Friday, July 11, 2008

Falsetto A-Z

Surprisingly, one discovers the word falsetto, literally meaning “false soprano,” actually has two different meanings at One definition reads, “A male voice in an upper register beyond its normal range,” while the other reads, “The treble range produced by most adult male singers through a slightly artificial technique...” What precisely, then, are we hearing when we hear falsetto singing? For a form of singing that is so essential to popular music, I find it somewhat surprising that its status is so culturally ambiguous: abnormal on the one hand, “slightly artificial” on the other. To call it a form of singing by males that is artificial associates artifice with femininity, a linkage that Michael Jarrett identifies as ultimately deriving from use of the castrati in Italian opera, the castrati being emasculated men whose physical alteration when boys allowed them to sing like women when adult men. The castrati were known as voci artificiali, "artificial voices."

But as Majorie Garber has pointed out, the operatic use of the castrati eventually gave rise, after the social practice of creating them ceased, to the bel canto singing style, the style favored by Italian-American pop singers (255). And, as Michael Jarrett has observed, that style "helped fashion the rock universe" (231). He writes:

Dean Martin's croon profoundly affected Elvis Presley, but it also attracted the black gaze of desire. Chuck Berry comes from this tradition (though perhaps by way of Slim Galliard). And Marvin Gaye readily admitted: "My dream was to become Frank Sinatra. I loved his phrasing, especially when he was very young and pure.... I also dug Dean Martin and especially Perry Como (quoted in [Gerald] Early, ["One Nation Under a Groove," New Republic, 15-22 July 1991] 30) (231)

Doo-wop popularized falsetto because, according to Simon Frith, the male voice was broken "into its component parts such that the combination of all its sounds, from low to high" defined masculinity ("Brit Beat: High Signs," Village Voice, 7 June 1994). No wonder, then, that most successful male pop groups always had a member capable of singing falsetto; in the Bee Gees' case, when Barry Gibb (pictured) decided to sing falsetto with "Nights on Broadway" on Main Course (1975), the Bee Gees were, de facto, transformed into Barry Gibb's band.

Falsetto A—Z, A Primer
Little Anthony & The Imperials, “Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop”
The Bee Gees (Barry Gibb), “Nights on Broadway”
[Canned Heat (Al Wilson), “Goin’ Up the Country”] (see comments)
Lou Christie, “Lightnin’ Strikes”
The Delfonics, “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)”
Elvis (Presley), “Blue Moon”
Art Garfunkel (Simon & Garfunkel), “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Eddie Holman, “Hey There Lonely Girl”
The Impressions (Curtis Mayfield), “People Get Ready”
Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones), “Emotional Rescue”
Eddie Kendricks (The Temptations), “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)"
Led Zeppelin (Robert Plant), “Whole Lotta Love”
Curtis Mayfield, “Freddie’s Dead”
Aaron Neville (Neville Brothers), “Mona Lisa”
Roy Orbison, “Crying”
Prince, “Kiss”
Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Smokey Robinson (& The Miracles), “Ooo Baby Baby”
Leo Sayer, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”
Tiny Tim, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”
U2, “Lemon”
Frankie Valli (The Four Seasons), “Sherry”
Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), “Good Vibrations”
Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), "Don't Worry Baby" (see comments)
X (John Doe), “White Girl”
Neil Young, “Tonight’s the Night”
The Zombies (Colin Blunstone), “She’s Not There”

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Rare 1960s Ephemera Showing Today on TCM

Turner Classic Movies is showing some rare and unusual films from the 60s today for those interested. A couple of the films aired on TCM about a month ago, but some, to my knowledge, have never shown on TV. None of these films are considered classics, but as museum pieces they are well worth screening. All times are Central Daylight Time (CDT).

Herman’s Hermits travel to England for a high-stakes greyhound race.
Cast: Peter Noone, Herman’s Hermits, Stanley Holloway. Dir: Saul Swimmer. Color, 95m [LTBX]

6:36am—From The Vaults: THE BACKGROUND BEAT (Short, 1965)
A short doc by director Ralph Nelson exploring how he uses music and scoring in his pictures. Includes examples from Once A Thief (1965). B&W, 7m

7:00am—HOLD ON! (1966)
Rocket scientists consider naming a space ship after Herman’s Hermits.
Cast: Peter Noone, Herman’s Hermits, Shelley Fabares. Dir: Arthur Lubin. Color, 86m [LTBX]

8:30am—WINTER A-GO-GO (1965)
A teenaged ski bum tries to turn the lodge he’s inherited into a hit music club.
Cast: James Stacy, William Wellman, Jr., Beverly Adams. Dir: Richard Benedict. Color, 88m [LTBX] Note: Includes the tune, "Hip Square Dance."

10:00am—UNDER THE YUM YUM TREE (1963)
A lecherous landlord tries to steal a woman from her fiancie.
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Carol Lynley, Dean Jones. Dir: David Swift. Color, 110m [LTBX] [CC]

A sophisticated crook mounts an intricate plan to rob an airport bank.
Cast: James Coburn, Camilla Sparv, Harrison Ford. Dir: Bernard Girard. Color, 107m [LTBX] Note: Includes a very early film appearance by Harrison Ford.

2:00pm—DUFFY (1968)
A playboy tries to rob his father with the help of a gentleman crook.
Cast: James Coburn, James Mason, James Fox. Dir: Robert Parrish. Color, 101m [LTBX] Note: all existing versions of this film on video are missing one minute of footage when Duffy tries to force himself on Segolene. Plus it is letterboxed!

3:45pm—THE HAPPENING (1967)
A kidnapped gangster joins forces with the hippies who abducted him.
Cast: Anthony Quinn, Faye Dunaway, George Maharis. Dir: Elliot Silverstein. Color, 101m [LTBX] Note: Too bad this rarely shown film wasn't paired with Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg's PERFORMANCE (1968).

5:30pm—HOMICIDAL (1961)
A nurse and her husband conspire to collect a rich inheritance.
Cast: Glenn Corbett, Patricia Breslin, Eugenie Leontovich. Dir: William Castle. B&W, 87m [LTBX] [CC] Note: not all that rare, but TCM is airing it letterboxed.

When a one-night stand results in pregnancy, a musician and a young girl try to resolve the issue together.
Cast: Steve McQueen, Natalie Wood, Tom Bosley. Dir: Robert Mulligan. B&W, 100m.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


In music, melisma, commonly known as "vocal runs" or simply "runs," is the technique of changing the note (pitch) of a single syllable of text while it is being sung. Music sung in this style is referred to as melismatic, as opposed to syllabic, where each syllable of text is matched to a single note. A common example of melisma, or the singing of several notes sung to one syllable of text, is the Gregorian chant. For an example of syllabic singing, think of the Beatles’ “Penny Lane”:

In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello

While melismatic singing is quite common in popular music, few singers have used it, or are able to use it, tastefully. Nelson George, in The Death of Rhythm and Blues, refers to Sam Cooke (pictured) as a popular singer who effortlessly used melisma to marvelous effect:

No analysis . . . can capture the naturalness of Cooke’s sound. There was something ingratiating about his voice that entranced listeners and inspired a whole generation of male vocalists to try to approximate his supple sensuality and flowing melisma. (These would include David Ruffin, Johnnie Taylor, Otis Redding, Bobby Womack, Lou Rawls, and Jerry Butler.) (79)

Think of Cooke’s use of melisma with the monosyllabic word “You” in his hit “You Send Me.”

However, in popular singers less gifted than Sam Cooke, excessive (over) use of melisma results in melismania, defined by Michael Jarrett as

an obsessive compulsive disorder characterized by multiplying the notes sung to every syllable of text; melisma taken to excess.... melismania
. . . seeks to manufacture authenticity—to signify belief in the face of unbelief—through intense virtuosity . . . it creates rampant “affective inflation” that subverts its own efforts.... melismania is a particularly audible expression of what Lawrence Grossberg calls "sentimental inauthenticity."

Melismania is variously known as “Mariah Carey Syndrome” or “Whitney Houston Syndrome,” although among Caucasians it is known as “Boltonism.”

Monday, July 7, 2008

Peace & Love

Today, July 7, is Ringo Starr's 68th birthday (born 1940)--Happy Birthday, Ringo! According to his official website, the Beatles' former drummer was asked recently by Access Hollywood what he hoped to receive for his birthday this year. His answer? "Just more Peace & Love." He said, "it would be really cool if everyone, everywhere, wherever they are, at noon on July 7 make the peace sign and say 'Peace & Love'." Therefore, wherever you are in the world, join him in making the peace sign and saying, shouting, writing or quietly thinking his birthday wish: "Peace & Love."

Meanwhile, according to a report published yesterday in the TimesOnline, Ringo's birthplace at No. 9 Madryn Street, Liverpool, in an area of mid-Victorian Era buildings, where he was born Richard Starkey 68 years ago, is apparently to be demolished after a decision by English Heritage not to list it. According to the TimesOnline report:

Starr lived in Madryn Street for the first four years of his life before he and his mother moved around the corner to Admiral Grove. English Heritage’s main reason for rejecting the listing request, therefore, is that Madryn Street has no real links with the Beatles.

But according to additional information in the report, fellow Liverpudlians turned against Ringo when

he made dismissive comments about Liverpool on Jonathan Ross’s BBC1 show in January, saying there was “nothing” he missed about the place. A shrubbery sculpture of the drummer was later beheaded.

Apparently it doesn't pay to be honest. Perhaps as a Liverpudlian himself, Sir Paul ought to intercede and go about saving Ringo's birthplace, in deference to the the old adage, "honesty is the best policy."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Art of Noise

Introduced to the rock world at the Monterey Pop Festival, held June 16-18 1967, the Moog synthesizer was the most sophisticated and expensive noisemaking machine ever invented. Although seldom considered as a noisemaker, that is more or less how the synthesizer was initially perceived, given its first uses in popular music were weird and unusual sounds. There were various noisemaking machines introduced earlier, of course: Bebe and Louis Barron, for instance, were accomplished at using electronic noisemaking devices, creating the unearthly sounds—i.e., noises—used on the soundtrack to MGM’s SF classic Forbidden Planet (1956). But even before them, Spike Jones fired guns and banged pots and pans (among other things) when he set out to “murder the classics.” Other accomplished noisemakers include John Cage, Harry Partch, Frank Zappa’s beloved Edgar Varèse (pictured), Sun Ra, Yoko Ono, and of course Lou Reed, whose Metal Machine Music (1975) would have been inconceivable without these earlier composers preparing the way.

Hence the Moog synthesizer can be considered as simply another means of making noise, albeit a highly sophisticated one, and all noisemaking ritual has its anthropological roots in the charivari. According to, charivari is defined as, "A mock serenade (e.g. for newlyweds) of loud, discordant noises using pots and pans, cowbells, guns and other noisemakers; by extension, any cacophony of out-of-tune noises." The word is French, from the Old French for “hubbub,” perhaps from Late Latin carībaria, headache, from Greek karēbariā: karē, head + barus, heavy.

Here’s what Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his essay “Divertissement on a Folk Theme” (from The Raw and the Cooked, University of Chicago Press, 1969), says about the charivari:

The Encyclopédie compiled by Diderot and d’Alembert defines “charivari” as follows:

The word . . . means and conveys the derisive noise made at night with pans, cauldrons, basins, etc., in front of the houses of people who are marrying for the second or third time or are marrying someone of a very different age from themselves. (288)

One can see from Levi-Strauss’s definition the origin of the meaning of charivari (in American English, shivaree) as "mock serenade": if the serenade celebrates romantic love, the charivari satirizes it.

The recent re-issue on CD of Mort Garson and Jacques Wilson’s charivari, The Wozard of Iz (original release: 1968), subtitled “An Electronic Odyssey” and produced by electronic music pioneer Bernie Krause, is a good illustration of the early uses of the Moog synthesizer. A media satire using The Wizard of Oz to structure the heroine's journey to the "Upset Strip," The Wozard of Iz is badly dated by virtue of its (heavy) use of late 60s slang and for being too obviously created for juvenile audiences (nothing about it is in the least way subtle), but it is interesting nonetheless as an illustration of how the synthesizer was perceived as nothing more, early on in its history, as a novelty. Most certainly it was Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, released a couple of months after The Wozard of Iz in 1968, that first gave the synthesizer musical credibility, demonstrating to a skeptical audience that the synthesizer was something much other than an expensive toy.

I made the observation in an earlier post that early on in its history any unconventional or radically new knowledge is at first perceived to be a bad joke--Freud's theory of psychoanalysis, for instance, and Darwin's theory of human beings evolving from monkeys were, in fact, both considered bad jokes. I suggested that popular music's appropriation of the "psychedelic experience" was initially perceived as a bad joke: the first albums containing the word "psychedelic," such as the Blues Magoos' "Psychedelic Lollipop," used the word in a joking way. The idea of the joke permeates early albums claiming to be psychedelic, for instance, Friar Tuck and His Psychedelic Guitar (1967), The Animated Egg (1967), Hal Blaine's Psychedelic Percussion (1967), and so on. The Wozard of Iz illustrates the same idea: like these other, aforementioned records, it sold poorly, because it lacked both credibility and substance, and was just so much noisemaking. Conversely, Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach sold well because it was straight. Unlike Spike Jones, who set out to "murder the classics," Switched-On Bach approached the music with the utmost seriousness, as high art, and the role of the synthesizer as a noisemaking toy was minimized, if not absent altogether. In other words, Wendy Carlos set out to do anything but perform a charivari.