Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Review: ‘Hausu’

After Toho, the studio responsible for all those terrifically cheesy Godzilla movies, approached Nobuhiko Obayashi about making a Japanese answer to Jaws, the advertising filmmaker took a rather novel approach. He recalled seven of his school-age daughter’s worst fears and crammed them into a haunted house movie that plays like Suspiria reimagined by Sid and Marty Krofft. A severed head flies from a water well and bites a schoolgirl on her bottom. A piano consumes human flesh and disembodied fingers pound on its keys. A girl gets into a kung-fu brawl with some firewood. A cat’s eyes glimmer with cartoon sparkles. And there isn’t a single shark in sight.

Naturally Toho was baffled by Hausu (House), as were critics. But the 1977 film became a huge hit in its homeland because kids instantly recognized the candied horrors and psychedelic flights of fancy as reflective of their own whimsical imaginations. As gruesome as this story of seven schoolgirls who meet varying fates in an old dark house can be, the delivery is more cartoonish than your average episode of Scooby Doo. Teeny-bop pop chirps cheerily on the soundtrack, and the actresses play their parts as though they may break out into The Partridge Family’s Greatest Hits at any moment. Those characters are just as transparently farcical as their adventures, each one named for the stock stereotype that dictates her every move: there’s Fantasy, Gorgeous, Kung Fu, Prof (as in “Professor”), Mac (as in “Stomach”…she’s always eating!), Melody (the musician), and Sweet. Collect them all!

The film plays out with the logic of a weird dream, so don’t go looking for a plot. The scares are on the level of those in Wizard of Oz, which means they will be particularly effective for a certain age group even as kids of all ages recognize how disturbing some of the occurrences in Hausu are. The special effects are non-stop, ranging from primitive video manipulation to “How the Hell did they do that?” magic, as evidenced by those ivory-tinkling fingers. You may step out of Hausu scratching your head, but you surely won’t step out bored.

The new Criterion Edition of Hausu comes with all the bells, whistles, and delightful doo dads one can expect from a Criterion disc, including sharp picture and sound, an enlightening and even moving interview with Obayashi and his daughter who inspired the film, a somewhat interesting interview with Hausu superfan and House of the Devil filmmaker Ti West, and “Emotion”, a bonus short film by Obayashi.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: ‘The Who Live at Leeds: Super-Deluxe Edition’

In some parallel universe Who freaks have been listening to Live at Hull for the past 40 years and thinking, “Gee, this could be a lot better.” Fortunately, we all live in the Live at Leeds world, and everyone with a pair of ears knows it’s Rock’s greatest live album: adventurous as your average avant jazz record but as corrosive as the fiercest punk. The Who had been on tour in support of Tommy for months when they played that Leeds University gig and were confident and exceptionally tight. The audience was as receptive as audiences get. Equally important, live-recording technology had advanced to the point where a vinyl record could adequately capture the volume and depth of a live Who performance—well, as long as you turned your hi-fi up all the way and shoved your head inside the speaker cabinet.

The night after The Who’s triumphant Valentine’s Day stand at Leeds they headed to Hull’s City Hall for their next performance. Like the Leeds gig, the Hull show was taped for a potential live album. However, technical problems (John Entwistle’s bass was absent from the first five songs of the set), sloppy playing, and a relatively sedate audience guaranteed that the Leeds show would be the one to make the transition to vinyl and history. The record featured three Who originals and three classic blues and Rock & Roll covers. 25 years later, Live at Leeds received its first expansion and audio upgrade. That 1995 edition featured The Who’s entire non-Tommy set and one bonus track from the Rock Opera, as well as all of the guys’ hilarious onstage banter and the audience noise that had been scrubbed from the 1970 original. In 2001, Leeds doubled in size when the full Tommy set was appended to it. Now it has doubled again to include the entire Hull set, as well as vinyl copies of the 1970 version and the accompanying “Summertime Blues”/“Heaven and Hell” single.

The Live at Leeds: 40th Anniversary Super-Deluxe Collector’s Edition will surely appeal to Who completists. The package is lavish, the audio quality is top notch, and the price is quite reasonable for a set of this sort (compare its $80 list price to the absurd $180 tag of the recently released super-deluxe edition of Exile on Main Street, which contains roughly the same amount of material). The less obsessed should be perfectly happy with their 2001 double-CD sets. I doubt that many fans will feel the need to listen to Live at Hull more than once. What’s the point when Live at Leeds contains the same exact set (plus “Magic Bus”) played with much more vim and skill? There’s also a significant drawback of hearing the Hull set at all: considering how completely The Who recreated their performance from Leeds, it makes that show sound less spontaneous. I always wanted to believe all of the shenanigans at the tail end of “My Generation” were improvised on the spot. They weren’t. The most significant difference between the performances is when Daltrey tosses a bit of “Spoonful” into “Shakin’ All Over” during the Hull set. Otherwise it’s essentially an inferior clone of Leeds.

Universal Music probably intended the two-discs of Hull performances to be the main hook for record buyers, but the real boon of this set is the inclusion of the single and the heavyweight vinyl LP Although the tracks added in 1995 improved on the 1970 release tremendously, it’s still fascinating to hear the album as it originally appeared.

So this package is the fourth, and I’m assuming final, word on Leeds. Hopefully the Powers That Be can now get on with putting together deluxe editions of A Quick One and Odds and Sods. Those are the releases we Who freaks really need.

Buy Live at Leeds: 40th Anniversary Super-Deluxe Collector’s Edition at Amazon.com here.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Farewell, Ingrid Pitt

Ingrid Pitt only starred in a handful of horror films, but she made such an indelible impression in The Vampire Lovers, The House That Dripped Blood, The Wicker Man, and Countess Dracula that she is rightfully remembered as the definitive actress of British Horror. Pitt is primarily regarded as a vampiric sex symbol, but she was also a nuanced actress who brought liveliness, wry wit, and a disarming lack of self consciousness to her performances. Born in Poland, she survived the concentration camps to become the face of Hammer Pictures in the '70s as Elizabeth Bathory in Countess Dracula and Carmilla Karnstein in The Vampire Lovers. She was as adoring of her fans as they were of her, hosting an annual gathering of her fan club at a restaurant in London's Polish Centre. Pitt died of heart failure on November 23, two days after she turned 73.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: ‘Whole Lotta Zeppelin’ & ‘Neil Young: Long May You Run’

Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin: The Illustrated History of the Heaviest Band of All Time by Jon Bream

Judging Whole Lotta Zeppelin by its cover, I expected it to be as puffy as 1991’s Led Zeppelin: Heaven and Hell or the booklet in the Led Zeppelin box set. Such illustrated histories are generally more intent on delivering lush photos and drooling fanaticism than true insight and warts-and-all history. Whole Lotta Zeppelin has all those things. Assembled by Jon Bream with a host of guest commentators including Rock journalists and a wide range of famous fans, the book is geared toward a somewhat specific reader. Its partial modus operandi is to take some of the wind out of Zeppelin. This will be unappealing to the worshippers who continue to shrink in awe of the Hammer of the Gods, and the din of the hordes, and the rest of the flatulent mythology. As someone who loves Zeppelin’s music for its power, atmosphere, inventiveness, and cosmic funkiness, yet realizes that the boys in the band can be real jerks and never bought into all the Dungeons and Dragons fantasies or macho super hype, I think Whole Lotta Zeppelin hits the right note. Plant, Bonham, and Page are treated with all due honesty, both as the phenomenal musicians they are and as the creepy misogynists, serial statutory rapists, thieves, and thugs they were during their younger days. Quotes illustrate how unapologetic Page and Plant were about plundering the catalogues of poor blues musicians. An anecdote by Grand Funk Railroad’s Don Brewer captures manager Peter Grant—the so-called fifth member of Led Zeppelin—at his most casually ruthless. Journalist Ellen Sander relays a scary encounter with a couple of unnamed band members that should lose the group some fans. John Paul Jones, of course, emerges unscathed. Even the most demonic Rock band needs its nice guy.

Whole Lotta Zeppelin will also turn off some of the devoted because a good chunk of it is recycled from previously published books and articles. Because it sports so many voices telling the same story, there’s an irritating amount of overlap in the new content too. However, the army of commentators also keeps the telling fresh and the perspective wide ranging. Despite the impression I may have given above, Whole Lotta Zeppelin is not a hatchet job. In fact, some of the “Rock Star” commentaries are tediously fawning; you won’t learn a thing from Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson or Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. But The Hold Steady’s Tad Kubler contextualizes Zeppelin’s music in a fascinating coming of age story that reads like a scene from Over the Edge. The essays on the band’s albums—each written by a different journalist— are thoughtful, lively, and invigoratingly varied. An interview legendary junkie William S. Burroughs conducted with legendary junkie Jimmy Page for Crawdaddy! in 1975 is beyond bizarre and beyond valuable. But the defining commentary arrives as a coda via New Musical Express and Mojo writer Charles Shaar Murray, who expresses all the exasperation and astonishment of Led Zeppelin fandom as well as anyone ever has. The lush photos are awful nice too.

Buy Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin: The Illustrated History of the Heaviest Band of All Time at Amazon.com here.

Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History by Daniel Durcholz & Gary Graff

Unlike Whole Lotta Zeppelin, Long May You Run is essentially written by two authors, which makes its overlapping information less acceptable. The problem is the structure. This illustrated history is told as a chronological story regularly interrupted by stand-alone essays focusing on Neil Young’s pre-fame period playing in a band with Rick James, his dad, the circumstances behind CSNY’s “Ohio”, a condensed history of Crazy Horse, etc. The main biography and these essays often contain the same material, which is more significant here than it was in the Zeppelin book because Long May You Run doesn’t even break 200 pages, and the abundance of photos means there’s probably only about 100 pages of text. As such, this is more of a traditional illustrated history than Whole Lotta Zeppelin, even though it’s similarly even handed. I’ve never read a proper biography of Young before, so I found Long May You Run to be a perfectly adequate primer. More long-running fans will be more interested in the book on a coffee table level. Like all the Voyageur Press books I’ve perused so far, this is a beautifully designed hardcover that not only has great (and, I’m assuming, rare) photos of Young throughout his various stages (so often we forget that the flannel-swathed one had a bevy of phases to rival Bowie) and his memorabilia, but also sports some really cool illustrations by underground comix-style artist Peter Pontiac.

Buy Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History at Amazon.com here.

Friday, November 19, 2010

This Is a Thriller: “The Hungry Glass”

New Feature!

I’m currently watching the Boris Karloff-hosted horror anthology “Thriller” for the first time and will be writing about stand-out episodes as I step over their graves…

Episode 16: "The Hungry Glass" (original air date: January 3, 1961)

Because it was never in regular rerun rotation, the early ‘60s horror anthology “Thriller” has long flown way over my radar. I had heard of “Thriller”, but for some reason it never quite lodged in my head. I even read Stephen King’s superior tome on all things horrific, Danse Macabre, in which the maestro declares the Boris Karloff-hosted anthology “Probably the best horror series ever put non TV…” That recommendation still wasn’t enough to keep me from failing to even mention “Thriller” in the brief history of horror TV I posted last year (for some reason, the same goes for pretty much every witch-related program, so my apologies to “Bewitched”, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, and “Charmed”).

Now that “Thriller” is officially available on DVD for the first time, my brain-cloud has finally been lifted, and with a little help from Netflix, I’m rolling up my sleeves and diving in to its two seasons of murder, mystery, and monster tales. Well, not so much “mystery.” For its debut fourteen episodes, “Thriller” was basically a so-so “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” rip off, albeit one bolstered by good direction and strong guest-star spots from the likes of Mary Astor, Everett Sloan, Rip Torn, Alan Napier, and a pre-buffoon Leslie Nielsen. The stories are rarely exceptional, though, and the fact that they’re stretched out to an often interminable 50 minutes makes them all the more of a chore to get through. I’m also not a huge fan of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”-style mysteries, so that bias may be a factor in my lack of enthusiasm for those early “Thriller” episodes.

Things start to pick up in episode 15, when “Thriller” finally dips its toes in supernatural swamps. “The Cheaters” seems to be regarded as a classic episode of the show. I’ve read a lot of references to this adaptation of Robert Bloch’s yarn about a pair of monstrous spectacles in reviews of the “Thriller” DVD set. King gives it special mention in Danse Macabre. I certainly liked “The Cheaters” more than the shows that preceded it, but the first “Thriller” that really thrilled me is episode 16, “The Hungry Glass”.

As a “Twilight Zone” fanatic, I was tickled by the cast as Karloff announced each actor during his inimitable introduction, all of whom did time in the zone: William Shatner (“Nick of Time”, “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet”), Elizabeth Allen (“The After Hours”), Russell Johnson (“Back There”, “Execution”). I can’t really be blamed for not recognizing Joanna Heyes since she played one of the hideous and heavily made-up alien nurses in the “Eye of the Beholder” episode of “The Twilight Zone”. Her resume is pretty short, which doesn’t really surprise me since her primary acting decision in “The Hungry Glass” is to shout all her lines. I wonder if the fact that Douglas Heyes directed this “Thriller” had anything to do with her casting. Although Karloff doesn’t mention her in his intro, Donna Douglas (also “Eye of the Beholder) features prominently in this episode as well, inspiring further “Twilight Zone”-stoked glee. Director Heyes did a lot of time in the twilight trenches, as well, directing nine episodes including the absolute classics “The Invaders”, “Eye of the Beholder” (ah-ha!), “The Howling Man”, “The After Hours”, and “The Chaser”. With so many fine “Twilight Zones” under his belt it’s no wonder that Heyes is the MVP of “The Hungry Mirror”.

Karloff introduces Shatner in "The Hungry Glass"

Like “The Cheaters”, “The Hungry Glass” is based on a Bloch story. Also like “The Cheaters”, it’s a bit on the flimsy side: vane Laura Bellman (Douglas) becomes so enamored with her own reflection that she is sucked into the glass. All who subsequently stand before her massive collection of mirrors suffer grisly fates. A young couple (Shatner and Joanna Heyes) moves into the woman’s old dark house, and much creepiness ensues. Bloch’s story is actually a nice, little ghost story, but probably more appropriate for a half-hour program. Brevity is key to the campfire yarn, but Heyes handles the tale so deftly that this episode only occasionally drags. His script (which he adapted himself) smartly crosses time, giving us a break from Shatner and shrill Joanna Hayes and their contemporary setting to see how Laura Bellman’s initial tragedy went down all those years ago. Had the episode only been 30 minutes, Heyes might not have had the time to give us these flashbacks (“The Cheaters” spans generations similarly). The flashbacks break up the episode nicely, but it’s still the time spent in 1961 that provide the most unnerving moments when the couple envision ghostly figures reaching out for them from the house’s mirrors. Brilliantly, Heyes only gives us impressionistic views of these figures, which play on the imagination far more effectively than the graphically depicted, and rather silly looking, monster from “The Cheaters”. The final minutes of the show—which entail a genuinely tragic mistake and a character’s utterly haunting exit—creeped me out as much as the scariest “Twilight Zones”. My initial viewings of “Thriller” felt a little like homework; I’m a horror-nut who writes about horror and adores Karloff, so I felt obligated to watch “Thriller” even though it had yet to really grab me. Looking into “The Hungry Mirror” has made me genuinely excited to see what’s next.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Will Joe Strummer biopic be the right profile?

Screen Daily, a site that requires you to subscribe to read their content so I had to find this out via The AV Club, announced Monday that filmmaker Paul Viragh is working on a Joe Strummer biopic. Viragh recently made an Ian Dury biopic called Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘N’ Roll starring Gollum, which I have yet to see partially because I only first heard of it moments ago while reading the AV Club article and partially because I'm not that interested in Ian Dury. The Strummer film is currently going by the title Joe Public and will no doubt detail Strummer's rise from the unglamorous hardships of being the son of a foreign service diplomat to the time he danced around his living room with Mick Jones while first hearing "White Riot" on the radio to his inevitable bouts with grotesque self absorption and drug addiction. Because, you know, it's a rock biopic.

Review: ‘Robert Florey’s Frankenstein’ by Philip J. Riley

One of the better-known nuggets of horror-flick history is that Bela Lugosi was originally intended to play the Frankenstein Monster in Universal’s second great monster picture of 1931. Why Lugosi did not end up donning the flattop and neck-electrodes in the original feature-length Frankenstein is a matter of much debate—he either exited the role because he objected to playing a sexless, silent brute, or he was fired from the project much like Robert Florey, who was originally slotted to direct. Florey and Lugosi went off to make the less impressive Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) together, and James Whale was hired to helm Frankenstein with Boris Karloff starring as the Monster.

When Florey and Garrett Fort wrote the Frankenstein screenplay, they did so still under the impression that Lugosi would be monstering it up as the Monster. Philip J. Riley now brings us this original draft as part of his “Alternate History to Classic Film Monsters” series, which I’ve often praised on this site. Robert Florey’s Frankenstein is not as impressive as the previous installments in the series, although that is hardly Riley’s fault. The problem is that this script really isn’t that drastically different from the one Whale filmed, making it less historically valuable than totally unique works such as Nina Wilcox Putnam’s Cagliostro or Bernard Schubert’s Wolfman vs. Dracula.

Although a 170-page script should be bursting with revelations, considering that the released film was a mere 69 minutes (the rule of thumb is that a single screenplay page equals one minute of screen time), it only reaches such epic length due to Florey and Fort’s tendency to over-describe their scenes. The climactic hunt for the Monster creaks along for nearly twenty pages. The boldest difference between script and film is a sexually charged scene in which the Monster stalks a peasant couple tussling in their bedroom. The relationships between Elizabeth and Victor Moritz, and Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman, are also more complex in the script. Much to the script’s detriment, the scenes in which Fritz culls a madman’s brain for his boss and the Monster has a fateful encounter with a little girl by a riverbed are far more simplistic than what wound up in Whale’s film. Furthermore, the Monster is far less sympathetic and the script is decidedly humorless with a completely downbeat ending that might have kept Bride of Frankenstein from being born. Satisfyingly, a lot of these problems are acknowledged in the rather insightful script notes included as an appendix at the end of Riley’s book. A second appendix finds Fort defending his script, even though he didn’t really have a leg to stand on. Fans of Riley’s series will certainly want to add Robert Florey’s Frankenstein to their collections, even though it is a relatively unenlightening read. Hey, not every lost script can be R.C. Sheriff’s Dracula’s Daughter.

Buy Robert Florey’s Frankenstein at Amazon.com here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: 'The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry' by Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot

In his introduction to The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry, Jim DeRogatis acknowledges that his and co-writer Greg Kot’s opinions may “make you curse one or the other of us as you consider hurling this book across the room...” Indeed I considered hurling their point-counterpoint on various aspects of Rock & Roll’s two biggest acts across my room more than once. But I refrained from doing so because this book is just too damn beautiful to treat that way. In an era when more and more people are reading books on creepy little handheld devices, Voyageur Press has made the real thing that much more attractive by creating a lavish package. In homage to the Satanic Majesties Request album jacket, the book cover features a neat hologram that reveals the faces of either the ’63 Beatles or the ’68 Stones depending on the angle at which you view it. Within that cover you’ll find loads of wonderful full-color and lovely B&W photos of the Fab Eleven (that’s Misters Lennon, Jagger, McCartney, Richards, Harrison, Watts, Starr, Wyman, Jones, Taylor, and Wood) and their related memorabilia. A great deal of these pictures was new to me, and I’ve read my share of books on The Beatles and The Stones.

I may seem to be spending undue space here going on about the design of The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones, but it really is a major attribute of a book that can basically be read in a couple of hours. DeRogatis and Kot are the co-hosts of the music chat show “Sound Opinions”, and their book is apparently a lot like a transcript of one of their programs (admittedly, I’ve never listened to “Sound Opinions” because talk radio puts me to sleep). I really liked the format: a couple of Rock & Roll geek pals argue about whether The Beatles or The Stones were better conjurers of psychedelic rock or if McCartney or Wyman was the superior bassist (no contest, of course), etc. 

Theirs is certainly a fresh approach to two bands that have been written about and written about and written about and written about. The problem is their tendency to be dismissive without really supporting their opinions. If McCartney’s “Blackbird” is one of his definitive performances while “Oh! Darling”, in DeRogatis’s words, “just sucks,” I’m going to need a little more explanation. And good luck finding a Beatles fan who won’t be completely turned off by DeRogatis’s opinion that the Yellow Submarine film is “a turd” or a Stones freak who isn’t confounded when he writes off the amazing Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus as nothing more than a “cheesy Big Top conceit.” 

DeRogatis’s opinions are particularly difficult to take seriously when he regularly makes sloppy errors that even the most novice fan of these bands will spot. He mistakenly credits a line in “Getting Better” Lennon wrote to McCartney, states that “Day Tripper” and “Paperback Writer” appeared on either side of the same single, and most embarrassing of all, rates “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” among Charlie Watts’s five greatest performances. Anyone who has ever perused the inner sleeve of Let It Bleed knows that Jimmy Miller played drums on that track. Kot pulls a couple of boners, too, when he applauds Brian Jones for playing the oboe on “Ruby Tuesday” and the recorder on “Back Street Girl”. DeRogatis’s suggestion that “She’s a Rainbow” is “about oral sex with a woman who’s having her period” is simply bizarre. Equally bizarre is when he holds up “You Gotta Move”—Jagger’s most outrageously mannered blues performance— as a rare example of the singer’s sincerity. Huh?

Regardless of the quality of their criticism, I like the fact that DeRogatis and Kot seriously discussed topics that generally get overlooked in a lot of books about these bands, such as Wyman’s bass playing, Harrison’s guitar skills, and The Stones’ psychedelic phase (and I must doff my pointy Merlin cap to DeRogatis for having the guts to admit that Satanic Majesties is better than Sgt. Pepper's). Though the book does suffer from its errors, offhand criticisms, and weird assertions, it’s a quick, breezy, and generally fun read. Fans who already think “The White Album” is a better record than Exile On Main Street will not change their minds after reading the guys’ contrary argument, but those fans may next find themselves sprinting to the turntable to hear those records with fresh ears. And that’s exactly what DeRogatis and Kot intended when they wrote this book.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Meet the Song of the Day: “Love Is Only Sleeping” by The Monkees

In late 1967 The Monkees were still a viable moneymaking enterprise. They’d had three number one albums, two massive number one singles in a pleasantly poppy vein, and an additional two top-five hits. Neil Diamond’s “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” (number 2 in spring ’67) pushed The Monkees deeper into the teeny-bop territory that offended both critics and the boys in the band, but it also had decidedly positive results when bubblegum-inclined musical director Don Kirshner was fired for releasing the record. 

Left to choose, write, and record their own music, The Monkees released their first great album, Headquarters, two months later. Their first great single, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (number 3 in summer ’67), followed after another two months. The track, penned by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, was more sophisticated than any non-group composition The Monkees had yet recorded. The topic, a light jab at the generic suburban communities popping up all over the country, was more interesting than the usual “I love you, you love me, la la la” material Kirshner generally foisted on the band. The guitar riff producer Chip Douglas worked out under the inspiration of George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You” was intricate and catchy in equal measure. The performance was incredibly dynamic, with Mike Nesmith fingering that riff flawlessly, “Fast” Eddie Hoe discharging machine gun drum fills, Douglas supplying the thrillingly upfront bass line, Peter Tork laying down an equally exciting and involved piano part, and all four Monkees contributing to the tapestry of harmonies.

“Pleasant Valley Sunday” was, indeed, an artistic breakthrough for The Monkees, even though it failed to sell quite as many copies as the three singles that preceded it. Regardless, the band and the machine that drove them remained determined to push the boundaries of what The Monkees were supposed to be even further with their next single to be released in the autumn of 1967. For the first time a track with lead vocals by Mike Nesmith would represent the band on 7”. Nesmith did not have the strongest voice in the band— Micky Dolenz was doubtlessly the most traditionally accomplished singer in The Monkees—yet his voice was the most interesting, the one that departed from the group’s bubblegum image most drastically. Nesmith’s hoarse twang is a more unique instrument than Dolenz’s pipes and infinitely more mature than Davy Jones’s munchkin chirp. Using him as lead vocalist on a single intended to sell as many copies as “Last Train to Clarksville” or “I’m a Believer” was a bold decision. 

The track was an unusual choice as well. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil had written some of the biggest hits of the ‘60s, including The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Kicks”, The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, and The Crystals’ “Uptown”. The Tin Pan Alley team also wrote “Shades of Gray”, the default hit from the single-devoid Headquarters. Like “Shades of Gray”, “Love Is Only Sleeping” was an unusually moody, reflective song for The Monkees, dealing with the ups and downs of a relationship in a more complex manner than anything the band had recorded yet. Like “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, “Love Is Only Sleeping” is driven by a wiry, infectious guitar riff and crisp drumming, but the combination of Nesmith’s eerie wail and the psychedelic percussive clicks and clacks that flit through the mix--plus a rather undanceable time signature that lurches between 7/8 and 4/4-- make for a less commercial and far more unsettling sound.

“Love Is Only Sleeping” had a better chance of establishing The Monkees as a serious group than any earlier single. It was primed to snap their image as bubblegum phonies in two and toss the pieces aside. Its B-side chosen, the record was ready to be pressed. Then, suddenly, the Powers That Be got cold feet. The common line is the title was too suggestive for The Monkees’ label, Colgems, apparently the implication being that “sleeping” is synonymous with “fucking.” This story is not completely unlikely. Just a few months earlier American DJs opted to flip over The Rolling Stones’ latest single in fear that the intended A-side, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, was too risqué for U.S. teens. “Ruby Tuesday” proved a sufficiently commercial alternative, and it became The Stones’ fourth stateside number one hit.

Could the commerciality of “Ruby Tuesday” have played a role in the single’s flip, as well? And could such concerns have influenced Colgems to pass on “Love Is Only Sleeping” in favor of its proposed flipside, a song Davy Jones initially refused to sing because he thought it mediocre? I personally think this is the most likely reason Colgems tossed “Love Is Only Sleeping” in the “out” pile and went with the more typically bubblegummy “Daydream Believer” for The Monkees’ fifth single. One certainly can’t argue with the label on that level. The single became The Monkees’ first number one hit in nearly a year, remaining in the top slot until The Beatles displaced it with “Hello, Goodbye”. From a creative standpoint, the move was, at the very least, cowardly. Although it is certainly an impeccable pop production, “Daydream Believer” represents much of what critics dislike about The Monkees, with its lighter-than-air delivery, silly lyric, cutesy vocal, and sing-songy chorus: a limp counterpoint to the maturity and complexity of “Love Is Only Sleeping”. As for Mann and Weil’s usurped masterpiece, it didn’t even make it to the B-side of the “Daydream Believer” single. That honor went to a group composition that was even further out than “Love Is Only Sleeping”; a ferocious, scatting, jazz-rock freakout about a suicide attempt called “Goin’ Down”.

Like “Daydream Believer” and “Goin’ Down”, “Love Is Only Sleeping” would feature heavily in the second season of the “Monkees” TV show. The track also won a position on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones, LTD. (1967) where it contributed immensely to the album’s sophistication and fine quality. The Monkees’ next single marked the first time a Nesmith-sung number made the charts when his self-penned B-side “Tapioca Tundra” went to #34— quite a feat considering it was by far the strangest song to make its way onto a Monkees single. In 1969, Nesmith was given pride of place on two singles with a couple of his pioneering country-rock experiments, “Listen to the Band” and “Good Clean Fun”, but by that point The Monkees had fallen so far out of popular favor that Colgems execs probably couldn’t have cared less what the band released.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Horrorfication of David Lynch

Sometimes I question the amount of space I devote to David Lynch on a site that’s half devoted to Horror Movies, because though several of Lynch’s films are among the most unsettling— and even scary— you’re likely to see (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., and Inland Empire being some prime examples), he’s not exactly a horror filmmaker. I’ve always particularly taken issue with the designation of Eraserhead as a horror movie and am flat-out baffled by how The Elephant Man has made its way into numerous discussions of the genre. The only way I can feature that is the argument that some of the film’s so-called “normal” people—Merrick’s cruel “owner” Bytes, the exploitative night porter, the posh douche bags who gawk at Merrick in disgust— are the film’s monsters.

Bytes: Man or Monster?

Yet I continue to write about David Lynch because I love the guy: love his films, love his charmingly inarticulate manner of expressing himself, love his art, love his renaissance man excursions into television, transcendental meditation promotion, book authoring, and coffee production. But do he and his work really belong on this site? Short answer: yes; long answer: yes, because I says so for one thing, and for another thing, I’m not the only kook who has attempted to cram his avant garde output into the horror cubicle. Not only has the American horror channel Chiller TV aired “Twin Peaks” (which, after all, features such horrory elements as serial-killing demons, creepy owls, hellish otherworlds, and soul-trapping pull knobs), but the Horror Channel in the UK has also taken to running Lynch’s output.

Check out these two interesting promos, one for a run of “Peaks” and one for a so-called “Lynch Season” series, that attempt to paint the man as a horror maestro.

Does a zombified Laura Palmer really represent the essence of “Twin Peaks”? Discuss.

I wasn't able to embed the "David Lynch Season" promo, but you can watch it here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Guided by Voices reunion at Terminal 5: 11/7/2010

When Robert Pollard broke up Guided By Voices after 20-odd years of 4-track experimentation, beer guzzling, wacko on-stage rants, and middle-aged scissor-kicking, he said he was interested in seeing how history might contextualize his band. Would GBV be squished into the upper-echelon with their idols The Beatles and The Who? Typically, Pollard never gave Rock & Roll archivists a chance to sit back, catch their breaths, and take a moment to reflect on his history with Dayton’s booziest sons. He never stopped releasing music at a dementedly prolific rate, whether as a solo act or as a member of The Circus Devils or Keene Brothers or The Moping Swans or The Takeovers or Psycho and the Birds. More importantly, he only kept the band broken up for a mere six years before reuniting to help Matador Records celebrate its 20th anniversary and taking the “classic” line-up of the ever-metamorphosing group on a short tour. Ostensibly, that tour came to an end last night. I say “ostensibly” because they just added an extra New Year’s Eve show at Irving Plaza in NYC. But that’s a typical GBV move. The tour is never really over. The night of drinking has never really dried up. The club is never really closed. And GBV— if we’re to consider their one constant member to be the band’s essence— never really broke up.

But, to some fans, they did, indeed, break up, and a lot longer ago than 2004. For the hardcore cultists that favored the group’s cassette-tape recordings, Guided by Voices broke up in 1996 when Pollard shit-canned Tobin Sprout* (guitar-vocals), Mitch Mitchell (guitar), Kevin Fennell (drums), and Greg Demos (bass) after making their final lo-fi freak-out, Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. Pollard then hired Cobra Verde to serve as his back-up band, and he cut Mag Earwig! the first fully polished GBV record (the band’s ‘80s output recorded in proper studios never really sounded that much slicker than the stuff they cut on home 4-track machines in the mid-‘90s). Those lo-fi fans felt just as betrayed as Sprout, Mitchell, and the rest must have when they received their pink slips.

* (See correction in the comments below...sorry, Tobin!)

Personally, I adore Mag Earwig! and the widely reviled Do the Collapse (produced by Ric Ocasek), and all those other “sell out” records that weeded out the fair-weather fans. Yet there is an incomparable magic to those records the guys made in Mitchell’s basement while sucking back Rolling Rocks and indulging in their weirdest whims. Records like Vampire on Titus and Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes sound like they were never meant for public consumption. Like they were just made for the guys’ personal use. They sound like bootlegs, like The Beatles Anthology albums, like the recordings you amateur songwriters out there used to record in your own bedroom on your own Tascam 4-track machine long before digital technology made even home-recording into an act as soulless as watching a feature film on your fucking cell phone. The Guided by Voices I saw last night at Terminal 5 in Manhattan was purely a product of an age before cell phones and Garage Band and MP3s. They were cassettes wound with crinkled tape and smelly basements and old dudes who kicked out Rock & Roll with way more genuine joy than the poseurs who followed them. Songs were as likely to be sloppy messes as they were to be powerful. Mitch Mitchell seemed so happy to be back on stage with the band that he wasted not an opportunity to shout inanities (some with a lack of political correctness that also seemed to creep in from a long-gone era) into his microphone or shred on his guitar in inappropriate place. He personally sabotaged Sprout’s dramatic intro to “Cut-Out Witch” with his overzealous riffing. After the rest of the group left the stage following each encore, Mitchell stuck around to tell the audience how much he loves them. When the band came back out, Pollard slurred his trademark banter with a complete lack of the sort of self-conscious irony that threatened to annihilate Rock & Roll throughout the past twenty-or-so years. Guided by Voices never played Rock & Roll because they thought the idea of a bunch of middle-aged dudes bashing out off-kilter tributes to The Who or King Crimson or Wire was cute or clever. They did it because that’s what they wanted to do more than anything else in the world. And that’s what made last night’s show a transcendent experience despite the raggedness and the flubbed guitar-lines and the poorly laid out, acoustically shitty venue (Terminal 5? Bleck). Robert Pollard really did seem to be thrilled to be back with the guys he played with before he “sold out” (Editor's note: Robert Pollard never sold out). And Mitch Mitchell seemed thrilled to be king for a day.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Watch Tim Burton's 'Vincent' on Psychobabble

Tim Burton's early animated short Vincent (1982) reveals all the gruesome imagination and skeletal style his Nightmare Before Christmas would display at feature-length eleven years later. Vincent is a young boy (clearly modeled after the filmmaker, himself) who'd rather spend the day reading Edgar Allan Poe tales, zombifying his dog, and worshiping Vincent Price than following his mom's instructions to go play outside in the sun. Price narrates with trademark relish.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Singles of 1985

The music scene had gotten pretty rough by 1985. Top-notch artists like Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Rolling Stones, and Stevie Wonder were making the most appalling music of their respective careers, while Foreigner, Chicago, REO Speedwagon, and USA for Africa were otherwise shitting up the charts. Yet, as in every year since the dawn of Rock & Roll, great singles could still be detected amid the muck. Here are ten…

10. “Bastards of Young” by The Replacements

With Tim the constrictions of ‘80s pop production started to have their way with The Replacements, who had recently made the leap from small time Twin/Tone records to bigger time Sire. Well, you can gate Chris Mars’s drums all you like and you can shoot a spiffy MTV-ready music video (and the accompanying video was mighty spiffy), but you can never tame Westerberg’s whiskey yowl. It is in furious form on “Bastards of Young”, perhaps the most insightful teen anthem of the ‘80s.

9. “So Far Away”by Dire Straits

Some seven years had past since square British Blues combo Dire Straits had a hit in the US. As we all know, that changed most assuredly when they dropped the ultra-slick, DDD monster Brothers in Arms in ’85. That year you couldn’t blow your nose without having “Money for Nothing” blare out of your nostrils. However the truly great single from the band’s comeback triumph was its first. “So Far Away” barely sneaked into the top twenty, but it’s as hooky and alluring as anything Dire Straights ever did, their taut rhythm section pulsing beneath an utterly sublime guitar lick. Mark Knopfler’s six-string impersonates a Hawaiian pedal steel and fools me completely.

8. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Monday, November 1, 2010

Diary of the Dead 2010: Week 5 ½

Week 5 ½ of Psychobabble’s Monster Movie-a-thon...

October 29th

The Creature Walks Among Us (1956- dir. John Sherwood) ***1/2

The final chapter in the Gill Man trilogy strikes an oddly elegiac tone. Having had his scales burned off, the creature turns out to be almost human underneath. Further modifications by a mad doctor leave him unable to breathe underwater anymore. Poor Gilly is left to stare longingly at the sea as his familiar three-note theme music farts away on the soundtrack. I like the fact that the Gill Man is given something decidedly different to do in each of these movies. Too leisurely in the first half, The Creature Walks Among Us is not as thoroughly entertaining as Black Lagoon or Revenge, but it is the most unique Creature feature.

Mr. Sardonicus (1961- dir. William Castle) ****

Mr. Sardonicus is a sadistic aristocrat with a hideous grin patterned on Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. He employs a brilliant doctor to cure him of his affliction, but when the doctor fails to help him by giving him a massage, Sardonicus ups the incentive by threatening to mutilate his own wife if the doc won’t turn his frown smile upside down. The story is nonsensical, but that’s never really a detriment in a William Castle film. With a great combination of lavish period sets and phony backgrounds, an ace monster, rich black and white cinematography, and perhaps Castle’s greatest onscreen appearance, this is one of the gimmick maestro’s finest. And has eating a muffin ever been used to more sinister effect?

October 30th

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965- dir. Freddie Francis) ****

The horror portmanteau that launched Amicus Productions’ legacy as the home of horror portmanteaus. On board the terror train are Hammer all-stars Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, and Peter Cushing as tarot-reading Dr. Terror. Donald Sutherland’s along for the ride too. The five tales feature a werewolf that sleeps in a coffin like Dracula (dull but decent ending), a murderous plant (decent but dull ending), a voodoo god who takes vengeance on a thieving jazz musician (Great music! Great fun!), a killer disembodied hand with designs on Lee (not bad), and a sexy vampire who shacks up with Sutherland (Terrific twist!).

October 31st

Young Frankenstein (1974- dir. Mel Brooks) *****

Frankenstein (1931- dir. James Whale) *****

Bride of Frankenstein (1935- dir. James Whale) *****

Ummm, yeah, all these movies are great. Hope you had a happy Halloween!
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