Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ballad of EUC 100C

Frequent guest blogger Eric Roberts has assembled a short informational clip featuring images of the 1965 Rolls Royce Phantom V once owned by John Lennon, license plate EUC 100C, the whereabouts of which remain an ongoing search. The video, available below, consists of extracts from four archival sources:

1. Georgy Girl, 1966
2. ITN NEWSREEL, December 1985
3. DUTCH TV NEWSREEL, Amsterdam Bed-In for Peace, 1969
4. BALLAD OF JOHN & YOKO Music Clip, 1969

This video is presented for informational purposes only. Copyright is retained by the respective owners of the material.

During the first months of 1966 in London, a hire company in Chelsea supplied the latest model Rolls Royce for the film Georgy Girl (filmed approximately January – March 1966, released the summer of 1966) starring Lynn Redgrave, James Mason, Alan Bates, and Charlotte Rampling. Shot in black and white, it is impossible to tell the color of the Phantom V, which plays a prominent supporting role in the film. Later the same year, around the time he met Yoko Ono, Lennon purchased this particular 1965 Phantom V from the hire firm. He ordered it to be re-sprayed and reupholstered in pristine white, and at the same time, an 8-track stereo, mobile phone system and polarized windows were installed.

Please note: The number plate of the Phantom V in Georgy Girl is PPB1. Rob Geelen left the confirmation of this on the International Movie Car Database forum: "1965 Rolls Royce Phantom V Limousine By H. J. Mulliner, Park Ward design 2003 5VD63, delivered May 65 to to Patrick Barthropp Ltd., registered PPB1, and used in the movie Georgy Girl (UK, 1966), and subsequently by the Beatles. So not ordered new by Lennon."

When in 1971 John and Yoko decided to settle in New York City, virtually everything they owned was left behind at Tittenhurst Park, including, presumably, their white 1965 Rolls Royce. Ringo Starr acquired Tittenhurst Park from Lennon in September 1973 and lived there until early 1988. At the end of 1985, EUC 100C was put up for a charity auction organized by Christies of London. It was withdrawn from sale and has not been seen in public since.

After moving to New York, it appears that Lennon and Ono acquired a right hand drive white Phantom V to replace EUC 100C. Since 1999, Lennon's American Phantom V has been one of the main attractions in the Tebo Auto Collection in Colorado, USA.

For more about EUC 100C and the search for its current whereabouts please visit:

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Coq au Vin

Yardbird is a slang word for the chicken, usually after having been prepared as a meal. Apparently jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker loved fried chicken, which earned him the nickname “Yardbird,” or most commonly, “Bird.” “Anyone seeking an understanding of American music,” writes Michael Jarrett, “could start by pondering the chicken” (287). Or even, I might add, human culture itself: the excellent PBS documentary, The Natural History of the Chicken (2000) suggests that we must understand the chicken through the stories we have told about it. The chicken isn't simply an animal, but a sign of something other than itself: chickens, like all animals, are symbols representing different relations to larger reality. In other words, any number of issues surround the role of the chicken in human culture: sex, class, race, identity, and other issues. Hence it follows that songs about chickens aren't really about chickens. The name of a couple famous rock bands invoke the chicken, suggesting its importance at least to a few of that music's practitioners. Chicken Shack, Christine Perfect’s first band, named themselves after Jimmy Smith's highly esteemed album released in 1960, Back at the Chicken Shack, the record that popularized the Hammond B-3 organ for a generation of rock musicians. The name of the British quintet, The Yardbirds, also invokes the chicken. Although the band's name would seem to be an homage to Charlie Parker, it also may be an allusion to yet another meaning of yardbird, an untrained military recruit or prison convict. The Yardbirds may have counted on the connotations prompted by this other meaning of the word, to suggest, according to Mike Jarrett, "an outlaw aesthetic that seemed explosive and undisciplined" (287).

A 12-Piece Box Of Tunes And Albums:
The Beastie Boys – “Finger Lickin’ Good” (Check Your Head)
Mel Brown – Chicken Fat (1967)
Cab Calloway – “Chicken Ain’t Nothin’ But a Bird” (Are You Hep to the Jive? 22 Sensational Tracks)
Ry Cooder – Chicken Skin Music (1976)
Steve Goodman – “Chicken Cordon Bleus” (Somebody Else’s Troubles)
King Kurt – Big Cock (1986)
Little Feat – Dixie Chicken (1973)
Charles Mingus – “Eat That Chicken” (Oh Yeah)
Jimmy Smith – Back at the Chicken Shack (1960)
Southern Culture on the Skids – “Eight Piece Box” (Peckin’ Party)
Big Joe Turner – “The Chicken and the Hawk (Up, Up and Away)” (Big, Bad & Blue: The Big Joe Turner Anthology)
Link Wray – “Run Chicken Run” (Rumble! The Best of Link Wray)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hip And Corn

There's hip, and then there's corn, what Louis Armstrong in his autobiography, Swing That Music (1936), calls "corney." Most likely it was Armstrong himself who introduced both of these terms into the American vocabulary. The terms are often used to imply binary oppositions: if hip names some sort of positive existential condition, corney is its opposite. What do we mean by saying something is corney? The terms, vaguely, seem to distinguish the new (the hip) from the old (corn), but corn also seems to mean anything that is déclassé, antiquated, "old-fashioned." Thus hip and corn are what Fredric Jameson calls ideologemes, seemingly neutral or banal words that actually designate different relations to political or cultural domination.

In the late 1930s, by which time swing had caught on, the jazz of the Twenties had become "corney," that is, held in contempt. Previously a slang term within jazz subculture for non-jazz (meaning popular) music, "corney" was redefined by Armstrong in Swing That Music as "the 'razz-mah-jazz' style of the Twenties." It's possibly a metaphor derived from traditional Southern food: fried chicken, barbecue ribs, corn bread, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and collard greens. Thus the word corney implies something common and everyday, ordinary, routine, overly familiar. A basic, if bland, staple. In his marvelous book, Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins believes that corn is the "negative face" of hip. He writes:

Hip is witty and daring. Corn is meretricious and safe. Hip, because it is honest and takes risks, may withstand passing fashions. Corn incarnates those fashions. (89)

How are we to understand GIddins? Hip implies otherness, subjects standing outside of the dominant culture. To be hip is to be real, that is, authentic or genuine, detached from the mainstream, values associated with individualism, and hence with jazz. In contrast, corn suggests the masses (the corn-fed), that which is common or vulgar, that one is a follower of trends and fashions, and hence artificial. If you're hip, you swing, which is to say, you seek genuine pleasure. You acknowledge desire. If you're corney, you displace and defer pleasure, preferring instead material commodities and promoting utilitarian ethics. You're a creature of duty and of habit.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Standard

There is no general agreement on what constitutes a "standard," although the existence of the standard requires, implicitly, a distinction between amateur and professional musicianship. According to the definition found here, a "standard" is "a musical piece of sufficiently enduring popularity to be made part of a permanent repertoire, esp. a popular song." Hence the idea of a "standard" applies to popular music and not to what is commonly known as "classical" music. Assuming the collocation, "sufficiently enduring popularity," means, in colloquial terms, that a song has lasted, at what point in its existence does it stop being a mere "song" and undergo the transformation into a "standard"? Is it a matter of sheer repetition or reiteration (re-recording)? And if, by widespread consensus, a song is considered a standard, does that mean it forever remains so, that it shall for all time be considered a "classic"? Alec Wilder, in his highly regarded American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 (1972), shows how the vast majority of the songs considered standards were a consequence of the institutional forms of songwriting known as Tin Pan Alley, Broadway musical theater, and the Hollywood musical. Obviously this is yet another way that "popular" is distinguished from "classical" music (the latter played almost exclusively by professionals), that the standard is a consequence of a certain level of industrial organization that allowed for the manufacture and distribution of music stored in a durable medium: material artifacts (records and sheet music), and methods of dissemination (movies and radio). I therefore note that "storage," in the sense of a storehouse filled with stock, that is, a repertory or archive (repertoire), is essential to the idea of a "standard." The latter practice--the publication of sheet music--also helped bolster the idea of "popular" music, since the printing of sheet music enabled songs to be sold to amateur musicians (beginning in the late nineteenth century, largely comprised of fledgling pianists) in private homes. The publication of sheet music also allowed for the formation of the aforementioned archive, since there could be no such archive without printed music.

Hence the rise of the "song plugger." Song pluggers occupied a curious niche; they were pianists and singers who earned their income selling songs in order to promote the purchase of sheet music, demonstrating the virtues of an individual song rather like a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman demonstrated the virtues of the latest home-cleaning appliance. However, the singers who first recorded the songs that became standards were not considered amateurs, but professionals; they were not song pluggers. That is, in order for a song to become a standard, it almost certainly had to be recorded by one of the dominant singers or performers on Broadway and in Hollywood during the period Wilder identifies, 1900-1950: Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby, to name just a few. Many of the songs that became standards were written especially for these highly-regarded singers who were appearing on Broadway and in Hollywood musicals. Most often, standards became more or less identified with the singer that introduced them--they became, as it were, "validated." Hence the standard became a sort of shibboleth: a required performative test, the  purpose of which was to determine the authenticity of the vocalist. The standard became a means of including and excluding authentic performers: in order to demonstrate your "mettle," you had to perform a standard. Every singer "worth his (or her) salt," as they used to say, had to record a standard. Paradoxically, although the very idea of the standard required the existence of printed music, individual performance was valued over the strict adherence to the written composition.

According to Donald Clarke, in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (Penguin, 1995), by 1950 or so standards were no longer originating in the places they had before (that is, in Tin Pan Alley, in Broadway and Hollywood musicals): "By the early 1950s, however, everything had changed. Blacks were doing their own thing in a new era, for labels created especially to sell to the black market; and good white songs were becoming scarce. The Berlins, Gershwins and the rest had died or retired, and the classic songs they had written could not be imitated" (366). Hence Clarke, among others, subscribes to the view that the decline of Tin Pan Alley coincided with the rise of rock & roll. Perhaps he's right.

As a postmodern art form privileging recording (engineering) over live performance, rock & roll was popular music largely written and performed by amateurs, not professionals, operating outside of the traditional music writing and publishing institutions, making records for small labels that were sold to niche (often regional) audiences. The decline of Broadway and Hollywood musicals, ensemble forms, coincided with the rise of the singer-songwriter, which championed individuality. There were, comparatively speaking, fewer new musicals created in the 1950s than in the preceding decades. One way to understand the rise of the singer-songwriter is to understand that they working outside established institutions such as the Broadway and Hollywood musical. When Elvis (for instance), decided to record songs written by Otis Blackwell (for instance), the cultural continuity suggested by the "standard" was broken. Rock & roll, music played by amateurs (Elvis had no professional training) thus represented a break in established traditions. It should therefore be no surprise that the first important record consisting entirely of standards emerged during a period of nostalgia, the early 1970s. That record was Harry Nilsson's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973), released during the period which saw the popularity of "oldies" groups such as Sha Na Na and nostalgic films such as American Graffiti (1973). Contemporary records such as Rod Stewart's "Great American Songbook" series represent a continuation of this trend in what is now the decline of the rock era.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Confusing Grace With Outer Space

It goes without saying that certain rock stars have the same mysterious allure as movie stars. One lesson these rock stars learned from movie stars is to seldom grant interviews, that is, they learned early on that the secret to success is to make it impossible to determine the fictive from the real. In the same way that "star power" often overcomes the dullness of a bad movie, there's more to great rock 'n' roll than actual music. The allure of The Residents, it seems to me, has always been in the way they went about establishing themselves as different. Like all those who have gone about forming counter-discourses, they exaggerated the power of their antagonist. Taking a cue from The Mothers of Invention's We're Only In It For the Money (1968), they challenged the legitimacy of rock 'n' roll by casting themselves as the dark double of the Beatles, as the anti-Beatles, as the cover of their first album reveals. At the beginning of their career, economics dictated they commit themselves to the medium of music (the manufacture and distribution of records), but as their later career has demonstrated, they were really interested in pursuing the Wagnerian idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk or "total work of art," an assemblage of music, painting, theater, poetry, and primitive architecture (Vileness Fats). In fact, "primitive" is the sound they sought: they went about making music that rendered the idea of influence extremely difficult to determine. They made records as if in a cultural vacuum and in total isolation, which is why their records sounded like nothing else. The very few live shows they did in the 1970s (they didn't begin to tour until the early 80s after the introduction of the Emulator) were short, cacophonous, and outrageous bursts of Guerilla Theatre, evoking nothing so much as Babel.

I'd never heard of The Residents until the fall of 1979, in October or November of that year when Eskimo (1979) was getting a good deal of play on the stereo system at the record store I often visited. (Gone are the days spent in record stores listening to new music, at least for me.) An employee there who bought and and sold used records highly recommended the album to me. Not having a whole lot of money in my pocket at the time, I begged off, so he sold me instead a used copy of Not Available (released the previous year) for, if I remember correctly, the bargain price of $2.50. Although narratives of personal experience have become commonplace in cultural studies, I'm not convinced they are a particularly good idea, as they have always seemed to me to be too confessional, sounding too much like a religious conversion. So I'll stop there except to say that I began to listen, and to collect, The Residents, and have done so for over three decades now. I cannot speak for others, but for me it seems that the record that first prompted my interest in a band is the record I shall always hold in the highest regard. So it is with Not Available. Had The Residents, say, stopped recording after The Commercial Album (1980), the lukewarm critical response to which, as legend has it anyway, disappointed the band, Not Available would have assured their lasting fame, for in the history of popular music nothing like it has been recorded before or since. It is, as we once used to say, totally off the wall. Personally, I think Not Available and "Walter Westinghouse" are among their very finest moments.

Hence I was very keen to put on the headphones and give a close listen to the latest re-issue of Not Available, released earlier this week on CD through MVDaudio, a version of the album which promised the restoration of 7 minutes edited out of the original (1978) version. In order to find out whether this claim were true, I selected at random three previous releases of the album on CD (those CD issues without any bonus tracks, of course) in order to assemble a representative sample from which to determine the album's running time. The results are as follows:

Label Cat. No. Year No. Tracks Time
East Side Digital ESD 81232 1997 5 35:35
Bomba BOM 22011 1997 5 35:35
Euro Ralph CD O34 2005 5 35:27
MVDaudio MVD5122A 2011 5 42:28

The MVDaudio CD reissue is indeed 7m longer, give or take a few seconds. Conveniently, each of the various CD releases has five tracks corresponding to the five parts or movements on the album, which makes it rather easy to determine in which parts material has been restored. The differences in track length are as follows, taken from the iTunes player on my MacBook Pro:

Track ESD 81232 MVD5122A
2 10:02 10:04
3 6:36 10:11
4 7:01 8:54
5 2:22 2:22

The restored version indicates that in its original form, Not Available was composed of four parts all of roughly equally length, between ten and eleven minutes long, with the fourth part eventually cut down with the additional fifth part forming the Epilogue. As can be seen, for the original LP release--reiterated on all CD reissues up to this time--most of the material was cut from tracks 3 ("Ship's A'Going Down") and 4 ("Never Known Questions"). The bulk of the material edited out is at the ending of Part Three and the beginning of Part Four, lyrical instrumental passages performed on a synthesizer (is that a Moog or Buchla synth?). Having listened to the MVDaudio release several times now, I think I prefer the longer version to the original (edited) release. After all, it's hard to listen to the previous versions knowing that material has been edited out, and I like the additional music.

Happily, the Residents' website promises an April re-release by MVDaudio of the digitally enhanced stereo mix (43:44) of Meet the Residents from about twenty years ago. If time permits (things for me are pretty busy at that time) I'll post a blog on that reissue, but in the meantime I will continue to enjoy the gloriously restored version of Not Available.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Ring Modulator

For well over a century, music composers have allied themselves with engineers. For an example, consider German engineer Harald Bode, whose groundbreaking work in electronic sound modification was inspired, in whole or part, by the innovations of songwriter and guitarist Les Paul. Bode observed:

Les Paul . . . stimulated many innovators, and due to his success encouraged them to work in the field of new sound effects. His influence in many areas is felt to this day. The author [Bode himself] was so impressed by his work that he later developed a sound modification system consisting of a number of electronic modules, assigned to two separate outputs through a multiple-head tape loop device. These modules also included a ring modulator.

Note that Bode indicates he was interested in the development of sound modification by means of a device with several modules, research which would later influence both Robert Moog and Don Buchla in their development of the modular synthesizer. Bode did not invent the ring modulator, however, which was a device developed for applications in single-sideband (SSB) modulation. (SSB modulation was used early on with long distance telephone lines as part of a technique known as “frequency-division multiplexing” which allowed several voice channels to be sent along a single circuit.) Back then, though, in the early 1930s when long distance telephone service was being developed, it wasn't known as a ring modulator:

The ring modulator was at the time [ca. 1959-60] relatively little known sound modification device, mainly used in single-sideband communication systems. The main reason was that up to the mid- or late 1950s it was known as a switching circuit, which would have sounded too harsh to be usable for sound modification. It was only after ring modulators were built with diodes, which operate in the square law region of their transfer function (as was the case with certain germanium diodes), that they started to perform as four-quadrant multipliers and became musically interesting.

In technical terms, a ring modulator (named as such because the electronic circuit is shaped like a ring) is an analog sound modification system that takes two inputs, one a signal and the other a carrier frequency, and produces a single output. The signal is normally a wave form produced by the output from a microphone (e.g., a voice), while the carrier signal is normally a sine wave. The function of the ring modulator is to produce the sum and difference frequencies of the signal and carrier. In layman's terms, a ring modulator produces a spectrum of noise, or what Karlheinz Stockhausen, here, refers to as “colored noise.”

It was probably electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s use of the ring modulator that inspired an entire generation of rock musicians. Stockhausen’s Mixture (1964), for example, was written for a ring modulated symphony orchestra. In this electronic composition, the orchestra is divided into five groups (wind, brass, two groups of strings, percussion) and individually mic’ed, each group fed to a separate ring modulator. Stockhausen’s next work using the ring modulator was Mikrophonie II (1965; 14:52), composed “for choir, Hammond organ and ring modulators.” In the liner notes to the Columbia Masterworks LP containing Mikrophonie I and Mikrophonie II (MS7355), the composer wrote:

Mikrophonie II offered the possibilities, as does purely electronic music, to compose with a scale of sounds ranging from natural to synthetic, from familiar (nameable) to unfamiliar (unnamable) ones. The ‘what’ (the material) is not separable from the ‘how’ (the forming). I would never have composed as I did, had the ‘what’ of this process not had very specific characteristics which lead to a specific ‘how.’ For example, when one uses ring modulation, one must compose particular kinds of structures - simple superimpositions, many tones of long duration, not-too-rapidly moving layers - since ring modulators create dense symmetrical spectra from simple material, and this can easily lead to an overweight of noise or a stereotyped coloring of the sounds. . . . the transformation of the choral sound in Mikrophonie II has many gradations, that often untransformed layers are found mixed with more or less transformed layer, and that there is a transition from natural to synthetic sound, and vice versa.

Hence, for Stockhausen, live performance was a form of engineering, a process by which sounds were made, not “captured.” Although the ring modulator is often associated with the synthetic voice of the Daleks in the long-running Dr. Who television series (in which the ring modulator, in other words, is used to simulate the synthesized voice of the robot, the simulation of a simulation) there have been some memorable uses of the device by rock musicians following Stockhausen’s rule regarding the inseparability of the what from the how.

Sonic Samples Of The Ring Modulator:
Jeff Beck - With The Jan Hammer Group Live (1977)
Billy Cobham - “Snoopy's Search/Red Baron” Spectrum (1973)
Jerry Garcia (The Grateful Dead) - “That’s It For the Other One” Anthem of the Sun (1968)
Jan Hammer (The Mahavishnu Orchestra) - “Vital Transformation” The Inner Mounting Flame (1971)
Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath) - “Paranoid” Paranoid (1970)
Jon Lord (Deep Purple) - Machine Head (1972)
Gordon Marron (The United States of America) - “The Garden of Earthly Delights” The United States of America (1968)
Bob Mothersbaugh (Devo) - “Too Much Paranoias” Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
Bob Mothersbaugh (Devo) - “Mechanical Man (Booji Boy Version)” Mechanical Man EP (1978)
Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath) - “Planet Caravan” Paranoid (1970)