Saturday, July 31, 2010

'Bela Lugosi's Dead, Vampires Live Forever' at BAM

Either calendarly confused or as eager to ditch this brutal summer and get started with Halloween season as I am, the BAMcinématek is inundating its August repertoire with the undead. The Brooklyn Academy of Music's all-vampire program titled 'Bela Lugosi's Dead, Vampires Live Forever' takes flight on August 4 with the first great vampire feature, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (featuring live piano accompaniment by Ben Model). The program continues through September with an additional 32 films ranging from the Universal classics Browning's Dracula and Dracula's Daughter to Hammer's Horror of Dracula and The Brides of Dracula to vampire comedies (The Fearless Vampire Killers, vampire sci-fi (Planet of the Vampires, Innocent Blood), vampire blaxploitation (Blacula), vampire softcore (The Vampire Lovers), vampire westerns (Near Dark), subtle, arty vampires (Martin, The Hunger), and unsubtle, arty vampires (The Addiction).

All shows are a bloodsucking $12, which may sound insanely expensive if you're not from New York (and may sound insanely expensive even if you are).

BAMcinématek is located at 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 11217

The full schedule is:

Wednesday, August 4
6:50, 9:15pm: Nosferatu
Live piano accompaniment from Ben Model

Thursday, August 5
4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: Vampire Lovers

Friday, August 6
2, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: Drácula (1931 Spanish language version) preceded by Le Vampire

Saturday, August 7
2, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: Horror of Dracula

Sunday, August 8
2, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: Nosferatu the Vampyre

Tuesday, August 10
4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: Dracula’s Daughter

Wednesday, August 11
4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: Dracula Has Risen From the Grave

Monday, August 30
4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: Count Yorga, Vampire

Tuesday, August 31
7pm: Nadja
Q&A with director Michael Almereyda

Thursday, September 2

6:50, 9:15pm: Vampyr

Friday, September 3
2, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: The Fearless Vampire Killers

Saturday, September 4
2, 6:50pm: Planet of the Vampires
4:30, 9:15pm: Lifeforce

Tuesday, September 7
4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: Blacula

Saturday, September 11
2, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary

Sunday, September 12
2, 6:50pm: The Brides of Dracula
4:30, 9:15pm: John Carpenter’s Vampires

Monday, September 13
6:50, 9:15pm: Martin

Tuesday, September 14
6:50, 9:15pm: Near Dark

Wednesday, September 15
4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: The Hunger

Friday, September 17
2, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: Trouble Every Day

Saturday, September 18
2, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: Let the Right One In

Sunday, September 19
3, 6, 9pm: Bram Stoker’s Dracula
6:50, 9:15pm: Dracula preceded by Intimate Interviews: Bela Lugosi

Tuesday, September 21
6:50, 9:15pm: Mr. Vampire II

Wednesday, September 22
6:50, 9:15pm: Thrill of the Vampire

Thursday, September 23

4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: Vampire’s Kiss

Monday, September 27

6:50, 9:15pm: Innocent Blood

Tuesday, September 28
6:50, 9:15pm: The Velvet Vampire

Wednesday, September 29
6:50, 9:15pm: The Addiction

Thursday, September 30
4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm: The Last Man on Earth

Visit BAM's 'Bela Lugosi's Dead, Vampires Live Forever' page here.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Psychobabble recommends 'Lennon and McCartney: Together Alone'

No pop body of work has been pored over more than that of The Beatles. The amount of ink dropped to explain why Revolver or “The White Album” are so fab may be excessive (especially considering how well they speak for themselves), but few other Rock & Roll artists have created material so worthy of deeper analysis. The fascination with Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison’s songs drops off significantly with the Beatles’ break-up. Though there is little doubt that The Beatles as individuals rarely lived up to their accomplishments as a unit, each of the composing ex-Beatles released at least one or two great albums. Lennon (whose solo career receives the most praise, whether deserved or not) had Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. McCartney had Ram and Band on the Run. Harrison trumped them both by crafting the best pop album of the ‘70s with All Things Must Pass. Because these solo careers are rife with ups and downs, there isn’t as much attention paid to them as The Beatle’s collective career, even as those ups and downs make them riper for critique.

John Blaney’s Lennon and McCartney: Together Alone attempts to rectify this situation by taking a look at the solo paths of The Beatles’ two chief writers. As a discography, the book is invaluable. Blaney covers each of Lennon and McCartney’s post-Beatles releases in microscopic detail, providing all relevant dates, personnel, variations between labels and album jackets and inner sleeves. He also supplies a trove of facts about the music’s inspirations and recordings supported by impeccably researched testimonies from the book’s two main subjects, as well as the musicians, producers, and wives who worked with them. Such historical information will be the main draw for fans. Blaney’s critiques of the music are generally sharp but not as deep as the best assessments of The Beatles’ catalogue (Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why or Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, for example). Occasionally Blaney’s assessments lapse into fanboy fervor. Granted, Lennon’s elephant-shriek guitar runs on Yoko Ono’s “Why” are stunning, but to write “Lennon’s work on this track eclipses anything produced by Hendrix or any other guitar hero” is pure hyperbole. Same goes for the assertions that Wild Life “has several McCartney compositions that are as good as anything he’s written” and McCartney’s embarrassing treacle “My Love” is “on a par with The Beatles.” Such statements are pretty crazy, but instances of them are minimal. Blaney doesn’t flinch when slicing into poor solo efforts like Lennon’s Sometime in New York City or McCartney II. At times his evaluations even made me rethink my opinions of the guys’ solo work. So, even with its minor flaws, Lennon and McCartney: Together Alone remains a book that should be read by both ex-Beatlemaniacs and solo skeptics.

Buy it here at Lennon and McCartney: Together Alone: A Critical Discography of the Solo Work (Book)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Things That Scare Me: Case Study #11: The Wicked Witch Breaks the 4thWall

In spite of (or, perhaps, because of) my adult infatuation with all things horrifying and horrific, I was scared of absolutely everything when I was a kid. A television commercial for a horror movie was enough to send me racing from the den in a sweaty palm panic. As an ongoing series here on Psychobabble, I've been reviewing some of the things that most traumatized me as a child and evaluating whether or not I was rightfully frightened or just a wiener.

Case Study #11: The Wicked Witch of the West Breaks the Fourth Wall

Statistics may not actually exist to support this statement, but I still say with complete confidence that no children’s movie traumatized more kids than The Wizard of Oz. Certainly others have had their brain-scarring impacts. The surreal riverboat sequence from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in which Gene Wilder recites a poem of befuddled despair in an increasingly demented wail and a chicken gets its head lopped off in graphic detail surely did a number on many youngsters. The diabolical Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang loomed large in his share of nightmares for obvious reasons. Even Disney, a studio often chided for over sanitizing the grimmest fairy tales, dealt out some pretty potent shocks in cartoons, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and live-action flicks, such as Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dragonslayer. But the terrors of The Wizard of Oz trump the rest, possibly because it is watched more often than these other movies. Or maybe it’s because The Wizard of Oz is the first movie a lot of children see, or at least, the first movie with horror elements they see. I’d guess a lot of parents screen the movie for their kids because of its delightful songs and cute characters and status as a children’s classic without fully taking into account the terrifying witch and her cadre of hideous flying monkeys and the ugly, incongruously named Winkie Guards and the floating, booming head of Oz the Great and Powerful (or “Oz the Great and Terrible”, as he was more aptly titled in L. Frank Baum’s book). The Wizard of Oz certainly isn’t the ultimate scary kiddie flick because its depiction of an innocent being pursued by a relentless boogey man/woman is unique. Most of the movies mentioned above have this in common.

Honestly, as much of a lily-livered wienie as I was as a kid, I watched The Wizard of Oz year after year when it aired on CBS around Easter time. I was aware of the movie’s rep as a child-traumatizer, but it didn’t really have that effect on me. Then one year, the horror suddenly clicked. The moment was brief. All of the flying monkeys and Winkies and disembodied heads still failed to push my panic button. Even the majority of the Witch’s appearances wooshed by as usual. But then I noticed something I’d apparently never noticed before. At the tail end of the scene in which Dorothy speaks to Auntie Em through a crystal ball while trapped in the Witch’s tower, and Em transforms into the mocking Witch, she gazes directly into the camera.

I believe I’ve written before of my terror of fourth-wall breaking, but I’ll reiterate it. I am terrified of fourth wall breaking. This is when a character in a film looks directly into the camera, seemingly interacting directly with the viewer. Sometimes this technique can enhance the humor of a comedy, like when Eddie Murphy gives the viewer a “Do you believe this patronizing asshole?” look after Randy Duke explains that bacon might be found in a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich in Trading Places.

Or it can heighten the poignancy of an emotional scene, like when Giulietta Masina gives the viewer a quick, teary smile in the last frames of Nights of Cabiria.

This heightening goes for scary scenes, as well. Being seven, or however old I was at the time, and having the Wicked Witch of the West make eye contact with me from my TV screen was paralyzing. On top of this was a strange feeling of betrayal. Remember, at this point in my life, The Wizard of Oz was an old friend that visited my home every year. And now— now after all these years and all these viewings—now it was going to be scary? Now I was going to start having nightmares in which I was being pursued—or worse, looked at—by Margaret Hamilton in her green makeup? What the fuck, Wizard of Oz? I thought we had an agreement? Where do you get off doing this shit:

(sorry, the embedding option for this video is disabled, but you can see the scene by following this link… the wall-breaking occurs 5:11 into the video)

The Verdict: Normally I set up these “I was justified in my terror” verdicts with a slew of excuses, but I believe none are necessary this time. The fact that I’d watched The Wizard of Oz so many times as a kid without being terrified is a veritable point of pride. And when it finally did scare me, I was still pretty young. So I can say without a trace of hesitation that I was justified in my fear.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Psychobabble’s 10 Greatest Singles of 1960!

1960 is generally regarded as a rough time for Rock & Roll. Although it was the year Elvis Presley’s Army stint ended, the new recordings he made that year were not his most dynamic. Chuck Berry was beset with legal problems because of his dirty-old-man peccadilloes. Buddy Holly had died the previous year. Little Richard was in the midst of a serious Jesus addiction.

These are the clichés often trotted out to dismiss that dry period between the ‘50s’ end and the start of the British Invasion. The fact is that with the exception of Elvis, none of these hard Rockers ever dominated the charts. Featherweight jokers like Pat Boone, Debbie Reynolds, and Paul Anka were scoring massive hits during Rock & Roll’s late-‘50s golden age. That the biggest hits of 1960 were novelties like “Running Bear” and “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, pop fluff like “Teen Angel” and Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”, and saccharine pap like “Theme from ‘A Summer Place’” wasn’t much different from the previous decade’s situation. And it sure doesn’t change the fact that some great records slipped out in ‘60ar. Here are ten of them…

10. “Chick A’ Roo” by Rick Wayne and the Flee-Rakkers

Like Phil Spector, producer Joe Meek— not the singers and groups he chose to record— was the star of his recordings. Unlike Spector, Meek displayed remarkably poor taste when it came to choosing singers (supposedly, many of his choices were driven by his desire to have sex with cute guys rather than a yen for genuine vocal talent). Yet Meek’s records are great because he draped them with such startling otherworldly effects that he could have made Mickey Mouse sound like Elvis. Rick Wayne was a particularly lousy singer, but “Chick A’ Roo” is a killer chunk of vinyl because of its charmingly goofy hipster lyric and some hard-driving backing from The Flee-Rakkers, who also released a couple of excellent, Meek-produced instrumentals that year, including a surf update of “Green Sleeves” called “Green Jeans”.


9. “Bye Bye Johnny” by Chuck Berry

As mentioned above, Chuck Berry was not having a great year in 1960, but that didn’t stop him from cutting a handful of very good records. None of them matched the power of his ‘50s recordings (though his mojo would return the following year with stellar stuff like “I’m Talking About You” and “Come On”). Of course, sub-par Chuck Berry still smokes most of contemporaries. “Bye Bye Johnny” is the

August 19, 2009: The Nuggets Record Buying Guide: The Turtles

The Turtles are probably the most high-profile group included on the first Nuggets box set. Of course, they aren’t represented by any of their ubiquitous mega-hits like “Happy Together” or “Elenore”, both of which would be undeniably out of place amongst the punky garage rock on Nuggets. Their rendition of Warren Zevon’s “Outside Chance” fits in splendidly, though. It’s a short, sharp blast of driving, riffy Rock & Roll and a neat indicator of how diverse the Turtles could be. They are primarily known as purveyors of schlocky pop like the two hits mentioned above, but during their brief record-making career (1965-1969) they recorded five eclectic albums, each one worth owning. But where to start? Where to start? Relax… answering this question is the point of the Nuggets Record Buying Guide.

The obvious launching point may seem to be Happy Together/She’d Rather Me with Me (1967). It boasts the Turtles’ two biggest hits (as indicated by its painfully unimaginative title) and a couple of popular misses (the slow-burning “Me About You”; “Guide for the Married Man”, the title song from a Walter Matthau vehicle). Happy Together is not the Turtles’ strongest album, though. Some of the cuts are fairly non-descript, and the idiotically sung “Rugs of Wood and Flowers” is unlistenable. Even a couple of the more well-known cuts aren’t must-haves: “Happy Together” has been murdered by over-exposure and “Guide for the Married Man” sounds as disposable as most pop movie themes were in the mid-‘60s. You don’t want to be without “Me About You”, “She’d Rather Be With Me”, and some of the stronger album cuts (particularly “The Walking Song” and “Too Young to Be One”), but this record should be placed on the back burner for a bit. Same goes for The Turtles Present the Battles of the Bands (1968), which also contains a pair of huge hits (“Elenore” and “You Showed Me”), but there are too many goofy comedy tracks flanking them (the album’s conceit finds the band impersonating various groups in various genres, Sgt. Pepper-style). Again, there are some great songs here (“You Showed Me” is one of the Turtles’ best hit singles), but it’s pretty spotty overall.

The real launching point for a Turtles-habit is their final album. Turtle Soup (1969) does not include a single hit, but considering that plenty of listeners never took the Turtles’ hits very seriously, this is not a hindrance. The Turtles were so enamored with The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968) that they nabbed Ray Davies to produce Turtle Soup, and the album shares the spare-but-intricate instrumentation that helped make VGPS an album that can be listened to over and over without being heard the same way twice. Also like Village Green, Turtle Soup covers a number of musical styles but remains unified by its production. There’s some ecstatic jangle-pop (“She Always Leaves Me Laughing”), Lovin’ Spoonful-style good timin’ (the May/December love song “Bachelor Mother”), delirious Rock & Roll ( “Hot Little Hands”), baroque pop (the beautiful “John and Julie”), a country-fried waltz (“Dance This Dance”), spooky mysterioso psych (“Somewhere Friday Night”), a Wagnerian pocket symphony (“Love in the City”), and a fabulous variation on the quiet-LOUD-quiet recipe that made a hit of “Happy Together” (“You Don’t Have to Walk in the Rain”). Perhaps out of respect for their guest producer, the band turned in their most serious roster of tunes. There isn’t a “Rugs of Wood and Flowers” in the bunch, and after the hit-and-miss comedy of The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, this more serious direction is welcome. There are still moments of humor on Turtle Soup (most notably the sex-crazed “Hot Little Hands”), but there aren’t any of the silly pastiches or jokey performances that made some of their previous records lopsided. Impressively, Turtle Soup is also the Turtles’ only album to not contain a single song written by an outside composer, and each member of the group contributes both compositions and lead vocals.
Next, you might want to check out the Turtles second album, another lazily titled platter called You Baby/Let Me Be (1966). It’s a transitional record, finding the Turtles with one foot in the Byrdsy folk-rock of their debut (It Ain’t Me Babe [1965]) and one in the bubble gum of future hits like “She’d Rather Be with Me”. Both styles are evidenced in the two hits for which the album was named, but the record also has some gutsy garage rock (“Flyin’ High”; “Pall Bearing Ball Bearing World”) and blues (“House of Pain”), and a funny rumba (“Suburbia”). It Ain’t Me Babe is almost as good. The Turtles’ cover of “Like a Rolling Stone” is unnecessary (especially in light of the two superior Dylan covers with which it shares vinyl space), but their versions of P.F. Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction”, “Your Maw Said You Cried” (later covered by Robert Plant), and “Glitter and Gold” (covered by the amazing Canadian group Sloan in the ‘90s) are essential.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 21, 2010: Psychobabble recommends John Cale’s ‘Fear’

After Lou Reed booted John Cale from The Velvet Underground in 1968, Cale wasted little time getting on with his work, producing Nico’s terrifying The Marble Index and The Stooges’ classic debut the following year. In 1970 he recorded his first solo album, a collaboration with minimalist composer Terry Riley heavy on extended, instrumental, jazz-like workouts. Church of Anthrax would not be issued until 1971, a year after Cale released Vintage Violence, a solo debut dominated by relatively straight-forward singer-songwriter material influenced by The Band. These two records—both interesting yet flawed—indicated that Cale’s solo career would take a mercurial path, but neither hinted at the confidence and variety he’d achieve on 1974’s Fear. Strong in voice and composition on each of the album’s nine tracks, Cale produced an album that deserves classic status.

The record commences its seduction with “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend”, which starts off as a Bowie-esque, piano-based pop song before climaxing with frenzied bass noise and paranoid primal shrieks. It’s exhilarating, scary stuff and a sharp contrast to the deliberate, choral beauty of “Buffalo Ballet”, which follows. A reggae-tinged rhythm lays the groundwork of “Barracuda”, but Cale provides the hooks with his mumbled melody, circusy organ fills, and screechy viola solo. “Emily” is an expansive, gorgeous ballad, and —like “Buffalo Ballet”, “Barracuda”, and the soulful “You Know More Than I Know”— makes very tasteful use of female backing singers (a real rarity in the mid-‘70s!). “Ships of Fools” is woozy and romantic with a sparkling arrangement that conceals a creepily Gothic lyric. Rolling along on a strolling rhythm, “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy” is as funny as it sounds. Critics tend to compare this number to The Beach Boys, although to my ears, it sounds more like a lift of Van Morrison’s “Straight to Your Heart (Like a Cannonball)”. These are all superb tracks, but the album’s masterpiece is the eight-minute stomp “Gun”, a sweaty-palmed tale of a criminal on the run (later covered to great effect by Siouxsie and the Banshees). Lou Reed may have gotten all the press with his solo career, but I’ve never heard him do anything as accomplished as Fear post-Velvets.

July 20, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘Psycho II’

Psycho II is a movie I avoided for a long time. I’d never seen a great sequel to a great director’s great movie that wasn’t made by that same great director. The non-Kubrick sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey? An unimaginative, dated trifle. Part 2 of Spielberg’s Jaws? My two-word review simply reads “shit sandwich.” Why should I expect any more from a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movie made three years after Hitch died? Robert Bloch, author of the Psycho novel, was not involved either because Universal execs supposedly hated his own literary sequel published in 1982. Anthony Perkins, however, is back as Norman, who is finally being released from the mental institution in which he’d been imprisoned since committing his—errr—youthful indiscretions. So is a tough-to-recognize Vera Miles, who reprises her role as Lila Crane, sister of the showering woman Norman knifed in 1960.

That Psycho II begins with an extended clip of that original murder is not a good sign. A bit of advice to director Richard Franklin: when making an unauthorized sequel to the masterwork of one of cinema’s legendary filmmakers, don’t actually include footage from that filmmaker’s film; it will only make it easier to draw comparisons that place you on the losing end (editor’s note: Richard Franklin is too dead to actually take this advice). It was also a bad idea to shoot a shot-by-shot remake of that shower scene with Meg Tilly, who plays Norman’s co-worker and would-be girlfriend Mary, even if you do toss in a lazy bit of ‘80s body-double boobs.

So many Psychos… so many shower scenes…

So, yeah, there are some major problems with Psycho II (I haven’t even mentioned the bad-taste violence that might be kind of funny elsewhere but feels really out of place in this picture. Oh, wait a minute… I just did). Yet this is actually a pretty good flick. Surely it suffers in comparison to Hitchcock’s movie. That’s a given. But Tom Holland, who went on to write good stuff like Fright Night and Child’s Play, put together a script that remains true to the spirit of the original while also taking the story in some interesting new directions. About an hour into the picture I thought I had the inevitable twist all figured out, but Holland keeps playing games right up until the final scene. He even includes an ingenious parody of the most notoriously clunky scene in Psycho.

Equally important, Anthony Perkins never misses a beat; Norman is just as twitchy, uncomfortably sympathetic, and way creepy as he was 23 years earlier. I also like the fact that director Franklin was actually an associate of Hitchcock, who supposedly schooled his protégé about the ins and outs of German Expressionism. I would have liked it better if he’d used more of what Hitch taught him. Aside from a small handful of distorted shots, the direction is too straightforward. And though it is interesting to see all those iconic sets and props from the original film in full color—and Franklin really luxuriates over them— I think this sequel would have been much better in black and white. Still worth a view, though, even for skeptics like myself.

July 19, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘Jack Bruce: Composing Himself’

In the introduction to Composing Himself: Jack Bruce (Jaw Bone Press), Harry Shapiro explains that when he told a friend he was writing Bruce’s biography, the friend asked, “Well, what are you going to write about after Cream?” In some perfect alternate universe, such a question would never be asked. Jack Bruce’s shiver-inducing tenor, manic bass playing, and freaky songwriting defined Cream far more than anything Eric Clapton contributed to the band, and Bruce’s first solo album, Songs for a Tailor, was far more adventurous than any of Clapton’s. Still, the guitarist went on to an extremely popular and successful post-Cream career while Bruce’s ever eclectic work was only familiar to fanatics. Reams of text have been scribbled about Slow Hand—and even a good deal has been laid down regarding deranged Cream drummer Ginger Baker—while Bruce’s life and work has received a lot less scrutiny. Chances are Composing Himself will not only be the first but the final biography focusing solely on Jack Bruce. Fortunately, it gets the job done well enough that no other will be necessary.

Probably since so much has been written about Cream, Shapiro doesn’t dwell on that band too much here. The group’s existence is limited to roughly 30 pages of this 300-page book, although their legend looms over much of what proceeds. This leaves plenty of room to discuss Jack’s early career as a serious jazz musician and a journeyman with crucial British blues groups like The Graham Bond Organization, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and Manfred Mann and his numerous—and often quite bizarre—projects following the demise of Cream in ’69. The cast of characters is enormous, including Mick Taylor, Lou Reed, Fela Kuti, Jim Keltner, Ringo Starr, Leslie West, and Todd Rundgren. The breadth of his work is even more expansive: hard rock jam bands and jazz-fusion or avant garde groups, and somewhat sadly, a host of nostalgia groups that include a Beatles cover band. Bruce’s personal life is equally varied: a devout left-winger of Scottish Communist stock in a largely right-wing, English Rock world (no pro-Enoch Powell on-stage rants from Bruce, friends!), a longtime heroin-addict, an occasional dabbler in theater.

Shaprio’s writing is solid and supported by Bruce’s close involvement (this is one of those “authorized” biographies), multiple interview sources, and a quite good forward by Clapton, which makes some of the book’s stranger detours not only palatable but mesmerizing. There is a nightmarish interlude at a Mafioso’s compound where famed session pianist Nicky Hopkins is being held prisoner, possibly by black magic, and Bruce’s extended hallucination following liver surgery. Some of this stuff would not work if dropped in a less assured book. Here, it adds some extra color to an already fascinating tale.

Buy it here: Jack Bruce Composing Himself: The Authorized Biography (Book)

July 16, 2010: Psychobabble’s Sixteen Greatest Albums of 1980

If the ‘80s—a period defined by how image trumped content and sterile digital technology shaved away all organic rough edges—was the most artistically meager decade since the dawn of Rock & Roll twenty five years earlier, there was little to indicate this would be the case to anyone who dug deeper than the Top Forty in 1980. Punk was on its way out, but its seismic waves were still shuddering across the landscape. The genre’s major figures were expanding into more adventurous realms, often with incredible success (creatively, if not commercially). MTV had yet to intrude on the scene. New Wave and Power Pop made 3-minute, guitar-based seven inches a viable force again—with “Call Me”, Blondie even scored the biggest smash in a year when the charts were dominated by Olivia Newton John, Kenny Rogers, and Christopher Cross. Of course, one had to keep an eye on the underground to find the year’s best music, a situation that would basically remain permanent in pop music. Here are Psychobabble’s sixteen favorite long players released in 1980…

 16. The Game by Queen

  Throughout the seventies, Queen were the kings of outrageous bombast. They took the ridiculousness of heavy metal that always writhed under the surface of Led Zeppelin’s records and set it free with songs of operatic nonsense, bicycles, and big butts. They were Spinal Tap if David St. Hubbins had a sense of humor and Nigel Tufnel had a brain. Queen’s wit was still intact in the new decade, but their bombast and sheer absurdity had evaporated a bit. That may have disappointed some original fans, but it probably also won Queen some new ones, at least in America where they had their greatest success yet with The Game. It was their first album to occupy Billboard’s number one spot. It’s two singles, the charming Elvis pastiche “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and the magnetically funky “Another One Bites the Dust”, also went to the top and both feature outstanding bass work from John Deacon, who wrote the latter smash. On “Crazy Little Thing”, writer Freddie Mercury gives one of his most restrained performances, and he sings just as marvelously when he’s pushing into a Presley baritone as when he’s going for the top on the classic Queen anthem “Save Me” or the sensitive and lovely title track. On “Don’t Try Suicide”, he shows he can still slash through the envelope of good taste with an absolutely uproarious satire of brain-dead message songs (I’m sure Big Fun were listening!). Queen’s music had matured, but they could still get as goofy as a bunch of teenage doofuses, and who’d want them any other way?

 15. Kings of the Wild Frontier by Adam & The Ants

Between making super-abrasive, Banshees-esque noise while playing a superficial punk pretty boy in Jubilee and becoming an actual superficial new-wave pretty boy with 1982’s Friend or Foe, Adam Ant hit the perfect balance between those two leanings with Kings of the Wild Frontier. A lot of the lyrics are gloriously silly stuff about dancing ants and pirates, but there are also more pointedly satirical pieces about critical flavors of the moment, being a victim of your own emotions, and all stripes of paranoia. But let’s be honest: no one listens to Adam & The Ants for their lyrics. No worries, mate, because Kings is rich in royal melodies, glammy guitar lines, and dance-inducing Burundi beats. “Feed Me to the Lions”, “The Magnificent Five”, “Dog Eat Dog”, and “Press Darlings” are all infectious anthems, unabashed even when crying utter nonsense. Their sweetness finds complex balance in the discordance of “Ants Invasion”, the brooding of “Killer in the House”, and the brooding discordance of “Physical (You’re So)”. And “Antmusic” gets my vote for the single greatest single of the eighties. You can stick that in your hussar jacket and smoke it.

14. Remain in Light by Talking Heads

Talking Heads got lumped in with the punks because they were weird and played at CBGB, but their angular, intellectual artiness always set them far apart from, say, The Voidoids or The Ramones. By the end of the seventies, most of the original punks—The Clash, The Damned, John Lydon— had moved on to more expansive worlds. Not surprisingly, the most radical record of the new decade by a band originally labeled “punk” came via Talking Heads. The African rhythms that bubbled beneath earlier songs like “Tentative Decisions” and “I Zimbra” were not only allowed to fully flourish on Remain in Light, but the core band was also joined by a dense ensemble of percussionists, backup singers, and horn players, while producer Brian Eno layered on some icy synths and guest-guitarist Adrian Belew discharged avant garde screeches and bleeps. The album is split between a quartet of caffeinated, neurotic grooves and a moody run of low-key dirges. Those first four tracks—“Born Under Punches (And the Heat Goes On)”, “Crosseyed and Painless”, “The Great Curve”, and the band’s signature song, “Once in a Lifetime”—may constitute the finest sequence on any Talking Heads record, even if the relatively indistinct concluding numbers keep Remain in Light from besting More Songs About Buildings and Food as the band’s greatest record.

13. Boy by U2

Given how heedlessly they’d soon succumb to ham-handed arena bombast, it’s a little startling and a little sad that U2’s first album is so raw and fresh. They owed too much to seventies-era Who to qualify as a punk band, but Boy is as close as U2 ever got to it, even though The Edge’s super-delayed guitar swathes it all in a very New Wavey sheen. “I Will Follow”, “Out of Control”, and “Stories for Boys” are as furious as U2 got; “Twilight”, “The Ocean”, and “An Cat Dubh” as spookily atmospheric. Only a dope would argue that U2’s first album was their only great one, but it captures them during a brief moment in their career when the world wasn’t scrutinizing their every move, and as a result, Boy is the band’s least self-conscious and most fun record. And is it just me or is the twinkling, lurching, flop single “A Day Without Me” the most perfect thing they’ve ever record?

12. And Don’t the Kids Just Love It by Television Personalities

Anyone who heard And Don’t the Kids Just Love It when it was released could not predict that the new decade would be defined by over-glossy production and fancy haircuts. Lo-fi to the core, Television Personalities’ debut L.P. is a cavalcade of shambling playing and off-key cockney vocalizing. It’s also utterly charming. Sporting a cover that unites sixities icons Twiggy and John Steed and a coo-coo pastoral called “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives”, Television Personalities make their intentions very clear. Moon-eyed worshippers of mod and psych rock with a cheap 4-Track, they pay tribute to The Who on fiery stuff like “This Angry Silence” and “Look Back in Anger” or space off into Floydian dreamland on “A Family Affair” or conjure spaghetti-western psych worthy of Love on “Diary of a Young Man” or stomp-out an Aftermath-era Stones tribute called “Silly Girl” or the Ray Davies-esque character studies “World of Pauline Lewis” and “Geoffrey Ingram”. Yet as clearly indebted to their influences as Television Personalities are, they sound unlike any other group because their uniquely rough-hewn approach and the homemade quality of the recording lends an evocative eeriness to it all.

11. Sound Affects by The Jam

July 7, 2010: Ringo’s Ten Greatest Beats

For a guy who is doubtlessly the most famous drummer who ever lived, Ringo Starr has received a fair share of guff for his behind-the-kit skills. He’s been called The Beatles’ weak-link and the luckiest guy in the world for hooking up with three superiorly talents musicians, but those kinds of flippant barbs miss how fine a drummer Ringo is and how much he changed his instrument. The Ringo Starr beat is unmistakable: that constant wash of semi-open hi-hat, that hard kick drum, those odd-ball fills that lead with the toms (a consequence of him being a left-handed drummer forced by his grandmother—who believed lefties to be minions of Satan—to play a right-handed kit). His playing has been copied by major players from Charlie Watts (check out his work on “Dandelion”) to Max Weinstein to basically every other player who’s picked up a pair of stick since 1964— whether he or she realizes it or not. Anyone who still questions the man’s prowess on a four piece Ludwig need only hear Ringo’s Ten Greatest Beats

1. “I Feel Fine” (1964)

“I Feel Fine” is a track that perfectly illustrates why Ringo’s drumming is so misunderstood: his work is deceptively simple and seems perhaps too lax, yet it’s actually quite metronomic and perfectly compliments what the other Beatles are doing. Ringo’s salsa stumbles in behind Lennon’s propulsive guitar riff and matches its effervescence loosely but not lazily. Then he shift gears radically for a hard bass/snare fill following the guitar break before easing back into that salsa and riding the record into the sunset.


2. “Rain” (1966)

Ringo often refers to “Rain” as his favorite of his own performances. While it doesn’t sport the tricky time-signatures that make a song further down this list his most accomplished feat, the crisp fills he scatters throughout “Rain” make it his most audacious.


3. “She Said, She Said” (1966)

All the proof you’ll ever need of Ringo’s greatness is packed into the final track on Side A of Revolver. Ringo double-tasks, driving along the meter, which constantly shifts between a slack 4/4 and a rigid 3/4, while regularly discharging “Rain”-style fills that scoop up the beat and keep it from careening into the abyss.


4. “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966)

As uniform as “She Said, She Said” is chaotic, “Tomorrow Never Knows” finds Ringo riding the same beat for its entire three minutes. Not a fill breaks the rhythm, yet it’s an amazing performance because of Ringo’s rhythmic idiosyncrasy. Each measure kicks off with the standard movement from bass to snare before shuttering into a double rap on the snare that threatens to halt the beat each time. It’s like listening to a bear trap constantly springing open and snapping shut.


5. “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967)

Ringo’s greatest performance amps up the trickiness of “She Said, She Said” (this time the meter careens from 4/4 to 2/4 to 3/4) and the abandon of “Rain”, while also delving into pure experimentation. “Strawberry Fields Forever” contains a “wild drum track” of massed percussion that creates a thrillingly frenzied undercurrent beneath a placid surface of brass, cellos, and Lennon’s stoned-to-the-gills vocal.


6. “A Day in the Life” (1967)

The Lennon-composed sections of “A Day in the Life” are so rhythmically airy that Ringo didn’t even play his drum kit on the basic track (rather, he taps the congas). But that expansiveness allowed him to roll out some equally spacious drum fills when it came time for him to add his drums to the second verse. The double-time fills he scatters throughout the final verse are equally sublime.


7. “Only a Northern Song” (1968)

The essence of psychedelic drumming. Ringo piles on his trademark “funny fills”, which contribute as much nervous tension to “Only a Northern Song” as those twittering trumpet bursts. The way he punctuates the waltz-time refrain with his bass and crash lends a revivifying dose of power to this characteristically languid George Harrison track.


8. “Happiness is a Warm Gun” (1968)

One of Ringo’s strangest rhythmic feats can be heard on one of The Beatles’ strangest songs. The final movement of Lennon’s mini-suite “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is a doo-wop parody on which the guitars, bass, and vocals lurch into 3/4 time. But Ringo remains in 4/4, creating an incomparable rhythmic push-and-pull that helps the song’s most comedic passage maintain the tension established in the frightening movements that precede it.


9. “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” (1968)

Long believed to be recorded solely by McCartney, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” does, indeed, feature Ringo behind the kit. The raunchy blues might have been one of the more forgettable tracks on “The White Album” if not for the stuttering jive Ringo lays down in its opening moments.


10. “I Found Out” (1970)

Good-natured Ringo was an unlikely collaborator on Lennon’s primal scream exorcism John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band, but he adds a funky wallop to several of the album’s fiercest tracks. “I Found Out”, which ruthlessly debunks the exceptionalness of everyone from Jesus to Paul McCartney (Lennon spends much of the rest of the record debunking his own established myth while simultaneously building a new one), is among these. Ringo’s subtly shifting rhythm, combined with Lennon’s absolutely filthy guitar and Klauss Voorman’s slithery bass, makes “I Found Out” as infectious as it is pungent.

Ringo Starr was born 70 years ago today.

July 12, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day’

The contemporary trend in Rock & Roll retrospectives is the day-by-day chronicle; exhaustive accounts of the where and when of every doing—both major and marginal— of Rock’s hugest institutions. I’ve read books of this nature about The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Monkees. All of these have been essential and valuable reference guides even if they don’t provide the fluid reading experience of a straight biography.

Published last year by Jaw Bone Press, Richie Unterberger’s Velvet Underground chronicle delivers even greater OCD exhaustiveness than these other books, while also dragging the genre closer to the realm of classic biography. As such White Light/White Heat is the most traditionally readable day-by-day chronicle I’ve perused, tethering all of those dates and details about recording sessions and concerts together with insightful critiques of the band’s records and shows, as well as personal information that truly attempts to answer every conceivable lingering question about the freaky East Coast horde. If you’re still wondering why John Cale quit, how and why the band made such a radical transition from hedonistic avant-gardists to a pop group that could record stuff like “Who Loves the Sun?”, or how they fell into the hands of Doug Yule, Unterberger does his damnedest to answer you. As a Brit Rock fanatic, I was tickled to read about the Velvets jamming on stuff like “Day Tripper”, “The Last Time”, “My Generation”, and “I Can’t Explain” and Lou Reed’s effusive praise for The Easy Beats and Something Else by the Kinks. This certainly cleared up the pop question for me.

Along with covering all relevant incidents pertaining directly to The Velvet Underground, Unterberger allows no periphery detail escape him. Amusingly, he even mentions the BMI registration of a song written by one Lewis Reed— who clearly is not the Mr. Reed relevant to this book. I also like the way he gradually folds the various stars who will be most influenced by The Velvet’s into the story, particularly David Bowie, Jonathan Richman, The Plastic People of the Universe, and Patti Smith. Such artists are crucial figures in VU history since a good deal of the band’s significance lies in how heavily they altered Rock & Roll by inspiring a new generation of artists.

As fine as White Light/White Heat inarguably is, all but the most devoted fans may still find themselves skipping around a bit. The incredible number of concert overviews gets a bit repetitious and I quickly lost interest in all details regarding pre-fame Velvet Angus MacLise, whose activities are chronicled here long after his departure from the band. Still I was greatly appreciative of how closely Unterberger followed Nico and John Cale’s post-VU careers (I can’t wait to pick up a copy of The Marble Index!). The writer’s obsession with cult acts, which made his earlier books Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll and Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers so indispensable, fully flourishes when detailing Rock’s ultimate cult act. Maddeningly definitive.

Buy it here: White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by Day (Genuine Jawbone Books)

June 28, 2010: 21 Underrated Beach Boys Songs You Need to Hear Now!

Summer’s here again, which means it’s time to listen to copious amounts of The Beach Boys. But where to start; where to start? That raggedy old copy of Endless Summer perhaps? Or a stack of tracks covering the usual sandy paths: “Good Vibrations” and “I Get Around” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Surfin’ USA”? Perhaps you’d like to branch out a bit, and a discography as rich with buried treasure as that of The Beach Boys is certainly worth a deeper dive.

When I composed similar “21 Underrated Songs” lists for The Rolling Stones and The Who, I had little trouble deciding what constituted an underrated song. I basically just stuck with anything that hadn’t appeared on a major Greatest Hits type album. The Stones released very few of these, so a wide portion of their catalogue was ripe for inclusion. The Who released a ton of them, but nearly every one of their “Best of” collections consists of picks pulled from the same pool of 20 or so songs. The Beach Boys have also put out a lot of compilations, but there is wider variation among them. So, I basically stuck to songs that were not released as single A-sides or on the first two Beach Boys comps I bought: Endless Summer and Good Vibrations: Best of the Beach Boys.

This means some exceptional tracks that are relatively underplayed did not make this list: “The Warmth of the Sun”, “Girl Don’t Tell Me”, “Let Him Run Wild”, “Friends”, “Surf’s Up”, “Sail On Sailor”, etc. Those all deserve to be heard more often than they are, but I set some parameters for myself and stuck to them, damn it. That being said, maybe you’ll discover something that will wow your soul among these 21 Underrated Beach Boys Songs You Need to Hear Now!

1. “Lonely Sea” (from the album Surfin’ USA!) 1963

The common misconceptions of those skeptical of the artistic value of The Beach Boys’ music and the cult it inspired is that the group didn’t show signs of progress until Pet Sounds and, in the words of Rolling Stones magazine’s Dave Marsh, “Brian Wilson became a Major Artist by making music no one outside his own coterie ever heard” (Marsh is talking about SMiLE, which I’ll discuss more further down this list). This is wholly untrue, and evidence of Wilson’s “Major Artistry” (those are Marsh’s smugly mocking caps, by the way) is apparent as early as The Beach Boys’ second album, Surfin’ USA. For those who don’t think the ecstatically fresh title song is enough to qualify Wilson as an important artist (i.e.: people who neither care about nor understand Rock & Roll), there’s “Lonely Sea”. In this one largely forgotten ballad is all of the harmonic inventiveness and heart-wrenching pathos that would help make Pet Sounds the monster classic it has become. Unlike Pet Sounds, the arrangement is as sparse as could be. Some lightly brushed drums, barely-there bass, and a gently picked, heavily tremeloed guitar are the only backdrop to Brian’s chilling lead vocal and the guys’ gossamer harmonies.


2. “We’ll Run Away” (from the album All Summer Long) 1964

Another beautiful ballad, this one pulled from The Beach Boys’ first great album, All Summer Long. One of the few songs from that album that has not become an overly-familiar favorite, “We’ll Run Away” is like a precursor to

June 29, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘The Bat Whispers’

Roland West’s The Bat Whispers
(1930) is far from a perfect movie. The creaky plot about a seemingly supernatural burglar/murderer was surely fresher the first time around in the 1920 Broadway play The Bat and the second time around in West’s silent 1926 chiller of the same name. West telegraphs his big surprise ending about a half hour before the picture ends with lighting and makeup. Perhaps revealing a character’s villainy by lighting him from below, mussing his hair, and giving him dark circles under his eyes had yet to become a trope in 1930, but this kind of stuff has since become easy shorthand for “Look out! This cat’s evil!” What’s more, West’s talky script is a bore, and the ample moments of comic relief are as funny as screwdriver in the pee hole.

Maude Eburne, you’re no Una O’Conner.

Yet The Bat Whispers remains remarkable for West’s staggeringly inventive trick photography and swooping camerawork. The opening shot, which zooms in on a bonging clock tower before plummeting down its length to a bustling Manhattan street, is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in a film from this era. He also makes the best use of shadows since Nosferatu. For much of the film, the title villain is only seen as a black shape stalking along walls, and when we finally meet him in the flesh, that shadow collapses to the floor only to have a hooded figure grow back out of it in unsettlingly bizarre fashion. I’m not sure how West achieved this shot, and that’s OK by me because I wouldn’t want its magic spoiled. There’s also the terrific setting, an old dark house loaded with secret passageways, the wonderfully stormy atmosphere, and an utterly charming epilogue in which star Chester Morris informs the viewers that The Bat is a good friend of his who would surely go on a murder spree if anyone in the audience dares reveal the film’s twist ending. With such a knack for getting a large group of people to do what he wants by scaring them, Morris could have gotten himself a job in the Bush administration.

The Bat would be remade under its original name yet again in 1959, and while very entertaining and sporting superior performances from the likes of Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price, it’s no visual match for The Bat Whispers.

June 24, 2010: Psychobabble recommends Philip J. Riley’s ‘Lon Chaney asDracula’

Before Bela Lugosi forged his iconic performance as Count Dracula, another horror legend was slotted to play the role. Having risen to superstardom by playing grotesques in silent pictures such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera, and London After Midnight, Lon Chaney Sr. was to play the vampire in what would have been his second talking picture. The film was well past the planning stages—with Tod Browning hired to direct and Dudley Murphy and Louis Bromfield penning the script—when Chaney’s death by throat hemorrhage in 1930 halted it. Losing little time, Universal replaced Chaney with Bela Lugosi and hired Garrett Fort to write a new script in time for the film to be released less than six months after Chaney’s death.

Long thought to be lost, Murphy and Bromfield’s unproduced Dracula script is the latest discovery of cinematic archaeologist Philip J. Riley, whose Alternate History for Classic Monster Movies series continues to marvel. This latest volume is a more eclectic affair than the ones about James Whale’s Dracula’s Daughter and Wolfman vs. Dracula. Beginning with Riley’s brief introduction to the subject, the book moves on to Bromfield’s extensive, 50-page treatment, complete with long stretches of dialogue. Chaney was adamant that his film-adaptations remained faithful to the novels on which they were based, and the treatment reveals a picture considerably closer to Bram Stoker than Fort’s script based on the Dracula stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. The Count is also described in more animalistic terms, with his hairy body, wolfish ears, and long fangs, than Lugosi’s vampire, probably to take better advantage of Chaney’s makeup prowess. After the treatment comes the opening passage of Murphy and Bromfield’s script, which draws out Jonathan Harker’s arrival at Castle Dracula for 20-pages, suggesting a more epic film than the one with Lugosi. The script ends abruptly during Harker’s initial meeting with Dracula because of Chaney’s death, but Riley’s book still has several more treasures in its crypt: a complete cast, crew, and title list for the 1931 Dracula, F.W. Murnau’s complete shooting script for Nosferatu, which includes numerous notes by the director (Bromfield was given a copy of the script to help him along with constructing his vampire tale), and most valuably, Lon Chaney’s 12-page autobiography originally published in the September 1925 issue of Movie Magazine. While any classic horror enthusiast should be sufficiently lured by Bromfield’s fascinating treatment, Chaney’s autobiography is a clincher, offering a rare opportunity to read the man’s story in his own words, not to mention a wealth of terrific pictures.

Buy it here: Dracula Starring Lon Chaney - An Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters

June 20, 2010: An Open Letter to ‘Jaws’

Dear Jaws,

It’s not your fault. For 35 years (happy birthday, by the way) you’ve been taking the blame for ruining serious cinema, for turning viewers into a horde of explosion-craving mush heads. You’ve been fingered as the culprit behind the tired “summer blockbuster” phenomenon that defecated True Lies, Speed, Independence Day, and Transformers (among many, many, many others) into cinemas. OK, granted, you were the first film to receive wide distribution, opening in 464 theaters throughout the country on a single date (that would be this date, 35 years ago, as if you didn’t know). You were the first movie to net more than $100 million at the box office. You even climax with a smartass one-liner (“Smile, you son of a…”) and an explosion. But I still contend that the treatment you’ve received over the years has been wholly unfair. The naysayers fixate on your special effects (which, let’s face it, were good but hardly spectacular), while ignoring your smart dialogue (“Smile, you son of a…” notwithstanding…), your flawless acting (Robert Shaw gives what may be the greatest performance ever seen in a horror movie), and your emphasis on finely detailed characters over splashy spectacle. Perhaps the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were more impressive than your shark, but have any of that movie’s characters taken hold of the pop-culture imagination as Quint or Brody or Hooper or even Larry Vaughn have? Does Jurassic Park have a scene as riveting as Quint’s recollection of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis? Does any movie?


Compare the dialogue in that scene to the following, which is the first “memorable quote” on imdb from James Cameron’s record-breaking Avatar released last year:

That there is some shit writing.

Jaws, in my mind you will forever roost among the ‘70s smartest, most well-written, well-acted, and well-produced films. You should not be forced to sit at the other end of the cafeteria from A Clockwork Orange or McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Picnic at Hanging Rock or Don’t Look Now or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, nor did you destroy movies of this ilk. Just look at some of the films that followed in the few years after your release: Taxi Driver and Annie Hall and Eraserhead and Being There and Days of Heaven and Life of Brian and Apocalypse Now and Atlantic City and Raging Bull and The Elephant Man. So, the next time anyone tries to dismiss you for being dumb or for having a detrimental effect on cinema, you just refer them to your Rotten Tomatoes page where you enjoy a 100% fresh rating. And if that doesn’t work, just swim up under them and bite them in half.


Mike from Psychobabble

June 21, 2010: Super ‘70s Time Capsule: “Mr. Jaws” edition

In the wake of Jaws-mania, the record “Mr. Jaws” (1975) by Dickie Goodman sat on prominent display in any record store worth its salt. As a kid, I was mildly fascinated with this record. What might a Jaws comedy record entail? Hilarious descriptions of people getting gnawed to death by great white sharks? That would have actually been a lot funnier than the actual contents of Mr. Jaws, which consists of Goodman as a Walter Mitty-esque reporter asking “Mr. Jaws” (i.e.: the shark in Spielberg’s blockbuster) dopey questions like “What did you think when you took that first bite?” Mr. Jaws then “responds” with cutesy clips from FM Super Hits like “Get Down Tonight” by KC and the Sunshine Band, “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain & Tennille, and “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell.

As a comedy record, “Mr. Jaws” is some appalling shit, but as a time capsule of cheesy Jaws merchandising tie-ins and the kind of Top 40 pop trash that helped necessitate the emergence of Punk, it’s solid gold.

June 18, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘Stones in Exile’

That Stones in Exile kicks off with a string of random celebrity comments doesn’t bode well for Stephen Kijak’s doc. Jack White, I love you, but I came for The Rolling Stones, not you., aren’t you partly to blame for that awful “My Humps” song? Benecio del Toro, what are you even doing here? Fortunately, the talking heads disappear quickly and the hour-long film settles into telling the story of The Stones’ most celebrated, if not their best (that would be Beggars Banquet), album.

All surviving personnel—not just the core band, but Bobby Keys, Andy Johns, Anita Pallenberg, and others—contribute contemporary recollections about fleeing to the South of France to avoid Britain’s stiff tax take, recording the double-disc in Keith’s sweaty, low-security manor, Bianca, drugs, decadence, and the rest. None of this is revelatory stuff, but it is nice to hear these well-traveled tales from the Stones’ own mouths for a change. The most interesting comments come from Jagger regarding his offhand approach to lyric writing. Footage of The Stones on stage, backstage, at play, and in the studio is extraordinarily valuable, even though a good share of it was siphoned from Ladies and Gentlemen… The Rolling Stones and Cocksucker Blues, which aren’t officially available otherwise. At least not yet. Eagle Rock Entertainment, the company responsible for Stones in Exile will be releasing Ladies and Gentlemen… this coming November. Now how about giving The Stones the complete history once over, à la The Beatles Anthology, so we can hear the boys tell the rest of their story?

Get it Here: Stones in Exile

June 16, 2010: Anatomy of a Psycho: 50 Years of Hitch’s Masterpiece

“First customer of the day is always trouble…”

Psycho was a first in many ways, and has been causing tremendous trouble for fifty years. If there is a single film that ultimately legitimized the horror film, it is Psycho, even if there were well-crafted, artful, serious horror films before it. But such films—Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People for example—did not make the impact Alfred Hitchcock’s low-key slasher did. Along with Terence Fisher’s Dracula, Psycho essentially mapped out the way horror would develop throughout the ‘60s, but Dracula glared over its shoulder as Psycho fixed its glassy eyes on the future. Even with its new-fangled fascination with blood and sex, Dracula was still a remake, an adaptation of a 63-year old novel, and a period piece reliant on decrepit Gothic castles and supernatural hokum. These are all elements that made the film wonderful, but they do seem more in step with the cinema of 30-years prior than the contemporary world. Regardless, Dracula held massive appeal for a generation of youngsters who’d discovered Tod Browning’s original on late night TV and spent their days thumbing through Famous Monsters of Filmland and constructing their Aurora Monster model kits. Fisher’s Dracula (more so than his somewhat less memorable Frankenstein from 1957) was successful enough to lead British Hammer Films to fashion a string of similar— though increasingly bloody and sex-fixated—hit Monster movies. It inspired American producer/director Roger Corman to make like-mindedly retro Gothic horrors by plundering the works of Edgar Allan Poe. It inspired American TV producer/Dan Curtis to adapt Stoker to the small screen for his smash series “Dark Shadows”.

Yes, old-fashioned Monster stories, creaky castles, and rubber bats had not gone out of style during the sophisticated ‘60s, but another breed of horror was born as well. In sharp contrast to the traditionalist Hammer and Corman pictures, Psycho was based on a new work (Robert Bloch’s novel was published a mere year before the film’s release). The movie and its progenies were contemporary in setting, Gothic castles being replaced by Gothic motor lodges, Gothic apartment buildings, and Gothic suburban neighborhoods. Supernatural monsters were passed over in favor of seemingly ordinary, innocuous human beings harboring monstrous inner selves. The fang is replaced by the kitchen knife. For every bloodsucker that popped up in response to Fisher’s Dracula, there was a gritty, realistic, psychological horror that never would have been born if not for Psycho. Hitchcock’s film established a

June 8, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie’

Mellodrama, the title of a new film about the Mellotron, is more than just a clever play on words. There is a surprising level of intrigue, double-crossing, and impassioned archaeology in Dianna Dilworth’s documentary about the early synthesizer that was a staple of ‘60s psychedelia and ‘70s progressive rock. Thorough yet brisk and accessible enough for non-cultists, Mellodrama provides an engrossing trip through the Mellotron’s history. We see vintage footage of Harry Chambelin, the man who invented the Chamberlin organ in the ‘40s and personally hawked it to music stores like a traveling salesman, marketing it more as home entertainment appliance than serious instrument. Chamberlin’s son Richard is present to describe how a former business partner ripped off his dad’s invention and sold it to a British company that rejiggered and marketed it as the Mellotron to much greater success. This leads to discussions of the instrument’s renaissance among Rock musicians.

Although Mellodrama is short on original recordings of the songs that made it legendary (the high cost of music rights is surely the culprit), we do get to see Mike Pinder of The Moody Blues replicating the Mellotron part of “Nights in White Satin” on his sampler and Brian Wilson noodling with “California Girls” on the real thing. More significant are the stories the musicians tell. Pinder describes how he turned The Beatles on to the Mellotron, which led to the creation of some of their most important work. Rod Argent talks about how The Zombies’ masterwork Odessey & Oracle was affected by a Mellotron The Beatles left behind in Abbey Road. Claudio Simonetti of Goblin discusses how he worked the Mellotron into the horror films of Dario Argento. Richard Chamberlin talks about how a Mellotron mesmerized Stevie Wonder. Matthew Sweet, Michael Penn, producers Mitchell Froom, and Jon Brion describe their quests to hunt down or revive these rare objects. We also learn how the Lawrence Welk Orchestra, the British military, and the Third Reich contributed to the development of the Mellotron, and how its temperamental nature (The Moody Blues actually cancelled shows because of their chronically malfunctioning Mellotron!) caused its downfall. By the end of Mellodrama, the Mellotron has emerged as a character more fully realized than many human roles in Hollywood films. Highly recommended to both those interested in the Mellotron as a piece of pioneering technology and fans of the artists who made it a cult item worthy of its own film.

Buy it here: Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie

June 7, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘The Jaws Log’

There are only three things that will get me to set foot in a church: a wedding, a funeral, or a book sale. One of the churches in my neighborhood in Jersey City hosts a book sale every Sunday, and it’s a great place to stock up on Stephen King paperbacks for 50 cents a pop (nice to know that you can still buy something for 50 cents, even if it is a well-traveled copy of The Dead Zone). Occasionally, the find is richer. I came home from one of my recent book-sale trips with a fifth edition of Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log (1975). Gottlieb performed a thorough polishing on Peter Benchley’s original Jaws script, appeared in the movie as ethics-devoid newspaperman Meadows, and bunked with director Steven Spielberg in a log cabin throughout the movie’s long and harrowing production.

The writer is upfront in the preface that his journal-like document of the making of Jaws was composed after the fact, as he was kept plenty busy with constant script rewrites while the film was being made, but that does nothing to detract from its enjoyment or educational value.

June 1, 2010: 15 Amazing Uses of the Mellotron

Like the sitar or the Theremin, the Mellotron is an instrument with such a unique sound that contributed so integrally to the atmosphere of psychedelia that it has developed a cult as devoted as any that follow the various bands who dabbled in Mellotronia. And this is not limited to cult acts like The End, Tintern Abbey, and Family. Giants from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones to Pink Floyd worked this proto-synth into some of their best-loved creations.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Mellotron (and if that is the case…boy, have you stumbled across the wrong site!), the keyboard utilized analog tape loops of actual instruments, the most popular being flutes and orchestral strings. Artists often used the Mellotron as a substitute for pricey session musicians, although its wavering, ethereal tone has a charm that is quite distinct from any of the instruments it mimics. Here are 15 of the finest uses of the Mellotron in classic pop songs…

1. “Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles (1967)

The Beatles were not only one of the first bands to get hip to the unique beauty of the Mellotron, but they were also one of the first to understand that it was more than a money-saving tool. After all, they still sprung for studio string and brass players to complete “Strawberry Fields Forever”. On what many agree is their best recording (and as far as I’m concerned, the greatest single recording of the pop era), The Beatles set their Mellotron to mimic flutes, launching legions of Mellotron enthusiasts.

2. “2000 Light Years From Home” by The Rolling Stones (1967)

As always, what’s good for The Beatles is good for The Stones, and as always, The Stones nearly best The Beatles at their own game. If we’re talking about The Beatles’ Mellotron-rich psych masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band vs. The Stones’ Mellotron-richer Their Satanic Majesties Request, I nominate The Stones as the victors. Not only did they create an intricately detailed psychedelic landscape that gets better and better with age, but they made some of the most diverse and creative use of the Mellotron ever. The way-heavy “Citadel” employs Mellotron to stand in for mandolins and saxophones. “She’s a Rainbow” blares with Mellotron trumpets. The controversial experiment “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” even parodies the Mellotron line on their rivals’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”. But the greatest use of the instrument on Satanic Majesties is the swirling Arabesques Brian Jones conjured for the stunning “2000 Light Years From Home”. Jones’s faux strings are as integral to the track’s spooky alchemy as the fuzzy/funky rhythm section or the outer-space blips and beeps Mick coaxed out of his moog synthesizer.

3. “Beeside” by Tintern Abbey (1967)

It’s a testament to the immense quality of their “Vacuum Cleaner”/“Beeside” single that Tintern Abbey has built up a cult following even though this is the only record they officially released. A-side “Vacuum Cleaner” is a roiling, Who-like rocker. B-side “Beeside” is even better; a smoky, psychedelic ballad that might float away if not for a bedrock of searing Mellotron.

4. “Changes” by The Zombies (1968)

Too tastefully produced to compete with the Sergeant or the Satan in terms of psychedelic grandiosity, The Zombies’ swan song , Odessey and Oracle, still makes room for massive amount of Mellotron. Perhaps the instrument is most boldly showcased on the gorgeous “Changes”. Each section of the song is a duet between The Zombies’ glorious vocal harmonies and a select instrument: piano during the verse, congas during the chorus, and Mellotron for the intro and the interludes that link verses and choruses. Vocals, piano, and conga finally co-mingle for the last heart-stopping refrain, but the Mellotron is allowed the final word.

5. “S.F. Sorrow is Born by The Pretty Things (1968)

The Mellotron is most often used to create fluid, entrancing washes of sound, but on occasion, a player has turned it into a more aggressive instrument. A good example of this is Brian Jones’s violent stabs on The Stones’ terrifying “We Love You”. Another is the fierce shrieks John Povey tears out of the instrument on the opening track of The Pretty Things’ masterpiece, S.F. Sorrow. The subject of “S.F. Sorrow is Born” is pretty self-explanatory, and Povey’s robust Mellotron could be an approximation of Sorrow’s cry as he’s born into a miserable life rocked by war, drugs, death, and loneliness. Somehow this is also one of the most joyous songs on this list.

6. “Blackberry Way” by The Move (1968)

The Move’s “Blackberry Way” is a cheeky parody of The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”, chronicling the various tragedies occurring on a particular rainy street on a particularly “terrible day”. For its arrangement, “Blackberry Way” draws on the flipside of “Penny Lane”, appropriating the Mellotron that helped make “Strawberry Fields Forever” the unique track it is. A weary Mellotron line mopes along beneath a largely acoustic arrangement providing The Move’s tale of woe with a touch of elegance.

7. “Mellowing Grey” by Family (1968)

Family’s 1968 LP Music in a Doll’s House is an underrated gem, nearly as eclectic as The Beatles’ “White Album” released the same year (an album that was almost titled A Doll’s House itself!). Family’s debut doled out nuggets of blues, classical-rock, hard rock, prog, country, psych, raga, Sgt. Pepper’s-style big band rock, and avant experimentation. Such an album could hardly have been made without ample assistance from the Mellotron in 1968. The instrument is used generously throughout Music in a Doll’s House, but makes its most majestic appearance on the chiming “Mellowing Grey”.

8. “Animal Farm” by The Kinks (1968)

Of all the major acts of the mid-60’s, Bob Dylan and The Kinks were the ones who most defiantly resisted the fashionable trappings of psychedelia. Dylan even managed to avoid that psychedelic totem, the Mellotron, completely. The Kinks, however, used it indulgently. Unlike quite a few of their contemporaries, The Kinks most often used the Mellotron because their waning commercial success prevented them from hiring string sections and other sessionmen while recording The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. On “Animal Farm”, Ray Davies incorporated the Mellotron into the mix so adeptly that it could almost pass for actual strings.

9. “See Saw” by Pink Floyd (1968)

As fundamentally psychedelic as The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was, there is little to recommend it to Mellotron-enthusiasts. This wrong was seriously righted on Pink Floyd’s Mellotron-heavy sophomore disc, A Saucerful of Secrets. Rick Wright soars through this stellar assemblage of space rock using a Mellotron that once belonged to Princess Margaret! The royal keyboard is at its most evocative on Wright’s own composition, the sadly nostalgic “See Saw”.

10. “Cardboard Watch” by The End (1969)

While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were spending much of ’67 in courthouses and jail cells, The Stones’ stalwart rhythm section did a lot of thumb-twiddling. Only under such extreme circumstances could Bill Wyman have slipped one of his own compositions—“In Another Land”—onto a Stones album—Their Satanic Majesties Request. He otherwise busied himself with The End, a Surrey-based group that he managed, produced, and composed songs for. Although their one album, the astonishing Introspection, was not released until 1969, its recording began during the protracted sessions that eventually spawned Satanic Majesties. As such, some of the Satanic-era accoutrements made their way onto The End’s album, even though the overall results are far-poppier than the Stones’ nightmare carnival. One such accoutrement is the Mellotron, which is all over Introspection. The climbing lines on “Cardboard Watch” are particularly enchanting.

11. “Space Oddity” by David Bowie (1969)

By 1969, the psychedelic era was basically gasping its last, which could have meant bad news for our old pal, the Mellotron. But as we shall see, prog rockers (and the occasional sexy soul star) were more than happy to give the instrument a second life. “Space Oddity” is one of the last great psychedelic records of the ‘60s, and the first significant statement by former mod/Anthony Newley-clone, David Jones. Rechristened David Bowie, he’d only occasionally revisit this brand of spacey psych, so the Mellotron would not become a significant element in the man’s repertoire, but it certainly does its part to help stir images of a whimsical space cowboy floating through the cosmos on “Space Oddity”.

12. “Epitaph” by King Crimson (1969)

Perhaps no other band is as closely associated with the Mellotron as King Crimson. The doomy prog rockers had one of the most distinct and creative guitarists in their ranks with Robert Fripp, yet their first few albums are dominated by monstrous slabs of Mellotron. This is particularly true of their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King. Nearly any of the album’s five tracks could have earned a spot on this list, but I’m going with “Epitaph”, which is as complete a summation of the Crim’s Grimm fairy tale imagery, po-faced attitude, and Mellotron-centricness as you’ll ever hear.

13. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” by Marvin Gaye (1971)

In 1971, Marvin Gaye helped Motown to finally make the transition from a singles-driven label to one that could produce some truly memorable LPs, as well. He did so with What’s Going On, an album so seamlessly constructed that it’s amazing the label was able to cull any singles from it at all, but the title track and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” were, indeed, released on 45 and became two of Gaye’s hugest smashes. What’s Going On was also the culminating work of Motown’s dalliance with psychedelic soul in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, so it makes sense that the record would also make use of one of psych’s most distinguished hallmarks: the Mellotron. Gaye uses the instrument in a suitably unique manner on “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”. The strings that soar throughout the track are the real deal, but the creepy wordless voice that appears in the coda is a Mellotron fabrication.

14. “And You and I” by Yes (1972)

Yes is often held up as exhibit A during debates regarding the icy, bloated pretentiousness of prog rock, but much of their music delivers way more melody and genuine feeling than the naysayers would have you believe. Granted, no one but the most masochistic Middle Earth resident ever needs to sit through all four sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans, but The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge are all enjoyable records. Culled from the latter, “And You and I” takes a speedy space shuttle from delicate prettiness into pop transcendence when Rick Wakeman unleashes his fiery Mellotron during the song’s second passage.

15. “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin (1975)

The classic era of the Mellotron received a powerful send off with one of the hugest songs by the hugest band of the ‘70s. Led Zeppelin had already used the instrument to stunning effect on their 1973 ballad “The Rain Song”, but it was on the monolithic “Kashmir” that it really exploded. John Paul Jones creates massive blocks of pseudo-strings and pseudo-brass to further augment acoustic strings and acoustic brass, as well as Jimmy Page’s lazy strumming, Robert Plant’s shrieks, and John Bonham’s metronomic drumming. The results are a track that truly bears out Zeppelin’s mythic persona as perhaps no other does. “Kashmir” also essentially marked the end of the Mellotron’s run as a major piece of pop ornamentation. As more sophisticated synthesizers came into use, the Mellotron—ever ornery and difficult to keep in tune—fell by the wayside… that is, until the ‘90s when droves of acts from Radiohead to Smashing Pumpkins to R.E.M. to Pulp revived the instrument to add a retro touch to their latest discs…

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