Thursday, October 30, 2008

Halloween Rock

The songs one might consider placing under the broad rubric of “Halloween Rock” occupy a curious niche in rock music history. They do not especially exhibit the tendentiousness of the “novelty song,” those occasional or ad hoc songs recorded to raise money for a certain charity, for instance, or recorded to capitalize on a current consumer fad or craze. Nor do they form a coherent subgenre of rock music, having no recurring, identifiable characteristics, thus making them different from a highly commercialized popular musical form such as the Christmas song. Another difference from Christmas music is that “Halloween Rock” is not necessarily music one plays at Halloween, but all year long. Nonetheless, there are certain tunes that one inevitably is compelled to play at Halloween, such as “The Blob,” “Monster Mash, “Psycho Killer,” “Werewolves of London,” and “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, the latter song actually used in the movie Halloween. None of these aforementioned songs are particular “scary” in my view, although they are all highly memorable pieces of music, and somehow seem especially appropriate to play at this time of year.

Yesterday posted a list of the “Top 10 User-Submitted Halloween Rock Tunes,” consisting of readers contributing to “the perfect Halloween rock playlist.” I invite everyone to check out the list—complete with videos—that, while extraordinarily heterogeneous, marked by different styles and different historical periods, actually contains some interesting choices: among them, The Kinks’ “Wicked Annabella,” The Sonics’ “The Witch,” Electric Light Orchestra’s “Fire on High” (from the album Face the Music, the back cover of which is pictured above), The Who’s “Boris the Spider,” and what, for me anyway, is the most interesting choice, Crispin Glover’s rendition of “Ben.” Crispin Glover, remember, starred in the 2003 remake of Willard (1971), a story about a young man’s fascination and strong identification with rats. “Ben,” a huge hit for the young Michael Jackson, was the title track to that film’s 1972 sequel, Ben. Although Willard and its sequel are generally considered “campy,” for an alternative view I would recommend everyone to read Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux, in particular the chapter titled “1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible.” Deleuze and Guattari are especially fond of the film Willard as an illustration of the principle they name “Becoming-Animal,” the strong identification certain human beings have with certain animals, imitating them, modeling their behavior on them, in short attempting to become them. Contrary to a film such as The Wolfman, for instance, which depicts the horror of becoming Other, Willard explores the deep desire to do just that. (Vampire films often explore similar territory.)

At any rate, over at a list of favored “Halloween Rock” tunes follows the “Top 10” Halloween songs, and I invite everyone to peruse it. Moreover, I wish all my readers, now and in the future, a Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

End Of An Era

The website announced yesterday—October 28, 2008—that JVC, the final company producing standalone VCRs, has ceased manufacture of the venerable machines. Obviously yesterday was an historic day. Apparently, JVC will “continue to serve customers with a need to play back VHS tapes by offering up DVD/VHS combo units, but those looking for a shiny new slice of retro in 2008 will be out of luck after remaining inventories dry up.” Since the first VHS VCR was introduced in 1976—the JVC HR-3300, priced at $1,400 and weighing 30 pounds—that is, 32 years ago, over 900 million VCRs were manufactured worldwide, “with 50 million of those boasting a JVC label.”

I can't say that I'm "sad" about it; indeed, I have given away many dozens of VHS tapes to students and others—consisting of both pre-records as well as material taped off of television—the past year and a half or so, but I don’t see myself ever completely “VHS free.” I have too much rare material that simply can’t be found on DVD (at least at the moment), not movies so much as much as live TV and hard-to-find TV interviews--some of it from the late 1970s. And what's wrong with keeping some of those old tapes that have vintage television commercials on them? I simply can't motivate myself to transfer all of that old material to DVD-Rs. Ugh.

I thus anticipate the coexisting with the videocassette—both VHS and Beta (my Sony Betamax is alive and well)—for many more years. Perhaps these material artifacts of a déclassé technology will do nothing but collect dust, but the technology has been too much a part of my life to dispense with it so cavalierly.

Pop Aphorisms: X

1. The fact that rock ‘n’ roll is about a whole lot more than the music is rock culture’s equivalent of the elephant in the living room.

2. It is a common occurrence to find two fans who like the same band and the same music to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to say to one another—because their reasons for liking the music are so completely different.

3. Only in an age of commerce can a record be considered classic when it’s been reissued more than once.

4. Rule #9: No one has sold an LP or CD who hasn’t later regretted doing so, for the simple reason that one realized only too late that there is someone, somewhere for whom the designation OOP—out of print—has no meaning.

5. The iTunes Music Store is simply the digital equivalent of a superstore—meaning the larger it is, the more indistinguishable and homogeneous the product.

6. Rule #10: The larger the record collection, the larger the number of insignificant records one owns; the reason these records are held on to—but remain unplayed—is explained by Rule #9.

7. The Collector’s Dilemma: the greater the number of records, the greater the number of worthless records, but to purge the worthless ones is to contradict the principle of collecting—therefore, for the collector, there is no such thing as separating the wheat from the chaff: the collection is beyond Good and Evil.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Classic Soul

Yesterday I came across Greg Kot’s compelling homage to Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, who died October 17 at age 72. (Pictured at left are the Four Tops at London’s Heathrow Airport in 1966. From left are Duke Fakir, Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton and Obie Benson.) For those who may not know his role in the group, Levi Stubbs was the distinctive, lead voice of the Four Tops, a group that had 24 hits in the Top 40. It’s impossible not to have heard the music of the Four Tops, the epitome of what’s known as “Soul music,” particularly their three greatest songs discussed below, all released through Motown.

I found Greg Kot’s analysis of the following three songs of the Four Tops so insightful that I was compelled to re-blog them here. His complete blog on Levi Stubbs, in the on-line version of The Chicago Tribune, can be found here; I have extracted below only his discussion of the individual songs. I hope you find his individual discussions as insightful as I have.

“Reach Out I’ll Be There,” released August 1966, No. 1 pop hit: Stubbs throws a lifeline to a friend dying of neglect. Realizing the situation is desperate, he sings as if someone’s life depends on it, and it just might; the lyrics hint that a suicide is imminent (“all of your hope is gone”). The three remaining Tops (Obie Benson, Duke Fakir and Lawrence Payton) usher in Stubbs with a wordless “Ha!” as if spurring on a stallion. The beat clip-clops into place, a flute telegraphs the melody, and then the peerless Motown rhythm section locks into gear. The drama elevates each time the band drops out, save for James Jamerson’s driving bass line and a rattling tambourine. Stubbs lands hard on the final syllable of key lines: “… the world has grown COLD … drifting out on your OWN … and you need a hand to HOLD.” Stubbs isn’t just offering help to a friend in a time of need. He is pleading for her deliverance. With each “reach out,” Benson, Fakir and Payton push Stubbs higher, until desperation cracks through the seams in his voice.

“Standing in the Shadows of Love,” released November 1966, No. 4 pop hit: The clippity-clop beat echoes “Reach Out.” The desperate empathy of the previous hit transforms into bitterness and accusation. Now the narrator is plunged into unfathomable heartache: “You’ve taken away all my reasons for living.” The narrator stumbles down a street, bereft, trying to understand something beyond his control. He’s been abandoned by the love of his life. “Hold on a minute,” he cries, as if trying to stop a bullet, and the song veers into a brief but ferocious conga-drum breakdown. The song is the saddest of all battles; the listeners know the outcome before the narrator does. When he finally grasps that there no stopping the inevitable, the effect is devastating. “It may come today, or it may come tomorrow/But it's for sure I've got nothing but sorrow.”

“Bernadette,” released February 1967, No. 4 pop hit: Paranoia runs deep and wide in this classic of lust and jealousy. Stubbs addresses the title character, a siren whose beauty seduces other men and then blithely discards them against the rocks. But the most lovesick of them all is the narrator himself. He is consumed by fear; everywhere he looks there are suitors begging for Bernadette’s affections, and he frets he will lose her forever. He tries to woo her back by falling to his knees and proclaiming the utter worthlessness of his life without her. The horns and backing voices drape a cape of melancholy around Stubbs’ sagging shoulders. “Keep on needin’ me,” he cries. The song fades, and finally falls silent. But Stubbs returns two seconds later for one final outburst: “Bernadette!” It’s one of the great moments in the Motown catalogue, and certainly the most chilling.

Critic Dave Marsh once characterized "Bernadette" as "scarifying," which I think is exactly spot on. While I greatly admire all of these songs, there is a certain something to "Bernadette" that makes it perhaps the best of the three. Most certainly all three are examples of classic soul.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Memento Mori

I may have missed it, but Bill Wyman’s website made no mention of his birthday yesterday—his 72nd. The former Rolling Stone didn’t acknowledge his latest mile marker, preferring to let it go unremarked. Perhaps he no longer finds it worthy of mention, age being an aspect of our lives that seems to have only a slight connection to our subjective, lived experience. Born 24 October 1936, he was born only about a year and ten months after Elvis Presley, who had he lived would have turned 73 years old this year, and roughly three months from his 74th birthday. According to this interesting blog entry, Bill Wyman “has the distinction of being one of the last of the Sixties rock and rollers to do national service in Britain.” And as the author points out, the last American rock 'n' roller of historic significance who was conscripted was Jimi Hendrix. Had he lived, Hendrix would have turned 66 years old next month (born 27 November 1942).

Perhaps as a consequence of Bill Wyman’s age, I woke up today think of my father, who at age 72 had full-blown leukemia, and died about a month and a half after his 73rd birthday. Subsequently, my thoughts turned to the written epilogue at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, which despite its specific historic reference contains an insight I think we’d all do well to remember:

It was in the age of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled. Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.

Memento mori

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: 9

I went ahead and posted nine more aphorisms today, so as to make the number I’ve posted on this blog at this point total an even 70. Several readers have written to me encouraging me to collect my aphorisms into book form, and I thank them very much for the vote of confidence. I’m currently pursuing the possibility of a book of aphorisms, but for such a book to be feasible (with an accompanying “Aphorism-A-Day” tear-off calendar as a possible product tie-in), I’ll need to write 365 of them (and one for leap year), meaning that after this particular posting I’ll have only 295 to go (plus another for leap year). They have been very popular, and I thank everyone for checking in from time to time for new additions, but whether I can write (well) about 300 more aphorisms to make a book remains to be seen. Ars longa vita brevis.

1. John Wayne was a great movie star because no matter the part, he was always John Wayne; his lesson was not lost on those pop singers who also became movie stars—Elvis, for instance—because they knew always to play themselves.

2. MTV Cribs—a show based on a fundamental contradiction, that one can present as ordinary the lives of individuals whose lives are extraordinary; the television equivalent of the Hollywood fan magazine.

3. The massive success of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” is demonstrable proof that the most successful pop songs always have been sentimental.

4. When popularizing rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis faced the problem of being perceived as lowbrow; what is known as “art rock” or “prog rock” at least succeeded in making rock music middlebrow.

5. The Beatles did collectively what they could not have done—did not do—individually, revealing that collaboration gives artists a better shot a success than artists working alone: Dylan, for instance, found The Band; outsiders such as Scott Walker weren’t as fortunate, explaining why his career has been so fraught with frustrations.

6. The musical career of Elvis Costello is an illustration of what happens to a generalist lost in a world of specialization.

7. The best rock bands understood the value of the name: imagine if the Rolling Stones were known as the Bongo Beatniks, or Black Sabbath as the Yellow Rosaries: bands that chose names such as The Chocolate Watchband or The Peanut Butter Conspiracy were far too fatuous ever to be taken seriously.

8. One need look no further for the politics of pop than in the so-called “answer song”: neither sequel nor remake, the answer song is an attempt to impinge upon and then supersede the discursive force of the target song.

9. To lift a phrase from Harold Bloom, popular music is, and always has been, a hopelessly overcrowded field, which explains why the “one-hit wonder” ought to be considered the rule rather than the exception.