Friday, December 31, 2010

Watch “A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss” on Psychobabble

Psychobabble has long had a soft spot for British actor Mark Gatiss because of his role in Steve Coogan’s adoring Hammer Horror tribute “Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible” and Julia Davis’s macabre comedy “Nighty Night”. Soft spot turns to full-on crush as Gatiss presents “A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss”, which debuted on BBC Four last October. Gatiss reveals himself to be “totally crackers over horror films” in this superb multi-part documentary series in which he pores over an “unashamedly selective” handful of classic horrors. Fortunately, Gatiss’s taste is beyond reproach, beginning with Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera to cover Universal’s Golden Age before moving on to Hammer’s reign and beyond. He takes archival journeys that unearth Chaney’s original make-up kit complete with the life cast of his own head he used to develop his creations, the oversized phony bat from Browning’s Dracula, and other treasures. He also chats with such horror luminaries as John Carpenter, Barbara Steele, recently deceased Gloria Stuart, and Carla Laemmle, niece of Universal head Carl Laemmle and bit player from Phantom and Dracula. Watch episode 1, “Frankenstein Goes to Hollywood”, in its (near) entirety below. The episode is divided into four parts, the last of which couldn’t be embedded.

Thanks to Zombo’s Closet of Horror for turning me on to this excellent doc!

Watch Part 4 here.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Psychobabble’s 2011 Wish List

1. Island of Lost Souls on DVD

Generally considered the greatest adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, Island of Lost Souls (1933) has never received an official US DVD release for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The reason certainly can’t be lack of interest since this is one of the most demanded unavailable horror classics. Rumors abound that Universal, Paramount, and Criterion have considered releasing the film, yet we’re still stuck with inferior VHS copies if we want to thrill to Charles Laughton as Moreau, Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law, and Kathleen Burke as Lota the Panther Woman. The wait for this DVD has been a torture worthy of the House of Pain.

2. The Best of the Cool Ghoul

I’m too young to have ever seen Zacherley hamming it up on “Shock Theater”, the late-night horror-movie program he hosted in the ‘60s that introduced my dad to The Cool Ghoul’s brand of horrific humor. While Spook Along… remains available, there is precious little documentation of his TV work. I would love to see some sort of “Best of Zacherley” collection make its way to DVD. During its earliest days, television was not as enamored of its own history as it is today, so there’s a good possibility that such footage was never archived. If it was, this would be a terrific project for a groovy re-issuer of classic TV, such as Shout! Factory. Start writing your letters, cool ghouls!

3. The Rolling Stones Anthology

My memory might be failing me (as it often is), but I seem to recall rumors of some sort of “Rolling Stones Anthology” project along the lines of “The Beatles Anthology” around the time the Stones’ ‘60s catalogue was refurbished in 2002. I’d need a vat to contain my drool if ABKCO or Universal or whoever green-lit a multi-part documentary of the group accompanied by a series of nicely mastered sets of the band’s best unreleased material. And there is a lot of it, kids: titles such as “Diddley Daddy”, “I Can See It”, “Highway Child”, and “Living in the Heart of Love” are as well-deserving of release as any of the oddities on the Beatles Anthology albums. The Stones’ 50th Anniversary is approaching in 2012, so 2011 would be a good time to get a jump on such an involved undertaking.

4. The Rolling Stones’ Remaining Unreleased UK LPs and EPs

Less ambitious but no less necessary than a “Rolling Stones Anthology” is the release of all though Stones LPs and EPs on CD that did not happen in 2002. For reasons beyond me, The Stones’ debut album, The Rolling Stones No. 2, the UK versions of the “Big Hits” albums, and their two EPs, The Rolling Stones and Five by Five, have never been issued on CD. This is a real shame since No. 2 and the “Big Hits” are considerably different from their US counterparts. Just a month ago, remasters of these records were included in the limited edition Rolling Stones 1964-1969 vinyl box set, so the heavy work is obviously done. Now all we need is for them to gain release individually on CD. Come on, ABKCO, it’s not like they won’t sell.

5. The Big TNT Show on DVD

The first official release of the great 1964 concert film The TAMI Show was one of the most high-profile DVD reissues of 2010. Although TAMI—with its spectacular performances by James Brown, The Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys, and a multitude of others—is obviously the greater film, its follow up, The Big TNT Show (1966), is no heap of jive either. Ray Charles, The Byrds, The Ronettes, Bo Diddley, The Ike & Tina Turner Revue, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and Donovan were on the roster to present the year’s best in pop, folk, R&B, and R&R, all with Phil Spector producing. So let’s get a spiffy remaster of this one on the streets in 2010, Shout! Factory. I promise I’ll even pay for it.

6. Deluxe Editions of The Who’s A Quick One and Odds and Sods

After being remixed in the ‘90s, The Who’s back catalogue finally started to receive more respectful treatment this past decade when double-disc deluxe editions of My Generation, Sell Out, Tommy, Live at Leeds, and Who’s Next presented some of the band’s greatest albums in superior fidelity but with their original mixes (mostly) intact. But why stop there? With the recently released, 40th Anniversary, 4-disc box set of Live at Leeds, the Powers That Be are already backtracking when they could be putting together deluxe editions of the others. We Who fans are also desperately in need of a deluxe edition of Odds and Sods that reinstates the original running order, includes a mix of “Under My Thumb” that actually includes Pete’s guitar solo and a mix of “Postcard” with Entwistle’s original bassline, and gives us all those tracks that did not make it onto the ‘90s rereleases: the superior versions of “I’m a Boy” and “The Magic Bus” from Meaty, Beaty, Big, & Bouncy; the non-Pete B-sides “Here for More”, “Wasp Man”, and “When I Was a Boy”; and ideally, never released Who tracks that may or may not exist, such as “Do You Want Kids, Kids?” and “Mary”. That would make my year.

7. A Damned biography

How has there never been a proper biography of The Damned, one of the foremost UK punk bands of the ‘70s, the band that gave the genre its first 45 and LP, helped spark the Goth movement of the ‘80s, and continues to tour and release good records in the present? They were hilarious, anarchic even by the standards of the ever-overrated Sex Pistols (who’ve been the subjects of countless biographies), and made incredible records— never mind Bollocks, Damned, Damned, Damned, Machine Gun Etiquette, The Black Album, and Strawberries are all infinitely better. Plus, Dave Vanian, Rat Scabies, Dave Vanian, and the rest were and are fascinating, engaging, colorful personalities. The liner notes in The Damned’s CDs provide a nice overview of the guys’ career, but some writer needs to finally give them their just respect and tell their tale in a much more complete fashion.

8. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me with deleted scenes

Some predict they will never be released, some contend that they no longer exist at all, but the possibly feature-length glut of deleted scenes from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me are David Lynch’s fans’ lost city of gold. As the oft-told story goes, Lynch cut scenes featuring beloved “Twin Peaks” characters—such as Sheriff Truman, Ben and Jerry Horne, Josie Packard, Lucy, Andy, Hawk, and Pete Martell— from the film to keep the “Last Seven Days of Laura Palmer” plot more on target and to better maintain the film’s intense, grim tone. He made the right decision, but we’d still love to see all of those deleted scenes included as bonus footage on a spruced-up FWWM DVD. Lynch is holding out for the funding to master and score those scenes the right way, so Peaks Freaks have been waiting as patiently as we can for about a decade now. I’d say the 2008 “Lime Green” box set, which includes most of Lynch’s work up until Fire Walk With Me and a ton of bonus material that includes similarly lengthy deleted footage from Wild at Heart, is just about due for a sequel focusing on the second half of the man’s career and including those deleted scenes from FWWM.

9. New David Lynch movie

Greedy I may be, but I won’t be satisfied with just those deleted scenes. Four years have passed since the release of Lynch’s last feature film, Inland Empire. During that time he has been generous with the meditation seminars and the coffee and the books and the music and the documentaries and the weather reports, but the thing for which fans are surely longing more than anything else is another movie. With Inland Empire Lynch got acquainted with shooting on digital video while piecing together a vast, demanding, experimental work of art. I likes art just fine, and Inland Empire is one of my favorite films of the past decade, but I’d love to see how Lynch would use DV in the context of a more straight-forward work, such as Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive (we’re talking “straight-forward” relative to his body of work, of course). Naturally, I’d be perfectly happy with another avant garde experiment. Just gimme something, Dave! Gimme gimme gimme! If you haven’t been able to tell yet, that’s pretty much the theme of this list.

So what Retro-Rock and Horror happenings would you like to see in '11?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

And All Through the House...

Well, evil elves, the holiday season has descended upon us like some massive, garishly decorated bird of prey once again (in the case of most department stores, it descended sometime around mid-August). One might think the season of good-will-toward-men (just men? Typical) is anathema to the ghouls, gremlins, and sundry grotesques lurking in the Psychobabble vaults. But then one would be wrong. Psychobabble is a big fan of the season’s lights and tinsel, if not all that Jesus stuff. And though the December holidays may not offer the monstery delights of Halloween season, they are not exactly devoid of scares. Just take a look at A Christmas Carol. Lest we forget, Dicken’s deathless tale is actually quite frightening. At its heart, A Christmas Carol is the story of an old crab terrorized by a bevy of ghosts, who threaten him with nothing less than an early death if he doesn’t get with the hall decking. The better adaptations, such as Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 version with Alistair Sim as miserly Scrooge or Clive Donner’s 1984 take starring George C. Scott, embrace the story’s horror elements readily. I took in the Donner version for the first time in twenty or so years recently and was surprised by how chilling its overall air of gauzy decay and its depictions of Jacob Marley and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come remained. Even The Ghost of Christmas Past, played with withering detachment by Angela Pleasence—daughter of classic horror mainstay Donald!—creeped me out. The film is only missing the terrifying sequence from Dicken’s novella in which Scrooge looks out his window to see a tormented torrent of tortured phantoms in the snow.
                                     Creepy Angela Pleasence being creepy.

There have been a number of other feature length holiday horror films, ranging from the genuinely creepy (1974’s Black Christmas) to the delightfully deranged (1984’s Gremlins) to the out-and-out campy (1980’s Christmas Evil) to exploitative, slice-‘em-up-Santa shit (1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night). The latter genre actually has its roots in one of the season’s best fusions of sleigh bells and slay hells. “And All Through the House” appeared in the February/March 1954 issue of The Vault of Horror. Johnny Craig’s tale of an escaped psycho in a Santa suit is unusually layered for an E.C. comic.

Most such stories would give us one weapon-wielding loony, but Craig cleverly made the stalkee a housewife who committed her own murder just moments before evil Santa closes in on her house, threatening her and her daughter. It’s among the most memorable stories in E.C.’s all-too brief history, so memorable that it was treated to two direct adaptations. The first of these appeared in Freddie Francis’s superb 1972 portmanteau, Tales from the Crypt, and starred Joan Collins as the housewife double-tasked with disposing of her husband’s freshly killed corpse and avoiding Saint Nick’s crazy clutches.

Even better is the version that appeared in the debut three-part episode of HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt”, which may be the series’ best half hour. Director Robert Zemeckis gives us a more shadowy environment and a more monstrous Santa (the wonderfully weird Larry Drake), as well as the authentically gorgeous X-mas tableau that opens the episode, only to be wickedly and ironically shattered by its first murder. Zemeckis’s ex-wife Mary Ellen Trainor does a terrific job as the frazzled housewife, especially when she loses her shit in the episode’s concluding moments. Holiday horrors get no better: (Sorry, the first part of this episode was unavailable on You Tube):

Happy Horrordays!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The 10 Best Old Horror Movies That Were New to Psychobabble in 2010

I may purport myself to be some sort of authority on classic horror movies, but in reality, there are lots and lots and lots of them I’ve never seen. Nevertheless, I’m happy to say that I’m still discovering great old flicks that are new to me, whether I’ve long heard about them but have yet to give them a look-see or I’d never even been aware of their existences. Here are the ten finest retro Monster Movies that were new to me in 2010*, presented in terrifying chronological order...

*3% new material!

1. I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957- dir. Gene Fowler Jr.)

When I was a kid, the image of Michael Landon with his facial pompadour, bucky fangs, and letterman jacket as Tony the Teen Werewolf glowered back at me from many a library book about monster movies. But that was as close as I could come to seeing the movie because it almost never played on TV. It still remains unissued on DVD, so it has taken me about thirty years to finally hunt down the movie often used to illustrate the junk proliferating drive-ins after the end of horror’s 1930s/1940s golden age on You Tube. No one is going to argue that I Was a Teenage Werewolf is a work of monstery art on the level of Bride of Frankenstein or Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but as far as ‘50s drive-in junk goes, it’s top-drawer stuff. Tony is a sullen rebel-without-a-cause getting heavy slabs of jive from his high school peers, his perky blonde girlfriend, and the fuzz. A possible cure to Tony’s teenagerness arrives in the form of geeky shrink, who employs a radical treatment of hypnotherapy and hypodermic drugs to stop Tony from obsessing about fighting and fucking. But it backfires, and in a nutso departure from the usual mythology, the treatment causes Tony to transform into a murderous teen wolf. Landon brings a disarmingly complex combo of unruly darkness and little-boy vulnerability to the hormonal lycanthrope. The music and daddy-o dialogue are a hoot, and the wolf make-up is memorably cheesy, but the film avoids diving into the camp deep end.

2. Jigoku (1960- dir. Nobuo Nakagawa)

This very early Japanese horror film takes a while to reveal it’s horrificness, but once it does… yow! Shigeru Amachi plays Shirô Shimizu , a theology student with the worst luck in the world, starting with his involvement in a tragic hit-and-run accident. The supernatural element of the film’s opening half is limited to a general air of uncanny unease and an encounter with a doppelgänger. In the second half, Shirô has his own fatal encounter, after which he is demoted to Hell where he is set loose in a surreal, disorienting, grotesque environmental straight out of the right-hand panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Jigoku is a masterpiece of horrifically graphic images and mesmerizing artistry.

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

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors is 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!).

4. Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1970- dir. Freddie Francis)

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly is another terrific film from Freddie Francis, yet one that couldn’t be more different from Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. This demented British satire about a murderous family reminded me a lot more of the B-classic Spider Baby, but the sardonically sugary tone is straight out of one of the nursery rhymes school kids Girly and Sonny cackle incessantly at their victims. The portrayal of the breakdown of the 1950s nuclear-family ideal is amusingly gleeful, but the movie works best on face value as a series of intriguing and deadly games between the crazed family and their latest acquisition.

5. The Vampire Lovers (1970- dir. Roy Ward Baker)

Hammer screams “Fuck it… bring on the boobs!” from the mountaintops with its first full-on, unapologetic fusion of sexploitation and vampiresploitation. You know you’re in for a non-stop boob fest when the recently departed Ingrid Pitt gets top billing. Fortunately, Pitt transcends that limited image with her energetic presence and committed acting. She plays a lusty vampiress who goes around biting and bedding everyone in sight. Well, everyone but Peter Cushing. That would be gross. The depiction of a predatory lesbian vampire is homophobic, but Pitt plays her with such humanity that she earns our empathy much more so than her vacant-eyed victim, whom she genuinely seems to love. Hammer execs probably would have been happy if The Vampire Lovers was nothing more than a static shot of cleavage for 90 minutes, yet it still manages to house all the atmosphere, color, production values, and fangy fun that made the studio great in the first place. In fact, with its black and white inserts, imaginative use of shadows, and fine sound design, The Vampire Lovers is more aesthetically creative than most Hammers. Check it out; then check out the brilliant parody “Vampire Lesbian Lovers of Lust” from Steve Coogan’s series “Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible”.

6. Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974- dir. Roy Ward Baker)

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a blast, an audacious blend of two totally distinct yet totally different genres. In the Hammer horror corner we have a black-caped Dracula, striking color, strident music, and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. In the chopsocky corner we have a longhaired Kung Fu master, nonstop hand-to-hand combat, and some requisite bad dubbing (although, in this case, it is a perfectly sensible plot device). The interracial romances are unexpected in an early 70s B-movie such as this—and quite refreshing. I bet this movie gives Quentin Tarantino a boner.

7. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974- dir. Jorge Grau)

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is kind of a precursor to more contemporary cheeky zombie flicks like Shaun of the Dead and Black Sheep. It definitely seems to have influenced those two movies, not just in setting and humor (although it’s not a comedy), but in its emphasis on character over killing. The cast of potential victims includes a wiseass rogue, a creepy photographer, a bastardly police detective, a junkie, and her pretty sister. Much fresher and more satisfying than most of the zombie movies that seem to plague cinemas on a near weekly basis these days.

8. Hausu (1977- dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi)

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. 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 youngsters 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.

9. The Changeling (1980- dir. Peter Medak)

The Changeling begins as if it’s going to be a moody exploration of grief along the lines of Don't Look Now, but it shakes that off pretty quickly and gets down to being a less emotionally complex but still very good ghost story/murder mystery. The picture begins with composer John Russell’s (George C. Scott) wife and daughter getting calzoned by a big truck. Four months later he moves into a creepy old mansion where he intends to start writing music again but gets sidetracked by a ghost he thinks will give him information about his lost loved ones. The Changeling takes some rather interesting twists during its fourth quarter. I particularly liked the wronged ghost, which behaves in a far less passive manner than most wronged ghosts do in contemporary wronged ghost stories.

10. The Monster Club (1981- dir. Roy Ward Baker)

The Monster Club, a remorselessly silly portmanteau based on the stories of R. Chetwynd Hayes, is also remorselessly delightful. John Carradine plays Hayes and Vincent Price is a vampire in the goofy wraparound story set in a nightclub stocked with dancers in rubber monster masks and a surprisingly good line-up of pop acts, including Psychobabble favorites The Pretty Things! Price narrates a trio of quite good tales about a beauty and the melancholy beast who loves her, a boy who learns his dad’s a vampire, and a movie director who provides sustenance for a village of ghouls. The makeup budget is three dollars; the nonstop fun is priceless. Plus the animated skeleton striptease is a gas.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Farewell, Don Van Vliet

Long suffering from multiple sclerosis, Don Van Vliet died yesterday at the age of 69. As Captain Beefheart and leader of the Magic Band, Van Vliet laid down one of the skankiest, fattest, most eclectic blues-rock records of the ‘60s with Safe as Milk before following the more avant garde muse that led to him recording the album for which he is best known. With its crazed structures, cartoonish lyricism, and freaky fusion of Rock & Roll, blues, and free jazz, Trout Mask Replica (1969) has to be the most demanding record widely regarded as a Rock classic. He continued recording with the Magic Band through 1982 before retiring from music to pursue expressionistic art. Van Vliet left behind an incomparable legacy that influenced artists ranging from John Lennon to Tom Waits to PJ Harvey.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

CBGB's Biopic on the Way

According to Wikipedia, the criteria for designating a national historic landmark is as follows:

· Sites where events of national historical significance occurred;
· Places where prominent persons lived or worked;
· Icons of ideals that shaped the nation;
· Outstanding examples of design or construction;
· Places characterizing a way of life; or
· Archeological sites able to yield information

Assuming we can agree that its infamously and literally shitty bathroom could be considered some sort of “outstanding example of design or construction,” CBGB’s, the primordial scuzz hole that birthed up the most important musical movement of the ‘70s, fulfills every criterion on this list. That still wasn’t enough to convince former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton to designate the club a national historic landmark. Yet another reason to despise the Bush administration. Hilly Kristal’s punk Mecca closed for business on October 15, 2006. Dead but not forgotten, CBGB’s will soon be the subject of yet another of those Rock biopics that seem to get announced on a near weekly basis.

The yet untitled film will follow Kristal’s opening of the club originally intended to service those in need of a little country, blues, and bluegrass, and it’s inevitable metamorphosis into the venue where Talking Heads, The Ramones, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The Dead Boys, Blondie, and countless others broke out. The movie is to be produced by the Randall Miller & Jody Savin, the team also responsible for a Dennis Wilson biopic called The Drummer scheduled for release in 2011. First-time director Savin plans to begin shooting the CBGB’s film this coming summer.

Read more about this upcoming project at Hollywood

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Review: 'Vampire Circus' (1972)

Unable to compete with the more sophisticated chills of films such as Rosemary’s Baby, Hammer Studios high-dived into high camp in the ‘70s. The new Hammer got off to a ripping start with the Ingrid Pitt vehicle The Vampire Lovers in 1970. Within a couple of years Britain’s greatest producer of lush monster movies had fallen into a comfy groove for better or worse with stuff like Countess Dracula, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Dracula AD 1972, and Vampire Circus. The latter film finally makes its DVD debut today, and it’s one of Hammer’s goofiest. Studio execs must have given screenwriter Judson Kinberg three specifications: lots of sex, lots of blood, vampire circus. Kinberg then dashed off the script in 45 minutes.

The plot is thinner than milk stew: a band of circus performers take revenge on a village where a vampire had been put to death fifteen years earlier. There are some pretty far-out sequences swimming around that spindly storyline: a woman screws a vampire while her daughter’s bloody corpse lies a few feet away, the circus presents the villagers with such acts as a totally naked woman simulating sex with a lion tamer and a guy removing a mask that looks like a painted face to reveal his actual painted face, and an absolutely ridiculous-looking fake panther gets shaken around a bit to create the illusion it’s chomping someone to death. The performances vary in their levels of hysteria, Thorley Walters emerging triumphant with his portrayal of the wackadoo Burgermeister with Anthony Corlan coming in second as the eye-rolling vampire/panther man, Emil. Adrienne Corri of A Clockwork Orange gets top billing, even though she brings little to the film aside from a perpetually shiny puss in dire need of a good powdering. The film does a fine job of delivering a pleasing quantity of silliness and phony baloney gore, but it never rises above camp because it lacks characters worth caring about. The Vampire Lovers had that, thanks to a memorable performance from the recently departed Ingrid Pitt, plus an all-you-can-eat banquet of campy gore and silly fun. It’s a better use of your 90 minutes than Vampire Circus, but Hammer completists still shouldn’t miss either of them.

The new Vampire Circus disc is a blu ray/standard DVD combo that includes lots and lots of bonus business: a new documentary, a retrospective on circus/carnival themed horror productions, a retrospective on the British horror/comic publication Gallery of Grotesqueries, a poster and stills gallery, and a Vampire Circus interactive comic book. All that sounds good, but I can’t say for sure because I only saw the movie using Netflix’s “watch instantly” option. Find out for yourself by buying Vampire Circus on here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Ten Best Old Albums That Were New to Psychobabble in 2010

I may purport myself to be some sort of authority on classic Rock & Roll, psych, pop, and punk records, but in reality, there are lots and lots and lots of them I’ve never heard. Nevertheless, I’m happy to say that I’m still discovering great old albums that are new to me, whether I’ve long heard about them but have yet to give them a spin or I’d never even been aware of their existences. Here are the ten finest retro-rock records that were new to me in 2010, presented in glorious chronological order...

1. We Are Ever So Clean by Blossom Toes (1967)

Having long read about We Are Ever So Clean, a real cult favorite of British psychedelia, I was a bit disappointed on first listen. “When the Alarm Clock Rings”, which concludes Rhino’s Nuggets II box set, was all I knew from Blossom Toes prior to hearing their only LP, so I was a bit taken off guard by how thoroughly daffy, and often cacophonous, it is. I’m glad I gave the record a number of additional spins. Now it sounds perfectly conceived, and that includes the more insane tracks, such as the borderline grating “The Remarkable Saga of the Frozen Dog” and “Look at Me I’m You”, which sounds like William Burroughs diced up the master tapes of Revolver, and reassembled them willy nilly. Still, the album’s best songs are its most straightforward. There’s the rousing “When the Alarm Clock Rings”, “I’ll Be Late For Tea”, a marvelous Kinks pastiche that fuses that band’s early heaviness with their mid-‘60s pastoralism, the groovy “Telegram Tuesday”, “What’s It For”, with its chugging cellos, and the Move-esque “I Will Bring You This and That”. Definitely the psychedelic find of the year.

“I’ll Be Late For Tea”

2. Pandemonium Shadow Show by Harry Nilsson (1967)

I probably wouldn’t have given Harry Nilsson his fair shake if my friend and occasional collaborator Jeffrey Dinsmore hadn’t insisted I do so. I like “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Coconut” (more because it was used to great effect at the end of Reservoir Dogs than anything else) well enough, but “Daddy’s Song” and “Cuddly Toy” are not among my favorite Monkees songs and “Without You” makes me barf. Because Jeffrey was a former Nilsson skeptic, himself, I agreed to check out Pandemonium Shadow Show. This is a terrific vaudeville record, much closer in spirit to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band than a lot of records to which The Beatles’ album are often compared. Really, the predominant sound of Pepper’s is not psychedelia but old-timey music hall, so Pandemonium Shadow Show sounds much more Peppery than, say, Their Satanic Majesties Request. And not only did the Fabs inspire Nilsson, but he pays direct tribute to them when he covers “She’s Leaving Home” and cheekily mangles a variety of their songs in the hilarious mishmash “You Can’t Do That”. “River Deep, Mountain High” has been covered by too many people who aren’t Tina Turner, Nilsson’s version of “Cuddly Toy” is just marginally better than The Monkees’, and “Ten Little Indians” was neither a good song in the hands of its creator or The Yardbirds, who recorded the most famous rendition during their Jimmy Page period. The rest of the album is phenomenal though. “Sleep Late, My Lady Friend” is the lullaby Bacharach and David always wanted to write. Gil Garfield and Perry Botkin’s show-tuney “There Will Never Be” is an instant standard. Sparsely arranged with cello, bass, and flute, “Without Her” is a haunting melding of baroque and jazz balladry. The masterpiece of this collection is “1941”, an elegiac lament about Nilsson’s abandonment by his father (a recurring theme in his work that did not prevent him from pulling the same shit on his own first born). The album’s ultimate endorsement is that it won Nilsson a quartet of Liverpudlian super-fans, three of whom personally called him to tell him how much they loved his latest record.

3. The Natch’l Blues by Taj Mahal (1968)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Review: ‘The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side’

Is there something inherently wrong about a coffee table book covering the history of The Velvet Underground? Glossy, colorful, souvenir books like Jim DeRogatis’s The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side seem more befitting a group with a cuddlier reputation, such as The Beatles, who have been the subjects of many coffee table tomes. Yet, wasn’t the VU initially promoted as Andy Warhol’s latest pop art project, an entity not terribly far removed from Warhol’s style-over-substance soup cans or Edie Sedgwick? And didn’t Warhol essentially force them to perform with Nico because she looked good? And— let’s face it—didn’t the Velvets look pretty great all on their own, decked out in their matching, too-cool-for-uptown wraparound shades and black togs? And can’t the content of dope and S&M celebrations such as “Sister Ray”, “Heroin”, and “Venus in Furs” be deemed cheap exploitation on some level? And let’s also not forget that the drugging, womanizing Beatles were hardly as sweet as the toys, cartoons, and coffee table books they inspired ever suggested.

So DeRogatis’s book doesn’t violate what The Velvet Underground represented, just as the band’s more exploitative aspects don’t dull the keenness of Lou Reed’s gutter poetry or the completely organic wildness of the band’s noisy attack or the stark beauty of their ballads. But is it necessary? The band’s tale has been told many times before in far more complete form, particularly and definitively in Richie Unterberger’s White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day. A lot of the photos in An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side, which are the real selling points of any illustrated history, can be found in Unterberger’s book. However, “1966: The Year the Velvet Underground Went Pop”, Warhol’s personal memoir about his band’s earliest days, is only excerpted in White Light/White Heat. It is presented in its lengthy entirety in An Illustrated History… and is an absolute must read for anyone who missed out on attending The Exploding Plastic Inevitable him/herself. There’s also a good interview with Sterling Morrison conducted by the guitarist’s former bandmate, Bill Bentley, some fabulous shots of Reed’s original sheet music for “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” (Jesus Christ, the guy fucking wrote out those songs like he was Cole Porter or something! How many other Rock & Roll songwriters did that?), and an amazing photo of Warhol silk-screening the legendary banana. I also love the totally tacky faux velvet wraparound banner included with the book. It reminds me of Kramer’s coffee table book about coffee tables that actually turns into a coffee table. Warhol would surely approve.

Buy The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side at here.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Get Quiet/Get Loud: The Day ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘My Generation’ Were Released

45 years ago today was a hell of a time to have five pounds in your trouser pocket. That’s about how much it would have cost a Brit to pick up two newly released records that would have immeasurable impacts on Rock & Roll for many, many years to come. The Beatles made the next leap forward in their seemingly endless evolution with Rubber Soul, the record often cited as ground zero for the pop album as art. At the same time The Who finally detonated their long-awaited debut, My Generation, an apparent celebration of Rock & Roll as destructive, demonic anti-art. Both of those reputations are accurate and both aren’t. Although no less of an artist than Brian Wilson was so moved by Rubber Soul that he imagined himself in direct competition with the Fabs and made the supremely artful Pet Sounds as his riposte to the Rubber Soul challenge, there’s no civilizing the fuzzed out funk of “Think for Yourself” or the venomousness of “Run for Your Life” or the down-home swing of “Drive My Car”. And though the deafening squall of My Generation was infinitely influential on The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, The MC5, and an entire generation of garage, freak beat, and punk bands, stuff like “The Kids are Alright” and “La-La-La Lies”—songs Roger Daltrey dismissed as too “sweet”—are as harmonious and melodic as anything by The Beatles or The Beach Boys. Pete Townshend’s declaration that his band’s onstage instrument massacring was inspired by the auto-destructive art of Gustav Metzger was not exactly what one expected from a purported Shepherd’s Bush thug.

Yet when we think of Rubber Soul we think of its acoustic delicacy, and when we think of My Generation, we think of its electric anarchy, and rarely do we reverse the application of those terms when discussing The Beatles and The Who. But consider where The Beatles went next. In 1966, they released their loudest, hardest, wildest single to date with “Paperback Writer”/”Rain”. That year Paul McCartney declared that the band's two biggest influences were Dylan and The Who. And could Paul have whipped off those mad, improvisatory bass lines without the direct influence of John Entwistle’s work? And would Ringo have cut loose as he does on “Rain” and “She Said She Said” without having listened to his future best-buddy Keith Moon? Famously, Paul McCartney cooked up “Helter Skelter” after reading that The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” was the loudest, most devastating Rock record ever made and being disappointed that the results did not live up to how he’d imagined the record would sound.

Typically sullen Townshend was less complimentary when discussing the competition. During an appearance on the BBC’s “A Whole Scene Going” an audience member asked him about the “quality” of his music, to which he grumbled that Rock & Roll isn’t supposed to have quality. He was then asked whether or not he thought that applied to The Beatles. After a moment of contemplation he explained that he and Entwsitle were recently listening to a stereo Beatles record (most likely Rubber Soul, which had just been released a month earlier) in which the vocals come out of one speaker and the instruments come out of another, and when one listens to The Beatles without their vocals, “they’re flippin’ lousy!” Yet, Townshend doesn’t really seem convinced of his own words, and the influence The Beatles would continue to have on The Who bears this out. Those lousy Beatles are all over The Who’s next album, A Quick One, with its massed harmonies, jangly twelve-string guitars, cleaner pop sound, and adventurousness. Would Who manager Kit Lambert and Townshend have conceived of stringing together song fragments to create a “mini-opera” if The Beatles hadn’t opened the door to such experimentation with Rubber Soul? Would they have encouraged Daltrey, Moon, and Entwistle to start writing songs if The Beatles hadn’t set the standard for such democracy (albeit, limited democracy)? And after The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” introduced avant garde sound collage to Rock’s bag of tricks, The Who were free to record “Armenia City in the Sky”, and when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band made room for ambitious pop concept albums, Townshend and his gang made their pop-art pirate radio tribute The Who Sell Out.

The relationship between The Beatles and The Who ran deeper and more personal than their influences on each other’s music. Keith Moon, who’d gently mocked his scouse peers on “I Need You” from A Quick One, became fast friends with Ringo Starr and a notorious drinking buddy of Lennon during the former Beatle’s legendary “Lost Weekend” of the mid-‘70s. Moon paid tribute to his friend with an atrocious cover of Rubber Soul’s “In My Life” on his sole solo album Two Sides of the Moon. Years earlier Lennon jammed on “A Quick One, While He’s Away” to lighten the mood when Harrison temporarily quit during the tension-fraught “Get Back” sessions. Decades after Keith Moon’s death, The Who employed Ringo Starr’s son Zach to perch on their drum throne.

Uncannily, The Beatles and The Who also developed Rock & Roll in parallel on Rubber Soul and My Generation. The Beatles’ “Think For Yourself” and The Who’s “My Generation” are the first Rock & Roll recordings in which the bass is used as the lead instrument. No earlier British Rock album could compete with either in terms of compositional quality, either. Amidst all the thunderous drumming and seething feedback, Townshend explores themes typical to pop music in completely sophisticated, atypical ways, whether dealing with relationships (the comic divorce song “A Legal Matter”), rebellion (the confrontational, revolutionary “My Generation”), identity (the wittily defiant “It’s Not True”), or community (“The Kids are Alright”). The Beatles explored similar themes with similar insight on stuff like “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”, “Nowhere Man”, and “The Word”. Not even Jagger and Richards or Ray Davies had come up with an album’s worth of material that could yet match the sophisticated lyricism of Rubber Soul or My Generation. Only Dylan’s recent albums and The Beach Boys’ Today! were in the same league.

Ringo and Moony in The Kids are Alright

The following fifteen or so years of Rock & Roll can be viewed as two streams diverging from these two records: by begetting Pet Sounds, which begat Sgt. Pepper’s, Rubber Soul ultimately led to the self-conscious artsiness of Prog Rock; My Generation spawned the Punk Rock movement that in many ways was a reaction against the kind of music that Rubber Soul directly inspired. But in December of 1965, these two albums—so unlike in many ways, so similar in others—were of the same swinging London scene, two sides of the same shilling. Perhaps nowhere else has their influence convened more explicitly than on the next album recorded by Rock’s most creative sponges. The Rolling Stones’ Between the Buttons is a gleeful playground of Rubber Soul inspired folk rock, evident in the pseudo “Michelle” chanson “Back Street Girl or the intricately rolling “Yesterday’s Papers”, and Who-esque freak-outs like “Please Go Home” and “All Sold Out”. The Stones sussed that the new territories laid out by The Beatles and The Who were equally accessible and equally important, tantalizing invitations to get quite and get loud.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review : ‘The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History'

OK, so Paul Westerberg was an exceptional songwriter, but it’s hard to read Jim Walsh’s oral history The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting without thinking the moral of the story is that anyone can play Rock & Roll. The ‘Mats were a people’s band who pursued fame with one hand and scorned it with the other, a sloppy drunk quartet of Minneapolis dirtbags who won a following because they were unpredictable, outrageous, loutish, insane. That Westerberg emerged as a tremendous power-pop composer in the tradition of Pete Townshend, Alex Chilton, and Rick Nielsen was beside the point.

That combination of stage infamy—Westerberg deciding the band would eschew their greatest hits in favor of appalling Chuck Berry covers, Bob Stinson lifting his skirt to present his balls to the audience, teen brother Tommy Stinson dropping jaws simply for being so fucking young—and spectacularly ragged records made The Replacements cult heroes. They could get prestigious opening tour slots for Keith Richards and Tom Petty but couldn’t bring themselves to appear in anything as crass as a music video. A pal of the band from way back when, Walsh drew together a cast of nearly 150 friends, family members, fans, and fellow Minnesotans to tell this often hilarious, often harrowing, often exhilarating tale. The band members are mostly represented by a trove of quotes from old interviews.

On paper, The Replacements story is not much different from any other band’s: they rose from middle-class ennui to enjoy a degree of popularity, engaged in heated Rock & Roll rivalries with other local groups (particularly Hüsker Dü), over-indulged in a variety of substances, and didn’t all live to tell the tale. The big differences are the vehemence with which they refused to play the Rock & Roll success game, the respect and loathing they earned (famed asshole Steve Albini often had choice words for the guys), and their confounding paradoxical status as ordinary legends. Punks like Joe Strummer, Johnny Rotten, and even Joey Ramone were larger than life, either as cartoon characters or political way-lighters. The Replacements were the cretins demolishing classic Rock & Roll tunes in the garage next door, and like Spinal Tap’s keyboardist, they just wanted to have a good time all the time, often at the expense of their fans, their critics, and themselves. They weren’t gods. They were me and they were you. You can’t say that about many Rock stars, can you?

Anyone who loves The Replacements has no excuse for not reading All Over But the Shouting. Hell, anyone who loves Rock & Roll has no excuse either. I’ve been reading a lot of Rock & Roll books lately, and this is the first one I’ve read in a long, long time that made me want to join a band, get stinking drunk, and moon a room full of gawkers. Any takers?

Get The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History at here.
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