Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2008

Neal Hefti, 1922-2008

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 17, 2008

Folsom Prison News

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

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

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

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

Pop Aphorisms: 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: 5

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

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

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

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

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

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