Wednesday, September 17, 2008


The term Krautrock refers, following the concise definition provided by Michael Jarrett, to “a genre of German experimental rock that originated in sixties psychedelia (Faust), culminated in seventies electro-pop (Kraftwerk), and influenced new wave (New Order and PIL), rap (Afrika Bambaataa), and ambient-techno musics (Orb)” (138). “Kraut,” derived from the name of a food largely associated with Germany, sauerkraut (sour cabbage), is a racial slur for a German, just as “frog” is racial slang for a Frenchman because of his supposed dietary preference for frog legs. (Food is one of the primary means by which rival cultures distinguish themselves from one another—see Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked).

As a designation for a particular genre of music, the word Krautrock seems to have originated in Britain, where the music influenced numerous synth-based bands in the late 70s and early 80s. Eventually, Julian Cope, once a member of the band The Teardrop Explodes, authored a book, published slightly over a decade ago, titled Krautrocksampler (1995), an appreciation and survey of the music, which includes an annotated appendix consisting of 50 Kosmische Classics.

Krautrock—one of the few forms of music the designation for which is derived from a racial slur—defines itself by being the antithesis of schlager, a German word meaning “hitter” or “a hit.” According to, schlager is

a style of popular music that is prevalent in northern Europe, in particular Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Latvia and Lithuania, but also to a lesser extent in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Typical schlager tracks are either sweet, highly sentimental ballads with a simple, catchy melody or light, pleasant, throwaway pop tunes. Its lyrics are typically centered [on] love . . . relationships, and feelings.

Hence Julian Cope’s list of 50 Kosmische Classics is comprised not of (pop) songs but entire albums, the LP the privileged medium, in this case, over the 45 rpm single. Defined against schlager, Krautrock is much more than a matter of a supposedly superior medium. For instance, given its bias for the LP-based format, it prefers long, instrumental tunes as opposed to those with vocals, but also prefers (listed as a series of oppositions, with the privileged term on the left, the feature of schlager on the right):

The long song – The short song (generally)
Composition – Performance
Varied arrangements – Repetitive arrangements
Male band members – Female or integrated band members
Virtuosic (professional) playing – Non-virtuosic (amateur) playing
Cool, “distant” – Sentimental
Restrained – Florid
For listening – For dancing
Industrial ("metal machine," factory) – Lyrical

I’ll refer readers to the aforementioned webpage listing Julian Cope’s 50 favorite Krautrock recordings; in addition, I’ll recommend the following (on compact disc):

V/A – Space Box: Space, Krautrock and Acid Trips (Cleopatra)
V/A – Unknown Deutschland: The Krautrock Archive, Vol. I (Virgin)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Rick Wright, 1943-2008

The BBC reported this morning that Rick Wright, founding member of Pink Floyd and that band's distinctive keyboardist, has died following a battle with cancer. He was 65. As is well known, Wright was an essential member of the early Pink Floyd, contributing his highly distinctive, psychedelic textures to the first Floyd albums. Although Wright most often sang background vocals, he occasionally sang lead vocals (“Time,” “Astronomy Domine”), while as a composer, his most well-known compositions were both from The Dark Side of the Moon: “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Us and Them.” He briefly left the band in the early 80s as a result of irreparable tensions he and Roger Waters were then experiencing, but re-joined the band following Waters' departure.

I am saddened by this news because it may well have been because of Rick Wright that I became a Pink Floyd fan in the first place. By the time I became seriously interested in Pink Floyd, around September 1973, I was in my second year of college, and The Dark Side of the Moon had been released to great fanfare earlier that year, and was topping the album charts. That album very quickly became a staple of FM radio, and because I was an impecunious college student, I was in no hurry to buy it. However, that fall I did, in fact, purchase my first Pink Floyd album, not Dark Side of the Moon, but Ummagumma (1969); it had, by the time I first heard it, been in release for about four years. I bought it used from a fellow boarder in the rooming house where I was living at the time; he happened to have just cued up "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" when I stopped by his room to say hello. I was immediately hooked, particularly by the eerie, slightly sinister sounds being made the keyboards; it was as if I was listening to the soundtrack of an unnamed horror movie. He, on the other hand, wasn't all that crazy about the album, and I subsequently bought it from him for $2 (or more precisely, several quarters, a few dimes and nickels), a fair price in those days for a used record (or, in this case, two records). I played "Astronomy Domine," "Careful With That Axe...," and "Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun" over and over on the old J.C. Penney stereo system I then owned, and by the time Christmas rolled around later that year, I received Dark Side of the Moon, which I'd asked for, as a Christmas present.

Moments after I read of Rick Wright's death, I was prompted, in remembrance, to play Ummagumma, which I now also own on CD. But I couldn't do it, and probably won't, for a long time. Nor am I inclined to listen to any Pink Floyd, although I'm sure the FM airwaves will be filled with the band's music as a tribute to this great, innovative musician. Moreover, it will be long time before I'm prompted to watch, say, Live at Pompeii again--too much of a museum piece now, reminding me of a time when bands such as Pink Floyd defined rock music's avant-garde. Syd Barrett's death a couple of years ago marked the end of the original line-up of Pink Floyd, but with Rick Wright's death, Pink Floyd is no more, now a part of rock history--now it "belongs to the ages."

There are any number of fan sites dedicated to Rick Wright. One might well begin here, and follow the links from that point.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

An Unexpected Twist

Drum roll please . . . According to the Billboard Hot 100 chart, what’s the most popular single of the past 50 years? Is it by Elvis? The Beatles? The Rolling Stones? They aren’t even in the top five. The most popular single during the past fifty years? Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” According to Billboard,

“The Twist” is the only song in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 to enjoy two separate chart runs to No. 1: Sept. 19, 1960 (one week), and, following an October 1961 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Jan. 13, 1962 (two weeks). It also set a record for the most weeks (39) on the Hot 100 by a No. 1 song that held until UB40’s “Red Red Wine” lasted 40 weeks in 1988.

Billboard’s list, as many have remarked, seems counter-intuitive. As someone commented on Billboard’s website, many other songs in the history of pop have enjoyed multiple chart runs: The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” The Contours’ “Do You Love Me,” and The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.” The real puzzler for me, though, is the absence on the Hot 100 list of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” The song reached No. 1 on the UK singles chart in 1968 and was among the top-selling singles of the year in that country. Later the song was a Top 10 hit in 1971 in the United States as a result of being re-released after Armstrong’s death in July 1971. But the song wasn’t finished yet. It was later featured in the film Good Morning, Vietnam (1988) and again was re-released as a single in the United States and elsewhere and did very well, reaching No. 1 in Australia in June 1988.

According to an article about Billboard’s list on Yahoo! News,

Geoff Mayfield, director of charts at Billboard magazine, acknowledged that the list might not jibe with some fans’ personal thoughts of the most popular songs of the past 50 years.

“This is simply a chronicle of how each of these songs performed in their era on the Hot 100. We’re not saying these are the most memorable songs of your life. That would be something that's almost impossible to determine,” said Mayfield. “Everyone has a subjective frame of reference.”


The Billboard Hot 100 chart measures airplay and sales information (and more recently digital downloads) in determining the nation’s most popular songs. To determine the most popular song of the Hot 100 era, Billboard used a formula to determine the top song—not always relying on weeks at No. 1 since the data was reported differently in its early days.

Initially, Billboard relied on stations to report the most popular songs, and got sales surveys from record stores. But Mayfield said stations often stopped reporting on a song’s popularity if it was no longer a priority for record labels. And in 1991, Billboard began relying on sales data from Nielsen SoundScan and airplay data from Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems. So Billboard weighted certain songs from different eras to make sure all songs were on an even playing field.

“We went through each era, and we looked through the rate of turnover. The rate of turnover was very high in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and we had to put a weight on that to make the chart runs of that era equal to the chart runs that can be accomplished since 1991,” he said.

In other words, some sort of algorithm was employed to approximate the chart runs of the past based on the pattern of runs established since 1991. Clearly, though, the data analyzed was taken only from chart runs in the United States, ignoring the rest of the world.

Apparently Chubby Checker wasn’t surprised about the popularity of “The Twist.” According to the Yahoo! News article:

“My music is less played that any performer that has been a No. 1 chart man on the planet,” said Checker, who also had hits with “Pony Time,” “The Fly” and “Let’s Twist Again,” which earned him a Grammy. “I don’t get the respect that Rod Stewart gets, or the Rolling Stones, or Frankie Valli. ... But I have to deal with it.”

While the complete list can be found here, I reproduce below the rest of the top Top 10:

2. Santana featuring Rob Thomas – Smooth
3. Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife
4. LeAnn Rimes – How Do I Live
5. Los Del Rio – The Macarena
6. Olivia Newton-John – Physical
7. Debby Boone – You Light Up My Life
8. The Beatles – Hey Jude
9. Mariah Carey – We Belong Together
10. Toni Braxton – Un-Break My Heart

Friday, September 12, 2008

Soul Stealer: Blood And Rain

Artwork courtesy of Michael Easton and Christopher Shy

With this post, I have the distinct honor of being among the first to announce the forthcoming publication of Michael Easton’s and Christopher Shy’s second collaboration, Soul Stealer: Blood And Rain (DMF Comics). Michael was kind enough to send me the teaser art, and gave me permission to post it here on my blog. This past July, I reviewed the initial book, “The Beaten And The Damned.” I wrote at the time that I found Soul Stealer to be “Dark, original, and sophisticated . . . a beautiful, marvelous book, one whose imaginative depth enchanted me in a way that I haven’t been for years.” Others agreed; a news update at Christopher Shy’s Studio Ronin website indicated that Soul Stealer exceeded half its print run during its first week of sales.

For those who have not yet read Soul Stealer, the story’s protagonist, Kalan, is a young, Etruscan warrior once cut to pieces by a brutal, hulking savage named Apis Bull, part man, part ox. Like the Frankenstein monster—whose remorseless loneliness and parentless lineage Kalan shares—Kalan is less a man than an assemblage (“there were days I wasn’t even sure who was calling the shots inside”), re-membered and restored to life by a magician named Strabo, the father of his lost beloved, Oxania. Motivated by his profound, eternal love for Oxania—taken from him by the capricious Gods—he can do nothing but wander for all eternity through time and space, searching for a sign, some way that he might re-unite with her. As compensation for his loss, the God Osiris has given him the ability to traverse between worlds: he is able to enter hell, find an individual soul, and deliver it to the land of the living—hence the title of the series, Soul Stealer.

As I wrote back in July, I found Soul Stealer to be a great imaginative accomplishment. In addition to the book's deft storytelling, I found Christopher Shy’s artwork to be distinctive for its masterful control of light, poised between functional representation and evocative (non-representational) expressionism. Meanwhile, the multi-talented Michael Easton, currently starring in the daytime soap One Life to Live, talks about Soul Stealer here. Christopher Shy’s Studio Ronin website is available here. In addition, DMF Comics has made available a very nice Soul Stealer T-Shirt. As a fan of the series, I very much look forward to the second installment.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Histoire de l’oeil

An ancient adage says, “The eyes are the window to the soul,” while in the Gospel of Mark the eyes are likened to the windows of the heart (7:20-23). Perhaps because beauty is so closely associated with the eyes, the eyes are considered highly seductive. Despite the vital role that she plays in his La Vita Nuova and The Divine Comedy, Dante’s beloved Beatrice is admired almost exclusively for her smile and shining eyes; otherwise, we know very little of her physical appearance. In the Middle Ages, gray eyes were considered a sign of nobility (class, but not necessarily character). By the time of Shakespeare, the metaphorical relation between eyes and beauty had become such a hackneyed literary stereotype that he tried to work against that tradition (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”).

But according to Georges Bataille (in his essay Eye, 1929, first published accompanied by a portrait of Joan Crawford, pictured), for the civilized person, the eye is a source of great anxiety. While the eyes of animals and men are considered extremely attractive and seductive, “extreme seductiveness is probably at the boundary of horror” (17). He writes:

. . . the eye could be related to the cutting edge, whose appearance provokes both bitter and contradictory reactions; this is what the makers of the Andalusian Dog must have hideously and obscurely experienced when, among the first images of the film, they determined the bloody loves of these two beings. That a razor would cut open the dazzling eye of a young and charming woman—this is precisely what a young man would have admired to the point of madness, a young man watched by a small cat, a young man who by chance holding in his hand a coffee spoon, suddenly wanted to take an eye in that spoon.

Obviously a singular desire on the part of a white, from whom the eyes of the cows, sheep, and pigs that he eats have always been hidden. For the eye—as Stevenson exquisitely puts it, a cannibal delicacy—is, on our part, the object of such anxiety that we will never bite into it. The eye is even ranked high in horror, since it is, among other things, the eye of conscience. (17)

Kim Carnes recorded “Bette Davis Eyes,” a song explicitly about the seductiveness of the eyes--but it is a song, if you seriously think about it, that tries to push seductiveness to the boundary of horror, that is, it articulates a strong anxiety about the eyes. Georges Bataille had a fascination with Joan Crawford's eyes, Kim Carnes with Bette Davis's. How utterly appropriate, then, that both of these actresses--linked in their professional lives through their well-publicized and bitter rivalry--would, in the latter stages of their careers, star in horror films. And how remarkable that Georges Franju, director of Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face) would be linked to Georges Bataille through a mutual fascination with the abottoir--Franju would make a memorable film about a Parisian abottoir, Le Sang des bêtes, while Bataille would use the image of the abottoir in his writings as a way to explore the relationship between death, ritual, and sacrifice. None of this, of course, prevents popular songwriters from employing the standard relationship between the eyes, the heart, and the soul.

Audio Ocularity, A – Z

Abba – Angeleyes
Jackson Browne – Doctor, My Eyes
Kim Carnes – Bette Davis Eyes
Bob Dylan – Blood In My Eyes
The Eagles – Lyin’ Eyes
The Flamingos – I Only Have Eyes For You
The Guess Who – These Eyes
Hall & Oates – Private Eyes
Billy Idol – Eyes Without A Face
Judas Priest – Prisoner Of Your Eyes
Lenny Kravitz – Little Girl’s Eyes
Gary Lewis and the Playboys – Has She Got the Nicest Eyes
Van Morrison – Brown-Eyed Girl
Willie Nelson – Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
Roy Orbison – Sad Eyes
The Platters - Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Quicksilver Messenger Service – Light Your Windows
Todd Rundgren – I Saw the Light
Sugarloaf – Green-Eyed Lady
Them – Mystic Eyes
U2 – Spanish Eyes
Bobby Vee – The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
Bobby Womack (Patti LaBelle and George Benson) – Through the Eyes of a Child
XTC – Love At First Sight
Neil Young – Tired Eyes
ZZ Top – Penthouse Eyes

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ultimate Oldies But Goodies Collection Has Arrived

Happily, Time-Life’s new Ultimate Oldies But Goodies Collection box set, graciously sent to me from the compilation’s producer, Joe Sasfy, arrived late last week. I would like to say that I am now ready to present my informed opinion of the recently-released box set, but I simply didn’t have the time this weekend to sit down and gather my thoughts on it—three days is neither time enough to fully assess the contents nor fully assess the presentation. I most certainly will offer my considered judgment as soon as I’m able, very soon. I suspect that many of those who have come across my blog as the result of a web search already have seen the amusing infomercial being hosted by former Sha Na Na member Bowzer, and want to know, frankly, if the collection is worth the money: it is currently listed on Time-Life’s website at $149.95 (with free shipping), which works out to less than $.99 a song, the current price of a download at Apple’s iTunes. I can’t say I’m ready to pronounce my final judgment on the collection at this point—whether it is worth paying $150 for (although I have seen it for sale on eBay for much less), that is to say. I can say, though, that the box consists of five jewel cases tucked within a handsome, sturdy case that imitates in miniature the old portable LP caddy with a latch and handle in which one would cart around one’s vinyl records. And like the old portable caddy, the case lid hinges at the top rear so that you merely tip the lid back to open it up. Snugly tucked inside the case are five individual jewel cases each holding two discs, the first CD in each labeled Side A and the second Side B; each disc contains 16 songs for a total of 32 songs in each individually titled unit—except for the fifth, the one titled “The Ultimate One Hit Wonders Collection,” which, for some mysterious reason, contains only 15 songs on each of the two discs (surely there were more than a mere thirty songs from this period qualifying as “One Hit Wonders”). Hence, just as the promotional advertisements claim, there are 158 songs included in the collection. Each individual jewel case has been allotted its own accompanying 8-page booklet containing liner notes on various songs and/or artists contributed by critic John Morthland.

The song selection ranges from 1954-1962, with the vast majority of them, as one might expect, from 1956-59. Nineteen of the songs date from 1960-61; only one (The Corsairs’ “Smoky Places”) dates from 1962. Rather than being organized chronologically (my own preferential form of organization), the songs are (loosely) grouped thematically. Hence each of the five 2/CD cases is given a title: the aforementioned “Ultimate One Hit Wonders Collection,” plus titles derived from the name of a song included in the individual subset: “Teen Beat,” “Rock Around the Clock,” “Raunchy,” and “Sh-Boom.” Whether a thematic (or perhaps lyrical) form of organization is optimal in this instance is debatable, as each disc contains songs from different years and consisting of different styles. For instance, “Teen Beat” intersperses instrumentals throughout the two sides—e.g., “Tequila,” “Honky Tonk (Part 2),” “Teen Beat”—but these songs are placed side-by-side with songs such as Larry Williams’ “Short Fat Fannie” and—oddly—The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley.” Why not a whole disc (“side”) devoted to instrumentals? The argument might be that such as presentation imitates the format of Top 40 radio, when commercial programming would have dictated such heterogeneous presentation. Perhaps, but then why not organize the songs by year of release, and then in turn present them in order of release, when the information on the songs' chart position (available in the booklet) would make a bit more sense, contextually speaking?

At this point I’m still working my way through the selections and the way they are sequenced on the individual discs, so again, I’m not ready at this moment to present my final assessment. But I wanted those many individuals searching for information on the collection to have my initial thoughts. I’m loath to delay further, but there’s currently too much at the moment on my proverbial plate. I hope this information is useful to those considering purchasing the collection. More in a few short days.