Sunday, January 29, 2012

Epics Made Easy: Njal's Saga, Chapter 4

Previously: Hrut goes to Norway in pursuit of his inheritance and meets King Harald. Hrut spends a fortnight in the (ahem) upper chamber with the king’s mother. Harald soon makes him a retainer.

Hrut learns that Soti, the keeper of the inheritance, has run off with the money to Denmark. The Cayman Islands of medieval Europe? Anyway, King Harald and his lusty mother Gunnhild loan the intrepid Icelander four longships to go after the thieving nogoodnik. They also assign Ulf the Unwashed, leader of the gestasveit, to lend our hero service. In a footnote we learn the gestasveit was a secret police organization responsible for rooting out rebellion. King Harald sees off Hrut and the pursuit is on!

Next time: Hrut runs afoul of pirates; spears are thrown; much booty is seized.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Epics Made Easy: Njal's Saga, Chapter 3

Previously: Hrut Herjolfsson, now engaged, sets sail with his Uncle Ozur to claim an inheritance in Norway. Riding a favorable wind, they reach the country in three weeks.

After a shout-out to King Harald Grey-Cloak and a short list of his forefathers, the story turns to the intrigues of Queen Gunnhild, Harald’s mother and a woman of influence. According to Ozur, she controls the fate of Hrut’s inheritance. “I know Gunnhild’s nature,” Ozur warns. “The moment we refuse her invitation, she will hound us out of the country and seize all we own; but if we accept, she will treat us as handsomely as she promised.”

Hrut asks to become the king’s retainer. Harald, unimpressed, nonetheless yields to his mother’s high opinion of the visitor and tells him to return in a fortnight to take up his duties. Meanwhile, he’s to stay in Gunnhild’s tapestry-filled hall. A night of drink and Gunnhild states that Hrut is to lie with her in the upper chamber—alone. “Such matters are for you to decide,” says our shrewd and amenable Viking. After two weeks in the love nest, Hrut gives the queen fine cloth and furs, then returns to the king—with thirty men, just to be safe. On Gunnhild’s suggestion, however, Hrut is granted a place of high honor.
Next time: Enter . . . Ulf the Unwashed.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

45s: Tipping points

Throughout pop history certain artists have combined an inexplicable run of success with historic suckdom. One or two probably occurred to you at the very moment you landed on the period at the end of that sentence. Said acts pulled a train of hits through an era. Today they, and the hits they spawned, stand as watchwords for nostalgic kitsch, at best, and cultural assault, at worst.

Yet, yet, in the list of their hits lurks a mostly forgotten song that takes them into a still deeper level of badness. When you hear this song it makes you think, My God, they're even worse than I thought.

I have no pithy term to apply to this concept, nor to the offending song. But the phenomenon deserves study.

Target: Billy Joel
After a dalliance in metal, Joel broke through as an inoffensive singer/songwriter who tried to keep that vibe going even as he became an adult contemporary colossus. But he ran out of gas after 52nd Street or during The Nylon Curtain and, his own creativity tapped, filled vinyl by cannibalizing the history of pop music. New Wave, doo wop, Springsteen, Fifties pop, Phil Spector, the Four Seasons, reggae (!), hard rockin' early Beatles--the man was voracious.

My God!: Going just on my level of antipathy, I'd choose "You're Only Human (Second Wind)." I find the background vocals to be transcendently grating, and the overall song sounds like the theme to a Jim Belushi-Whoopi Goldberg comedy that fortunately remained unmade. Also, the Human League did the same thing better the next year. But I cannot in clear conscience pick on a song written for suicide prevention. Frankly, I'm conflicted about hassling Joel at all, as the guy has been treated for depression more than once in his life, and was friendly the one time I spoke to him. As I am obviously a soft-spined weak ass, I will forgive "You're Only Human" and instead pin the My God! label on 1984's dire "Keeping the Faith," his 12th or so Fifties homage and a hit mostly forgotten after its run up the charts. Double negative vibes for a video that showed off Christie Brinkley (we get it, dude) and gave Joe Piscopo a cameo.

Target: Lionel Ritchie (solo)
If you lived through the 1980s, you can call off a Lionel Ritchie playlist that sounds like a list of felonies. "All Night Long." "Hello." "Stuck on You." The "We Are the World" disaster. "Dancing on the Ceiling." That's enough to condemn anyone.

My God!: Yet, yet, "Running with the Night" takes the man even further into Perdition. You can picture Lionel in the studio with the tape ready to roll. He's got his fists balled in excitement. This is where I want to get edgy, he tells the musicians. No more of that "Stuck on You" treacle. I want hot! I want dangerous! Then these collected professionals--they include Steve Lukather of Toto and (choke) Richard Marx--deliver what a person with synesthesia would hear as the color biege.

"Running with the Night" admittedly subverts some of what I'm getting at. Most My God! songs come late in a run of hits, when all the bandwagon jumpers have made their leap. But "Running" followed up "All Night Long," the first mega-single from Can't Slow Down. Still, it fits our concept as it seldom got airplay after its heyday. "Dancing on the Ceiling" came later, but if you'd like to become the first My God! purist, we'll choose it instead. Cover artists for "Running" include available-via-this-TV-offer-only giant Richard Clayderman. 'Nuff said.

Target: Phil Collins/Genesis
I read that Collins, having purchased the Alamo, sits in his Swiss chalet and wrestles with the black dog due to the abuse rained on his career. Looking at his singles list from a historical angle, I'd say that, for my money, nothing plumbs greater depths than what he inflicted on an innocent public back in the 1980s. He seems like a pleasant enough sort in a Ringo way, though. It couldn't have been easy to hold onto a sense of humor after years of contact with Peter Gabriel.

My God!: Only one thing saves "Another Day in Paradise" (with David Crosby on backup, no less) from worst-of-the-decade honors: ninety other hits were just as bad, and that's too many certificates to print out. The song doesn't work for our purposes, alas, because everyone remembers it, indeed puts their fists to their temples and screams gibberish about "that homeless song" if it's mentioned. The thing is, I can't pinpoint one Collins song that's extraordinarily bad. There's a spectrum, with aggravating ballads on one end and "Another Day in Paradise" on the other, but he maintained a very consistent level of suckdom. I'm going to go with "Take Me Home." Not as obscure as "Don't Lose My Number," but the drum machine mania makes it worse, and it was the last hit single released off an Eighties mega-album. Honorable mentions to Genesis' "Invisible Touch" and all the Collins/Genesis songs with tonight or the letter a in the title.

Target: Huey Lewis and the News
My favorite thing about Huey Lewis and the News is that they beat Ray Parker Jr. out of a pile of cash for the latter's appropriation of "I Want a New Drug" for the Ghostbusters theme. That you'd rip off Huey Lewis and run with it on a high profile piece of product--I mean, the lack of taste on display is actually surpassed by the lack of ethics, and the stupidity dwarfs both.

Huey and the News broke with the inoffensive "Do You Believe in Love?" but Sports launched a thousand hits (and 10 million units). "Hip to Be Square," a regrettably memorable song from the Fore long play, came near the end of their string and has since been immortalized, in proper cultural context yet, by Christian Bale in American Psycho.

My God!: "Stuck with You." Because Billy Joel didn't wear out the old time music homages. Even worse when you consider it worked the same themes as Orleans' "Still the One."

Target: Bryan Adams
Philanthropist and vegan, so archetypically a Canadian his middle name is Guy, Adams started out as a fill-in singer for Sweeney Todd (more or less replacing Nick Gilder) at age 15. Aided by craprepreneur Mutt Lange, Adams flourished all over the Eighties before closing out his salad days with two culture-halting mega-ballads: "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You," a single that sold in historic volume; and "All for One," the Adams-Sting-Rod Stewart super team-up meant to remind us of the Three Musketeers. That very serious trio could've really used a Porthos. I assume Meat Loaf was unavailable.

My God!: The ballads are unforgettable, and therefore unsuitable for our project. "Please Forgive Me," a 1993 song released in utter defiance of every music trend then bearing fruit, had less of a hold on memory in the U.S. I could never hear 1985's "Heaven" again, either. But I will, probably while tied to a chair at a wedding in Hell.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Epics Made Easy: Njal's Saga, Chapter 2

Previously: the stepbrothers Hoskuld and Hrut had a disagreement about the morals of Hoskuld’s daughter, Hallgerd, who according to Hrut has “thief’s eyes.” Also: many ancestors were mentioned, including Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Olaf Peacock.


Hoskuld and Hrut set out for the Althing, Iceland’s parliament. Hoskuld insists his stepbrother find a wife and suggests Unn, daughter of the mighty chieftain and lawyer Mord Fiddle. “I like the look of her,” says Hrut. “But I do not know we are destined to be happy together.” You ain’t kidding, Hrut. Mord, too, is dubious, and he isn’t buying Hoskuld’s brotherly hype. Hrut admits, “love makes Hoskuld exaggerate my virtues.”

Mord insists on a dowry of sixty hundreds, a price explained in a boggling footnote that says a hundred refers to 120 ells of woolen cloth and that this translates to various numbers of livestock. The translator helpfully runs the numbers and comes out with a dowry of 80 cows. Hrut, owed a fair amount of land and already owner of a trading ship, agrees to the price and is betrothed to Unn.

On the way home, however, Hrut learns that a sizable inheritance awaits him—in Norway. Enemies, alas, threaten to seize the money. But if Hrut leaves Iceland to claim the cash it’ll wreak havoc with the date of his wedding. The longhouse is rented, the skalds hired, it's a mess. Hrut asks Mord for an extension. His future father-in-law agrees to wait three years to give his daughter away. Thus protected, Hrut sets sail, for some reason with everything he owns, and heads for Oslo Fjord.

NEXT TIME: Queen Gunnhild wants what Hrut’s got, and it has nothing to do with cows.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Epics Made Easy: Njal's Saga

Epic literature forms a vital part of Western culture. To be able to reference one of these foundational tales is a short cut to convincing others of your superior intellect. Yet who has time to read this stuff? Not you. Epics Made Easy offers a chapter by chapter breakdown of the stories that made us what we are today: semi-literate technophiles addicted to team sports and reality television.  First up: Njal's Saga, an anonymous account of events that took place in Iceland around the year 1000.

We begin with the marriage prospects of Unn, daughter of renowned lawyer Mord Fiddle; and of Hallgerd, a looker who kicks off a long career as a troublemaker by inspiring a rift between two brothers. We start with actual Saga text, as translated by Magnus Magnusson, just in case you need a quote to pass an exam. The 45s and Under breakdown will begin with Chapter 2.


The narrator informs us that: ...Hoskuld had a daughter called Hallgerd, who was playing on the floor with some other girls; she was a tall, beautiful child with long silken hair that hung down to her waist. Hoskuld called to her, “Come over here to me.” She went to him at once. Her father tilted her chin and kissed her, and she walked away again.

Then Hoskuld asked Hrut: “What do you think of her? Do you not think she is beautiful?”

Hrut made no reply. Hoskuld repeated the question. Then Hrut said, “The child is beautiful enough, and many will suffer for her beauty; but I cannot imagine how thief’s eyes have come into our kin.”

Hoskuld was furious; and for a time there was coldness between them.

NEXT TIME: Hrut goes wife hunting and finds out that a woman costs lots of fabric.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

45s: Essence o' classic rock

“Never Been Any Reason,” by Head East (1975)
Written by Mike Somerville

Blockhead classic rock, Illinois style, and it’s got all the ingredients you demand: a lead singer with some shriek in his voice, a tubby and balding band member with a bad beard, slick multi-tracked chorus, cocaine and sweet lovin' references, and a then-de rigueur synth redeemed by a riff five hundred feet high. It’s the kind of accessible, familiar-but-not-overused song an unimaginative movie would use for an aerial shot of Woody Harrelson's van driving down a highway. Kind of like the Doobie Brothers’, um, “Driving Down the Highway,"

Though labeled hard rock, Head East leaned toward the pop end of that vaguely defined genre, eschewing the heavier Deep Purple areas of the spectrum in favor of becoming the heartland answer to Thin Lizzy. Now that I think about it, you could transplant the "Never Been Any Reason" riff into "Jailbreak" and come out with a fairly similar piece of music. In fact, Somerville must've tapped into some ur-noise from the collective unconscious with that guitar. Every time you hear the intro, it takes a second to ID the song as "Never Been Any Reason," because a dozen other classic rock standards start in kind of the same way. I'm not suggesting anyone stole anything. Rather, I'd suggest Somerville's riff is Distilled Pure Essence of classic rock, and that he, too, drew upon the same well as others to create the kind of magic that keeps a song on FM radio for almost forty years.

Head East played its first show in Carbondale, Illinois in 1969. After personnel changes and a grind through the club scene, the band coalesced in Champaign and recorded their breakthrough Flat as a Pancake in Pekin, a musical mecca near Peoria. Do-it-yourselfers with a vision, the band put out Pancake on its own label and it did okay enough to net them a deal with A&M. A reissued version sporting "Never Been Any Reason" as a hit single sold over half a million copies.

The band continued to move steady if unspectacular product for most of the decade. In 1978 their version of "Since You Been Gone" beat both Cherrie Currie's and Rainbow's to the shops, though Rainbow--fronted by Deep Purple founder Ritchie Blackmore, then hungry for some o' that mainstream pop gravy--had the biggest hit.

The industry-wide turn against classic rock took down Head East in the early eighties. But fear not. The classic rock format kept "Never Been Any Reason" alive long enough for the band to come back as an oldies act in the 1990s. Seriously, people, if you score one hit, you can live off it forever. They're still out there today, bringing the rock to cityfests and casinos in the company of Eddie Money and Uriah Heep.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

45s: Message from Funk Judas

"Easy," by Faith No More (1992)
Written by Lionel Ritchie

Bands covering pop for kitsch value had not yet devolved from mild nostalgia-tinted amusement to weary not-againedness when alt-metal pioneers Faith No More released this single during the aftershocks of the grungequake. Their 1992 disc Angel Dust is a schizophrenic, over the top fusion of every kind of music then in the air. So why not a non-album single that covered Lionel Ritchie? Truly the band had foresight, for they already realized that an entry in the Train Wreck Cover sub-genre required maximum clash between the public's perceptions of the source material and of the covering artist.

FNM played it semi-straight, as you had to, and we all knew they were goofin', as we had to. Flattering the listener as an irony-drenched insider moved units in those days. Say no more: "Easy" went to the top echelons of the Australian and UK charts.

FNM puts down a recognizable version twisted just a bit by bent keyboard bits and tongue-in-cheek ethereal choruses. The guitar is also predictably (and thankfully) heavier. Mike Patton, meanwhile, leaves Lionel Ritchie in the dust for vocals, and Patton's not even serious. He throws down the most obvious wink to the savvy by turning Lionel's pre-bridge "oooh" into a who-cut-the-cheese "ewwwwww" that offers his opinion of the material. (The video makes it clear, too.)

All in all, FNM remains the coolest band to honor the song with a cover, not that there's huge competition since "Easy" turned into a standard for Idol/America's Got Talent auditionees hoping to cadge spectrum-wide votes by tapping the soul-as-mixmastered-through-country stylings of the Commodores original.

At first glance it's tempting to say that FNM pioneered another Train Wreck trope: going as low as possible, low, that is, according to the then-moldering body of criticism provided by Boomer writers, the arbiters of taste and What Was Right in popular music since the Sixties. Of course, it turned out that at least some Nineties musical sensations sincerely enjoyed the Carpenters and KISS and didn't consider "Seasons in the Sun" the end of civilization.

But FNM could have done worse than "Easy" and still remained in the Lionel Ritchie catalog. Much worse. Few artists damaged Eighties radio like that guy, though in pure commercial terms his timing was excellent. The Hey-There're-Black-People-Who-Don't-Scare-Me! meme had begun to run free down Main Street America around the time Ritchie went solo, and he handled the soundtrack for the new colorblind USA while Cosby provided the laughs. Compared to Ritchie's Reagan-era output, "Easy" was Cole Porter. But maybe FNM tried "Penny Lover" and kept laughing too hard.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Rough Draft: There's a riot goin' on

An outtake from the appendix in my forthcoming Blackhawks history. Made an outtake because it has nothing to do with the Blackhawks.

The Richard Riot, one of the NHL’s more colorful if appalling events, takes place on March 17, 1955. Four days earlier, the short-tempered Rocket Richard takes exception, as we say in the business, to a high stick to the noggin from Boston’s Hal Laycoe. Once the play is blown dead, Laycoe drops the gloves to settle things in the time honored manner. A bloody Richard eschews fisticuffs and proceeds to crack Laycoe about the head and shoulders with his stick. Once disarmed, Richard finds another stick to continue the assault—this happened a total of three times—and then slugs referee Cliff Thompson into unconsciousness. As regards the latter, Richard was a repeat offender, having already slapped a ref in December. After the game, Montreal players bar the door against a phalanx of Boston’s finest until Bruins officials convince the police officers to stand down.

NHL president Clarence Campbell suspends Richard for the rest of the season. Fans of the Habs angrily denounce the punishment as nothing less than an attack on French Canadian culture via the humiliation of the greatest Francophone player. Others, however, wonder how Richard got off so easy considering he laid a beat down on a ref. Despite death threats, Campbell attends Montreal’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day game on March 17. Fans pelt him and his staff with eggs, vegetables, and—here's a nice Gallic touch—pig’s feet. The crowd is so out of control that even Montreal’s players are nervous. Police intervene when a fan punches Campbell, then a tear gas bomb explodes, and then authorities order the evacuation of the building.

Once outside, the crowd goes on a rampage—stores looted, cars overturned, fires started—that injures 37 people and causes tens of thousands of dollars in damage. Richard goes on TV to ask for calm in two languages while Montreal’s forfeit of the game costs them first place. Everyone blames everyone else, French-speakers use the treatment of the Rocket as a rallying point for 1960s civil rights protests, and the next season Montreal gets Richard back and wins the first of five straight Stanley Cups.

Friday, January 06, 2012

45s: Don't call it a comeback

“December 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” by The Four Seasons (1976)
Written by Bob Gaudio and Judy Parker

Sometimes you can't predict which song will have a thirty-five-year shelf life.

Propelled by a disco beat, some funk-as-funk-is-understood-by-white-people guitar work, and a polished pro performance, "December 1963" told the tale of a boy with a high tenor losing his virginity. Unlike many of the Four Seasons' early-Sixties hits, "December 1963" had vocals from the drummer and bassist, with usual front-man Frankie Valli saving his immense range for the refrain.

"December 1963" is more than another oldie. It still gets airplay on good time music stations beyond the oldies format, at suburban summer fun-fests, at weddings and corporate events. In other words, it's a kind of super-oldie that, in transcending the memories of its original audience, has become an ongoing part of pop culture rather than a mere relic.

One can reasonably ask, "Why 'December 1963' and not 'In the Year 2525?'"

The song's resurgent popularity had its roots in the 1991 release of the popular "Grease Megamix." By imposing an overpowering dance beat on faux-greaser music, the Megamix prepared the public to accept similar treatment of the Made in Jersey real thing. Three years later, "December 1963" hit again in a dance mix version that powered the step-aerobics classes of millions of young women.

It's hard to imagine that Jersey Boys exists without the group's unusual 1990s comeback. Not to say the 4S had failed to show staying power in the past.

In the months following December 1963, a lot of American groups became so much wreckage smoldering inside the blast radius left by the British Invasion. But the Four Seasons continued to have hits despite being chained to a record company driven to the brink of bankruptcy because Introducing... The Beatles had dropped into its lap and it didn't have the money to print enough albums to meet demand. One way or another, the Fab Four destroyed all comers.

Valli added some ostensibly solo hits that basically used the Four Seasons mafia as backup. But by the late part of the decade an even greater shift in musical tastes—toward serious themes and groovy musicianship—had made the Seasons as out-of-date as pompadours. A star-crossed alliance with Motown led nowhere but Valli, still assisted by the FS crew, began scoring hits on his own as the American record-buying public abandoned seriousness and desperately grasped at the twin messiahs of nostalgia and uncomplicated pop.

Valli's "My Eyes Adored You"—a ballad rescued from the Motown dead end—put him back in the public eye about the time an available-through-this-TV-offer-only greatest hits collection reminded people the Four Seasons had existed. (The Beach Boys and Connie Francis, among others, benefited from the same kind of product.) Disco, the great resurrector, then gave the Seasons and the world "Who Loves You," a crib of a Telly Savalas catch phrase and a very jive product indeed.

Valli went on to contribute the title song of the Grease soundtrack, and he and Travolta may have been the only performers in that entire project who acted anywhere near their age. Fifteen years later, the dance mix. A generation (or two) later, Broadway glory.

No doubt the Four Seasons will fade once more. But given the success of Jersey Boys, and the fact people keep holding corporate events that promise dancing, repeated revivals are inevitable.

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Banners Way

Mixed feelings fill my soul as I watch my colleague Ron Paul ascend to the Near Presidency of the United States. Here could have been Dag, think I. After each of my earlier runs for the country's top office, dating back to my bruising underdog campaign versus the Koch Brothers for Fringe Candidate of the Season in 1980, I always had to eventually concede that my ideas remained too far ahead of my fellow citizens. But I persevered because each year seemed to bring the hungry electorate closer to my politico-philosophical bosoms.

It is not that Banners misjudged what strange ideas people might vote for in 2011/2012. To the contrary, I had laid the foundation for another high-energy run at saving Our Nation--printing Banners bumper stickers to sell at gun shows, publishing Tract #437 ("The Corn Dog-Hip Hop Connection"), and turning out a whole new line of sandwich boards for my followers to wear on street corners.

I admit, though, that even then I doubted. Yes, Your Leader is occasionally human! But cold logic shook me, for once. The fact was, Ron Paul had already co-opted so many of my positions that I suspected entering the fray would fragment our overlapping followings into armed (and I mean armed) camps.

For instance:

ITEM: We both have vowed to crash the economy to inflate the value of our gold reserves.

ITEM: We both believe in vesting all power with the states in the hope that empowered local governments will bring back debt slavery, child labor, the 80-cents-a-day wage, sedition acts, moonshining, periodic war with Mexico, and many other now-lost practices that once formed the backbone of our mighty nation.

ITEM: We both believe in racial equality yet built organizations to introduce socially awkward white men (only) to white women (only) with no self esteem--in Banners' case a dating service, in Ron Paul's case a libertarian cult connected by newsletters and a complex system of vocal and visual cues that draw from the reserved rhetoric of the John Birch Society and the scintillating fashion sense of Ayn Rand.

But I intended to go forward nonetheless. Banners is no quitter, especially when he believes Iowans may turn up in double digits to hear him pitch his latest DVDs.

In an ironic turn, however, I was injured in a rural way. I refer of course to my Banners Red Cattle Sperm business. As my longtime readers and listeners know, our brand of bullish swimmers was chosen by prophecy superstar Hal Lindsay as the sperm most likely to conceive the sacred and unblemished Red Heifer.

Unfortunately, one of the herd, Lord's Load, became agitated during the Tuesday morning procurement session. Let me just say it was a bad time to have a hangnail. The goring went unnoticed at first, as I was consumed by the idea that the Red Heifer's appearance will open the gate--or at least the construction site--to a Third Temple, the Second Coming, and a First in Show for Banners at the great 4-H meeting in the sky.

When I awakened after the blood transfusion, the doctors told me I could not even think about conducting an arduous political campaign. They also said I had received blood from strangers. I was outraged. The tattoo on Banners' chest specifies drawing from my private blood supply in case of accident. Did I have a Notary Public stamp my skin for nothing? But that was not the worst of it. A basket of Get Well flowers had already arrived. There, on a card decorated with gold leaf, Ron Paul had written: "Don't you make enough money from what comes out of the back of a bull?"

Damn your eyes, Ron Paul.

Dag Banners is an author, think tank founder, entrepreneur, proud former Amway representative, and the world's only survivalist motivational guru. His syndicated column and shortwave radio program go world wide.