Thursday, October 30, 2008

Halloween Rock

The songs one might consider placing under the broad rubric of “Halloween Rock” occupy a curious niche in rock music history. They do not especially exhibit the tendentiousness of the “novelty song,” those occasional or ad hoc songs recorded to raise money for a certain charity, for instance, or recorded to capitalize on a current consumer fad or craze. Nor do they form a coherent subgenre of rock music, having no recurring, identifiable characteristics, thus making them different from a highly commercialized popular musical form such as the Christmas song. Another difference from Christmas music is that “Halloween Rock” is not necessarily music one plays at Halloween, but all year long. Nonetheless, there are certain tunes that one inevitably is compelled to play at Halloween, such as “The Blob,” “Monster Mash, “Psycho Killer,” “Werewolves of London,” and “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, the latter song actually used in the movie Halloween. None of these aforementioned songs are particular “scary” in my view, although they are all highly memorable pieces of music, and somehow seem especially appropriate to play at this time of year.

Yesterday posted a list of the “Top 10 User-Submitted Halloween Rock Tunes,” consisting of readers contributing to “the perfect Halloween rock playlist.” I invite everyone to check out the list—complete with videos—that, while extraordinarily heterogeneous, marked by different styles and different historical periods, actually contains some interesting choices: among them, The Kinks’ “Wicked Annabella,” The Sonics’ “The Witch,” Electric Light Orchestra’s “Fire on High” (from the album Face the Music, the back cover of which is pictured above), The Who’s “Boris the Spider,” and what, for me anyway, is the most interesting choice, Crispin Glover’s rendition of “Ben.” Crispin Glover, remember, starred in the 2003 remake of Willard (1971), a story about a young man’s fascination and strong identification with rats. “Ben,” a huge hit for the young Michael Jackson, was the title track to that film’s 1972 sequel, Ben. Although Willard and its sequel are generally considered “campy,” for an alternative view I would recommend everyone to read Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux, in particular the chapter titled “1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible.” Deleuze and Guattari are especially fond of the film Willard as an illustration of the principle they name “Becoming-Animal,” the strong identification certain human beings have with certain animals, imitating them, modeling their behavior on them, in short attempting to become them. Contrary to a film such as The Wolfman, for instance, which depicts the horror of becoming Other, Willard explores the deep desire to do just that. (Vampire films often explore similar territory.)

At any rate, over at a list of favored “Halloween Rock” tunes follows the “Top 10” Halloween songs, and I invite everyone to peruse it. Moreover, I wish all my readers, now and in the future, a Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

End Of An Era

The website announced yesterday—October 28, 2008—that JVC, the final company producing standalone VCRs, has ceased manufacture of the venerable machines. Obviously yesterday was an historic day. Apparently, JVC will “continue to serve customers with a need to play back VHS tapes by offering up DVD/VHS combo units, but those looking for a shiny new slice of retro in 2008 will be out of luck after remaining inventories dry up.” Since the first VHS VCR was introduced in 1976—the JVC HR-3300, priced at $1,400 and weighing 30 pounds—that is, 32 years ago, over 900 million VCRs were manufactured worldwide, “with 50 million of those boasting a JVC label.”

I can't say that I'm "sad" about it; indeed, I have given away many dozens of VHS tapes to students and others—consisting of both pre-records as well as material taped off of television—the past year and a half or so, but I don’t see myself ever completely “VHS free.” I have too much rare material that simply can’t be found on DVD (at least at the moment), not movies so much as much as live TV and hard-to-find TV interviews--some of it from the late 1970s. And what's wrong with keeping some of those old tapes that have vintage television commercials on them? I simply can't motivate myself to transfer all of that old material to DVD-Rs. Ugh.

I thus anticipate the coexisting with the videocassette—both VHS and Beta (my Sony Betamax is alive and well)—for many more years. Perhaps these material artifacts of a déclassé technology will do nothing but collect dust, but the technology has been too much a part of my life to dispense with it so cavalierly.

Pop Aphorisms: X

1. The fact that rock ‘n’ roll is about a whole lot more than the music is rock culture’s equivalent of the elephant in the living room.

2. It is a common occurrence to find two fans who like the same band and the same music to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to say to one another—because their reasons for liking the music are so completely different.

3. Only in an age of commerce can a record be considered classic when it’s been reissued more than once.

4. Rule #9: No one has sold an LP or CD who hasn’t later regretted doing so, for the simple reason that one realized only too late that there is someone, somewhere for whom the designation OOP—out of print—has no meaning.

5. The iTunes Music Store is simply the digital equivalent of a superstore—meaning the larger it is, the more indistinguishable and homogeneous the product.

6. Rule #10: The larger the record collection, the larger the number of insignificant records one owns; the reason these records are held on to—but remain unplayed—is explained by Rule #9.

7. The Collector’s Dilemma: the greater the number of records, the greater the number of worthless records, but to purge the worthless ones is to contradict the principle of collecting—therefore, for the collector, there is no such thing as separating the wheat from the chaff: the collection is beyond Good and Evil.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Classic Soul

Yesterday I came across Greg Kot’s compelling homage to Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, who died October 17 at age 72. (Pictured at left are the Four Tops at London’s Heathrow Airport in 1966. From left are Duke Fakir, Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton and Obie Benson.) For those who may not know his role in the group, Levi Stubbs was the distinctive, lead voice of the Four Tops, a group that had 24 hits in the Top 40. It’s impossible not to have heard the music of the Four Tops, the epitome of what’s known as “Soul music,” particularly their three greatest songs discussed below, all released through Motown.

I found Greg Kot’s analysis of the following three songs of the Four Tops so insightful that I was compelled to re-blog them here. His complete blog on Levi Stubbs, in the on-line version of The Chicago Tribune, can be found here; I have extracted below only his discussion of the individual songs. I hope you find his individual discussions as insightful as I have.

“Reach Out I’ll Be There,” released August 1966, No. 1 pop hit: Stubbs throws a lifeline to a friend dying of neglect. Realizing the situation is desperate, he sings as if someone’s life depends on it, and it just might; the lyrics hint that a suicide is imminent (“all of your hope is gone”). The three remaining Tops (Obie Benson, Duke Fakir and Lawrence Payton) usher in Stubbs with a wordless “Ha!” as if spurring on a stallion. The beat clip-clops into place, a flute telegraphs the melody, and then the peerless Motown rhythm section locks into gear. The drama elevates each time the band drops out, save for James Jamerson’s driving bass line and a rattling tambourine. Stubbs lands hard on the final syllable of key lines: “… the world has grown COLD … drifting out on your OWN … and you need a hand to HOLD.” Stubbs isn’t just offering help to a friend in a time of need. He is pleading for her deliverance. With each “reach out,” Benson, Fakir and Payton push Stubbs higher, until desperation cracks through the seams in his voice.

“Standing in the Shadows of Love,” released November 1966, No. 4 pop hit: The clippity-clop beat echoes “Reach Out.” The desperate empathy of the previous hit transforms into bitterness and accusation. Now the narrator is plunged into unfathomable heartache: “You’ve taken away all my reasons for living.” The narrator stumbles down a street, bereft, trying to understand something beyond his control. He’s been abandoned by the love of his life. “Hold on a minute,” he cries, as if trying to stop a bullet, and the song veers into a brief but ferocious conga-drum breakdown. The song is the saddest of all battles; the listeners know the outcome before the narrator does. When he finally grasps that there no stopping the inevitable, the effect is devastating. “It may come today, or it may come tomorrow/But it's for sure I've got nothing but sorrow.”

“Bernadette,” released February 1967, No. 4 pop hit: Paranoia runs deep and wide in this classic of lust and jealousy. Stubbs addresses the title character, a siren whose beauty seduces other men and then blithely discards them against the rocks. But the most lovesick of them all is the narrator himself. He is consumed by fear; everywhere he looks there are suitors begging for Bernadette’s affections, and he frets he will lose her forever. He tries to woo her back by falling to his knees and proclaiming the utter worthlessness of his life without her. The horns and backing voices drape a cape of melancholy around Stubbs’ sagging shoulders. “Keep on needin’ me,” he cries. The song fades, and finally falls silent. But Stubbs returns two seconds later for one final outburst: “Bernadette!” It’s one of the great moments in the Motown catalogue, and certainly the most chilling.

Critic Dave Marsh once characterized "Bernadette" as "scarifying," which I think is exactly spot on. While I greatly admire all of these songs, there is a certain something to "Bernadette" that makes it perhaps the best of the three. Most certainly all three are examples of classic soul.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Memento Mori

I may have missed it, but Bill Wyman’s website made no mention of his birthday yesterday—his 72nd. The former Rolling Stone didn’t acknowledge his latest mile marker, preferring to let it go unremarked. Perhaps he no longer finds it worthy of mention, age being an aspect of our lives that seems to have only a slight connection to our subjective, lived experience. Born 24 October 1936, he was born only about a year and ten months after Elvis Presley, who had he lived would have turned 73 years old this year, and roughly three months from his 74th birthday. According to this interesting blog entry, Bill Wyman “has the distinction of being one of the last of the Sixties rock and rollers to do national service in Britain.” And as the author points out, the last American rock 'n' roller of historic significance who was conscripted was Jimi Hendrix. Had he lived, Hendrix would have turned 66 years old next month (born 27 November 1942).

Perhaps as a consequence of Bill Wyman’s age, I woke up today think of my father, who at age 72 had full-blown leukemia, and died about a month and a half after his 73rd birthday. Subsequently, my thoughts turned to the written epilogue at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, which despite its specific historic reference contains an insight I think we’d all do well to remember:

It was in the age of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled. Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.

Memento mori

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: 9

I went ahead and posted nine more aphorisms today, so as to make the number I’ve posted on this blog at this point total an even 70. Several readers have written to me encouraging me to collect my aphorisms into book form, and I thank them very much for the vote of confidence. I’m currently pursuing the possibility of a book of aphorisms, but for such a book to be feasible (with an accompanying “Aphorism-A-Day” tear-off calendar as a possible product tie-in), I’ll need to write 365 of them (and one for leap year), meaning that after this particular posting I’ll have only 295 to go (plus another for leap year). They have been very popular, and I thank everyone for checking in from time to time for new additions, but whether I can write (well) about 300 more aphorisms to make a book remains to be seen. Ars longa vita brevis.

1. John Wayne was a great movie star because no matter the part, he was always John Wayne; his lesson was not lost on those pop singers who also became movie stars—Elvis, for instance—because they knew always to play themselves.

2. MTV Cribs—a show based on a fundamental contradiction, that one can present as ordinary the lives of individuals whose lives are extraordinary; the television equivalent of the Hollywood fan magazine.

3. The massive success of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” is demonstrable proof that the most successful pop songs always have been sentimental.

4. When popularizing rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis faced the problem of being perceived as lowbrow; what is known as “art rock” or “prog rock” at least succeeded in making rock music middlebrow.

5. The Beatles did collectively what they could not have done—did not do—individually, revealing that collaboration gives artists a better shot a success than artists working alone: Dylan, for instance, found The Band; outsiders such as Scott Walker weren’t as fortunate, explaining why his career has been so fraught with frustrations.

6. The musical career of Elvis Costello is an illustration of what happens to a generalist lost in a world of specialization.

7. The best rock bands understood the value of the name: imagine if the Rolling Stones were known as the Bongo Beatniks, or Black Sabbath as the Yellow Rosaries: bands that chose names such as The Chocolate Watchband or The Peanut Butter Conspiracy were far too fatuous ever to be taken seriously.

8. One need look no further for the politics of pop than in the so-called “answer song”: neither sequel nor remake, the answer song is an attempt to impinge upon and then supersede the discursive force of the target song.

9. To lift a phrase from Harold Bloom, popular music is, and always has been, a hopelessly overcrowded field, which explains why the “one-hit wonder” ought to be considered the rule rather than the exception.

Pop Aphorisms: 8

1. Concerts once were performed for the purpose of being recorded, but now concerts occur for the purpose of promoting a record.

2. There’s a very good reason why lists comprised of “the best rock (or pop) records (singles, etc.) ever made” are frequently published while “the worst rock (or pop) records ever made” never are: the latter requires one to put forth artistically defensible reasons for the choices made.

3. No music critic should be allowed to use the word “brilliant” in a review or article for the next 15 years, thereby allowing words such as “good,” “ordinary,” and perhaps even “banal” to regain their rightful place in the critical vocabulary.

4. No band or artist in the history of popular music has ever been able to overcome one daunting, fundamental ambiguity: is it art, or is it commerce? Of course, neither have the movies.

5. The fact that studios, and studio technology, are utterly essential to rock music is openly acknowledged by the elevation of the recording engineer to the status of a band member—as true for Elvis in the ‘50s as it is now.

6. The reason albums contain credits attributing a specific instrument to a specific individual is simply an acknowledgment of the specialization and division of labor that has been a feature of the industrial revolution since its inception.

7. Psychedelic rock—the aural equivalent of a hallucinogenic trip—is not simply the result of distorted amplification, but also of the first rock generation growing up spending Saturdays at the movie theater, with its astonishing array of cinematic genres, styles, periods, and budgetary quality.

8. A rock song that “says something” is the aural equivalent of a 1950s “problem picture,” explaining why both the songs and the movies are now largely forgotten.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Neal Hefti, 1922-2008

I learned today that Neal Hefti, former big band trumpeter, arranger, and composer who worked with that era's illustrious band leaders such as Count Basie and Woody Herman, and who later became famous to Baby Boomers for his theme to the 1960s TV series Batman, died on October 11 at age 85. He passed away at his home in Toluca Lake, California, slightly over two weeks before his 86th birthday.

I have a special sentiment for Neal Hefti for two reasons. One reason is that he was born in my neck of the woods, in Hastings, Nebraska, on 29 October 1922. He was a small town kid from a poor family who became one of the most influential big band arrangers of the 1940s and 1950s. After his distinguished career as a big band arranger, he went on to score many successful motion pictures. His film score credits include Sex and the Single Girl (1964), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Harlow (1965), Boeing Boeing (1965), Barefoot in the Park (1967), The Odd Couple (1968), A New Leaf (1971), and, significantly, Lord Love a Duck (1966)—this latter film the second reason I’ve a special spot for Neal Hefti.

Despite its occasional misogyny which audiences today may find hopelessly déclassé, Lord Love a Duck, directed and adapted for the screen by George Axelrod (playwright of the Broadway hit The Seven Year Itch) and starring Tuesday Weld, Roddy McDowall, Ruth Gordon, and Harvey Korman, is one of the most audacious American films of the 1960s, and also one of the best. It is now widely considered a cult film, but its rewards are many, and the film is more accessible than generally perceived. I love Hefti’s score to the film—incidentally, the one written either immediately before or immediately after the composition of the Batman theme—as it is slightly irreverent of pop music, suitably appropriate to the iconoclastic themes in the film. Anticipating the themes of The Graduate (1967) by almost two years, Lord Love a Duck is a satire of the American “Plastic Society” of the 1960s (think of Frank Zappa's “Plastic People” from 1967's Absolutely Free) with particular emphasis on three types of American women: the vacuous teenage girl (Tuesday Weld), the middle-aged, promiscuous divorcee (Lola Albright), and the monstrous, domineering mother (Ruth Gordon). But the film’s satirical targets are many, among them the empty rituals of teen culture, the preoccupation for material acquisition and fame, religious hypocrisy (the drive-in church sequence is wonderful), and, yes, even AIP Beach movies. In a wonderful sequence, a film producer, T. Harrison Belmont (Martin Gabel—pastiching Sam Arkoff?), presented as the producer of such Beach movie "classics" as The Thing that Ate Bikini Beach, Cold War Bikini, and Bikini Countdown, is seeking a fresh starlet for his latest picture, titled, we eventually learn, Bikini Widow. Arguably influenced in its aesthetics by the French New Wave, I strongly recommend Lord Love a Duck, although I realize its sense of humor may not appeal to everyone. I, for one, watch the film two to three times a year.

Now hard to find (available only on vinyl LP), Neal Hefti’s score for the film is well worth a listen, as are most of his film scores, widely available from various sources. The comprehensive obituary of Neal Hefti in the Los Angeles Times can be found here, while more information about his career, as well as his extensive discography, can be easily found by conducting a web search.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: 7

1. An old adage advises not to judge a book by its cover; it is therefore the height of folly to judge an album’s greatness by the album cover. As always, the exception proves the rule.

2. The emergence of Rolling Stone magazine in the late 60s is historic only in the sense that its publication openly acknowledged the dependency rock and pop had on the institution of criticism that validated—attributed importance to—the music.

3. The reason why most rock critics are so uncomfortable with the “one-hit wonder” is that it contradicts one of the sustaining myths of rock criticism: the concept of a career, that is, of a musician’s so-called “artistic development.”

4. It is a profound distortion of history to say that Punk rock was music written and played by amateurs.

5. The best lyricists in popular music intuitively understood Sartre’s dictum that one’s brilliance is not a result of having said certain things, “but for having chosen to say them in a certain way”—too bad most critics haven’t understood it.

6. One would very much like to say the difference between a fan and a critic is that the former has an uncritical identification with a particular band’s music.

7. Fanzine: same thing as a slick magazine on the newsstand, except it is printed on the photocopy machine, the writing is even more unpolished, and the vocabulary isn’t as impressive.

8. Ambrose Bierce observed about “destiny” that it allowed a tyrant to defend his crimes, while it gave a fool an excuse for failure: within the institution of entertainment, the concept is referred to as either “producer interference” or, occasionally, “lack of publicity.”

9. The surest guarantee a band has of having made a classic record is that it fails commercially when first released: initial failure is a guarantee of greatness.

10. Desert Island Discs: a game music critics invented when up against the deadline for an expected article. As an indulgence, it is possible only when having way too many albums to listen to within a single lifetime.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Folsom Prison News

Glenn Gould scandalized the classical music community in the 1960s when he acknowledged that the recordings on his LPs were spliced together from multiple takes. Appropriately, Gould compared this process to filmmaking, where scenes are often shot out of order and subsequently edited together to form a coherent sequence. By the 60s, though, the splicing or editing together of multiple takes should have been old news. The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” for instance, was composed of two different takes, played at different tempos and in different keys, spliced together, synced by speeding up one take and slowing down the other. Equally as famous, Art Garfunkel’s vocal on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was painstakingly assembled from many dozens of takes.

Thus it should come as no surprise that one of most significant moments in 60s music—and in the creation of the Johnny Cash mythos as well—never happened. On “Folsom Prison Blues,” the opening track on perhaps the most important recording of Johnny Cash’s career, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (recorded January 18, 1968; released July 1968), Cash sings the lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” which is followed, memorably, by the cheers and approving applause of the inmates. But as Michael Streissguth reveals in his book, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece (2004), the crowd response to Cash’s lyric was spliced in sometime later by Columbia Records producer Bob Johnston. In short, the moment consists of “canned” crowd noise, and is not the savage response of brutal prison inmates. The moment, although a cornerstone of the Johnny-Cash-as-folk-hero myth, is yet another instance of tape splicing, not the reproduction of an authentically recorded live sound.

Since the recording is so historic, however, Columbia has chosen to leave the moment in its edited, post-recorded, form on its new, 40th anniversary 3-disc boxed set, At Folsom Prison Legacy Edition, choosing not to release it sans cheers and applause. However, the revelation included in the brand new release (this past Tuesday) is that instead of the widely-known opening of the album—silence, until Cash intones “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”—the new Legacy edition begins with radio DJ Hugh Cherry commanding the inmate audience to remain quiet until after Cash greets them. Additionally, the new boxed set includes that day’s opening act, the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins, and additional duets (besides “Jackson,” of course) with June Carter.

Do these revelations diminish Cash's achievement? Of course not: the Beatles made tape splicing famous, and their legend remains firm, as does Glenn Gould's. As Gould himself pointed out, by the 1960s, studio recording had become analogous to acting in the cinema.

Pop Aphorisms: 6

1. “The Top 500 Albums of All Time”—another name for the outcome of a questionnaire, a device derived from a nineteenth-century parlor game.

2. Certain records—such as Led Zeppelin’s first album—are worth purchasing simply because of the album art; listening to the record is the buyer's choice.

3. Bubblegum is to psychedelic music what fat free Half and Half is to whole milk: the musical equivalent of non-alcoholic beer.

4. Writing rock criticism is both unfulfilling and self-defeating: no matter how much one says or does, the criticism can never be as fun or interesting as the record itself.

5. The Sixties phenomenon of the “Supergroup”: an example of a marketing ploy that is able to flourish exclusively in an age of commerce—and the Age of Warhol.

6. Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of everything is crap, except in the case of rock and pop music—then it’s 95%.

7. CD bonus tracks are the aural equivalent of the cinematic sequel: another way of scraping the last bit of cream from the side of the jar.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: 5

1. Marx revised Hegel by averring all great historic personages appear twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. When applied to rock culture, this adage means, for instance, the first time as Elvis, the second time as an Elvis impersonator; or, the first time as Otis Redding, the second as Michael Bolton.

2. Derrida observed that the field of anthropology was born out of remorse and regret; when this insight is applied to American popular music, it is called rock ‘n’ roll, or, the white colonization of black music.

3. To lift a phrase from T. S. Eliot, the weakest musicians imitate, the strongest musicians steal—just look at the Rolling Stones.

4. You don’t have to give up your sense of humor to play avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll—just look at Pere Ubu: David Thomas is the Baby Huey of rock.

5. It is a popular misconception to think that the “cover” song is analogous to the cinematic “remake”: the term “cover” at least implies a benchmark, carrying with it the sanction of a standard—any artist worth his salt must successfully record it—while the designation “remake” is the artistic equivalent of a county fair bake-off.

6. Freud explained that the reason men were good at batting a baseball is because they had lots of practice growing up playing extensively with their penises; for the same reason, that’s why all the great guitarists have been men.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: 4

1. To lift a phrase from Brecht, it is the special dignity of rock—entertainment—that makes it so very difficult to be a rock critic: the fun of the music leads to uncritical identification.

2. The Beatles’ career illustrates how a rock band improved with time; Led Zeppelin’s career an illustration of how a rock band became worse.

3. Popularized by Elvis, rock music was reinvented twice: first by the Beatles in the early 1960s, the second by the Punks in the late 1970s. It will be reinvented again only when audiences and musicians both have completely forgotten rock’s past.

4. To say that this band or that band is the greatest in the history of rock music is the same as saying that this band or that band is the worst: both claims reflect extreme, and therefore highly dubious, reactions, and, therefore, are not to be trusted.

5. When at their worst, Bob Dylan’s lyrics ring like the hollow maxims of Polonius, which is why the many who have tried to imitate him are so unredemptively dull and boring.

6. The Who’s lyric, “I hope I die before I get old,” and Neil Young’s later, figurative revision of it, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust,” are memorable lyrics primarily because they acknowledge the rock star’s real enemy—time—and his inevitable maturation—death.

7. The problem with choosing “Top 100,” “Top 200,” or even “Top 500” rock song and album lists is, by analogy, the same one a major corporation faces when reviewing an overwhelming number of applications for a single job: the search committee ends up looking for applications to get rid of, not ones to keep.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Slim Slow Slider

A few days ago, posted an article indicating that the inimitable Van Morrison scheduled in early November two evening concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, where he will perform in its entirety his classic 1968 album Astral Weeks (released November 1968; see below).

Scheduled for November 7 & 8—coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the album’s release—the evening performance will be divided into two halves, the first set comprised of Morrison and band performing songs from throughout his career. The second set—the part that makes these two concerts quite significant—will be a recreation of the Astral Weeks album. Livedaily reports Morrison as saying:

“This is a welcomed opportunity for me to perform these songs the way I originally intended them to be,” Morrison said in a prepared statement. “It’s about the world of creation and of the imagination. That is what a song is: a little movie with melodies and music built around it, poetry in moving pictures in the mind. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the record companies did not support the music, so I never got to take these songs on tour, and I certainly did not have the money to do it. These songs are as timeless and fresh right now as the day they were written and I am happy about taking them to the Hollywood Bowl.”

Apparently the performances will be recorded, to be released first as a vinyl album on Morrison’s new label, Listen to the Lion Records. If reports are correct, the vinyl LP of the Hollywood Bowl concerts will be released prior to Christmas this year, with a CD version following a couple of weeks later, in January. I envy those who will be there; while I will not, alas, be able to attend, out of curiosity I checked on-line for tickets this morning, and found that many good seats are still available.

One of the greatest records of the 1960s, if not in the history of rock, Astral Weeks is listed as #19 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, the complete list of which is available here; the specific entry on Astral Weeks is available over here. For those who have been following along with my project of listening to all the rock records of 1968 in the order (as best as I can determine) of release, I’ve gone ahead and posted the list for November 1968, in order to put Astral Weeks in its proper context. As it turns out, two albums released that month made Rolling Stone's "Top 500" list--The Beatles' "White Album" is also ranked very high (#10) on the magazine's list as well.

George Harrison, Wonderwall Music 11/1
Van Morrison, Astral Weeks 11/8 [?]
Bonzo Dog Band, The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse
Free, Tons of Sobs
The Incredible String Band, Wee Tam and the Big Huge
The Nice, Ars Longa Vita Brevis
Diana Ross and the Supremes, Love Child 11/13
The Beatles, The Beatles [aka “The White Album”] 11/22
The Beatles, Yellow Submarine
The Kinks, The Village Green Preservation Society 11/22

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Nick Reynolds, 1933-2008

I read in the paper this morning that Nick Reynolds (on the right in the photo), founding member of the Kingston Trio, died Wednesday in San Diego at the age of 75. His obituary in the Los Angeles Times can be found here, but I also encourage readers to take a look at my earlier blog entry on former Kingston Trio member John Stewart (at left in the photo), who died this past February, that can be found here. I was prompted to post the earlier blog because some years ago Becky and I published a short piece on the Kingston Trio in The Guide to U. S. Popular Culture (Bowling Green State University Popular Press), and because I've always thought they were a fine folk group. With the death of Nick Reynolds, the sole surviving member of the original Kingston Trio is now Bob Shane (center). I reproduced our short article on the Kingston Trio on the earlier blog.

The Kingston Trio's massive hit, "Tom Dooley," of course, prompted the so-called "folk revival" of the late 1950s, inspiring numerous folk musicians, among the most famous being Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary; ironically, the Kingston Trio initially considered itself a calypso group, naming itself after the capital of Jamaica. The group's first several records did extremely well, and in general their records sold well up to the year 1964--that is, the annus mirabilis of the Beatles. Founding member Dave Guard (who died in 1991) left early in the 1960s, replaced by John Stewart; Nick Reynolds finally left in 1967, the end of line for the original band. Still, the commercial viability of the band lasted many years, making them one of the more successful folk groups of all time.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: III

1. The Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie,” not Bob Dylan, taught rock musicians a fundamental lesson in writing lyrics: the best are highly ambiguous, and therefore have the allure of a deep mystery.

2.The fundamental problem that an “oldies” radio station cannot surmount is that what was bad then is bad now.

3. The photocopied poster was to Punk rock what television was to Elvis—consider the cover art of the Sex Pistols’ first (and only) record.

4. Dylan going electric was merely the technological equivalent of a painter embracing photography.

5. Jacques Lacan observed that his seminar on “The Purloined Letter” was successful primarily because very few of his students had actually read Poe’s story; his insight explains why bands such as Joy Division are so revered, because few have actually ever listened to their music.

6. The worst fate of a rock band is to earn what Susan McClary names “terminal prestige,” to take yourself so seriously, to be so self-conscious in your artistic pretensions, that you lose your audience—look what happened to the Velvet Underground.

7. Rock music critics today have absolutely no sense of outrage; if they really said what they believed about the albums they must write about, they’d be out of a job.

Friday, October 3, 2008

99, 992 Recordings To Hear Before You Die...

...because, as Hamlet said, “The rest is silence.” Such is my reaction when I confront a title such as 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, a new book consisting of a long, annotated list of songs by music critic Tom Moon. Why not 99, 992? Is 99, 992 an “unrealistic” number? Too arbitrary? Why? Does a list of the daunting length 99, 992 demand too much of our time, require too much of a commitment, we who have just “one life to live”? Or, in contrast, does 1,000 represent a more obtainable, if more modest goal, than 99, 992—which is to say, you shouldn’t aim high, but aim low? But if you aim low, what’s the value of the list at all if you have just one life to live? What, precisely, does any sort of list offer to you in the short time you have?

More likely, the power of the number 1,000 resides in its promise that a certain, magical threshold has been reached. The number 1,000, like the number 100, seems to ring with the profundity of an absolute limit. Is it because 1,000 is a round number with multiple zeroes that it acts as a lure, offering one the promise of a liminal moment, a threshold point, a critical juncture in a cultural rite de passage that represents a conceptual breakthrough, an acute intellectual insight--nirvana? The promise of having reached a thousand recordings is rather like that moment when one's automobile odometer is about to turn over while reading 99, 999 miles--the illusion of a highly significant, monumental event in one's life.

The problem is, of course, that knowledge is not quantifiable: and in the case of music, the more you hear does not mean the more you know, except insofar as you have access to a greater list of proper names. Alas, the number “1,000” is just a banal convention within the publishing industry, and a book comprised of a numbered list is yet another effect of consumer culture, in which truths are no longer axioms but merely the expression of individual tastes presented in the form of nonfalsifiable, aesthetic judgments. As Jack Goody has pointed out (in The Muse Learns to Write), certain characteristic features of written or typographic culture, such as the list, encourage a form of thinking impossible for a purely oral culture. The problem, as Robert Ray has observed, is all but “the most conscientiously produced” lists are “organized around not concepts, but proper names” (130). From a publisher's perspective, lists are always provocative (they are a sort of "built-in" promotional device), provocation being one of the defining characteristics of a consumer culture in which taste has become one of the primary forms of political expression.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Riff

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, the musical term riff is probably an altered or shortened form of the word refrain, an ostinato (Italian, from Latin obstinātus, stubborn, past participle of obstināre, to persist, that is, to not go away) phrase repeated consistently at the same pitch throughout a musical number. Glen Miller’s hugely popular Swing tune, “In the Mood,” is a well-known example of a riff-based composition. A riff, though, is different from a lick in that riffs can consist of repeated chord progressions (The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”), while licks typically consist of single-note melodic lines. They share a similarity though, in that licks, like riffs, can be used as the basis of an entire song, as in The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

Question: What happens when a rock musician tries to overcome the opposition governing the distinction between the riff—consisting of a repeated chord progression—and the clean melodic line of a lick? Answer: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, that is, the Hendrix sound.

“Purple Haze” (1967)
“If Six Was Nine” (1967)
“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” (1968)
Band of Gypsys, “Machine Gun” (1970)