Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Elvis On Tour . . . At Last!

I suspect many Elvis fans are delighted with today’s eagerly-awaited announcement by Warner Home Video that it has finally scheduled the release of Elvis on Tour, the award-winning documentary that followed Elvis on a tour of the United States in 1972. The much-anticipated documentary, long OOP on VHS and laser disc, will debut on August 3 in newly-restored and remastered Blu-ray and DVD versions. Happily, WHV is issuing the film in digital format as part of its 75th birthday celebration of the King. Elvis on Tour is considered to be Presley's last film before his death in 1977, and was described by Variety in its review as “a bright, entertaining pop music documentary detailing episodes in the later professional life of Elvis Presley . . . .” Written and directed by Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge, Sam Peckinpah fans should note that the film's cinematographer was Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch). Songs include “Proud Mary,” “Burning Love,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” “Can't Help Falling in Love with You,” “Love Me Tender,” “All Shook Up,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” among others. Warner has also indicated that Martin Scorsese is participating the creation of one of the disc's supplements. According the WHV press release, the highlights of the BD and DVD versions are as follows:

  • Remastered in High Definition with 16 x 9 2.40 letterboxed image, as seen in the theatrical release.
  • Blu-ray audio will be DTS-HD Master Audio (5.1 Surround); DVD audio will be Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround.
  • Packaged as a Blu-ray book filled with Elvis photos, quotes, trivia, a tour itinerary, set lists, costumes, and background information about the filming techniques used.
  • 25 musical numbers spotlight Elvis Presley’s talent, range and showmanship in captivating on-stage performances and intimate backstage rehearsals with his band.
  • Contains Elvis’ first performance of “Burning Love,” which was so new, Elvis referred to the lyric sheet during his performance.
  • Elvis’ Ed Sullivan Show performance is included, in which the charm, personality and musical ability that made him an icon is so evident.
  • Montage sequences (supervised by Martin Scorsese) showcasing Elvis’ early career and movies.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rock Pile

As a consequence of writing my previous blog entry on The T.A.M.I. Show (1964) a couple of days ago, I’ve been preoccupied by various issues raised by the so-called “rock ‘n’ roll film,” hardly the most promising of film genres upon which to base theoretical arguments. In my previous post, I argued that it’s a stretch to view The T.A.M.I. Show as anything but a long, American Bandstand-like episode put on film (it was actually filmed on video and then transferred to film), and that aesthetically speaking it shares more with the TV variety show than the rock documentary pioneered by D. A. Pennebaker and others with films such as Monterey Pop (1968). I observed that what we typically refer to as the “rock documentary” is defined as much by the technology used to record the event as it is by its cinéma vérité style, but I think now this observation is incorrect, for the style is actually dictated by the technology, not the other way around. In the same way the heavy, ponderous video cameras demanded the studio-bound setting used for the filming of The T.A.M.I. Show, the lightweight, portable hand-held 16mm cameras used by Pennebaker and crew to record Monterey Pop encouraged the freewheeling approach to the rock concert typical of documentaries in general. The time restriction of the film roll in each camera required the use of multiple cameras, because the amount of film contained in an individual camera could not record the complete performance of an individual musician or band. The use of low angles and extreme close-ups was enabled because the lightweight camera allowed the camera operator to move easily about the stage, crouching down when necessary for the proper angle. In the same way early Hollywood musicals often employed the features of a Broadway theatrical revue, early rock ‘n’ roll movies employed the jukebox formula used in youth-oriented television programs such as American Bandstand. The other night while watching the rock film featuring Alan Freed, Rock, Rock, Rock (1956)—I’d never seen it before—I was struck by the way the narrative (as utterly banal and inconsequential as it is) was interrupted (stopped) in order for the Tuesday Weld character to sit down and watch TV, on which were appearing several rock acts introduced by DJ Alan Freed. I wonder if it is for this reason so many of the early rock films have dated badly, not only because of the déclassé musical forms (e.g., doo-wop) featured in them, but the unimaginative aesthetics that governed their production. In the case of Rock, Rock, Rock, the banal, unambitious narrative, concerning the teenage Tuesday Weld character’s desire to earn enough money to buy a dress for a school dance, is also another reason these early films hold so little interest except of a historical nature. Even the power of nostalgia, which typically overvaluates the past, can scarcely redeem a film such as this one.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The T.A.M.I. Show

I finally managed to sit down and watch Shout! Factory’s DVD issue of The T.A.M.I. Show (1964, 112m 25s), which received a heavily-hyped release earlier this month. Considered a legendary rock ‘n’ roll concert film, this is the movie’s first release on DVD, and in fact the film’s first issue on home video ever, although parts of the film were cut together with its follow-up, 1966’s The Big T.N.T. Show, for a VHS issue in 1984 titled That Was Rock. The back cover blurb on the DVD says The T.A.M.I. Show was filmed “just eight months after The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show”—true, but also misleading, because more significantly, it was filmed slightly over two months after the U. S. release of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (released on 11 August 1964), still doing great boffo when The T.A.M.I. Show (an acronym for “Teenage Awards Music International”) was being filmed in late October at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Moreover, considering the kind of libidinal excitement The Beatles could generate during a live performance, a “live concert” film was ripe for exploitation. Given the road-to-discovery-and-fame plots of previous films featuring rock stars, such as Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Don’t Knock the Rock (1956), they could only feature two or three acts: the latter movie, for instance, had featured Bill Haley and His Comets, Little Richard, and a couple of lesser-known acts, The Treniers and Dave Appell and the Applejacks. In contrast, The T.A.M.I. Show featured twelve different acts, including Lesley Gore, The Rolling Stones, James Brown and The Famous Flames, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Supremes, and “British Invasion” acts such as Gerry and the Pacemakers—the latter given an inordinate amount of screen time it seems to me, as was Lesley Gore, but then she was, at least, in terms of the number of hits, the biggest star attraction at the time the film was made.

Filmed in “Electronovision,” the early 60s equivalent of today’s high definition video, the videotape was then transferred to 35mm film. Hence, as David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed suggest in Rock on Film (1982), “there is a case to be made for taking exception to dubbing The T.A.M.I. Show a movie at all. It looks and acts just a [black & white] television special, replete with moderne simplistic décor, chiaroscuro lighting, and a troupe of go-go dancers wildly frugging away on and around background scaffolding a la TV’s Shindig” (77). They are right: given the large, heavy, clunky, and studio-bound cameras used to record the event, The T.A.M.I. Show easily could have been filmed in a television studio (the large, 3,000-member audience would have been lost as a consequence, however). Moreover, according to Don Waller in his interesting and valuable liner notes included in the booklet accompanying the DVD, the featured performers, including dancers, spent two days rehearsing prior to the actual filming. Filmed over two nights, on October 28 and 29, 1964, according to Waller “the footage that makes up [the 112 minutes of] The T.A.M.I. Show was taken exclusively from the second night’s concert, which took five hours to film” (12). Thus for those expecting The T.A.M.I. Show to have the immediacy and spontaneity of the rock documentaries made after, it does not—the Monterey International Pop Festival, held June 1967, filmed by D. A. Pennebaker using lightweight, portable 16mm color cameras equipped to record synchronized sound, was still over two years away. What we typically refer to as the “rock documentary” is defined as much by the technology used to record it as it is by its free-wheeling cinéma vérité style, not usually by the TV variety show aesthetic that governed The T.A.M.I. Show.

Which isn’t to say The T.A.M.I. Show is without charm. Considered in historical terms, and as something other than a nostalgic “time capsule” as it is currently being pitched by Public Television fund-raising campaigns using the DVD as a reward to contributors, the film reveals not only a change in American social consciousness but also the discovery of an emerging, substantial economic market. For one thing, the African American performers featured in the film (primarily from Motown; Memphis’s Stax/Volt goes unrepresented until Monterey Pop, primarily in the figure of Otis Redding) were among the true beneficiaries of Civil Rights Era America. The film’s producers seemed to have intuited the white fascination with blackness, and hence five, or almost half, of the featured acts were black. As a consequence of his justly historic performance in The T.A.M.I. Show, James Brown, for instance, would appear in AIP’s Ski Party, released a few months later, in the summer of 1965. (White envy of blackness would take the form of the Rolling Stones’ reluctance to follow James Brown, although they acquitted themselves pretty well by their performance, perhaps because they did have to follow Brown, and so tried a little harder.) The aforementioned Ehrenstein and Reed, in Rock on Film, believe the most important thing The T.A.M.I. Show revealed was that “rock as mere music (and live performance as just a show) is about to change drastically” (77). In other words, the film shows rock music on the verge of redefining itself: no longer was it to be a consequence of cold calculation and commerce, but also changing social consciousness. For there’s a vast gulf between D. A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968) and The T.A.M.I. Show, a consequence of something other than aesthetics.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Gospel Elvis

There’s a fine essay by Charles Wolfe, titled “Presley and the Gospel Tradition,” in the now somewhat aged but excellent book edited by Kevin Quain, The Elvis Reader (1992). A typical discussion of Elvis’s music inevitably, and certainly correctly, cites country and blues influences, but as Wolfe points out, “these sources . . . account for only a part of his music” (13). Indeed, it was primarily only the 50s in which Elvis was a rock singer. In the 1960s and 70s, Elvis would surpass his narrow classification as a rock singer and became one of the central figures of American popular music. In my own estimation, From Elvis in Memphis (1969), recorded more than a decade after his first singles for RCA in 1956, is not only one of Elvis’s greatest records, but one of the greatest records of American popular music. But it's not a rock album. Wolfe is no doubt correct when he observes that one of the reasons why the influence of white gospel music on Elvis has been unaccountably neglected is because there is so little research on the subject. He writes (this in 1992, remember):

No one has yet written a serious history of the genre, and most of the information currently available has to be drawn from original research or from various self-serving press releases and fan newspapers. Numerous gospel performers, such as the Blackwood Brothers, the Speer Family, and Jimmy Swaggert, have written “biographies,” and while these are useful to an extent, they are more often than not designed as “inspirational” reading rather than factual accounts. The very term gospel music has become confusing to the average reader; in recent years the term (which originated in white “revivalist” hymns of the 1890s) has been appropriated by scholars to describe black religious singing, though it is still generally used by the public (and the musicians) to refer to white singing. (14)

Elvis’s discography, of course, contains some excellent gospel records, even if those records were never among his biggest sellers. The LP, His Hand in Mine (1960), was the follow-up to the Peace in the Valley EP (1957). How Great Thou Art (1967) appeared a few years later, and the gospel album that won Elvis a second Grammy, He Touched Me, appeared in 1972. Peter Guralnick (Last Train to Memphis) observes that Gladys Presley’s favorite quartet was the Blackwood Brothers; according to Wolfe, the Blackwood Brothers were “the most highly visible and exciting musical group in the Memphis area” before and after Elvis moved to that city (16). Elvis was a fan of the Blackwoods in the years prior to his own rise to fame; he would ask the Blackwood Brothers to sing at his mother’s funeral in 1958. Moreover, during the twenty-one years that Elvis was a national figure, he used three different gospel groups as back-up singers: the Jordanaires (1956-67), who were providing back-up vocals for him when he sang “Peace in the Valley” during his 6 January 1957 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; the Imperials (1969-71)—they appeared in 1970’s That’s the Way It Is and backed him on 72’s He Touched Me; and J. D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet (1972-77)—Elvis had known J. D. Sumner since he’d joined the Blackwood Brothers after the disastrous plane crash that killed the group’s original bass singer in late June 1954.

Perhaps the more important issue regarding Elvis and gospel music, though, is to identify the precise nature of the genre’s influence. Charles Wolfe argues that the influence “was not in the content of his songs,” but rather “in Presley’s singing style and performing style” (25). I’ve blogged previously about the influence of Dean Martin on Elvis’s vocal style, but Wolfe, citing Jerry Hopkins’ Elvis: A Biography, argues for recognition of the important influence of Jake Hess of the Statesmen Quartet. Hopkins cites Johnny Rivers, who revealingly said, “If you’ll listen to some of their [the Statesmen Quartet’s] recordings, you’ll hear some of that style that is now Elvis Presley’s style, especially in his ballad singing style. He was playing some of their records one day and he said, ‘Now you know where I got my style from. Caught—a hundred million records too late.’ It was really funny. I think he idolized Jake. Jake and the Statesmen and the Blackwoods” (qtd. in Wolfe 26).

I’m not entirely happy with the following juxtapositions, but this video, identified as being from a 1950s airing of the Nabisco TV show, contains a lively performance by the Statesmen (with Jake Hess in the lead), singing “Move That Mountain,” a song Elvis would have certainly liked. This second video is Elvis singing “By And By,” a song in the same vein. In the years since Wolfe published his article, more emphasis has been placed on Elvis’s gospel recordings, such as the He Touched Me set, available here. In any case, I strongly recommend Charles Wolfe's fine article to anyone interested in this dimension of Elvis’s music.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Arbor Day

In Douglas Sirk’s grand melodrama Written on the Wind (1956), the river represents a sort of lost innocence, a past happiness (however illusory). When in the film the river is finally shown, the actual location associated with this long lost innocence is at the base of a giant old tree (a sycamore?) perched along the bank of the river. The sanctity of the place by the river is like that of a sacred grove. Trees have figured prominently in world mythology, largely figuratively, as in the image of the “tree of life,” for instance, or as a metaphor for family relationships, as in “family tree.” Forbidden fruit is associated with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but in The Hanging Tree (1959), the titular tree is a multivalent symbol, an emblem of death (crucifixion) as well as life. The lyrics to Marty Robbins’ song, “The Hanging Tree” makes this linkage explicit: the tree of death becomes the tree of life, associated with the moment in the story when the hero is saved by the power of love. Cast in structuralist terms, the hanging tree is an excessive signifier. In The Melodramatic Imagination, Peter Brooks argues the melodramatic form creates an asymmetrical relationship between the signifier and the signified, specifically, a signified in excess of the signifier. This asymmetry “in turn produces an excessive signifier, making large and insubstantial claims on meaning.” Songwriters love trees because their conventional symbolism allows the songwriter to invoke a certain emotion or value—the oak with steadfast endurance, the (weeping) willow with melancholy, the palm tree with the erotic pleasures of paradise, and so on. The yew tree represents the mourning for a lost loved one, and is associated with death. Hence the yew tree is often found near churches and cemeteries as a reminder to the bereaved of the spirit’s ultimate victory over death. Likewise, in the sublime “Bristlecone Pine,” the tree (several thousand years old) is an image of eternal life. The reference to the sycamore tree in “Mama” Cass Elliott’s “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” (first recorded by Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra in 1931) is not entirely capricious given that the song is a love song. Given their longevity, there is a long tradition of sycamore trees being planted by the door of the homes of newlyweds. My remarks are intended only to suggest the richness of the subject of the mythology of trees, and are therefore hardly definitive. What follows is a short playlist of songs with arboreal references.

Songs From The Wood:
The Ames Brothers – Tammy
The Andrews Sisters – Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)
Joan Armatrading – Willow
The Band – Whispering Pines
The Beach Boys – California Girls
The Beatles – Matchbox
The Brothers Four – Yellow Bird
Mama Cass Elliott – Dream A Little Dream Of Me
James Darren – Under the Yum Yum Tree
Dawn with Tony Orlando – Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree
Dino Fitzgerald – Apple on a Cherry Tree
Ella Fitzgerald – St. Louis Blues (Fitzgerald’s version only)
Fleetwood Mac – Bare Trees
Dick Gaughan – The Yew Tree
Johnny Horton – Whispering Pines
Alan Jackson – Tall, Tall Trees
Jethro Tull – Songs From the Wood
Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home
Lynyrd Skynyrd – That Smell
Peter, Paul and Mary – Lemon Tree
The Platters – Trees
Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees
Marty Robbins – The Hanging Tree
Rush – The Trees
Jim Salestrom – Bristlecone Pine
Frank Sinatra – Willow Weep For Me
The Steve Miller Band – The Joker
U2 – One Tree Hill
Stevie Wonder – Tree

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Invisible Man: Alex Chilton, 1950-2010

When I heard the wholly unexpected news yesterday of Alex Chilton’s death at age 59, I immediately thought of a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald (or rather the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway) says about the character Tom Buchanan, who’d been a star football player at Yale, that he is “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anticlimax.” Such was Chilton’s peculiar fate, to have achieved his greatest success very early on in his life, making everything after that brief time smack of anticlimax. As has been reiterated in the many obituaries available on the web, “The Letter” was a #1 hit by the Box Tops when he was just sixteen years old. But fame behaves rather like the moon—it’s either waxing or waning, so by the time he was nineteen, the Box Tops, or rather a later incarnation of it, had disbanded. At age twenty, in 1971, he formed Big Star (pictured; Chilton is standing), and at age twenty-one he recorded with the band #1 Record, perhaps the group’s best album, released in 1972. The band’s subsequent record, Radio City, was also neglected, and a later one went unreleased for many years. Thus, rather like the Velvet Underground, Big Star’s reputation emerged long after the band itself no longer existed, when its records started showing up in the used record bins, and after the first two albums were reissued. Big Star’s commercial failure was crucial in laying the groundwork for its later influence, as it is based on a fundamental myth of rock culture—first established by The Velvet Underground and Nico album—that initial neglect is a sign of greatness. Chilton himself seemed aware of this myth, saying in later years that he thought the band’s music was overestimated. The L. A. Times obituary quotes him as saying:

“There are only three or four of the tunes, like ‘In the Street’ and ‘When My Baby’s Beside Me,’ that still work for me,” Chilton said in 1995. “I think in general Big Star is overrated.”

Of course, one never asks the artist what he or she thinks of a particular work, as the artist is normally always wrong. I think Adam Duritz of Counting Crows said it best, observing of Big Star, “They sing about all those dreams that you had when you were young that got broken....It was very confused and vulnerable music, and it was great.” Duritz’ point is an important one: the things that make the music valuable to later listeners need not be understood by the artist at the time the music was made. Consider the history of Punk Rock. The term Punk used to describe the culture around a type of rock music had no currency until 1975. But immediately after the word “punk” gained currency, people identified themselves and their culture with the term and they started piecing together a history, memorializing certain figures who came before them and ascribing to those figures their own desires, which these chosen predecessors could not have fully known. Thus, some punks memorialized the MC5, others The Stooges, and still others the Velvet Underground. The new narratives that grew up around punk music invented predecessors who sacrificed for a future they could not have fully understood. Hence Rolling Stone’s proclamation, quoted in the L. A. Times obituary, stating “It’s safe to say there would have been no modern pop movement without Big Star,” is true insofar as Big Star is being memorialized as an influence in the construction of a particular explanatory narrative, but misleading insofar as the members of Big Star could have in any way predicted, or even imagined, their influence on later generations. Chilton’s claim that Big Star is “overrated” should not, therefore, be understood as false modesty: he’s saying, in so many words, he just doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about. I take his remark to be an honest admission. For after all, he might have said, Big Star was hardly the Beatles, whose annus mirabilis was 1964, the year Chilton was a mere thirteen years old. (Where is Elvis in all this, the most famous white singer associated with Memphis then as now?) Many young men in America that year were inspired to form a band and play rock music, and it would seem that Alex Chilton was one of them, although a chance encounter with the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn around 1970 also seems to have been a critical moment in his musical career. In retrospect one wonders whether the music played by Big Star was the kind of music he wanted to play all along, making the years with the Box Tops a career anomaly. Although Americans love to champion individuality and the individual artist, Alex Chilton’s biggest success, such as it was, came out of the creative interaction possible only within a band, not his work as a solo artist. For in Big Star, as The Replacements song, “Alex Chilton,” puts it, Chilton became an “invisible man who can sing in a visible voice.”

Monday, March 15, 2010


Finally having begun reading the essays in Kevin M. Flanagan’s important edition, Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist (Scarecrow Press, 2009), it occurred to me that I had forgotten all about mentioning the interview he conducted with Becky and me about our Donald Cammell book, Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side (2006). The interview was published several months ago in the e-journal Kevin co-edits, The Modest Proposal: A Journal of Books, Opinion, and Comment. I’ll have more to say about his recent book on Ken Russell at a later date, but at any rate, the latest edition of the fine e-journal Kevin co-edits, The Modest Proposal, is available here.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Altered Chords

The sequence in Jailhouse Rock (1957) showing a dirty, sweaty Elvis Presley (playing Vince Everett) in the prison coal yard is the closest the actor ever got to blackface. The practice had largely disappeared by 1952 (that year’s twenty-fifth anniversary remake of The Jazz Singer, starring Danny Thomas, did not include it, surprising given the fact that Al Jolson often used it early on in his career). But according to Krin Gabbard, in Black Magic (2004), Marlon Brando had appropriated black masculinity for his performances in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and in The Wild One (1953). Gabbard observes, “…the makers of The Wild One seemed . . . willing to create a part for Brando that drew upon African American experience. In Wild One, Johnny/Brando does after all ride with the “Black Rebels Motorcycle Club,” and when Johnny and his gang arrive in the small town of Carbondale, “their contempt for its bourgeois culture is entirely consistent with early 1950s bebop ideology and its opaque white Negro jive talk” (45). Curiously, when Johnny/Brando opts to play a jukebox, it plays “the big band arrangements that Leith Stevens wrote for the film” (45).

Brando reportedly had wanted popular cool jazz trumpeter-composer Shorty Rogers to write the music used on the soundtrack for The Wild One, and indeed, the music Rogers wrote for the film was later issued on the RCA Victor label, performed by Shorty Rogers and His Giants. Besides Rogers, the cool jazz style was associated with the Brubeck Quartet and the MJQ, as well as (for a time) Miles Davis and the orchestrations of Gil Evans, but it never displaced bop as the main style of post-war jazz in America. Coded as “white,” it was modern, cerebral, and arranged, and by the mid-50s, was associated with a white, college-educated audience. For by the time The Wild One was released, late in 1953, the Brubeck Quartet had already released Jazz at the College of the Pacific (1953) and Jazz at Oberlin (1953), and was about to release Jazz Goes to College (1954). Hence, in Jailhouse Rock (filmed late April through June 1957, released later that year), a crucial scene takes place in the home of a jazz-loving college professor. Perhaps borrowing a story element from The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Elvis/Vince has been released from prison with the hope of starting over as a musician. He purchases a guitar and seeks out the “Club La Florita,” where he happens to meet Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler) during the performance of a burlesque number (pictured). The two strike up a friendship based on a mutual interest in music, and Peggy eventually invites Elvis/Vince to the home of her parents, where her aforementioned college professor father is having a party. Fortunately, the dialogue of the scene has been recorded by Krin Gabbard in his important work on jazz and the American cinema, Jammin’ at the Margins (1996). Soon after Peggy’s and Vince’s arrival, the conversation turns to jazz music and a jazz figure named “Stubby Ritemeyer,” a fictional musician whom Gabbard believes is based on Shorty Rogers.

“I think Stubby’s gone overboard with those altered chords,” says one of the pompous guests. “I agree,” says another, “I think Brubeck and Desmond have gone just as far with dissonance as I care to go.” “Oh, nonsense,” says a man, “have you heard Lennie Tristano’s latest recording? He reached outer space.” A young woman adds, “Some day they’ll make the cycle and go back to pure old Dixieland.” A well-dressed, older woman says, “I say atonality is just a passing phase in jazz music.” Turning to Presley, she asks, “What do you think, Mr. Everett?” He answers, “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” and storms out of the house. Followed and scolded by Peggy, Everett protests that he was being forced into a corner by a stupid question from “some old broad” (124-25).

As I mentioned earlier, given the release of albums such as Jazz at Oberlin and Jazz Goes to College, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond would have been strongly associated with the (white) educated college crowd by the time of Jailhouse Rock. I suspect the “latest recording” by Lennie Tristano referred to by one of the party-goers is probably the now legendary Lennie Tristano, released on Atlantic in 1956, while the most recent releases by Shorty Rogers and His Giants were Martians Come Back! and Way Up There, both released in 1956 on Atlantic as well. Interestingly, RCA Victor—Elvis’s label since late in 1955—had made the corporate decision to issue what at the time were referred to “modern jazz records” in the fall of 1953, beginning with two 10” records, Cool and Crazy (LPM 3138) and Shorty Rogers and His Giants (LPM 3137). Early in 1957, just a few months before Jailhouse Rock began filming, RCA issued The Big Shorty Rogers Express (LPM 1350), an LP-sized reissue of 1953’s Cool and Crazy with four additional tracks. Hence the model for the fictional “Stubby Ritemeyer,” as well as Elvis himself, both would have had albums available the same year (1957) on the RCA label. Of course, the actual identity of these records hardly matters, since the more important point, as Gabbard observes, is that in Jailhouse Rock “bop-inflected cool jazz has become emblematic of bourgeois superficiality” (126). If, as Michael Jarrett has observed, the coding of cool jazz is white, or, as he calls it, “soul inverted” (Sound Tracks 24), then Elvis’s rejection of it in this film suggests he was far more comfortable, like his idol Marlon Brando, with acting out black male sexuality, even if that desire occasionally elicited in him the behavior more strongly associated with children and adolescents, as well as the demonstration of more “manly” pursuits like collecting expensive automobiles.

Friday, March 12, 2010


According to John Tobler’s This Day In Rock (1993), it was on this day in 1965 that guitarist Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds, soon after the release of the “For Your Love” single. (Other sources indicate the date Clapton left was actually ten days earlier, on 3 March, but the date is of little consequence.) Legerdemain holds that even despite the commercial (that is, popular) success of “For Your Love,” Clapton left the group anyway, having played on the track with some grave hesitations (he objected to the use of the harpsichord and bongos). As the story commonly goes, dismayed by the band’s shift from rhythm & blues to pop, Clapton left The Yardbirds (a sort of symbolic protest) and joined John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. What this means, in abstract terms, is that he sought out and found a new musical environment which allowed him to sound authentically black (the same problem is faced by African-American musicians as well)—authenticity being defined as a function of proximity to the blues.

Clapton’s presumed displeasure with the musical direction of The Yardbirds (“popularization”) conforms to the widespread perception that popularization is what is commonly understood as a “lowering” of musical quality. A useful illustration of this popularization-as-musical-degradation model can be found in Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979). In this passage, Hebdige is writing about jazz, not the blues, but the point is the same:

As the music [jazz] fed into mainstream popular culture during the 20s and 30s, it tended to become bowdlerized, drained of surplus eroticism, and any hint of anger or recrimination blown along the “hot” lines was delicately refined into inoffensive night club sound. White swing represents the climax of this process: innocuous, generally unobtrusive, possessing a broad appeal. It was a laundered product which contained none of the subversive connotations of its original black sources. These suppressed meanings were, however, triumphantly reaffirmed in bebop, and by the mid-50s, a new, younger white audience began to see itself reflected darkly in the dangerous, uneven surfaces of contemporary avant-garde, despite the fact that the musicians responsible for the New York sound deliberately sought to restrict white identification by producing a jazz which was difficult to listen to and even more difficult to imitate. (46-47)

The argument seems convincing: authentic music (art) is, inevitably, colonized (“compromised”) by white interests for economic reasons. As Andrew Ross has observed, the commercialization of popular music reveals “a racist history of exploitation exclusively weighted to dominant white interests” (No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture 68). Following this line of argument, Clapton’s motive for leaving The Yardbirds was not so much a rejection of pop (which he later embraced, as for instance with “Wonderful Tonight”) as it was yet another instance of white exploitation of black music, as was his later, “commercialized” version of The Wailers’ “I Shot the Sheriff” also an example of such exploitation. If this argument is seen by some as unconvincing, then so must be the common claim that Clapton left The Yardbirds because of the band’s “pop” direction. Obviously the "common-sense" argument has severe limitations.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

In The Pink

The BBC has reported Pink Floyd has initiated legal action against its record label EMI “over payment of online royalties and the marketing of their music.” Signed to EMI since 1967, the lawsuit concerns the manner in which payments for digital sales are calculated. Personally, however, I think that the ruling the band is seeking—whether EMI can extract individual tracks from the original albums and sell them individually—is far more interesting. For what is an album, if not organized around a concept? Album sales began to surpass singles decades ago, on the assumption that the album was organized around an abstraction, a concept, or, if you will, “mood.”

Mr. Howe [the band’s legal representative] said EMI contend that the sale of individual tracks from albums “only applies to the physical product and does not apply online.” He added that the practice “makes no commercial sense” and contravenes agreements signed by both parties.

I was also struck by a statement in the report that indicates, “Pink Floyd’s back catalogue is the most lucrative in pop music apart from that of The Beatles.” Intrigued, I searched for a website listing the top-selling albums of all-time, and found that the following titles form the “Top Ten” bestsellers. Pink Floyd’s THE WALL is in the Top 5, while DARK SIDE OF THE MOON is in the Top 25. Is the Pink Floyd catalog as lucrative as Led Zeppelin's? Zep has more titles overall in the Top 50 than Pink Floyd, so I'm wondering whether that observation is accurate.

Top Ten Best Selling Rock Albums (as of January 2008):
Michael Jackson, THRILLER
Pink Floyd, THE WALL
Garth Brooks, DOUBLE LIVE
Shania Twain, COME ON OVER
The Beatles, THE BEATLES
Fleetwood Mac, RUMOURS

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Deprivation And Chickenshit

Popular music remained, of course, the standard material of radio broadcast during the Second World War. The crucial difference, however, was that the kind of song selected for broadcast was supposed to contribute to “morale,” that is to say, serve a propagandistic function. Outside of those that were explicitly jingoistic, such as “Remember Pearl Harbor March,” the typical song was about the need for personal sacrifice (sexual denial, the need for repression). The point-of-view of some were explicitly female,

They’re Either Too Young Or Too Old
He Wears A Pair of Silver Wings

but in most, not surprisingly, the POV was male:

I’ve Got a Girl in Kalamazoo
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To

Pleas for fidelity included songs such as

Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)
Paper Doll
Somebody Else Is Taking My Place

Desires for the unattainable (things that must be sacrificed) were expressed in dream (and wish) songs:

Thanks for the Dream
I Had the Craziest Dream
A Soldier Dreams of You Tonight
I Dream Of You
I’ll Buy That Dream
My Dreams Are Gettin’ Better All the Time
(I’m Dreaming Of A) White Christmas
Don’t Believe Everything You Dream (from Around the World, 1943)

Paul Fussell claims (in the chapter, “With One Voice,” in Wartime), “personal deprivation and hope for improvement were the themes that the troops, menaced by chickenshit and fear, responded to” (186). He says the soldiers often wept when they heard “We’ll Meet Again,” recorded in 1942 by Vera Lynn (nicknamed “The Forces’ Sweetheart”):

We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day;
Keep smiling through, just like you always do,
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds away

Fussell devotes an entire chapter to the wartime semantics of chickenshit (“Chickenshit, An Anatomy”):

Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige . . . insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called—instead of horse- or bull- or elephant shit—because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war.

One wonders whether the wartime films made for purposes of “morale” were considered a form of chickenshit by the common soldier. Trivial and unimaginative, they scrupulously avoided the actual conditions of the war—a “white-wash”—and had all the faux sincerity of the everyday social banality, “Have A Nice Day.”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Death Without Publicity

During the Second World War, the war publicity machine widely trumpeted the names of Allied military commanders. In its putative morale-building effort, the contemporary equivalent of ad-men glorified, for instance, British General Montgomery and, of course, American General Eisenhower. Even lesser-unit commanders could be celebrated, such as U. S. Army General Anthony McAuliffe, who was commander of the defending 101st Airborne during the Battle of the Bulge. His reply to a German proposal to surrender, “Nuts!,” became one of the legendary moments of American courage and recalcitrance—“guts”—during the war. Among generals, an eagerness for publicity, as Paul Fussell notes in Wartime, led to the development of “publicity hounds,” the most egregious of which were probably Generals Mark Clark, in Italy, and MacArthur (pictured), in the Pacific, the latter having a huge publicity organization. “Of Clark, David Hunt has said that 'his reading of Clausewitz’s famous dictum was that war was the pursuit of publicity by other means'” (161).

At the level of the common soldier (as opposed to that of the war’s “upper tier,” its commanders), credit “became a crucial concept” (Paul Fussell, Wartime 155). “That all-important home-town audience the troops never forgot,” argues Fussell, because for the soldiers, “ultimate value is assigned by the distant, credulous” hometown crowd—what people were saying back home (155). Curious, then, that in the Kay Kyser wartime film, Around the World (released November 1943), the name of the Marcy McGuire character’s father, killed on a transport ship before he ever actually was able to step onto the battlefield, is never given. Obviously, his proper name, unlike a General’s (the General’s name more significant by virtue of his having to shoulder the heavy demands and responsibilities of power), is not important. The proverbial “unknown soldier,” her dead father becomes an emblem of sacrifice, the sacrifice necessary for all Americans during wartime. Informed of her father’s death (perpetrated by cowards, as the ship was torpedoed), she is asked to put on a stiff upper lip, to buck up, in effect, to sublimate the loss. She is told that her father did, in fact, fight in the war, he just wasn’t able to fight for very long. His death was as valuable to the war effort as any other, since war by its very definition demands a sacrifice by everyone. Names are not important.

These are not idle ruminations, without application to our own time, for as Paul Fussell observes, “The postwar power of 'the media' to determine what shall be embraced as reality is in large part due to the success of the morale culture in wartime. It represents, indeed, its continuation. Today, nothing—neither church, university, library, gallery, philanthropy, foundation, or corporation—no matter how actually worthy and blameless, can thrive unless bolstered by a persuasive professional public-relations operation, supervised by the later avatars of the PR colonels and captains so indispensable to the maintenance of high morale and thus to the conduct of the Second World War” (164).