Saturday, July 11, 2009

Synesthete: Tom Wilkes, 1939 – 2009

Grammy Award-winning art director, writer, and photographer Tom Wilkes, who designed album covers for George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, and many others, died on June 28 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) at age 69. His obituary in the Los Angeles Times is available here. While still in his 20s, Wilkes became art director for the 1967 Monterey International Pop Music Festival, for which he created the festival’s iconic psychedelic poster (at left) that was printed on foil stock, for which he won an award from Reynolds aluminum for the most creative use of aluminum foil. Formally trained in graphic design, Wilkes was one of several Los Angeles area artists, including John Van Hamersveld, Warren Dayton and Art Bevacqua, who would eventually create concert posters. But Wilkes clearly was highly influenced by the posters emerging from the San Francisco Psychedelic Art movement beginning around 1966.

Wilkes’s now quite valuable poster for the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival obviously is influenced by early psychedelic art: its ornate lettering and highly symmetrical composition, for instance, is a characteristic feature of such art, as well as its collage-like, black-and-white insertion of a photograph of a young woman, gazing at some unseen person or thing off to her right, clothed in garb that would have been considered, in the nineteenth century, both exotic and erotic, her feminine figure surrounded by curlicue-etched cones that imitate, in abstract form, her pronounced breasts. Perhaps that assemblage of spirals is meant to be an ocean wave-inspired motif, given the festival location’s proximity to the Pacific, but they are abstract enough to suggest both rolling waves and female breasts simultaneously (music as a synthesis of nature and culture, both nurturing and nourishing?). In any case, the most pronounced and inspired feature, for me, is that fanciful, pop-arty, Duchamp-inspired necktie, invoking both Duchamp’s goateed Mona Lisa but which also gives the young woman a slightly androgynous appearance. The L. A. Times report quotes Wilkes’ long-time friend, Lou Adler, who observed:

“Most of the artwork in that particular culture was coming out of San Francisco, and what Tom did was he took a San Francisco look, or niche, and made it international,” Adler said. “You can see a lot of the posters from that period and say, ‘Oh, that’s the ‘60s.’ With Tom, it isn’t dated. There's a very special look to it.”

Perhaps what was most influential about Wilkes’ poster for the Monterey Pop Festival, though, was that it was printed on foil stock. That silvery sheen (ink, however, not actual foil) almost immediately graced several covers of rock albums released within the next year, giving each of them a vaguely psychedelic, or at least acidic, aura (none of which, so far as I know, were designed by Tom Wilkes): Steppenwolf’s eponymous first album (1968), Cream’s Wheels of Fire (1968), and the eponymous first album by Quicksilver Messenger Service (1968). The use of faux aluminum stock, in fact, has graced many albums over the years since.

His design of the printed and visual materials associated with the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 led to Wilkes’ career in the music industry, first as art director at A&M Records. He subsequently designed (or provided art direction or graphic design) for dozens of album covers (a list is available here and images of a few are here), some of them among my all-time favorites, including Beggars Banquet (The Rolling Stones), Harvest (Neil Young), Mad Dogs & Englishmen (Joe Cocker), On Tour (Delaney & Bonnie), and Concert for Bangladesh and All things Must Pass (George Harrison). He also took the famous cover photo of Joplin Joplin for her posthumous album Pearl (1971). The particular effectiveness of Tom Wilkes as an album cover designer was that he was a synesthete, explaining why his images always largely formed an enticing visual equivalent to the music to be found inside.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Pick Drag

A consequence of the sonic potential of an amplified electric guitar, pick drag is the sound made when a guitarist slides the tip or edge of his pick along a single string. It is widely assumed that Bo Diddley introduced pick drag, in the song “Road Runner” (1957), in which the sound he made with his guitar is the aural equivalent of a car accelerating from 0 to 60 MPH. (Check out this demonstration of pick drag.) If it is true that from its inception the opposition structuring rock was groove (a redundant riff) versus sonics, then Bo Diddley is an interesting case. Although widely known for the “Bo Diddley beat” (“shave and a haircut, six bits”), his interest in exploring sonics — the size and shape of the imaginary spaces that hold music — is perhaps more influential. Pick drag is an example of exteriorized sound (acceleration, distance as a function of time), while Bo’s uses of reverberation, echo, and delay are examples of interiorized sound, prefiguring psychedelia. Did Bo Diddley ever record “The Pusher,” written by Hoyt Axton but famously recorded by Steppenwolf? For Steppenwolf's rendition owes much to Bo Diddley’s sonic explorations.

Thanks to Stan Ridgway for the suggestion.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mo' Better Blu

A few days ago I wrote a blog entry on the recently released Blu-ray edition of Woodstock (1970), the 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition and BD-Live with Amazon Exclusive Bonus Content version that I ordered from Amazon. Subsequently, I’ve learned that the Amazon set is not the only “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” available, but that there are different exclusives included on the “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” on Blu-ray for sale by Target. I was motivated to search out these differences, and with a little help from my friends, I’ve identified the differences here, for those interested:

Exclusive Extras on BD from
The Grateful Dead – “Mama Tried”
Jefferson Airplane – “Volunteers”
Country Joe and the Fish – “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine”
“Technical Difficulties: The Obstacles to a Smoothly Run Festival Posed by Nature and Technology”
“Woodstock: A Turning Point - When Organizers Realized a Concert Became a Statement About Peace”
“Food, Lodging & First Aid: Making Adequate Provisions for a Musical Multitude”

Exclusive Extras on BD from Target:
Canned Heat – “Woodstock Boogie”
The Who – “Sparks”
Jimi Hendrix – “Spanish Castle Magic”
“Reflections of an Era: Director Michael Wadleigh on Two Signature 1969 events—Woodstock and the Moon Landing”
“A Farm In Bethel: Reflections on Landholder Max Yasgur’s Legacy”
“Cinematic Revolution: The Origins of the Film’s 3-Panel Look”
“Woodstock Generation: Sons and Daughters of the 1960s Share Their Memories”

Additional Note: The BD edition of Woodstock issued in the UK includes the Target exclusive material, with different cover art.

However, if you really want to assemble as many Woodstock performances as you can, you’ll also need the set of three OOP laser discs issued on VideoArts in Japan in 1994, referred to as Woodstock Diary, a film by Chris Hegedus, Erez Laufer, and D. A. Pennebaker. For convenience, I’ve listed the material available on these discs here:

1969.8.15 (VideoArts Music VALJ-3412)
Richie Havens: I Can’t Make It Anymore; Freedom
Country Joe McDonald: I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag
John Sebastian: Rainbows All Over Your Blues
The Incredible String Band: When You Find Out Who You Are
Bert Sommers: Jennifer
Tim Hardin: If I Were A Carpenter
Ravi Shankar: Evening Raga
Arlo Guthrie: Walkin’ Down the Line
Joan Baez: Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man; Sweet Sir Galahad
Interviews with: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman and Michael Lang

1969.8.16 (VideoArts Music VALJ-3413)
Quill: Waiting For You
Santana: Soul Sacrifice
Canned Heat: Leaving This Town
Mountain: Southbound Train
Sly & the Family Stone: Love City
Janis Joplin: Try (Just A Little Bit Harder); Ball & Chain
The Who: My Generation
Jefferson Airplane: Somebody To Love; White Rabbit
Interviews with: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman and Michael Lang

1969.8.17 (VideoArts Music VALJ-3413)
Joe Cocker: Let’s Go Get Stoned
Country Joe and the Fish: (Thing Called) Love
Ten Years After: I’m Going Home
The Band: The Weight
Johnny Winter: Mean Time [sic] Blues
Crosby, Stills and Nash: Blackbird
Paul Butterfield: Everything Gonna Be Alright
Sha Na Na: Duke of Earl
Jimi Hendrix: Star Spangled Banner; Woodstock Instrumental; Villanova Junction
Interviews with: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Michael Lang, Lisa Law and Wavy Gravy

In addition, you may wish to pick up the Jimi Hendrix Live at Woodstock 2-disc DVD set (which includes “Spanish Castle Magic,” an extra on the Target set) as well. And go here for Tim Lucas’s discussion of the 2CD set Jefferson Airplane—The Woodstock Experience, consisting of JA’s complete performance at Woodstock.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Mile Marker 150

This morning I discovered that late last night Tim Lucas sent Becky and me an email informing us that the preview of VIDEO WATCHDOG #150 had been posted on the VW website so that Becky and I could get an early look at our opening spread in the “150th smash issue.” Last month I wrote about my and Becky’s decade long plus association with Video Watchdog that began in 1998 with issue #45, 105 issues ago. While we’ve contributed to VW for over a decade, that’s certainly not as long as Steve Bissette (whose name, you’ll notice, is on the cover) who has contributed to VW off and on over the two decades of its existence. As I indicated in my blog last month, Becky and I always have been deeply pleased that Tim and Donna showed an almost instant willingness to publish our work, and we’re especially pleased to be part of issue 150. Publishing 150 issues of a specialized journal in the turbulent economic conditions and the technological revolution of the past twenty years is no small feat—many venerable journals have either folded up entirely, or gone strictly to an on-line format. I know that Tim and Donna are justly proud of their accomplishment, as they should be.

I remember telling Becky, immediately after we had finished our first two reviews and emailed them off to Tim, that even if he doesn’t accept them, at least we’ve learned something. We’ve found that to be true to this day: writing about a film (or book, or record, etc.) has both deepened our understanding of it various complexities (e.g., themes, characters) and ambiguities, but also its special singularity. Our latest long review of 2008’s superhero films required us to do a bit of homework, forcing us to refreshen our relationship with the characters by doing some additional reading as well as view the films more than once. And like always, we learned something. Not only do we learn by writing the reviews, but once we turn over our material to Tim—and the past few years, to a second pair of eyes, those belonging to John Charles—whose combined editing skills are simply outstanding, we have the comfort of knowing that not only will our work be, proverbially speaking, gone over with a fine-tooth comb, but any factual errors will be corrected as well. And since Donna Lucas is so masterful with design and layout—she’s careful, thoughtful, and meticulous in her work—the published product is thoroughly professional. Both Becky and I have profited greatly from working with Tim and Donna over the years, and we heartily congratulate them on landmark issue 150. We are pleased to be part of it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Blu Blues at Woodstock

I finally had a chance to screen most of the material included on the recently released Blu-ray edition of Woodstock (1970)—the 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition and BD-Live with Amazon Exclusive Bonus Content version, to be precise, that I ordered from Amazon about a month ago. Touted on as “one of the most impressive Blu-Ray releases of 2009 or any other year,” the Collector’s Edition has lots of what is called, in marketing lingo, “value-added content.” The box (enclosed in a protective plastic sleeve), for instance, is designed to resemble a faux fringe leather jacket, while inside there’s an iron-on patch with the familiar logo, a Lucite paperweight with pictures, a reprint of the 60-page Life Magazine special issue about the 1969 event, a reproduction of a three-day ticket, and some other memorabilia (of the miniaturized and simulated sort). Such materials make the event no more “real” than it ever was, but serve as an illustration of the conceit that an important social and cultural event presumably can be fully represented as a series of fragments, making the past seem as visible and proximate as the world you see outside the window as you eat your daily breakfast.

To be honest, I was most interested in the Amazon-exclusive bonus content included on the Blu-ray edition, that is, the additional concert footage consisting of performances by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Johnny Winter, Mountain, and others. Screening the film this time, though, and having viewed the additional footage, I had a rather strong experience of déjà vu, as it occurred to me that many of the artists and bands who’d appeared at Woodstock had already (earlier) appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, e.g., Janis Joplin (with Big Brother and the Holding Company), the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish (duplicating a couple songs at Woodstock previously performed at Monterey), Jimi Hendrix (ditto), the Butterfield Blues Band, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Ravi Shankar, as well as musicians such as Stephen Stills and David Crosby, who’d appeared at Monterey in different bands. Woodstock has always been pitched as a more significant and historic “cultural event” than Monterey, a perception that unwittingly reaffirms the widespread (mis)conception that “The Sixties” consists of events that occurred from 1968 to the end of the decade. It seems to me that the difference between Woodstock and Monterey is all about “authenticity,” which event is seen as the more “authentic” representation of “The Sixties.” My subjective impression is that Woodstock has won out as the more “authentic” event of “The Sixties” . . . but, as Simon Frith has observed, “authenticity” has always been premised on the opposition between “music-as-expression and music-as-commodity.” Hence Woodstock is generally perceived, historically, as being all about “music-as-expression” (expression of historical moment, crystallization of sensibility, and so on), while Monterey has been viewed as being all about “music-as-commodity.” I offer this observation purely as speculation, not as accepted fact.

In any case, this time around I noticed the number of blues and blues-based bands that appeared at Woodstock: Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield, Mountain, and Ten Years After—but, ironically, how few black blues artists were represented (none). Black artists were represented at Woodstock, yes, of course; that’s not my point. Blues music was well-represented at Woodstock, but was played exclusively by white musicians—Canned Heat, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (one of the few bands with black musicians), Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, and—the whitest of all—Johnny Winter, who gave the best blues performance at the festival (“Mean Town Blues”), in my view, based on the footage included on the bonus disc. By no means am I claiming that the blues played by white artists is “inauthentic,” but viewing the Woodstock material this time was a painful reminder of the way white people have historically exploited black people, particularly in the popular music industry. Black music is the ghostly presence of Woodstock. I do not make this observation as a so-called “white liberal,” but as someone who is simply stating a central tenet of the American musical industry. About 99% of those who attended the Woodstock festival were white kids who had the wherewithal, as well as the leisure time, to be able to burn a weekend listening to rock music. The documentary associates primitive behavior (lack of regimentation, nudity, communal bathing, nature worship, fucking in the tall grass, non-Western religious practices, magical thinking—the “no rain, no rain” chant”—and so on) with authentic expression. Monterey has not had this sort of mythology attached to it, but that ought to make the point(s) I am making all the more obvious. Of course I love the music, and the documentary itself is an example of great filmmaking, but speaking for myself, I have few illusions that hippies (middle and upper-class white kids with lots of disposable income and leisure time, still possible in the 60s) are worth all the ideological obfuscation that have been granted them through the Woodstock documentary. Would that I could believe otherwise.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Avant Garage

For some reason, I awoke this morning thinking about the role of the recording engineer in rock and pop music. The best analogy I can think of to understand the role of the recording engineer is that the engineer is to a record what the cinematographer is to a movie. If the latter makes artifice and theatricality seem “natural,” the recording engineer makes sounds seem “captured,” not created. It is therefore not surprising that the contributions of the recording engineer and the cinematographer are recognized within their professional disciplines by prestigious awards (e.g., the Grammy and Academy Awards). There have been, and are, many revered engineers in the history of popular music, many of them known for their contributions to the success of various groups, for instance, Dave Hassinger (early Rolling Stones), Roger Nichols (Steely Dan), Hugh Padgham (Peter Gabriel, The Police), Alan Parsons (Pink Floyd), and Bill Szymczyk (The James Gang, The Eagles). A lesser-known engineer whose career has always interested me, primarily because of his association with the experimental, avant-garde band Pere Ubu, is Kenneth (Ken) Hamann, who began his career at the Cleveland Recording Company in 1950. According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History website, Ken Hamann was named the chief engineer of Cleveland Recording Co. in 1956,

and over the next decade, in addition to engineering award-winning remote broadcast recordings of the yearly Bach Festival and Oberlin College Contemporary Music Festivals, helped build the studio into a state-of-the-art recording and mastering facility in which many regional and national hit records were produced. These included the Outsiders’ “Time Won't Let Me,” the Human Beinz’ “Nobody But Me,” the Lemon Pipers’ “Green Tambourine,” and albums by the James Gang and Grand Funk Railroad.

The encyclopedia entry goes on to say that in 1970 Hamann and production engineer John Hansen purchased the Cleveland Recording Co. from original owner Frederick C. Wolf. I discovered that a few years later, in 1977, they sold the company, and Hamann moved to Painesville, where he set up Suma Recording Studio. According to this site, Hamann died in January 2003, but his son Paul Hamann continues the family tradition of engineering and recording as the owner and chief engineer of Suma. While by no means definitive (it’s a work-in-progress), here are a few rock albums engineered by Ken Hamann over the years. The problem with compiling a definitive list is that the engineer wasn’t always acknowledged in an album’s credits, but I have done my best.

Tiffany Shade – Tiffany Shade (1967)
Yer’ Album – The James Gang (with Bill Szymczyk) (1969)
Smooth as Raw Silk – Silk (with Bill Szymczyk) (1969)
On Time – Grand Funk Railroad (1969)
Damnation – The Damnation of Adam Blessing (1969)
Grand Funk – Grand Funk Railroad (1969)
Closer to Home – Grand Funk Railroad (1970)
Bloodrock 2 – Bloodrock (1970) (“D.O.A.”)
Survival – Grand Funk Railroad (1971)
E Pluribus Funk – Grand Funk Railroad (1971)
Live–The 1971 Tour – Grand Funk Railroad (issued 2002)
Thirds – The James Gang (with Bill Szymczyk) (1971)
Mom’s Apple Pie – Mom's Apple Pie (1972)
Bloodrock Live – Bloodrock (1972)
Bang – The James Gang (1973)
Wild Cherry – Wild Cherry (1976) (“Play That Funky Music”)
Jesse Come Home – The James Gang (1976)

For me, though, Ken Hamann’s most interesting work is for the self-proclaimed “avant garage” band from Cleveland, Pere Ubu. I’m not quite sure about Ken Hamann’s age when he began working with Pere Ubu, but I remember reading (or being told by someone) that he was nearing retirement when the band approached him about recording their music. My memory may be incorrect, but this fact seems intuitively correct since he had been in the U. S. Navy during World War II, and hence would have been around sixty years old when he was introduced to the band in 1976—just a few years from retirement. In any case, according to The Hearpen Singles, a box set containing reissues of the first four 7” singles released by Pere Ubu in the 1970s, Ken Hamann engineered all of the band’s first singles except the very first (“30 Seconds Over Tokyo”/”Heart of Darkness”), released in December 1975. The band began recording at Cleveland Recording Co. in February 1976 (“Final Solution” and “Cloud 149”). Hamann is also credited as producer on the single “The Modern Dance”/“Heaven” (1977). He is credited as engineer and co-producer of the band’s first three studio albums as well:

The Modern Dance (1978) (Three songs recorded at Cleveland Recording Co.; the remainder at Suma Recording in Painesville in 1977)
Dub Housing (1978)
New Picnic Time (1979)

For whatever reason (retirement?), he ceased working with Pere Ubu after 1979’s New Picnic Time, but he later engineered Variations On A Theme by David Thomas and the Pedestrians, released in 1983. His son, Paul, engineered all subsequent Pere Ubu albums beginning with The Art of Walking (1980) through Cloudland (1989), and continued to engineer various tracks on subsequent albums thereafter, while also remastering and mixing live tapes from the 1970s and early 1980s for release on CD (e.g., One Man Drives While The Other Man Screams, 1989). Ken Hamann’s contribution to Pere Ubu’s sound is acknowledged by David Thomas in this article from 2006. Moreover, Hamann’s work also inspired one doctoral dissertation. According to this article, Susan Schmidt Horning, who met Hamann in 1968 and marveled at his ability to manipulate sound, was later inspired to investigate the relationship of music and technology in sound recording studios. She authored Chasing Sound: The Culture and Technology of Recording Studios in America, 1877-1977 (Ph.D. dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, 2002), which won the Ohio Academy of History’s 2003 Outstanding Dissertation Award.

Below is a list of books exploring the link between technology and music. If anyone can contribute to my on-going list of records engineered by Ken Hamann, or additional information, please feel free to send me an email.

Additional Readings:
Michael Chanan, Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music. Verso, 1997.
Mark Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. University of California Press, 2004.
David L. Morton, Jr., Sound Recording: The Life Story of a Technology. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Paul Théberge, Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 1997.