Thursday, September 21, 2006

45s: Dystopia rock

"In the Year 2525," by Zager and Evans
Written by Rick Evans

In keeping with this week's unintended sci-fi theme, and because I heard it on the radio this morning, let us ponder one of the strangest of Top 40 hits, a folk-pop look into the future that, as such, may be a genre in and of itself.

Not that rock hasn't looked into grim futures from time to time. Pink Floyd's Animals does so at album length. If memory serves, Rush went there a few times and promised deliverance at the grasping hands of Our Returned Savior Ayn Rand. Bowie worked more in space themes than outright dystopia, but we'll throw him in here. We will not count Eurythmics' soundtrack to 1984, however. Not until that day George Orwell gets co-songwriting credit and a share of the royalties.

There were others. But rarely in the Top Forty.

It's hard to imagine who heard this song and thought, "Hit-fire!" The lead vocal sounds like someone imitating an old man, Gabrielesque horns come out of nowhere, there's a not-even-groovy strumming beat to carry us through the centuries.

I grant you, the lyrics ride a great gimmick. From 2525 to 3535 to 4545, and so on. Almost Schoolhouse Rock in its simplicity and catchiness. Then you've got your "Exordium and Terminus" subtitle. Sounds very important, very heavy, if we may use some of that hip lexicon of the time. Last but not least, you have titanium-strength word power like this:

In the year 4545
Ain't gonna need your teeth
Won't need your eyes.
You won't find a thing to chew.
Nobody's gonna look at you.

Heavy, indeed.

Mind you, this wasn't just a Number One song. "In the Year 2525," by a couple of guys from Nebraska never heard from since, sold roughly eight million copies. It was one of the biggest-selling singles of the entire 1960s, if I may use boldface. It sold beyond every Beatles hit except "Hey Jude" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand." It hit Number One in multiple countries. Yea, I dare to state in print that it even approached the massive worldwide love lavished on Staff Sgt. Barry Sandler's "Ballad of the Green Berets."

The success truly baffles. From the sound of it, people were in a bad mood in 1969. I don't get it. Look, I can see where you'd be thinking about the future. Zager and Evans scored at the same time a rockin' little three-piece led by Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. But I was under the impression that the Moon Landing provided a moment of optimism. Even the people who considered it staged should at least have granted that Armstrong's performance took movie magic to a new level.

But perhaps it is easier to accept that it was simply a confusing time. Lord knows, it's either that explanation or we must wonder if there was a manifestation of some forgotten mania left out of the late edition of Extraordinarily Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. For Zager and Evans followed the "Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet" at the tops of the pops, before giving way to "Honky Tonk Women." The summer of 1969, better known as Postmodern Mind-Fuck #403.

Update: Reader Stu points out that Bowie's Diamond Dogs album has three 1984-themed songs on it (including one called "1984"). We thank him for his input. DD is admittedly not an album I know well; when I rummage Reader Stu's CD collection for some weekend Bowie, I always borrow Heroes.

While we're here, I suppose I should also lump in Floyd with Eurythmics when it comes to paying Orwell royalties. Animals is, famously, a take on Animal Farm. Let us now turn it over to WKRP in Cincinnati for the classic take on the album:

(Mr. Carlson enters the DJ booth. Pink Floyd's "Dogs" plays throughout the scene.)

Fever: Gripping music, huh?
Mr. Carlson: Yeah, that's good all right. What's the name of that orchestra?
Fever: Pink Floyd.
Mr. Carlson: Oooh, is that Pink Floyd? (Listens.) Do I hear dogs barking on that thing?
Fever: I do.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Space hippy jam band

Star Trek, original recipe, is getting a makeover.

Re-recorded soundtracks.

Touched-up special effects.

As with most fans, this event puts my inner purist at odds with my 21st Century Man. On the one hand, the $18 per episode budget gave Trek a distinctive patina of cheesiness that is, well, endearing. If the computer wizards use contemporary F/X to make the space ships look good, how then to explain the cardboard-and-Lite Brite bridge? Bones McCoy using a Mr. Microphone to cure disease? Scotty's toolbox of widgets purchased by Paramount gofers at Japanese trade shows?

I suppose I care less about re-recording the music. Mind you, I think it the most unnecessary of the new elements, though I might feel differently if I had Surroundsound stereo with my TV. Even the music presents problems, though. Should we not, in the interest of consistency, update the Space Hippies with Radiohead rather than their current sound, i.e. that of a track from a Jack Webb spoken word album of spoof folk tunes?

As for the visuals, well, this worries me. Again, we must blame George Lucas for something. The man apparently spent twenty years of his life waiting for the chance to make the Death Star explode in a cooler way. (By the way, this obsession proves that Lucas really doesn't haven't a head full of art films he's always wanted to make. Clearly he spent 1975-2003 wondering how to redecorate Mos Eisley spaceport, not explore new cinematic frontiers.) Having broken down resistance to computer retouching of iconic space opera, Lucas thus cleared the way for Paramount to do the same with Trek.

Man, he's got himself one growing pile of cultural war crimes.

Granted, worrying that the orange planet will look orangier, or that the Enterprise might seem capable of actual flight, are purist arguments. I can put them aside. After all, I like oranginess. I want to believe the Enterprise can turn it up to Warp Nine, whatever Scotty's complaints about the inadequate laws of physics. And the Galileo VII could use some work.

But you know it won't stop there. Imagine the next round of alterations. Can you doubt they'll excise Shatner's season three love handles? Oil up Sulu even more (maybe at Takei's personal request)? And you know there's already the temptation to make over the sweaty-looking Klingons of 1967 into the bizarre (if more plausible) species afflicted with Klingon Pattern Baldness that was brought to us in recent decades.

Scotty using profanity. Koenig exchanging his Beatles 'do for dreads. "Better" uniforms. Alberto Gonzalez's reinterpretation of the Prime Directive. I hope Paramount can control itself, that this is not a slippery slope.