In the years since an aspiring small-time actor named Ross Bagdasarian bought a variable-speed tape recorder and sang “The Chipmunk Song” into its embedded microphone in 1958, his mischief-making rodents have sold 47 million copies of their 31 albums and amassed a worldwide fan base.
In fact, though “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” only opened in theaters today, the soundtrack to the sequel to 2007’s breakout animated hit is already a bona fide success.
Released on Rhino Records Dec. 1 and featuring hits by the Kinks, Katy Perry and Beyoncé, the album sold 77,000 copies in its first two weeks of release, compared with just 7,000 for the first two weeks of sales for the 2007 film’s soundtrack, which went on to move more than 1 million copies.
“It’s hard to be miserable when you hear those voices,” said Ross Bagdasarian Jr., 60, speculating on the enduring appeal of furry critters chirping out cover songs.
Bagdasarian Sr. voiced the original Chipmunks and pioneered the “vari-speed” recording technique that transformed his adult voice into the higher-pitched, kid-i-fied sound so associated with the group. After his death in 1972, his son Ross and Ross’ wife Janice kept the franchise alive, voicing 16 more Chipmunks records and an animated television show for NBC.
While actors including Justin Long and Christina Applegate voice the Chipmunk characters in the “Squeakquel,” the songs in the film were performed by New York producer Ali Dee and four of his studio singers, who employed the same vari-speed technique Bagdasarian used.
There are two things that go into producing a Chipmunks record, Dee said.
“The first step is to recognize that we’re working with one of the biggest groups out there,” he said. “I know I sound out of my mind when I say that, but the Chipmunks have sold [a ton of] records.
“Once you recognize the brand as being legitimate, then you can hit the production and make the Chipmunks sound competitive against Jay-Z or Alicia Keys,” he added. “That’s the mind-set: You’re not making a kids record. You’re making a legitimate album.”
More than 100 tracks were licensed and recorded by Dee’s Chipmunks and Chipettes for the new movie, most of which ended up on the cutting-room floor.
“You don’t know if a song will work until you record it,” said Dee, who estimates there’s enough leftover material for a triple album of B-sides.
The Rolling Stones’ "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Van Halen’s “Jump,” for example, were both recorded but discarded because “Munkicizing the vocal sucks the life out of it,” Dee said.
While the soundtrack to 2007’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks” featured mostly new songs created by Dee specifically for the movie and versions of songs such as “Witch Doctor” that were originally penned and recorded by the elder Bagdasarian, the “Squeakquel” soundtrack is dominated by hits from artists such as the Bee Gees and Keys.
“On the first movie, people were a lot more tentative as far as roping in talent or artists; for brand-name songs, people just flat-out denied us,” said Mike Knobloch, executive vice president of film music for Fox.
“On the [second] one, people were a lot more eager to be involved. Not only did we have a hit movie with the first one, we had a platinum record in a climate where records going platinum is largely unheard of.”