Saturday, January 8, 2011

Clues And Contradictions: Where's John Lennon's White Rolls Royce? Part One

Guest blogger Eric Roberts provides a summary of the search for the whereabouts of John Lennon's White Rolls Royce (EUC 100C) that has taken much of our time the past few months.


There have been unexpected twists, revelations and red herrings in this collaborative search for the current owner of John & Yoko's famous white Rolls Royce and its whereabouts.

The trail began with Sam & Rebecca Umland's original research for their book, Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side (FAB Press, 2006), in which they mentioned that it was John Lennon's white Rolls Royce (EUC 100C) used in the final sequence of Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg's Performance (filmed 1968; released 1970). After reading Sam's blog entry The Ballad of John & Yoko's Rolls, I was intrigued and immediately commenced digging for any relevant data.

Suspicion first fell on Phil Spector, due to a statement by Plastic Ono Band drummer, Alan White, that in 1970, Lennon handed Spector the keys to EUC 100C at the conclusion of the Imagine sessions. The fact that Lennon's friend and producer still owns a vintage white Rolls Royce added weight to White's recollections. However, Telegraph journalist Mick Brown cast doubt on this theory by commenting that Spector never indicated during the course of several interviews that his white Roller once belonged to John Lennon. On the contrary, Mick was specifically told that the limousine that ferried him from his hotel to Phil Spector's mansion in Los Angeles was a "1965 Silver Cloud III," not a Phantom V. On closer inspection, Spector's 1965 Rolls Royce appears smaller and less spacious  than a top-of-the-range Phantom V.

Phil Spector's 1965 Silver Cloud III
1965 Phantom V
You'll notice the more rakish lines of the Silver Cloud, as if intended for younger, sportier members of the aristocracy. By contrast, the Phantom V is like a ship on wheels. Speed isn't the main priority: it's all about gracefulness, stability, and spectatorship. Solid, reassuring and very British, the 1965 Rolls Royce Phantom V was the epitome of English craftsmanship, a special state of refinement, one perhaps no longer permissible or possible in the 21st Century. Only 500 were ever made.

Moreover, EUC 100C has several features that distinguish it from Spector's Roller.  As Sam has pointed out, early on, Lennon had a communications antenna installed on the roof above the windshield. Later, a pair of vents were added. These were not present when the car appeared in Performance, shot in 1968, but do appear in the Apple Records promotional video, "The Ballad of John & Yoko," released the following year. Also, if you look closely at the downshot below, you can just make out the outlines of what appears to be a sunroof. (Click on image to enlarge.)

These modifications are not apparent in the photo of the white Rolls Royce in Phil Spector's driveway. Likewise, they are lacking in shots of the white '65 Phantom V in the Tebo Auto Collection in Colorado which is unambiguously attributed to Lennon. So the question remains: Where is EUC 100C?

For a list of previous threads on this topic, click here.


Thursday, January 6, 2011


This past week I happened to see two movies from different decades and noticed that the electronic novelty, the SONOVOX, serendipitously appeared in each. The first was the Kay Kyser horror comedy You'll Find Out (1940), the second the Australian SF action-adventure film released almost forty years later, Mad Max (1979). In the latter film, a character who seems to have suffered some sort of trauma to his throat uses the then anachronistic Sonovox as a voice prosthesis, unavoidably lending his speech that hollow metallic ring that makes the sound created by the Sonovox so distinctive, if slightly chilling. (Indeed, the makers of the films featuring "Mad Max" seem compelled to portray a vast array of prosthetic devices throughout the trilogy.)

The Sonovox was an electronic novelty used exclusively to create vocal effects. Hence, it was a device of extremely narrow application (unlike the vocoder), which eventually led to its demise and its interest to us now as a museum piece. A couple of posts back I wrote about Bell Labs' voder, an electronic speech synthesis device. What's unusual about the Sonovox is that it uses two biscuit-sized microphones placed on either side of a person's throat to simulate electronically synthesized speech: thus, it was used to simulate a simulation. An easy way to simulate the artificiality of mechanically created speech, the invention quickly led to anthropomorphized trains, steam shovels, pianos, and vacuum cleaners, that is, to its application in the field of children's entertainment. In yet another serendipity, the voder and the Sonovox were introduced to the general public the same year, 1939 (see my earlier post on the voder for historical information). According to this article from Time (24 July 1939), the Sonovox was invented by Gilbert Wright (the son of the hugely popular early twentieth-century novelist Harold Bell Wright) around January 1939. During a meditative moment while Wright was scratching the whiskers on his Adam's Apple (that is, his laryngeal prominence), he noticed the unusual sounds emanating from his mouth. If you've ever seen Bruce McGill ("D-Day") in National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) play the William Tell "Overture" by drumming his fingers on his windpipe, you get the same general idea.

In this clip, actress Lucille Ball is shown demonstrating the Sonovox in a British Pathé newsreel dated 25 September 1939,  although the apparatus isn't referred to as such, the newsreel instead being titled Machine Made Voices! So far as I've been able to discover, the Sonovox made its first appearance in the aforementioned Kay Kyser haunted house comedy You'll Find Out (November 1940). In this film (which also starred Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre), Lugosi employs the ethereal vocal effect of the Sonovox to simulate the voice of a revenant spirit during a seance, and it is later used by the Kyser Orchestra singer Harry Babbitt during a song, as shown in this clip from the film available on YouTube. The apparatus was perhaps most famously used as the anthropomorphized voice of the train, Casey Junior, in Dumbo (October 1941) but was demonstrated to comedian Robert Benchley in the Disney feature The Reluctant Dragon (June 1941), during a tour of the Disney Studios facility in Burbank. (According to the Time article, Disney wanted to buy the exclusive rights to the Sonovox.) Not surprisingly, the Sonovox was used on several children's records, including a couple issued by Capitol Records in the late 1940s: Rusty in Orchestraville (1946) and Sparky's Magic Piano (1947). It was also used as the voice of the airplane in Whizzer The Talking Airplane (Jackalee Records, 1947). I haven't had the opportunity to confirm the use of the Sonovox in the Forties films The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) and A Letter to Three Wives (1949), but a few on-line sources indicate it was used in these films. No doubt it was used in other films for sound effects. Apparently it was employed well into the 1960s by some radio stations around the country as a way of producing aurally distinctive station IDs, which is to say its application became even more specialized. Given that its application was so narrow, it's no wonder it was eventually displaced by the vocoder, and hence became a historic artifact.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Elfman-Burton Music Box Bonus Disc

I suspect those like me who pre-ordered The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box Collector's Edition (for information, go here) have by now received the bonus disc (#17), sent as a holiday gift to those who've been patiently awaiting the formal release of the delayed Collector's Edition. My copy arrived yesterday in a plain padded envelope postmarked 28 December. Just as the email I received in late November indicated, the bonus disc - apparently limited to 1,000 copies - has been autographed by Danny Elfman (cover pictured). Enclosed in a thin cardboard sleeve with a cover reproducing one of Tim Burton's drawings (a drawing also, incidentally, included in The Art of Tim Burton), essentially it is a compilation disc (50:20) or Music Box "sampler" consisting of the main or end title music from each of the thirteen films that (so far) represent the collaboration between Danny Elfman and Tim Burton. The exception to this pattern is the previously unreleased first track, "The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box Suite" (3:02). For those who may not have yet received the bonus disc, the track listing is as follows:

01. The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box Suite (3:02) (previously unreleased)
02. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure - Main Title/Bike Race 2:55 (previously unreleased)
03. Beetlejuice - Main Title (with Elfman vocal intro) 2:31 (previously unreleased)
04. Batman - The Batman Theme (2:40)
05. Edward Scissorhands - Introduction (Titles) 2:38
06. Batman Returns - End Credits (4:44)
07. Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas - End Title (5:04)
08. Mars Attacks! - Main Titles (2:26)
09. Sleepy Hollow - Main Titles (3:12)
10. Planet of the Apes - Main Titles (3:52)
11. Big Fish - Big Fish (Titles) (4:34)
12. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Main Titles (5:01)
13. Tim Burton's Corpse Bride - End Credits Part 2 - Bonus Tracks from Bonejangles and his Bone Boys (2:33)
14. Alice in Wonderland - Alice's Theme (5:06)

There are no surprises, although as indicated above there are three previously unreleased tracks. (Note that Track 2 was indeed included on the previously released original soundtrack but that release consisted of re-recorded highlights.) Both the disc and sleeve are marked "Promotion Only. Not For Sale." For those who may be wondering why I'm interested in this release, I suppose now is as good a time as any to announce that about three months ago I signed a contract with Scarecrow Press to write THE TIM BURTON ENCYCLOPEDIA. Scarecrow Press has already issued in the series THE RIDLEY SCOTT ENCYCLOPEDIA and, most recently, THE FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA ENCYCLOPEDIA. My own book on Tim Burton will not appear anytime soon, as the manuscript is not due until December 2013. I hope to see THE TIM BURTON ENCYCLOPEDIA appear in 2014.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Voder

In Chapter Nine of Philip K. Dick's We Can Build You, Sam Barrows dismisses the Lincoln simulacrum's desire to "speechify" as nothing but "the familiar mechanical man gimmick, with this dressed-up historical guise. The same thing was demonstrated at the 1939 San Francisco World's Fair, Pedro the Vodor." A true Cartesian, Barrows distinguishes the human from the animal (which Descartes metaphorically likened to the machine) by the human capacity for language. The Lincoln simulacrum is, in effect, dismissed by Barrows as being as mindless as a parrot imitating human speech.

I suspect Philip Dick was writing from memory, as he (or the book's editor) has made a minor orthographic error, for it's actually spelled voder, not vodor. In all likelihood Dick visited the San Francisco World's Fair (formally, the Golden Gate International Exposition, held 1939 - 1940) and saw, at around the age of 11, Bell Laboratories' demonstration of what he (mis)remembered as "Pedro the Vodor" (pictured above, with operator; Bell's voder exhibit is to the right). Developed by Bell engineer H. W. Dudley, the voder was Bell Laboratories' first demonstration of an electronic speech synthesis device. This early analog system preceded Bell Labs' work in "articulatory synthesis"  conducted by Cecil Coker in the 1960s, and Joe Olive's later work on "concatenate synthesis" in the 1970s (see Mark Tatham and Katherine Morton, Developments in Speech Synthesis, Wiley 2005). I mention this later research in speech synthesis by Bell Labs because it is worth mentioning that a famous milestone in that research was a sample created by John L. Kelly in 1962 using an IBM 704 computer, consisting of Kelly's vocoder synthesizer recreating "A Bicycle Built for Two"  (AKA "Daisy Bell"). Arthur C. Clarke, then visiting his friend John Pierce at the Bell Labs' Murray Hill facility, witnessed the demonstration and later used it in 2001: A Space Odyssey during the scene when the HAL 9000 computer is being dismantled by Dave Bowman. (I recommend the essay by Joe Olive, recognized as one of the leading experts in text-to-speech [TTS] synthesis, titled "'The Talking Computer': Text to Speech Synthesis," in David G. Stork, Ed., HAL's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality, MIT Press 1997).

Note that the voder is an electrical speech synthesizer while the vocoder is a speech analyzer coupled with a voder speech synthesizer. Dennis Klatt has posted a historical review of the development of speech synthesizers and has also conveniently posted a short sample of the sound of the voder (which Philip K. Dick undoubtedly heard) which you can hear by clicking this link. For those interested, I note that Wendy Carlos' music for the film Stanley Kubrick made after 2001, A Clockwork Orange, is the earliest work in her ouevre to use the vocodor, but she indicates here that the vocoded portions were done prior to being assigned the film, those vocoded portions being the last movement of Beethoven's Symphony #9 and Timesteps.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Junk Shot

Angelus Novus (1920) by Paul Klee
Theorist and critic Walter Benjamin owned this watercolor for many years. In his essay, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," he wrote this about Klee's painting:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to say, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

If you have followed my blog the past three years, you couldn't fail but notice that beginning in May I stopped posting regularly. I didn't stop out of a lack of interest in blogging, that is, feeling I had nothing to say. The main reason I stopped had to do with what Walter Benjamin describes in the passage above, the catastrophe which has the disorienting effect of propelling us backwards into a future to which our back is turned, while the wreckage in front of us continues to grow higher. That ever-growing pile of wreckage is what we know as history. Beginning in early May, I found that I was increasingly preoccupied by the Gulf oil disaster and its ecological consequences, which so consumed my thoughts that I was simply unable to concentrate on anything significant for any length of time. Since by dint of personality I find it impossible to write about disaster - it is rather like a form of paralysis - I simply wrote nothing at all. And I think, for quite a awhile, longer than I realized, I didn't think about blogging at all. One might say that the theoretical implication concerns the disappearance of selfhood as the defining experience of identity in the postmodern world.

The fact is, as Slavoj Zizek has observed, no private, profit-oriented company, no matter how rich or how powerful, is capable of handling a major ecological catastrophe such as the Gulf oil spill: it doesn't have the reach to both contain the disaster and clean up the mess at the same time, which is why it was so ludicrous when the executives of the companies involved in the Gulf oil disaster - BP, Transocean and Halliburton - started pointing fingers at each other during their testimony before the U. S. Senate. The greater problem, though, is that all the pseudo-scientific statistical blather about "sustainable risks" only promises, as Zizek observes, more catastrophes, that is, an ever-increasing pile of debris.

Speaking of testifying . . . (for the ambiguous etymology of the word testify, go here), the answer to the riddle I posted on New Year's Eve is below.

The fifth man has only one testicle.