Tuesday, May 31, 2005

That isn't anything like—

Here at the Deluxe Apartment, Green Acres is considered art, for it is TV's best venture into genuine Surrealism. Eddie Albert, aka Mr. Douglas, died at age 99 as the rest of us headed into the long holiday. While he was an Army vet (Bronze Star, Battle of Tarawa Atoll—one of the most savage battles of the Pacific War), let us honor him instead for having a life so strange, indeed so Surreal, that even ninety-nine years seems too short to have contained it.

The pride of Rock Island, Illinois, Albert graduated from the University of Minnesota before beginning a mind-boggling career. An MC in a magic show. Singer and comedian. Broadway actor, then on to the movies, then on to ... life as a trapeze artist and clown in a one-ring Mexican circus, his base for espionage activities as he spied upon Nazi agents in Mexico. There was the war interlude, followed by:

After the war, he started Eddie Albert Productions, which made 16 millimeter educational films. Among his best-known were "Human Growth," a sex-education film for 11-year-olds, and "Human Beginnings," for 6-year-olds.

Then more acting, on TV with Green Acres, where his Olivah Wendall Douglas rarely got to finish a sentence except in the theme song, and in memorable silver screen work like The Longest Yard and Escape to Witch Mountain. Trash movie mavens also remember his starring role in The Devil's Rain, an epic tale of good versus the ram-horned evil of Ernest Borgnine.

RIP.

Friday, May 27, 2005

All I ever wanted

To get in the spirit of Nazareth, Madonna, the Go-Gos, and many others, it's a summer-kickin'-offin' hol-i-day. Enjoy yours. And spare a thought for the "Fighting soldiers from the sky," and all the other servicepeople, too, this Memorial Day.

See you on the other side.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Jay Crue

Indulge a moment of legit-type blogging. In the news:

Motley Crue has sued NBC in Los Angeles federal court, accusing the network of banning the heavy metal band from its television programs to curry favor with federal regulators cracking down on indecency.

The suit, which was filed on Tuesday, seeks a court-ordered lifting of the NBC ban, a declaration that the ban was illegal, as well as unspecified damages the band suffered due to its loss of media exposure on both NBC and in other media outlets.

In a statement, NBC said Neil had "violated NBC's standards" and added that the network "has the right to decide not to invite back guests who violate those standards and use an expletive during a live entertainment program." The network called the lawsuit "meritless."

Someone please send these buffoons back to obscurity. Look, this is a band most remembered for their made-at-home porn videos and an episode of Behind the Music that revealed them as subnormal in intelligence, judgment, and the basic survival instincts passed down to them by millions of years of evolution. Media exposure? They're an oldies act, playing to thirtysomething nostalgists and a small number of thrill-seekers hoping to see one of them die onstage. That they're even on Leno shows the level of showbiz he works on; and, face it, without the Peter Principle they'd be on the county fair circuit where they belong. "Dr. Feelgood" was over fifteen years ago—thousands of years in the measurement of music cred. Grunge killed their candy-metal ass. Let them stay dead, or at least in that category of Marginal Celebrity where they have proven their ability to amuse us.

Swayzevision

Swayze. He fell just short of being the next Burt Reynolds. When he made that action-trucker film some years back, I thought he had sewn up admittedly inexplicable A-List status. Alas, no. But thanks to cable and his own career choices, he lives on in Ghost, the celluloid opiate that is Point Break, and his most celebrated creation, Road House, the most recent film consigned to the Phantom Zone that is the VH1 Movies That Rock universe. Between VH1 and The Superstation, a weekly broadcast is almost guaranteed.

Yet Road House does not rock. Oddly enough, given its setting, it does not honky-tonk, either. Granted, there is a lot of music. Jeff Healey, of "Angel Eyes" fame, provides much of it from his place as leader of the house band at the Double Deuce, home to some of the ugliest, and therefore most authentic, character actors in Hollywood. So many mullets you can almost smell the sawdust on the floor! This is a place so loose one guy shows up to work in a sleeveless flannel shirt opened to show his manly chest. And it isn't Swayze!

The plot is simple. The Deuce's owner has one ambition: to clean the place up so that he may cater to yuppie assholes. For this, he needs the best bouncer in the United States. That happens to be a philosophy major named Dalton, played by Swayze.

Even in its truncated-for-TV version Road House is just as compelling as you've heard. Despite edits for profanity, anal-rape refs, and tremendous amounts of nudity, the film still manages to run 2 1/2 hours. Like most movies it requires suspension of disbelief, in this case believing that America's best bouncer is famous enough to be recognized on sight. (That may be true, but only if the bouncer is Mr. T.) But Road House seemed blessed from the start. The director's name was Rowdy.

No insult to Mr. Healey, as I am sure he rocks somewhere behind all the breaking bottles and smashing tables and other redneck chaos. There is a lot of music and he does get splashed with a lot of beer. Mostly the official soundtrack is occupied by Healey and two (!) songs by Swayze, but there's a lot more, enough to offer some creative viewer a chance to invent a drinking game. Not only that, this is a movie where Ben Gazzara sings, the immortal Sam Elliott sings, yes, it even features Memphis Mafia alum Red West (playing "Red") as a link to Elvis. For all that, though, Road House does not qualify as "rocking."

It is, nonetheless, welcome anytime, mislabeled or no. It's far better than that Mark Wahlberg Rock Star thing. Still, how long until VH1 gets rights to Almost Famous?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Singing for Chico

We get letters:

Did you really mean to leave the Cheers song off your TV themes list?

Did I ever. The problem with that song wasn't even the TV-only part; it was the strained humor of the long version that made it to the radio. So weak. Though in the producers' defense, they did not let Kelsey Grammer sing (until the spinoff).

But let me add another noteworthy theme to the list.

Theme to Chico and the Man. I have an admittedly difficult-to-explain affection for José Feliciano. The sublime "Light my fire! Light my fire! Light my fire!" freak-out at the end of the song of the same name—just great.

Perhaps my fondness is explained by the fact he participated in one of the mysteries of my earliest childhood. At one time, Feliciano had a visible presence in our pop culture, so visible he appeared to me in the middle of Illinois. Being maybe six years-old, I could not for the life of me figure out how a blind man could play guitar. It seemed miraculous. Keep in mind this was long before guys who play guitar with their feet performed for the Pope. My dad explained that many good guitar players didn't look at their fingers much anyway; thus José, and numerous old black men from the Deep South, could play well even though they could not see. It took me a while to get my mind around the concept. Fractions were a breeze by comparison.

By the way, Feliciano's fertile talent also contributed the song at the end of show.

Not a great show, despite the presence of Scatman Crothers. How do you waste the Scatman? And why do you go on when the centerpiece of the show dies tragically, leaving you with just "The Man"? But a terrific song.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The kitsch is back

For fifty years now the Eurovision Song Contest has been one of Europe's best jokes, a mutant cross between American Idol and the most jingoistic elements of the Olympics, with the responsibility for ABBA thrown in. Small wonder it's so popular.

This year's winner, Helena, represented Greece but was born in Sweden, a typical transference of nationalistic loyalties, as many countries bring in ringers from elsewhere--1980s Brit rockers Katrina and the Waves tried to represent Sweden this year, while Celine Dion performed for the non-musical Swiss in 1988. Some reporting on the contest no one admits to caring about:

Deutsche Welle, Germany
Germany's Eurovision Song Contest hopes were more than dashed on Saturday night; they were thrown to the floor and stamped on by every stiletto and Cuban heel on show at the 50th gala of kitsch in Kiev.

Gracia Bauer, a former talent show also-ran who had courted controversy over her involvement in a chart-rigging scandal just weeks before the competition, garnered a woeful four points with her song "Run and Hide". It seemed like the voters took her words as sound advice as Germany scored one of its lowest totals in the history of the competition.

The Beeb
This year's voting patterns suggested that Eurovision unites Europe less than ever.

The Scandinavians stuck together, while the mighty Balkan block vote proved more powerful than ever.

Turkey, however, caused the auditorium to erupt when they presented their old adversary Greece with full marks.

But another Eurovision club we hear remarkably little about was on good form this year.

The UK, Malta and Cyprus exchanged goodwill points, while Ireland's eight points to its nearest neighbour saved [British] singer Javine from nul points shame.

The Local, Sweden
Throughout the week, Swedish papers had reported one lackluster Stenmarck rehearsal after the other. And leading Eurovision figures such as SVT's Christer Björkman had been confidently predicting that Sweden didn't stand a chance against the passion and organization of the east European and Balkan countries.

All these pressures were reflected in a pallid performance by Stenmarck, light years from the bravura he showed in winning the Melodifestivalen in March. Taking the stage after a confident, cheeky chappy number from Denmark, Stenmarck and his four dancers seemed to disappear on the vast stage. He donned an Elvis-inspired costume for his 'Las Vegas' song, but there was little energy and his few dance moves were hesitant.

JTW News, Turkey
An emotional Helena was welcomed to the press conference by an excitable press pack--many of whom were Greek, of course. Before she could take questions, the cheering journalists insisted that she stand on the press conference table with a flag draped around her. She was happy to oblige.

Israel Insider, Israel
Lebanon announced it refused to show the Israeli entry on the Lebanese TV channel Tele-Liban. The channel told the European Broadcasting Union (which organizes Eurovision) that Lebanon's legislation made it "all but impossible" to broadcast an Israeli singer. This puts Lebanon in breach of contest rules, which state all countries taking part must show the entire event. The Lebanese authorities said they could not air the Israeli song, or show the Israeli website on which viewers could vote for the Israeli participant, and they could not show Israeli celebrations if the Israelis won.

London Times
The group Greenjolly’s "Razom Nas Bahato" (Together We Are Many) was sung by demonstrators on the barricades as they protested against former president Leonid Kuchma’s regime in Kiev’s Independence Square.

The surprise choice of Greenjolly--a group largely unknown before the revolution, and added to the list of entries at the last moment--unleashed an torrent of criticism of the new government, which was accused of manipulating the vote.

Swiss Info, Switzerland
For their part, Vanilla Ninja said they were pleased with their eighth place. "We have fulfilled our mission: to help Switzerland and allow the country to qualify directly for the final of the next edition of the competition," lead singer Lenna told Swiss television.

The result largely puts to rest last year’s disaster in which the Swiss entry, sung by Basel-based former hairdresser Piero Esteriore, crashed out of the semi-finals of the contest in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

But this year’s decision by Swiss television to steer clear of home-grown talent and send Vanilla Ninja [an Estonian band] to the competition caused an outcry, with the move being seen at the time as a slap in the face for Swiss bands.

Guardian, UK
Moldovan contestants Zdob si Zdub have invited an 80-year-old along for [the song] "Granny Bangs the Drums."

Friday, May 20, 2005

Sorry about the mess



No complaints about betrayals. No commentary on Lucas's long-overdue unmasking as a flawed filmmaker, or his overlooked genius as a mover of product. Instead, as a nod to this week's inescapable Pop Culture Event, let us allow the Force to bind us and penetrate us—be gentle!—and wonder what a few members of the Star Wars universe might've done in the recording industry.

Yoda has stardom written all over him. Tortured syntax combined with a tiresome habit of haranguing crowds hasn't stopped other artists. Personally, I would hope for him to make the leap to a far more creative use of Muppeteering. Either Sesame Street or the actual Muppets would be fine; if the latter, though, how about a Yoda spoken-word tour as backed by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem? I bet this only seems funny to me.

Han Solo's destiny, on the other hand, must be a really bad country-rock album. If American Grafitti taught us anything, it's that Harrison Ford can pull off a dopey-ass cowboy hat. Inevitably, someone with Solo's level of self-confidence would feel worthy of the classics. Also that would be easier than writing songs—and let's face it, if Han Solo had a decent work ethic he wouldn't have ended up in carbonite. Han Solo does "Tequila Sunrise." Han Solo does "Stand By Your Man." Han Solo does Garth Brooks, you choose. Then in ten years one of the songs ends up on a Rhino compilation with Shatner and Goldie Hawn. Still, this possibility is more promising than the alternative: a prog-rock project called "Captain Solo."

Darth Maul and Darth Vader as the new Gwar? It's that or Cirque du Soleil, I fear.

Anakin Skywalker? Go ahead and say it—American Idol. Eliminated fourth from the last. Decent voice, but no stage presence whatsoever.

OK, tribute over. You're on your own, Lucas.

National treasure trove

All music lovers should be aware of this development:

Today (May 19), Sun launched its venture with subscription music service eMusic, offering more than 400 tracks from such legends as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Burgess, Little Milton and Rufus Thomas. The tracks are arranged as 18 custom compilations.

Over the next few months, more than 1,500 "national treasures," as eMusic COO David Pakman calls the Sun catalog, will be made available. Recorded between 1950 and 1966, many of the songs have been out-of-print (some only ever released on vinyl) or found on box sets. "This is a huge win for our subscribers," Pakman adds.

Additionally, eMusic has also licensed rights to 5,000 tracks from the Sun Entertainment Corporation catalog, which includes the Red Bird Records, Blue Cat Records, Plantation Records, SSS International, Jessup Records, Silver Fox and Amazon labels. Among those gems are recordings by Floyd Cramer, Johnny Horton, Sleepy LaBeef, Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, Floyd Tillman and Harold Jenkins, who was later known as Conway Twitty.

Don't like this stuff? Are you INSANE? Okay, okay, understood, not all of us have as much free time as Greil Marcus to devote to unearthing musical gems. What's intriguing is what this suggests beyond access to classic blues, country, and the earliest days of rock. Rounder has just begun a similar airing of its archives. What other labels may follow? The lost KISS album from Casablanca? But seriously, think what might materialize if, say, a vault of SST material exists somewhere? Or Buddha, the least-focused label of all time? Or some of the countless small labels that gave our heroes their humble starts and now only exist in memory or Marcus's attic? Someday the entire history of music is going to be available. That access is going to change everything. Including the history of music.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Bulgarian rhapsody

When you hit Number One on the Bulgarian charts, 45s and Under takes notice. Destined to be our newest "TV Offer Only" sensation, the soprano Krassimir is a man already compared to the likes of Enya and Sting by his own web site. What is Krassimir? Who is Krassimir? As his flashy site denies the copy-and-paste function that is the lifeblood of blogging, we will provide brief 411 using our own keyboarding skills.

* Krassimir was born in Sliven, Bulgaria, "the mythical land of Orpheus."

* His triumphant rise to Number One on the charts brought him to the attention of worldwide audiences.

* "He is a real male soprano ... not a castrato and not a falsetto ... a truly unique voice that had been silent in his early years as a very successful mime."

First, are there still castrati? I only ask because I wouldn't put it past any nation of the former Eastern Bloc. Look what the Commies did to those East German swimmers. Second ... well, why belabor the whole soprano-mime-irony point? You can't get funnier than a reference to East Germans, anyway.

You may as well prepare yourself now, because Krassimir is going to haunt PBS pledge drives for years to come. According to his bio, Kraz has of late taken up composing and songwriting to compliment his singing and mimery. That means he has the tools that allow for a full expression of a man's artistic soul. Even a man with a voice so girly people compare him to pubescents cruelly castrated for the entertainment industry. Sure he's covering "Bolero" now. But I suspect he has at least as much to say as Yanni.

Krassimir. Once Bulgaria's treasure. Now the world's.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

45s Sidebar: Opening chords

In modern times, shows like Seinfeld have made the TV theme song an optional accessory for a show. Prior to that, however, a television mogul would not have dreamed of starting his show without music.

The TV theme song is essentially a thyroidal advertising jingle. A handful are catchy enough to grow into radio hits—the theme from Friends being one annoying example. But as with ads for hot dogs and deadly soft drinks, the theme song genre has its classics. Maestro, please. Cue the Hill Street Blues piano. Drop in that killer Barney Miller bottom. Don't let Jan Hammer anywhere close. Here's a list of thirty-second works of prime-time pop art, created solely to put you in the mood for the Pure Entertainment that only television can bring.

"And Then There's Maude," from Maude. Super-producer Norman Lear knew the value of a great theme song. This sizzling half-minute was as incendiary as the show, pushing hot buttons with mentions of the Freedom Riders and bra-burning and reffing Joan of Arc as "a sister who really cooked." As for the music, Lear spared no expense, hiring soulster Donny Hathaway for vocals. Kudos also to the out-of-sight organ player, a man (?) obviously reliving some kind of primal scene trauma. All in all a great number and the only feminist anthem that can hold a candle to Schoolhouse Rock's "Suffering 'til Suffrage."

Theme from Hawaii Five-O. In compiling this list we denied a place to pop songs impressed into service as theme songs—the way Married With Children used Sinatra, for instance, or the misuse of Motown classics for the example of Boomer grotesque that was Murphy Brown. But the themes that were first themes and then leapt to the charts? Of course they qualify. Why discriminate against success?

Several TV-related instrumentals sold lots of copies, particularly in the 1960s. The themes from Peter Gunn or Mission: Impossible are good enough to make this list. But in the interests of range, we must be selective.

Thus, we’re dialing up Five-O.

Like the Mission: Impossible theme it perfectly evoked a vibe. Mission’s theme sounded like a countdown to destruction, while Five-O was surf music as played by an amped-up version of Doc Severinsen and the NBC Orchestra. Island drumming, blaring horns, a few instruments I’m not quite sure of—the overall production vows an hour of excitement. It obviously delivered, considering Hawaii Five-O debuted shortly after the Battle of Shiloh and ran into the 1980s.

Disclosure: I have never seen a single moment of Hawaii Five-O. But I suspect it did not have much to do with the surfers and hula-dancers featured in the intro, for it is obvious Jack Lord’s steely gaze inoculated the show against any outbreak of fun. In that two seconds you knew McGarrett would take a rubber hose to some hippie fruitcake dope dealer, but that he wouldn’t enjoy it, or anything else for that matter. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure I knew anyone who watched this show. Another of the shows that ran years and years with no apparent viewing audience, ala Becker and Walker, Texas Ranger. That would be a good topic if this blog covered television.

"Love Is All Around," from the Mary Tyler Moore Show. We refer here to the superior second season remake. The singer and writer, Sonny Curtis, has far more on his resume than this classic. A one-time member of Buddy Holly’s Crickets, later guitarist for the Everly Brothers, Curtis penned a number of hit songs, including Bobby Fuller’s (and the Clash’s) "I Fought the Law." For MTM he composed a self-contained twenty second classic. Easy listening vocal, tasteful strings, commanding change in tempo, and a lyrical structure that flirts with real complexity—a winner all around.

"Movin’ On Up," from The Jeffersons. Norman Lear’s empire strikes again with a gospel-influenced salute to upward mobility. Bonus points for using a Good Times actress (Ja’net DuBois) on the vocal. The hand-claps alone are genius, but the lyrics move it on up to the stratosphere:
Fish don't fry in the kitchen,
Beans don't burn on the grill,
Took a whole lotta tryin',
Just to get up that hill
.
Amen!

Speaking of amens, Sherman Hemsley of all people belongs to an exclusive club. He starred in two hit television programs unrelated to one-another: The Jeffersons (itself a spinoff) and Amen, a longtime cog in NBC’s Geriatric Saturday Night. Sherm shares the rare honor with the likes of Mary Tyler Moore, William Shatner, Bill Bixby (no less than four reasonably successful series), Betty White, and DJ 800-foot Danson. Of course, Lucille Ball and Bob Newhart earned the distinction, too, but does it count when you’re essentially re-playing the same persona?

Theme from Barney Miller. This gift to high school marching bands everywhere was pretty bitchin’—great bass, jazzy drums, and main man Ron Glass struttin’ it as the horns opened up. More proof the masterminds behind quality programs invested in a good theme to show it off.

Theme from The Greatest American Hero. Actually, this song is bad. What’s more irritating—the soft "Look at me/falling for you" bit or the "believe it or not" shout-outs accompanied by the most unimaginative guitar blasts this side of a Mountain Dew commercial? Yet we must recognize that as commerce the Hero theme was hugely successful. Indeed to this day, as William Katt is a balding member of the Lifetime Network Players, the song continues to turn up on light-rock radio—not that I’m listening.

But you cannot talk TV themes without discussing the career of this song's writer, Mike Post. As the Lennon-McCartney of TV theme writers, Post was responsible for … well, pretty much everything. He could climb the charts, as he did with the songs from The Rockford Files and Hill Street Blues. But even when confined to the small screen—and you can’t stop Mike Post, you can only hope to contain him—he produced memorable intros for The A-Team and the various Law and Order franchisees, among many others. Mike Post. One of the quiet forces of pop culture.

Theme from The X-Files. It worked for setting a mood. It had to, because the opening credits looked like they were put together by a high school A/V club.

"Movin’ On," from Movin’ On. Movin’ On was one of the early TV attempts to take advantage of the dominant cultural trend of the 1970s: the Redneck Renaissance. Look upon the works of Buford Pusser and Burt Reynolds, and tremble!

For those unable to remember, Frank Converse and the congenitally irascible Claude "Lobo" Akins played truckers who long-hauled their way into new adventures each week. And not ordinary adventures like the refrigerator in the trailer breaking down on the Oakland-to-Tallahassee route. While remarkable enough for making adventure heroes of an occupation best known for amphetamine abuse, Movin’ On also featured a theme courtesy of music legend Merle Haggard. It’s an excellent little tune that performs well as both marketing tool and scene-setter. What astonishes me is that the corporate world has yet to recycle the song for new and amazing 21st Century products. Not only is it catchy like a theme should be, but the lyric, "Big wheels rollin’/Movin’ on" applies to countless products.

America, alas, declared Movin’ On a big 10-7, but no matter. With Burt Reynolds’ Medici-like hold on our nation, the Redneck Renaissance remained in the steady hands of Billy Carter and hunky truckers with chimpanzee sidekicks, until it reached its apotheosis with…

"Good Ol’ Boys," from The Dukes of Hazzard. Where Haggard blazed a trail, Waylon Jennings followed, taking the theme into hearts and onto the charts and going Merle one better by serving as the show’s narrator. Waylon, at the height of his powers and his coke addiction, lent the song his trademark heavy bass and sense of humor, the perfect soundtrack to images of explosions and cut-off shorts and other seductive aspects of Red State America that only exist, alas, in our imaginations.

Theme from Wonder Woman. Synaesthesia is a neurological disorder that jumbles the way a victim experiences sensory data. Those afflicted might smell a triangle, or taste a violin concerto. In the case of the Wonder Woman theme song, we all become synaesthetes, as the song is an aural version of brightly colored but poorly-separated still images with the sound effects spelled out.

Embarrassingly catchy, only a step removed from being a gay dance anthem, this song is so over the top it actually distracted from the pictures of Lynda Carter running around—let us quote—"In your satin tights/Fighting for your rights/And the old Red, White and Blue!" Regrettably indescribable on the page, though perhaps readers with synaesthesia will get it.

"Square Pegs," from Square Pegs. A chubby girl in braces. Minimal canned laughter. Unfiltered references to New Wave music. Clearly a show before and beyond its time. Something so carefully crafted had, not surprisingly, a theme from a working band, in this case the Waitresses. The singer brings the same bratty by way of I’m-so-over-everything delivery as heard on their "I Know What Boys Like." Nice.

Closing theme to The Incredible Hulk. Digging deep here, but it's a piece of music worth noting. I cannot recall the regular music to the Hulk, but the haunting piano piece over the end credits remains crystal clear in my mind. Every week it sent David Banner off to once again find a new job, a new town, and a new flannel shirt. And every week that seemed deeply sad! TV has seen its share of drifters, but did any seem as lonely as this guy? Certainly none of them had more evocative music.

Honorable mentions for future posts. Flatt & Scruggs bringing bluegrass to prime time with "The Ballad of Jed Clampett." The galloping "Rawhide" theme, though I am loath to praise anything with the slightest Dan Ackroyd association. Sammy's theme to Baretta, but is it genius or jaw-dropping transgression? Turning country again, there's the theme to King of the Hill.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Welcome back

If a blog is going to take a week off, last week was a good time. The Blogger web site bounced around from available status to frequent "Down for Repairs" moments, some announced, others random. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for with a free service.

But no more excuses. Renewed posts are just moments away.

In the meantime, feel the love of living a great day in music. No overwhelming moments for May 16—but there are several whelming moments that make it truly noteworthy. Seven years ago today, Keith Richards breaks his ribs reaching for a book of "nude art" (yeah, we’ve all had a few of those stashed on high shelves in our libraries). Back in 1990, the death of Sammy Davis, Jr. shakes the world.

Those are biggies. But not the whole story. Events of previous May 16s include Johnny Paycheck’s conviction for shooting someone in a bar; the legal world gasps at Dr. Nick’s indictment for supplying dope to Elvis, among others; Randy Bachman’s departure from the Guess Who paves the way for BTO and music that sucks even more; and in an amazing coincidence members of Jefferson Airplace are hit with marijuana busts in consecutive years, the latter being Marty Balin’s famous toke-party with teenaged girls. To say nothing of the release of Pet Sounds to universal befuddlement, the birth of a Nirvana member and Janet Jackson, and the anniversary of Frank’s "Summer Wind" session.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Basement tapes

The Editors present outtakes from the aborted, half-written, and plain-bad posts of the last fortnight.

1. In a proper universe, "Come Sail Away" is our illustration of the transition from "tottering" to "skidding downward." The sea theme and an appearance by UFOs is not just a mighty burden for a single song, but actually two of the surefire signs a band has had it. Not Styx. With them, the Laws of Rockodynamics did not apply. Their biggest hits remained in the future. Not only that, they survived so long they came back around to the sci-fi themes that always betray a band's final creative bankruptcy. This time, balance was restored. The concept album about robots blew Styx apart with such force that Dennis DeYoung ended up in the orbit of Planet Minnelli. Still, it was an amazing run. Their freakish evolution defies more than my thesis. It leaves space/time itself in a state of ruin beyond the explanations of string theory.

2. People got busy to his baritone. If we cannot quite hand him goat hooves and a pan-flute, we can declare Twitty the countrypolitan Al Green. You might say Al Green for people who would never have listened to Al Green. But they have to mate, too.

3. According to Simmons, "We hope that this judgment sends a clear message that KISS will not tolerate being ripped off by counterfeiters and bootleggers. This is also a rip-off of KISS fans who have a right to expect that when they spend their hard earned money for KISS merchandise and videos, they are getting high quality, authorized KISS products."

Look, me and my friends bought a fair amount of KISS merchandise in the 1970s. Most of it would've melted if exposed to water, the way that clothing made in Honduras does. Now I was going to at least give Simmons and Co. (emphasis on the Co.) credit for the sturdy lunchboxes, because the other day I passed a thrift store and the vintage KISS lunchbox in the window looked to be in very good condition. Then I remembered a friend of mine in the 1980s who kept art supplies in a Bobby Sherman lunchbox. KISS had nothing to do with their own lunchbox. Another illusion shattered.

4. You hear sometimes that rap/hip-hop killed soul music. Should we really let the Pointer Sisters off the hook so easily?

5. David Cassidy claims he spent the early 1970s seething at the bubblegum music The Man forced him to put on vinyl. If this is true, he was the greatest actor of his generation, because he sang "I Think I Love You" with utter sincerity.

6. No less a figure than Vanessa Williams hosts Time/Life's new infomercial, The Ultimate Love Collection. Though an attractive woman, I would not use her name and the word "warm" in the same sentence. If properly limbered up, she could tear out your heart and rip out your throat simultaneously. Under her regime, The Ultimate Love Collection is yours for four easy payments and if you know what's good fer ya.

7. The only pleasure of a Martin and Lewis movie—let me stress only—is to wander by in the middle and wonder how Dean could possibly fit the scenario. Jerry will invariably be in a fix. For instance, the other night he was being taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army. Can anyone besides William Burroughs connect such dots?

An aside: was it wrong to stand on my sofa and shout, "Use the bayonet"?

8. I fondly recall those Sabbath-Blue Oyster Cult shows at the Speedway. The local hard rock station always gave away tickets, so you stayed awake listening for "Godzilla" and tried to be the twentieth caller. Though too young to attend in person, I enjoyed vicariously because some kid in the neighborhood—or the older sibling of some kid in the neighborhood—always made it to the show. He/she returned to report on the awesomeness of the rock and the coolness of the bikers giving beer to minors. You've entered a special phase of your career when you're playing speedways.

9. When challenged to name the best Foreigner song, I came up empty. They're all bland at the same level. In fact, I wouldn't say Foreigner is bad. It's just that they lack ... good.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

45s: The pompadour of love

"You’ve Never Been This Far Before," by Conway Twitty
Written by Conway Twitty


During Conway Twitty’s long, long heyday, his legions of female fans referred to him as simply "Conway." The word brought sparkles to the eyes that rivaled the rhinestones on his jacket. Country was different in the Seventies. A man with a pompadour and bodacious sideburns could set hearts to thumpin’.

There’s plenty of thump in 1973’s "You’ve Never Been This Far Before," a huge hit and a 150-proof distillation of Conway’s swoon-inducing style. The bass—just pounding. The voice—pure husky pillow talk. The lyrics go straight to the heart, too. He puts "the sound of your heart beating" at the beginning and murmurs the distinctively cardiac "BUH-BUH-BUM" after every other line.

As we delve into the song, keep in mind, this is 1973. It’s country radio, the most conservative industry this side of bow tie manufacturing. But it’s Conway, and no woman can resist:

…and I can almost hear the echo
Of the thoughts that I know you must be thinking
And I can feel your body tremble
As you wonder what this moment holds in store
And as I put my arms around you,
I can tell you've never been this far before.
Bodies trembling and the bold suggestion of deflowering. This isn’t "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?," my friends. Like the honeydripper he is, Conway hooked the listener with an uncomfortably accurate depiction of womankind’s greatest enemy: the sensitive seducer. One verse is long enough for simmering, though. It’s time for Conway to take things up to boil:

I don't know what I’m saying
As my trembling fingers touch forbidden places
Here’s a Roschacht test. Go listen to a recording of the song. Do you hear that line and (1) tingle; (2) spray your delicious beverage all over the place; (3) stand slack-jawed in disbelief? I'd analyze each answer, except I can't decide whether to praise the boldness or howl in laughter. On the one hand, the explicitness! On the other, what an odd phrase. I envision a pair of (tight) blue jeans with an ACHTUNG patch on the ass. Or a sign at the entrance to Shangri-La (an accurate enough image, I guess). It’s not exactly "I’m gonna try to tame your little red love machine." Then again, even so mighty a satyr of song as Prince relied on euphemism, whereas Conway veers as close to anatomical description as the conventions of the day allow.

The song continues through purred forgiveness of the woman’s infidelity—that old trick—and then, in the old "start slow and go faster" tradition, Conway turns up the big instrumentation as he gives the full throttle to passion:

And as I take the love you're giving,
I can feel the tension building in your mind
And you're wondering if tomorrow,
I’ll still love you like I’m loving you tonight
Back to pillow talk in the conclusion as, in smooth operator fashion, Conway insists, "But tonight will only make me love you more…" Yeah, yeah.

As a song, "You’ve Never Been This Far Before" is a catchy enough country hit of the time, more extraordinary for its sales than on its own merits. It’s a revealing case study of country music, though. To the outsider, the stereotype of country is that it’s, well, retarded—socially, intellectually, and sexually. That was especially true in the years before Garth Brooks (among others) stormed suburban America, the years when Conway ruled. Having read those lyrics, you may feel this more strongly than ever.

Actually, country fans have long rewarded straightforward songs about relationships—the frustrations of the women, the infidelities of the good-timin’ men, the emotional turmoil regular people can feel when they have the wrong feelings about the wrong person. One source of the music’s dynamism has always been the clash between its natural conservatism and the recognition of sin’s everyday hazards (and pleasures). Not that Conway sounds repentant in this particular song.

And like all great Love Men from King Solomon to Prince, Conway recognized the power of mystery. He rarely gave interviews. He mostly passed on television. He never spoke from the stage. If you can pull off both passion and mystery you’re going to get hearts beating. By that measure—or any other—Cardiac Conway was one of the most successful singers of our time.

Postscript. If Conway Twitty's sex appeal is incomprehensible, his career numbers are as likely to stagger. He had somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty Number One hits from 1958, after he graduated from Sun Records, until his death in the early 1990s. During his peak he put an amazing four or five solo singles on the charts every year—as often as not in the Top 10—and to boot he usually threw in one of his surefire duets with Loretta Lynn. When it came to material, he feared no genre. Before the end he’d taken covers of the Pointer Sisters’ "Slow Hand" and Bette Midler’s "The Rose" to the top of the country charts. Bette, alas, has a few years of spinning in her grave ahead of her, but Conway’s not allowed to rest, either. Just last month, his voice landed on an ill-fated attempt to resurrect him as a duet partner.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Please give love a bad name

For virtually all bands and singers, there comes a day when decline sets in. History seems to suggest that nothing can stop it, for if remedies could be found, careers could be sustained. Maybe not forever. But a year or two more. An extra hit single never hurt the bank account. It might even stave off that embarrassing descent into pure celebrity that is necessary to pay off tax bills.

But dream bigger. With proper planning that hit single could be the annoying memory of a lifetime for millions of people. The plan: aim at The Big Moments of Our Lives.

Let us use as an example, "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)," by Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, a staple of wedding receptions that briefly salvaged Lowe's underachieving career. Annoying? Yes. Pandering? Laughably so. Did I own it? (Choke) Yes. I was so young! And he had produced a Pretenders song! But it got the singer on the radio and, thanks to matrimonial overuse, probably 5% of Americans in the late 1980s could use the phrase "Nick Lowe" in a sentence. Sure that Q-rating faded; but the point is, he kept it up longer than the Fates intended.

The Carpenters pioneered this sort of thing with "We’ve Only Just Begun." The song was, of course, the famous byproduct of a California bank commercial. And gold it did mint, young Jedi, dominating not only weddings but proms and high school graduations. True, most songs of this ilk are accidental. Ordinary love songs that catch on, and the like. But that doesn't have to be the case. Songs for Big Moments represents such a huge untapped market one cannot believe the record companies, artists, and agents have overlooked the chance to deploy their weapons of mass persuasion. They’re aware of the holiday phenomenon, after all. That everyone gets around to recording a Christmas song proves it.

What Big Moments await the savvy and the cynical? Funerals happen to everyone, true, but they are seldom musical occasions, and tradition provides all the song we need via bagpipes. What, then? Let’s start early in life. Could former choirgirl Whitney Houston rise back to stardom singing a soundtrack to baptisms? You bet she could, assuming she doesn’t die before her next trip to rehab (no wagering, please). We have to keep Weird Al away from the bris category—though a lifetime ban from recording equipment would be better—and pray Yahweh you don’t get a moyl who is a boombox-equipped cut-up (as it were) with "Cuts Like a Knife" cued up.‡ Still, little Jewish boys need to get circumcised. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if a song for the occasion brought on the noize?

In a multicultural nation like ours, huge numbers of rites of passage go unremarked-upon by our popular music. Madness! Kids get graduation ceremonies for everything these days—a huge market! In addition there’s sacred rites of passage galore among teens, one of the music industry's prime markets. Think confirmation and bar/bat mitzvah and, for the evangelically-inclined, the all-important second baptism. Going beyond the Judeo-Christian box, the same principle applies to teen Muslims, Buddhists, and animists. Let’s face it, there’s no party like an animist fertility rite welcoming a teen into adulthood. But the music? Come on. All those pan-flutes?

With a little research Foreigner might’ve lasted a few more years. Wonder what happened to the Verve Pipe? They passed up the chance to record a Bought Our First House song, that’s what. Tammy Wynette closed the book on "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," but there’s a lot of ground left to cover. The music industry has to realize they've only just begun.

‡ Like I’m going to let the opportunity to make that joke go by. Still better than anything you’ll get from Weird Al.

Bonus moyl humor:
A man passed a store window with nothing in it but a clock, stepped inside, and asked, "How long would it take to fix my watch?"

"How should I know?" shrugged the storekeeper. "I don't fix watches. I'm a moyl."

"But—in your window—you have a clock."

"So what would you put in the window?"

Monday, May 02, 2005

Was Iron Man's rampage justified?

It's vengeance taken from beyond the grave that is well known to rock fans everywhere. But did humanity deserve to feel the murderous blows and ferruginous wrath of Black Sabbath's hero Iron Man?

Let's agree up front: throughout the early part of the song Iron Man is a figure of pity. Unable to communicate, seemingly immobile, Iron Man looks, for all intents and purposes, to have perished in battle. Just a statue standing—well, where? From the song lyrics it's unclear. In a museum? In a dreary British park, rusting due to acid rain and settled upon by a disrespectful pigeontry? On the street corner outside Harrod's? It's a public place, obviously, for as Iron Man stands there—clearly getting angrier all the time—the rest of humanity ignores him.

On the surface, this apathy sounds sad, perhaps cruel. But did the passers-by realize Iron Man had even survived? Could it be that the metallic shell of the superhero was considered a memorial?

I think I speak for a grateful planet when I say that humanity appreciated Iron Man's sacrifice on our behalf. But, in fairness, the Great Magnetic Field was not our fault. It is, science assures us, an out-of-control force of nature. Certainly our hero, being made of iron, showed courage confronting the unchecked power of magnetism. But that was never in doubt. What's in doubt is the question of justice. On this point, Iron Man seems inescapably in the wrong.

The fact he had to travel through time to confront the threat suggests that if humanity did something to unleash the Great Magnetic Field, it did so in (presumably) the future. If this hypothesis is anywhere near the truth, then, those living in the present did not deserve the Iron Wrath. He punctured the time/space continuum once. He couldn't do it again to take out his murderous impulses on those who might deserve it?

The verdict is clear: Iron Man returned from beyond magnetism and death itself to plant his boots of lead firmly on the behind of a human race that did not deserve such treatment. Filling them with dread would have been worthy enough of condemnation. But wreaking destruction to one of the most influential and cartilage-busting guitar freakouts in rock history? Unalloyed wrongdoing.