comical names, like “Reckless Night Aboard an Ocean Liner” and “War Dance for Wooden Indians”.  The pairing of Scott’s compositions with cartoons might seem obvious today, but it wasn’t until 1943 that they made it to animation.  It was that year when Scott’s company, Circle Music, was sold to Warner Brothers, which gave the studio access to all of Scott’s compositions.

The first cartoon to feature a Scott composition was “Porky Pig’s Feat”.  The cartoon was the last black-and-white Porky Pig cartoon.  It featured two of Scott’s compositions, in fact: “Powerhouse” and his equally frantic “Penguins”.  After “Porky Pig’s Feat”, “Powerhouse” and about twenty other Scott compositions made their way into Warner Brothers cartoons.

"Porky Pig's Feat" (Warner Bros., 1943)

Warner Brothers holds the rights to “Powerhouse”, but has licensed them to other studios, allowing it to appear in episodes of “Ren and Stimpy”, “The Simpsons” and “Duckman”, as well as in non-animated TV shows like “The Bernie Mac Show” and “The Drew Carey Show”.  “Powerhouse” was used without attribution in the 1989 film “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” by Disney Studios.  Warner Brothers sued Disney, who settled out of court.

Musical references to “Powerhouse” pop up in more modern popular music.  It’s been used by Rush, Devo, Soul Coughing and They Might Be Giants, to name a few.

Rush veers into "Powerhouse" about five minutes into "La Villa Strangiato" (1978)

They Might Be Giants’ song “Rhythm Section Want Ad” (1986) features an accordion-fueled sample of “Powerhouse B” in its bridge.


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