Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review: 'And on Piano... Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life ofRock's Greatest Session Man'

Pop on your favorite album. Is it Exile on Main Street? Who’s Next? Imagine? Mine’s The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. And what is the common thread weaving through all these classics? Each features the instantly recognizable yet endlessly varied work of Rock’s finest piano man for hire. Whether cascading like a speed freak through “The Ox”, tastefully drizzling sparse melodic droplets over “No Expectations”, or pounding out harpsichord arpeggios on “Session Man”, Nicky Hopkins always knew exactly what to contribute to a song and almost always nailed it in one take. He played on hundreds of sessions, starting with supporting work for proto horror-rocker Screaming Lord Sutch then moving on to The Who, The Kinks, The Stones, The Beatles (collectively and solo), The Jeff Beck Group, Donovan, Jefferson Airplane, Harry Nilsson, and way, way too many more to mention here. For a guy with such an astounding résumé, Nicky Hopkins received little respect during his time, was often deprived of proper credit on the albums he helped make (he held a particularly nasty grudge against Ray Davies for this reason), and barely earned cab fare for playing the roiling solo on The Beatles’ “Revolution”. That Hopkins was an unassuming chap who favored quiet seething over demanding the respect and pay he deserved didn’t improve his lot much. Neither did his chronic health problems, self-destructive lifestyle, and tendency to allow himself to be manipulated, either by his opportunistic wife, the “use up everyone in sight” Rolling Stones, or the Scientologists who replaced his drug addiction with a dependency on their cult.

It’s reflective of Hopkins’s anonymity that the first writer planning to tell the pianist’s story in biography, Ray Coleman, died before his book could be finished. Fortunately, Julian Dawson, a musician and personal friend of the late Hopkins, is now giving him his due. As definitive a biography of this subject as there will ever be, And on Piano… Nicky Hopkins is the result of ten years of extensive research. Dawson interviewed Hopkins’s friends, family, and business associates, who invariably seem to have loved the guy, even if that love wasn’t always mutual. Because he was so quiet, so understanding of the fact that he was a hired hand and not the star, the old cliché about being an extra in ones own story often applies to this book. Nicky tends to fade into the corners while big personalities like Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, Sutch, and Nicky’s wife, Dolly, elbow their ways to the narrative’s fore. The main character makes his presence most felt in the chapters discussing his sickly boyhood and his problems with addiction. In chapters titled “Session Man: The Who and The Kinks” and “Satanic Majesties Request: The Rolling Stones- Part I” there’s no confusing who the star is. But this gives us a more accurate portrait of Hopkins, a man generally content to perch on his piano bench in the shadows, only to drift into the spotlight on occasion to make one glorious flourish.

Get And on Piano... Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life of Rock's Greatest Session Man at Amazon.com here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Vincent-a-Day: ‘From a Whisper to a Scream’

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Vincent Price’s birth today, I’ve been checking out one of the maestro’s lesser known films all week.

From a Whisper to a Scream (1987- dir. Jeff Burr)

A Vincent a Day week reaches its dastardly conclusion with one of the man’s final films. Price supposedly regretted taking this role, and it’s not too hard to suss why. From a Whisper to a Scream is the kind of cheapo scuzz yesterday’s Madhouse prognosticated. This portmanteau offers torture, incest, necrophilia, human vivisecting, child murder, a cheesy monster baby, a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-torso, and gobs of fairly convincing gore. The dialogue is witless (“She’s got legs all the way up to where the hair grows!”) and the acting is idiotic. These are also the qualities that make this junk fairly entertaining junk. Price appears in the wraparound in which he explains the sordid history of Oldfield, Tennessee, to an uncharacteristically restrained Susan Tyrrell. The great Lawrence Tierney is wasted in a part that barely even qualifies as a cameo, but each of the movie’s episodes isn’t much worse than your average Tale from the Crypt. And though the production values are cheaper than those in Creepshow, the stories are better. From a Whisper to a Scream is the worst thing I’ve watched this week, but I’m pleased that even this crap is pretty good. That’s quite a track record, Vincent! Happy 100th.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Vincent-a-Day: ‘Madhouse'

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Vincent Price’s birth I’ll be checking out one of the maestro’s lesser known films every day this week.

Madhouse (1974- dir. Jim Clark)

Vincent Price is Paul Toombes, a horror star institutionalized after a masked killer chopped off his girlfriend’s head with a letter opener. Everyone thinks the man who made his name playing B-movie villain “Dr. Death” is responsible. Madhouse is kind of like a sleazy Targets. Just as Peter Bogdanovich’s film was a knowing tribute to Boris Karloff, Jim Clark’s reflects on Price’s career, but with less insight and elegance. Madhouse is depressing at times, not because we’re witnessing a terrific actor lamenting the devolution of horror into graphic exploitation à la Karloff in Targets, but because we’re watching one actually participating in such a movie. Two if you count Peter Cushing. There’s an interesting push and pull between the quaint monster movies of yore (note former-“Van Helsing” Cushing in pancakey Dracula makeup during a costume party) and the graphic, misogynist slasher films that replaced them. Like so many self-aware horror movies, Madhouse wants to have its cake and eat it too, functioning as both exploitation-criticism and exploitation. This creates a self-loathing unease, and Price’s orneriness throughout the movie probably isn’t mere acting. Yet Madhouse rises above the mass of slasher flicks because of a good performance from Price, a great one from ghoulish Adrienne Corri, and an ending that approaches brilliance. Madhouse also retains some of the spookiness and splashy color of Price’s work with Roger Corman, which we actually see in old footage scattered throughout the movie. Vintage images of Karloff and Basil Rathbone (both deceased by ’74) in these clips contribute to the elegiac tone.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Big Box Sets by The Byrds and Sam Cooke on the Way

On May 31, Sony's Legacy Records will be releasing a career-spanning collection of all the albums The Byrds cut for Columbia Records, as well as all of Sam Cooke's releases on RCA. No word yet on whether the thirteen-disc Byrds set will included previously unreleased material, but it will likely include all of the bonus tracks on Legacy's CDs currently available, as well as everything on the double-disc deluxe edition of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. More exciting is the news that six of the eight discs in the Cooke collection are previously unissued on CD. Here are the specs:

The Byrds - Complete Columbia Albums

* Contains CD expanded edition versions of all 11 original Columbia albums released by the Byrds between 1965 and 1971, which includes numerous rarities and unreleased tracks.
* Each individual album is packaged in a replica mini-LP sleeve reproducing that album’s original cover art.
* Includes booklet containing historic photos and track-by-track annotation by veteran journalist Johnny Rogan, author of the definitive Byrds biography Timeless Flight.

* Mr. Tambourine Man
* Turn! Turn! Turn!
* Fifth Dimension
* Younger Than Yesterday
* The Notorious Byrd Brothers
* Sweetheart of the Rodeo (2 CDs)
* Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde
* Ballad of Easy Rider
* (Untitled)/(Unissued) (2 CDs)
* Byrdmaniax
* Farther Along

Sam Cooke - The RCA Albums Collection

* The most complete package to date of Sam Cooke's '60s albums.
* Six of the eight albums in this set have never been released on CD in the U.S.
* Each individual album is packaged in a replica mini-LP sleeve reproducing that album’s original cover art.

* Cooke's Tour
* Hits of the 50's
* Sam Cooke/Swing Low
* My Kind of Blues
* Twistin' the Night Away
* Mr. Soul
* Night Beat
* One Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963


Pre-order info at Pop Market.com. Thanks to The Second Disc for this scoop.

A Vincent-a-Day: ‘Dr. Phibes Rises Again’

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Vincent Price’s birth I’ll be checking out one of the maestro’s lesser known films every day this week.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972- dir. Robert Fuest)

When we last left the abominable Dr. Anton Phibes he was dispatching the surgeons he blamed for his wife’s death in gruesome manners inspired by the ten plagues of Egypt. I hadn’t seen the original Phibes in years, so I really appreciated the campily narrated recap that begins Dr. Phibes Rises Again. This sequel finds Vincent Price’s disfigured master of revenge returning to provide more AIP-style thrills. This is a long way from the relatively subtle Vincent we saw in Shock the other day. This is Vincent in full-ham mode, and that’s the Vincent we love bestest. As I said, it’s been a while since I watched The Abominable Dr. Phibes, so I can’t really comment on how much of a retread the sequel may be. Taken on its own, Rises Again is a gas: campy and clever in perfect proportion. There’s a real Ken Russell feel to director Robert Fuest’s use of extreme color, framing, and psychedelic art design. The film often resembles the interior of a pinball machine, something Russell would take to grotesque extremes when shitting up Tommy a few years later. Dr. Phibes Rises Again doesn’t blare in your face the way Russell’s films usually do, but it ain’t exactly what you’d call restrained either. Phibes unleashes his beautiful assistant Vulnavia (!) to sic clockwork snakes, a hydraulic brain poker, a spiky torture chair, a giant vice, and a menagerie of critters that crawl and fly on a new crop of chumps while hunting for an Egyptian potion capable of bringing his wife back to life. Vincent glowers like a coo-coo and intones purple vows of vengeance through it all. In one delightful scene, he eats a piece of fish through his neck. The concluding chorus of “Over the Rainbow” is… ahem… Priceless.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review: Elvis Costello and The Imposters at The Beacon (5/23/2011)

1986 was a year of refreshment for Elvis Costello. After an extended period of indifferent work further diluted by the off-puttingly glossy production of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, he got back on track with two great albums. King of America found him at his most sophisticated; Blood and Chocolate at his hungriest. In support of his latest triumphs, Elvis burnt up the road with a brilliant new gimmick. Adopting the sardonically sleazy persona of a game show host, he invited fans on stage to twirl his “Spectacular Spinning Songbook”, a giant wheel-of-fortune featuring 40 hits, oddities, and categories dictating the next number he and the Attractions would rip-snort their way through.

25 years later he’s pulled the wheel and his charmingly smarmy alter ego, Napoleon Dynamite, out of storage to give fans another chance to win big. Last night Elvis and the Imposters took their spectacle to NYC’s Beacon Theater. The show was a colorful, cartoony free-for-all in which kids, a few minor-celebrity guests (T-Bone Burnett, Willie Garson, most fondly remembered by this writer for his bit part as “Heavy Metal Roadie” on “Twin Peaks”), and a drunken wannabe stripper roamed the stage like coyotes. Toss in a couple of Go-Go dancers and all the action could be a bit distracting. But this is a spectacle, and the show certainly delivered on that level, even if the wheel was a big of a shaggy-dog prop. More often than not, Elvis would cheat by manipulating the wheel to his preferred song, most likely to give preference to punter-pleasers like “Oliver’s Army” rather than deep cuts like “Country Darkness”. No matter. Groovy surprises, such as covers of Prince’s “Purple Rain”, Nick Lowe’s “Heart of the City”, and The Stones’ “Out of Time”, elevated the show beyond a rote recital of greatest hits. The band sounded great; particularly after drummer Pete Thomas’s daughter Tennessee joined him behind the kit. Playing in super-human synchronization, the Daddy/Daughter team turned stuff like “Turpentine” and “Peace, Love, and Understanding” into sonic avalanches. A rare appearance by Elvis’s brother, Ronan MacManus, and a small Irish ensemble called Bible Code Sundays that joined him on "American Without Tears" and “Little Palaces” was another familial treat that lent a bit of necessary intimacy to one really big show.

The Set List:


I HOPE YOU'RE HAPPY NOW
HEART OF THE CITY
MYSTERY DANCE
RADIO RADIO
WATCHING THE DETECTIVES
CLOWNTIME IS OVER
STRICT TIME
MAN OUT OF TIME
OUT OF TIME
OLIVER'S ARMY
A SLOW DRAG WITH JOSEPHINE
AMERICAN WITHOUT TEARS
LITTLE PALACES
SO LIKE CANDY
DON'T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD
ALL GROWN UP
TURPENTINE
UNCOMPLICATED
LIPSTICK VOGUE w/ Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys
WAITING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD/GLORIA
(I DON'T WANT TO GO TO) CHELSEA
I WANT YOU
ALISON
TRACKS OF MY TEARS
TEARS OF A CLOWN
SUSPICIOUS MINDS
RED SHOES
PURPLE RAIN
PUMP IT UP
(WHAT'S SO FUNNY 'BOUT) PEACE, LOVE, AND UNDERSTANDING

300th Post!

New Release Date and Preorder Information for Kinks and Left Banke

Way back in January I first Sundazed Records' announced plans to reissue The Left Banke's two great records Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina and Left Banke Too. Now we have a release date of June 28th via Sundazed.com.


In other news, the U.S. release date of the next wave of Kinks deluxe editions--Face to Face, Something Else, and Arthur--has been bumped up from June 6. The new dates June 20th in the U.K. and June 28th in the U.S.

Preorder them all at Amazon.com here:

Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina

The Left Banke Too

Face to Face

Something Else

Arthur

Jokerman: The Humor of Bob Dylan

With the probable exception of John Lennon, Bob Dylan has been the subject of more solemn reverence than any other Rock & Roller. From the mid-‘60s when daft journalists branded him the “voice of his generation” to this very month when a bunch of celebrities supplied their two cents in an overly respectful homage in Rolling Stone, Dylan’s work has sure inspired a lot of boring accolades. Well, fuck the boring accolades and fuck solemn reverence. No one would be more offended by it all than the man, himself. Dylan’s greatest work is not solemn. It is not the expression of a generation’s angst or whatever. It’s hilarious. Not witty. Not clever. Not “My, doesn’t he have a delightful sense of humor.” Hilarious. Choke on your toke, spew a tuna sandwich out your nose hilarious. For me, the key Dylan line is not “How many roads must a man blah, blah, blah” or “I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand” (which boring old Bono boringly compares to “one of the great Psalms of David” in that boring Rolling Stone article). Dylan’s key line is this probing profundity from “Tombstone Blues”:

The sun’s not yellow
It’s chicken.


There’s your voice of a generation right there, beatniks. There’s your “modern Shakespeare” (another writer who inspires much boring solemnity but was never above cracking a good fart joke). Dylan pulled off his most brilliant prank when he ditched the overt preachiness of his early acoustic work in favor of surrealism and a good beat. The punch line wasn’t just all of the former fans outraged by his embracing of Rock & Roll electricity but those who continued to search for the meaning of existence in his outrageous comedy. Of course, there was still profundity in a lot of this stuff: the socialist tirade of “Maggie’s Farm”, the sneering swipe at gaudy materialism in “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, and even the slanted perspective of poverty in “Tombstone Blues”. But the righteousness of these tracks is inebriated with sheer nonsense. If The Times They Are A-Changin’ was Fail Safe, then Highway 61 Revisited was Dr. Strangelove, and we all know what the greater film is.

So, what does the above pun on “yellow” and “chicken” have to do with the overall message of “Tombstone Blues”? Not a goddamn thing. Does this lowest form of humor detract from the song’s message? Your call. Does it make Dylan analysts look goofy when they try to decode its meaning? It sure does (observe how goofy I come off in the proceeding paragraphs). That may be the line’s purpose after all: it exposes the fatuousness of those who missed Dylan's point that sometimes there is no point. It’s also keen proof that in reaction to those who demanded he be their generation’s social conscience (such pressure!), he was not going to alter his path for anyone. If he had something to say about society, he’d say it. And if he wanted to interrupt that message with a really dumb joke, he was gonna do that too. Dylan was not about to allow his decisions be dictated by his critics or his followers. His own abundant and gloriously absurd imagination would forever call the shots.


That really dumb joke in “Tombstone Blues” would probably come off as nothing more than a really dumb joke had it been sung by a singer with a less funny voice—not funny sounding (although it could be that too), but deliberately funny. Dylan delivers the punch line (“It’s chicken!”) with such assuredness it’s like he’s finally summing up his entire philosophy in a short, sharp sound bite for a desperate public. “Here’s your revelation, kids: The sun’s not yellow…it’s chicken! Amen.” No one but Dylan could do that kind of self-parody without making him or herself look a fool. Witness once again, Bono, who adopted a crass capitalist persona as a joke in the ‘90s. With Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan made his critics and lauders look like clowns. With “Zoo TV” and MacPhisto and his press conferences at K-Mart, Bono made himself look dopey (we’d have to wait until the hillbilly minstrelsy of Nashville Skyline for Bob to finally become the brunt of his own joke).

The amazing thing is that no one seemed to get the joke at the time. They didn’t understand that this really, really, really funny guy was even trying to be funny. Dylan went through a period in which he was inseparable from a giant light bulb, for Christ’s sake! Naturally, the press wanted to know what this meant. “Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb” the singer explained in Don’t Look Back.

Decades down the road, the guy is still discharging priceless burlesque. Dylan clowned us again in 2004 with his autobiography. Chronicles Volume One is a rambling shaggy dog story in which the living legend rhapsodizes over a bunch of people you’ve never heard of while offering scant insights on his own life and career. The myth deflates yet again. That same year, he made good on an offhand joke cracked 39 years earlier that the only product he’d shill for is “ladies undergarments.” Imagine the shock of those who still wallow in solemn reverence while spinning “Masters of War” when first seeing Dylan in a Victoria’s Secret ad. Imagine 63-year old Bob rolling on the floor with fits of laughter after crooning alongside underwear models. In 2009 he gave us the funniest Rock & Roll news item in recent years when he was arrested for vagrancy by a clueless young cop.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, “Master of War” and “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” get my self-righteous juices flowing just like everyone else’s. Yeah, I agree that “Like a Rolling Stone” is a brilliant, poetic portrait of disillusion and generational waywardness or whatever insufferable label we might slap on that great Rock & Roll song. But nothing moves me like the above quote from “Tombstone Blues”, or when Bob imagines making love to Elizabeth Taylor and catching hell from Richard Burton in “I Shall Be Free”, or when he completely cracks up at the beginning of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” before launching into a six and half-minute tall tale about how he discovered America. Dylan moves me the most when he’s making me laugh. Even Weird Al can’t do that.

Bob Dylan turns 70 today.

A Vincent-a-Day: ‘Return of the Fly’

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Vincent Price’s birth I’ll be checking out one of the maestro’s lesser known films every day this week.

Return of the Fly (1959- dir. Edward Bernds)

Vincent Price took a side role in the first Fly as the brother of a scientist who accidentally transforms himself into a giant dung licker. Although he still doesn’t get to play the monster, Price gets more screen time in Return of the Fly. The end of the original left The Fly’s tiny counterpart in the clutches of a hungry spider, so it’s up to his son to continue dad’s wacky experiments. With its black and white cinematography, lightning storms, creepy coffins, and Price’s withered opening narration, Return of the Fly feels a bit more in line with the monster movies of previous decades than the bright and colorful Fly (vigilant viewers will also notice a character clutching a replica of the wolf/pentagram walking stick from The Wolf Man). As was the case with its predecessor, there’s a long, slow build to the transformation. I wanted more creature in this feature! But the introduction of actual villains is a nice touch. Return of the Fly is run-of-the-mill stuff for matinee popcorn tossers with the occasional quirk (oh, those guinea pig hands!). Of course, that means it radiates nostalgia.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Watch 'The Decline of Western Civilization' on Psychobabble!

I'd been dying to see Penelope Spheeris's The Decline of Western Civilization for years, so much thanks to the kind soul who posted the entire tribute to L.A. Punk on You Tube. It's not as funny as Spheeris's hair-metal sequel, but unlike Decline Part 2, the music isn't wretched. Great shit from X and Black Flag. Moronic rants from Fear. Lots of ignorant statements from kids who (hopefully) regret them being captured for posterity. A seedy snapshot of a seedy town during its seediest era.

A Vincent-a-Day: 'Shock'

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Vincent Price’s birth I’ll be checking out one of the maestro’s lesser known films every day this week.

Shock (1946- dir. Alfred L. Werker)

The festivities begin with a film rather different from the others I’ll be reviewing this week. Despite its title and dark-and-stormy-night credits sequence, Shock is more melodramatic noir than monster movie. Vincent Price still gets to work his creepy hoodoo as a psychiatrist who has his own psycho episode that zaps emotionally fragile witness Anabel Shaw into catatonia. This is straight up, B-grade Hitchcock, with its macabre voyeurism, psychobabble, and nifty twist: naturally, Price turns out to be the shrink brought in to rescue Shaw from Daffy Town. Alfred L. Werker’s direction is stylish, tossing a psychotic dream sequence, a spooky stalking scene inside a mental ward, and plenty of montage into the stew. But Price is the cat who really makes this picture swing, playing his mad-doctor-of-a-different-sort with hand-wringing guilt and slow-talking menace. I dug it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Blondie Covering The Stones


While researching an upcoming Psychobabble article, I came across something that knocked me out enough to repost here: audio of Blondie performing a thrashed out version of The Stones' psychedelic nugget "My Obsession" at the Old Waldorf, San Francisco, on Sept. 21, 1977. There's a bit of vintage Jagger before Blondie storms in:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 3: The 1940s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through more than 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 150 most monstrous works, decade by decade.
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28. The Mummy’s Hand (1940- dir. Christy Cabanne)
 
The commercial and creative success of Son of Frankenstein in 1939 revived Universal Horror—and horror as a whole— after a four-year slump. The studio followed with further sequels, beginning with The Invisible Man Returns in the first days of 1940, but hitting a more confident stride the following September with silent-film vet Christy Cabanne’s The Mummy’s Hand. With eight years having elapsed since the last time the bandaged creep walked, this was the widest span between sequels from the golden age of Universal horror. The filmmakers took advantage of that span by doing what Hollywood now calls a “reboot.” Brooding, lovesick Imhotep, once revived by the Scroll of Toth, now gets his pep from tealeaves and goes by the name Kharis. Cowboy star Tom Tyler looks good in the bandages and eerie black contact lenses, but the mummy’s rebirth as a shuffling hulk doesn’t make for a very interesting monster, even if this has become the more enduring mode of mummy than Karloff’s. Fortunately, and for the first time in the history of Universal horror, we have some human characters that are actually more interesting than the monster. Our heroes are archeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran, who looks like a beefy Jimmy Stewart), the perpetually clowning Brooklyn yahoo Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), cherubic magician Solvani the Great (Cecil Kellaway), and his daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), a tough, Hawksian heroine (though one that inevitably ends up screaming, getting carried off by the monster, and fainting. Baby steps, feminist horror fans). The most refreshing aspect of The Mummy’s Hand is that all these people really, really love each other, which is quite a contrast to the usual sourpusses who get upstaged by the monsters in Universal’s horror pictures. When we think one of them has been killed by Kharis, we care and hope he pulls through. When these characters return as tragic figures cowering under Kharis’s curse in The Mummy’s Tomb, it is heartbreaking and I instantly lose interest in the Mummy series. As for our mummy, he’s essentially reduced to the role of Cesare the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, taking murderous commands from George Zucco’s string-pulling villain Andoheb. Simplistic as he is, Kharis would become the most well traveled Mummy, appearing in several sequels and getting the Hammer treatment from Christopher Lee in 1959. Marta Solvani’s legacy is less easy to trace, though she certainly seems to be the main inspiration for Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark


29. The Wolf Man (1941- dir. George Waggner)

While Universal's monsters were getting a second wind from Son of Frankenstein and The Mummy's Hand, horror was splitting into two poles: schlocky poverty row potboilers (The Devil Bat, King of the Zombies) and glitzy prestige productions devoid of the genre’s primal power (MGM’s bland remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Amidst this mess Universal decided to stop playing it safe with their well-tried Monster stars and take a crack at a totally new series. Actually, The Wolf Man had been lingering for nearly a decade. The studio first began developing a film called The Wolf Man as a vehicle for Boris Karloff in 1932. Three years after that project faltered, the studio made a lycanthropic test-run with Werewolf of London, a limp affair that had Henry Hull playing a petulant botanist who only looks slightly wolfy after exposure to the full moon. Written by Curt Siodmak and directed by George Waggner (who’d go on to helm numerous episodes of “Batman” in the ‘60s), The Wolf Man reinvents the werewolf with a Jack Pierce make-up job only rivaled by his Frankenstein Monster and a fresh mythology. Much of what we now associate with werewolves—their aversion to silver, their association with the pentagram, their kinship with gypsies—leapt from Siodmak’s imagination. He also composed an ace nursery rhyme repeated infinitely throughout The Wolf Man and its sequels (“Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night / may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright”). The film’s other great innovation is the introduction of Lon Chaney, Jr., as the next successor in his father’s monster-movie-star legacy. The former Creighton Hull Chaney embodies poor Larry Talbot with a dizzying combination of schlumpy amiability, awkwardness (his method of hitting on pretty Gwen Conliffe by explaining he’s been peeping on her through a telescope is…errr… novel), and frantic anxiety. No previous monster was as tormented as Talbot, and his relationship with his father, played with dignified intensity by Claude Rains, gives the film a Greek-tragedy twist. The Wolf Man was another smash for Universal, and Larry the Lycanthrope was so popular that Chaney resurrected him in a string of sequels throughout the rest of the decade even though he died at the end of each film! Such sloppy plotting was just one of the problems with Universal’s new wave of monster movies, but over at RKO studios, a new producer was gearing up to take horror in an entirely different, and rather cerebral, direction.

30. Cat People (1942- dir. Jacques Tourneur)

The Wolf Man was a big hit, so purveyors of chills decided the new big thing was “people turning into animals” movies. The following year, 20th Century Fox slapped together a schlock-o-la thriller starring J. Carrol Naish as a man-ape called Dr. Renault’s Secret. RKO Pictures had nothing more than a title for their bid in the anthropomorphic onslaught, and that title indicated their film would be no less cheesy. Production vice president Charles Kroener hired a pulp novelist and former story editor for David O. Selznick to produce Cat People. Val Lewton’s treatment of the project was hardly what Kroener expected. Instead of actors capering about in furry makeup, Cat People presented a subtle, moody, complex exploration of the dangers of sexual repression. The film’s “monster” is Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a beautiful Serbian immigrant who is either a murderous she-panther or suffering from superstitious delusions. The film never makes this completely clear, quite unlike the graphically monstrous Wolf Man. Lewton hired a French director with an artistic eye to realize the film, and Jacques Tourneur allows the implied horrors to huddle in inky shadows rather than mug for the camera. The film’s biggest scare, and tastiest joke, is elicited by a bus screeching hydraulic brakes. Amazingly, audiences were most receptive to Lewton’s “terror of the unseen” philosophy, turning Cat People into such a massive hit that it single-handedly rescued RKO from bankruptcy after its major flop of the previous year, Citizen Kane (!). Just as amazingly, Cat People broke from contemporary trends by portraying religious superstitions and a woman’s denial of her sexuality as destructive; compare how Irena fairs in the film to Jane Randolph’s sexually confident Alice Moore. Cat People may be the first progressive horror film. It also turned Val Lewton into RKO’s golden boy. The studio spent the rest of the decade handing the producer goofy film titles (I Walked with a Zombie! The Leopard Man! The Curse of the Cat People!), and Lewton continually drew in audiences by building adult, psychological thrillers around those lurid titles. At times the pace was a bit too slow for the film’s own good, and at times the film strayed too far from horror (which is why the captivating fantasy Curse of the Cat People didn’t make this list), but he always produced intelligent work. More than any filmmaker before him, Val Lewton consistently proved horror could be sophisticated and subtle.

31. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943- dir. Roy William Neill)

In Universal’s finest opening since the prologue of Bride of Frankenstein, a pair of grave robbers tip toe through a leaf-swept graveyard beneath the full moon. They creep into a crypt and crack open one of the sarcophagi inside. Removing the stalks of wolfsbane is a bad idea. A clawed hand reaches from the sarcophagus. A grave robber drops his lantern and ignites a blaze. Once-dead Larry Talbot is back, and no one is unhappier about that than Larry Talbot. Tormented by the knowledge that his unwilling killing spree has resumed, the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) begins his search for the one, true death that will lead him to the journals of the man who has already discovered life and death’s most awful secrets. Since Dr. Frankenstein is dead (the real kind of dead, not the temporary kind Universal’s other ghouls enjoy), Talbot must call on the talents of budding mad doc Mannering (Patric Knowles) to help him commit suicide. This could make way for a meaningful dialogue on the right to die. Instead, we get the inevitable meeting between the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster. When we last left the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein, he was blind and motored by the brain of Bela Lugosi’s evil Ygor. In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Lugosi finally plays the role he was offered in 1931 but reportedly turned down because he felt nonspeaking roles were beneath him. Sadly, his Monster would be rendered speechless in post-production because, as screenwriter Curt Siodmak was quoted in Philip J. Riley’s book on this movie, Lugosi’s voice “sounded so Hungarian funny that they had to cut it out!” And since his blindness is never mentioned in Meets, anyone who missed Ghost will have no idea why the Monster lumbers about with his arms extended as if feeling around for unseen obstacles. Despite that bungle, Lugosi’s floundering was adopted by Universal’s next Monster, Glenn Strange, and instantly became Frankenstein-shorthand for future generations of charades players. Lugosi was also in poor health during the production, so a stuntman fills the flattop in several shots blatantly. Such clumsiness isn’t easy to ignore. Neither are the intricate sets or Roy William Neill’s mobile camerawork. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man also boasts Universal’s smoothest use of lap-dissolve transformations and its final appearances by Dwight Frye and Maria Ouspenskaya. The film’s greatest legacy is the strain of similar monster meetings it birthed. The direct-sequel Wolf Man vs. Dracula, which also would have followed up Son of Dracula, didn’t survive beyond Bernard Schubert’s script. Columbia’s The Return of the Vampire, which starred Lugosi as a non-Drac vampire leading his werewolf assistant through the London Blitz, filled that gap fairly well. King Kong vs. Godzilla, Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator, and all the other monster tête-à-têtes owe a debt to Siodmak and Neill. As for the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster, they’d return in House of Frankenstein with the unintentional comic undertones Abbott and Costello would make wholly intentional before the decade’s end. Ironically, neither the Wolf Man nor Abbott and Costello would ever actually meet Frankenstein!

32. I Walked with a Zombie (1943- dir. Jacques Tourneur)

Val Lewton’s disdain for the supernatural led him to produce a movie called Cat People that probably doesn’t have any cat people and a movie called I Walked with a Zombie that probably doesn’t have any zombies. Rather, the film is a very loose adaptation of Jane Eyre as a romantic familial mystery set on Saint Sebastian, where for a refreshing change, the well-adjusted black majority condescends to the white family falling to pieces on their old sugar plantation. Jessica Holland (the ethereal and dialogue-less Christine Gordon) is our possible zombie whose sole activity is the catatonic midnight strolls she takes out in the eerie cane fields. Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is the charming but naïve nurse hired to care for Jessica. When Betsy arrives on the island, she’s so clueless that when her black driver explains how his people were brought to the island in chains at the bottom of a ship, she responds, “But they came to a beautiful place, didn’t they?” Yeesh. She gradually becomes more empathetic to the locals, who invite her to get Jessica treated at one of their nightly voodoo rituals. We are invited along for the film’s most beguiling sequence, in which Tourneur takes full advantage of his mastery of shadow, light, sound, and setting. Although it has a strong reputation among more intellectual Horror fans, I Walked with a Zombie is at its best when enthralling the senses rather than the intellect. Sir Lancelot’s appearances as an ominous, calypso-singing, one-man Greek chorus are far more memorable than the film’s soggy romantic entanglements. Tom Conway as Paul Rand and James Ellison as his half-brother Wesley Rand fail to generate much electricity. Betsy’s interactions with housekeeper Alma, played by the marvelous Theresa Harris, are much more interesting. Some dull stretches undermine the film’s reputation, and in the scheme of Lewton’s classic “horror” films, it isn’t nearly as much of a horror film as Cat People or The Body Snatcher (though it is more of a horror film than Curse of the Cat People, which is the best of them all). Still, I Walk with a Zombie excels in grimness and pessimism, and isn’t that a lot more dread-worthy than mere supernatural horror? 


33. The Uninvited (1944- dir. Lewis Allen)

Good ghost stories were a conspicuous rarity in the early years of horror cinema. Although they made up the bulk of creepy literature primed for adaptation—from Alexander Pushkin to Henry James, Washington Irving to Edith Wharton—spectral tales had yet to really break though on the big screen. In his book American Gothic, Jonathan Rigby implies such idiotic institutions as the Production Code Administration and the Catholic League of Decency were to blame, fearing ghost stories that took their subject matter too seriously might inspire occultism. There was the odd cute romance (Topper) or dopey comedy (The Ghost Breakers), but Hollywood didn’t really give up the ghost until 1943’s delightful The Uninvited. One can sense a genre feeling its way out of the womb while watching Lewis Allen’s film. Is this a romance? A comedy? A full-blooded spooker with chills at the top of its to-do list? The Uninvited is all these things, and one can draw a direct line from it to movies as dissimilar as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (a marvelous film that didn’t make this list because it could hardly be labeled horror) and The Innocents. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey are tremendously charismatic as the sibling team who move into a seaside house haunted by a whispering, weeping apparition invoked by some very effective effects. Although this film is rarely seen today, it is well worth hunting down and arguably responsible for the new crop of ghost stories queuing up behind it.

34. House of Frankenstein (1944- dir. Erle C. Kenton)

Universal launched the decade with a brand new monster icon, but there wasn’t much enthusiasm behind expanding their horror franchise further. The departure of Carl Laemmle, Jr., after Bride of Frankenstein left the studio without a horror champion. The new Powers That Be generally regarded the genre as a cheap cash cow, and if one monster could put Levis in the seats and dollars in the coffers, then imagine what a horde of them would do! The new “monster rally” subgenre got off with a tentative but promising start with 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The following year, the cap really came off the coffin. “FRANKENSTEIN'S MONSTER! WOLF MAN! DRACULA! HUNCHBACK! MAD DOCTOR!... All the Screen's Titans of Terror - Together in the Greatest of All SCREEN SENSATIONS!” House of Frankenstein is the kind of matinee pap one would expect from a movie with such a tagline, but as far as matinee pap goes, it’s gold. Logic, craft, and all pretensions toward thoughtfulness are pitched out the crypt door, leaving nothing more than a gullet-choking feast for monster aficionados. Boris Karloff makes his final appearance in a Universal Frankenstein movie as escaped prisoner/mad scientist Dr. Niemann, who wants to take revenge on those responsible for his incarceration by resurrecting the Big-Three monsters and setting them loose on Germany (take that, Hitler!). Glenn Strange plays Frankenstein’s monster for the first time, but he makes little impression, his performance being strictly of the lumbering robot variety. John Carradine gives his first turn as Dracula, looking a bit more like the count Stoker described, but still making one wish Lugosi was in attendance. The most imaginative stroke is the bizarro love triangle between J. Carroll Naish’s Daniel the Hunchback, Elena Verdugo’s lusty gypsy Ilonka, and Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot. If one could detect the last gasps of a once formidable genre in House of Frankenstein, at least the Universal monster movie was going to go out just as it came in: overflowing with fun.

35. The Body Snatcher (1945- dir. Robert Wise)

Less celebrated than Val Lewton’s teaming with Jacques Tourneur is his work with director Robert Wise. Despite making some of the best films of his era, Wise tends to get overlooked because he lacked a signature style. There’s little that links The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Haunting aside from each film’s position among the best sci-fi flicks, musicals, and horror movies, respectively. Wise’s work was only moderately less atmospheric than Tourneur’s but considerably livelier. His Curse of the Cat People is the most beguiling film Lewton produced; the creepiest must be The Body Snatcher. The film’s horror pedigree is peerless. Along with the Lewton/Wise team is source material from Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and another memorable meeting of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Lugosi’s part is considerably smaller here than it was in previous films that matched him with his more bankable counterpart, but he still does a nice job as the doomed simpleton, Joseph. Karloff gives a career performance as grave-robbing cabman John Gray. Never before had he been allowed so much room to explore a character, and Gray must have been an utter joy to play: completely enamored with his own lack of scruples, utterly charming in spite of his wickedness. Karloff certainly appears to be having a blast, singing lines of dialogue, allowing his richly expressive face to convey Gray’s unspoken plotting, his fears, and his pleasures. At times Karloff’s innate niceness seemed at odds with the nasty characters he portrayed. Sometimes that niceness added extra dimensions to his roles, as it did in the Frankenstein pictures. Sometimes he was just miscast. In The Body Snatcher, Karloff is simply delivering masterful acting. Because he is so electrifying, the film feels a little lifeless when he isn’t on screen, but that’s not really the film’s fault. It’s just that Karloff’s act is such a tough one to follow.

36. Dead of Night (1945- dir. Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer)

Sustaining a sensation as intense as terror is not easy, which is why brevity is the soul of horror. A skeletal ghost story related by a campfire can be more terrifying than an 800-page Stephen King tome. This is why the portmanteau has flourished with horror so much more than any other genre. Such films are like short story collections, each episode getting to its terrifying conclusion with a minimum of thumb twiddling, then moving on to the next one. Also like short story collections, they are inconsistent. The very first horror portmanteau is often ranked as the best, yet Dead of Night is as inconsistent as any of the ones that would follow. This issue is compounded by the fact that four different directors contributed episodes. Although Dead of Night was probably more of a producer’s film than a director’s, there’s no denying that Charles Crichton’s overlong comic relief “Golfing Story” sits uneasily alongside the film’s serious horrors. Robert Hamer’s “The Haunted Mirror” is a good story, but the image in the mirror is too mundane to create an effectively terrifying atmosphere. Otherwise, Dead of Night is a strong portmanteau that gets better with each viewing. On first viewing, Basil Dearden’s “Hearse Driver” seems too short to register, but its simplicity gives it the staying power of the classic ghost story on which it’s based. The best episodes of this British portmanteau belong to Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti. “Christmas Party” is predictable but beautifully staged and shot, the dreamy visuals complimenting both its period setting and it ghostly themes. Even better is “Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, in which Michael Redgrave comes unhinged when he thinks his dummy is… steel yourself… alive! This theme would become a veritable sub-genre in itself, creeping up in E.C. Comics, “The Twilight Zone” (which would also adapt “Hearse Driver” as an episode called “Twenty Two”), Magic, and elsewhere. These other variations often trumped the one in Dead of Night (Rod Serling’s “The Dummy” is the best), but it has the distinction of being the first to mine ventriloquism for scares, and Redgrave’s crazed expression while speaking in Hugo’s squeaky voice at the piece’s climax is utterly unnerving. However, all of these episodes are sedate compared to Basil Dearden's wraparound story. Compelled by a recurring nightmare, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) meets the tellers of these tales at a house party in the English countryside. He listens patiently to each scary story, experiencing uncanny chills through it all. Craig has good reason to feel uneasy, as all of those horror tales reprise in a climactic concerted attack on him. He moves from scene to scene, trapped in his labyrinthine nightmare, until coming face to face with Hugo the Dummy in the most traumatizing flourish. A last minute twist finishes the film in a fog of cyclical dread. Whether or not Dead of Night is the best horror portmanteau may be a matter of debate, but the status of its terrifying wraparound sure isn't. 


37. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948- dir. Charles Barton)

Here’s where it all ends. A non-stop string of increasingly naff sequels drove the Universal monster movie right into a brick wall. There was only one thing left to do: allow Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein Monster to go out without a strand of dignity, descending into pure parody once and for all. Universal approached Boris Karloff to appear in the film, but he refused. He did agree to do a little promotion for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein on the condition he didn’t actually have to see the movie. Karloff had no idea what he missed. Abbott and Costello’s best picture is a delight from soup to nuts. The duo gets plenty of opportunities to work their zany shtick in an environment of hidden doorways, secret lairs, and a chamber of horrors in which the wax works ain’t all made of wax. Lou’s child-man energy is infectious. Bud is terrific as his jealous buddy; bewildered by all the attention goofy Lou is getting from a pair of pretty women. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein also works really well as a genuine monster flick. The creatures leave the larking to Abbott and Costello. Lon Chaney, Jr., is as tortured as ever as Larry Talbot, which sets up a few choice lines from Lou (Larry: “Every night when the moon is full, I turn into a wolf.” Lou: “You and twenty million other guys”). Vincent Price makes a memorable cameo as the Invisible Man. Most importantly, Bela Lugosi is allowed one last opportunity to don the cape that made him a star—his first time since playing the count in the original Dracula. Lugosi is terrific in this film, endearingly fatherly when seducing Lou into his confidence, but delivering the old menace when working his vampiry mojo. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was a giant hit and ensured Bud and Lou would have similar meetings with Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, and the Mummy in the future, but this would be the last time the holy trinity of creeps appeared in a Universal film. For a lot of kids, it was the first time they met the monsters, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has often served as a valuable gateway into less comedic horror classics. It certainly did for this writer.

38. The Queen of Spades (1949- dir. Thorold Dickinson)

As we’ve seen, Hollywood was tiring of supernatural horror in the ‘40s. The once mighty Universal monster movie had grown punchy. The spooks haunting RKO’s popular horrors were more psychological than otherworldly. At the same time, something was stirring across the pond. Produced by Ealing Studios in the U.K., Dead of Night was the first major horror portmanteau and the first horror film of the decade to blend high production values with a serious tone and supernatural scares.  Four years later, Associated British-Pathe produced The Queen of Spades based on a short story by revered Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. Thorold Dickinson’s ghost story is the most frightening film of the ‘40s, taking Val Lewton’s “horror of the unseen” philosophy and placing it in the supernatural realm. An army officer in 19th century Russia is obsessed with becoming an unbeatable card player. When he discovers that an old countess (Edith Evans, who is alternately scary, sad, and insufferable) has struck a demonic bargain to learn the secret of mastering Faro, he seeks to learn it by any means necessary. The flashback depicting the countess’ descent into the hidden basement room where she finalizes her deal cuts off at just the right moment to propel the imagination toward terror. The officer’s encounter with her whispering ghost is more explicit, but subtle enough to elicit chills more effectively than if Dickinson had traveled a more lurid route. The film only contains four or five moments of pure horror, but they are so powerful that they float weighty storm clouds over the costume drama mechanics that comprise the majority of the film. Britain had not conjured a monster to rival The Wolf Man in terms of iconography, but for sheer terror, The Queen of Spades easily trumped any American film of the ‘40s. When the U.S. seemed finished with old-fashioned horror for good in the next decade, the U.K. snatched the baton eagerly and sprinted all the way to Transylvania.

Creep on to the '50s…


Flee back to the ‘30s...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review: 'Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ‘Round the World'

So stylish and vibrant and graphic, how has Rockabilly not been the subject of some sort of illustrated history until now? I don’t know, Daddy-O, but fans will be pleased that one has finally arrived, and it ain’t just pretty pictures. I’ve read several of Voyageur Press’ coffee-table Rock & Roll compendiums, and editor Michael Dregni’s Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ‘Round the World is the one that gets it the rightest. Beautifully written by the likes of Greil Marcus, Craig Morrison, David McGee, and others, this book covers the various corners of that funky fusion of C&W and R&R with greater breadth and insight than one might expect from an illustrated history. Nice biographies of luminaries including Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Billy Riley, are joined by explorations of lesser known innovators and decisive moments in the genre’s evolution—often with the help of the folks who made them happen. McGee provides a fascinating history of the creation of “Blue Suede Shoes”. Paul Burlison explains how he got that nasty distortion on “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” in an interview from 1982. Marcus compares Elvis’s faux arrogance to Buddy Holly’s wholly convincing self doubt and speculates winsomely on how the latter’s career may have played out had the music never died. Rockabilly also includes looks at the fashions, guitars, amps, and recording techniques that made the genre come alive, as well as the latter day rockers (Sleepy LaBeef, The Stray Cats, The Cramps, etc.) who gave it life after the ‘50s. Numerous lengthy interviews (Ronnie Hawkins! Wanda Jackson! Sonny Burgess!), oodles of great photos, and a very amusing afterward courtesy of Luc Sante round out the book.

Snag Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ‘Round the World at Amazon.com here, cats and kittens.

Monday, May 16, 2011

20 Things You May Not Have Known About 'Pet Sounds'

45 years ago today, The Beach Boys unveiled a record that would stimulate Rock & Roll’s evolution like few others. You’ve listened to Pet Sounds, you love Pet Sounds, now it’s time to get hip to 20 Things You May Not Have Known About Pet Sounds!


1. While Mike Love was on tour with The Beach Boys in Japan, Brian Wilson was forced to look elsewhere for a lyricist to help him compose the tracks that would comprise Pet Sounds. He decided on Tony Asher, who made ends meet as a jingle writer. Asher only took a brief leave of absence to work with Brian Wilson on Pet Sounds. As soon as his involvement in the project was finished, he returned to the advertising world. Asher later collaborated with John Bahler on a number of songs for TV’s Partridge Family.

2. To achieve a “live” sound, Brian took the unorthodox approach of recording many of his vocal parts at the same time the engineer mixed the album.

3. In the mid-‘90s, Mike Love sued Brian for co-writing credit on a number of Beach Boys songs, including “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. When the Pet Sounds Mailing List asked what Love’s involvement in writing the song was, Tony Asher replied, “None, whatsoever.” Love claims he helped co-write the bridge.

4. The bridge of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was the source of further controversy when The Beach Boys took the song on the road. While working out backing-vocal arrangements for live performances without Brian, Carl Wilson and Al Jardine clashed on the “words.” Wilson believed them to be “Run-run-wee-ooh,” while Jardine favored “Run-run-ree-ooh!”

5. Despite Love’s legal issue with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and his general ambivalence about the entire Pet Sounds project, he admitted it was his daughter’s favorite song in 2006.

6. “You Still Believe in Me” began life as a composition with a rare Brian Wilson lyric called “In My Childhood,” which is why bike horns and bells can be heard honking and ringing at the end of the track.

7. Although Phil Spector’s house band, The Wrecking Crew, recorded the

Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: ‘Isle of the Dead’ (1945)

Isle of the Dead was the last psychological horror film Val Lewton produced for RKO (Bedlam was more macabre period piece than pure horror). The film displays Lewton’s weakest and strongest tendencies bolder than any of his earlier pictures. Boris Karloff stars as General Nikolas Pherides, a wicked officer who sojourns on a spooky Greek isle to visit his wife’s grave. At an inn on the isle, he discovers another guest has died of what he believes to be the plague and enforces quarantine. A superstitious woman, however, accuses a pretty sleepwalker of not only being the killer but a mythical vampiric creature called a vovolakas.

Anyone who has seen a Lewton movie will suss that Isle of the Dead isn’t going to play out like the typical supernatural horror film. The opening hour of the film draws its chills not from fangy monsters but from Pherides’s cruelty and the slowly building tension of his prisoners. As is often Lewton’s way, this portion of the film also suffers from its somnolence. Fortunately, director Mark Robson also delivers what may be his most genuinely frightening sequence in a Lewton production when one of the victims rises from her coffin for a last-minute vengeance spree. This finale is a mini- masterpiece of ghostly eeriness, dense shadows, and surprisingly explicit violence for a Lewton film. Feel free to let your mind wander during that opening hour, but be sure to set your alarm clock to goose you awake in time for the last ten minutes of Isle of the Dead.

Read more about Val Lewton in Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies Part 3: The 1940s next week...

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Review: 'The Who By Numbers: The Story of The Who Through Their Music'

So much has been written about The Who that I’m skeptical whenever another book is published on the band. Who could possibly have anything new to say about the guys? Steve Grantley and Alan G. Parker actually don’t have much new to say themselves in The Who By Numbers: The Story of The Who Through Their Music, particularly in light of John Atkins’s similar track-by-track review, The Who on the Record, published two years ago. Yet, Grantley and Parker accomplish something Atkins did not by performing a heroic level of research. Atkins’s assessments of The Who’s numerous albums, singles, and outtakes are the backbone of The Who on the Record. Grantley and Parker offer their own opinions about all of this great music, too, but they regularly step aside to allow Pete, Roger, John, and Keith to interject with their opinions and insight. This books’ bibliography is staggering, and most of the quotes the writers pulled from their multitudinous sources are totally new to me. Entwistle provides revelations about the composition of “I Can’t Explain” and the drumming on “I’m Free”. Pete explains the unique way Jimi Hendrix inspired him to write “Tattoo”.

Grantley and Parker’s personal opinions about The Who’s music aren’t without merit: they articulate some of the issues with Endless Wire very well, even if they're too hard on the record overall. Yet, they provide a lopsided portrait of The Who by not delving deeply into the music until after the band's ‘60s golden era. Those looking forward to detailed explorations of My Generation, A Quick One, and Sell Out will be disappointed by the writers’ cursory treatment of these classics. They also fail to mention a lot of the B-sides that didn’t make the running orders of the ‘90s reissues, such as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Dogs Part II”, “When I Was a Boy”, and “Here for More”. I still recommend The Who by Numbers to any serious fan who hasn’t read absolutely everything available about The Who, because Grantley and Parker do such an ace job of cherry picking enlightening tidbits from everything they’ve read. And they’ve read a lot.

Get The Who By Numbers: The Story of The Who Through Their Music at Amazon.com here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Birthday Gift from Donovan and Big News from Pink Floyd

Shouldn't those celebrating their birthdays be the ones receiving the presents? Of course, but fans are getting a gift of sorts from Donovan as he celebrates his 65th today. Today EMI announced it will be releasing a deluxe double-disc of Donovan's greatest album this June 6. The set will include the radically different U.S. and U.K. editions of Sunshine Superman fattened out with bonus tracks, though nothing previously unreleased. See The Second Disc for track information.

More radical is the news (once again culled from The Second Disc) that the entire Pink Floyd discography is set for a major reissue campaign titled "Why Pink Floyd?" A dopey title notwithstanding, these reissues sound potentially exciting. The campaign's official site promises "a comprehensive release schedule, to be launched on September 26, 2011, encompassing CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, SACD, an array of digital formats, viral marketing, iPhone Apps and a brand-new single-album ‘Best Of’ collection." This is big news considering that aside from relatively recent remasterings of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd's back catalogue has not been upgraded since 1994. All 14 original albums and the new Foot in the Door: The Best of Pink Floyd will be available in single disc "Discovery" editions, as well as a comprehensive box set. Dark Side, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall will also be released in double-disc "Experience" editions and "Immersion" editions comprising 5 to 6 discs. Unfortunately, the campaign does not include Relics or a singles collection. The only non-L.P. single included on the new "Best of" comp is "See Emily Play". As stated above, the releases commence on September 26 and wrap up on February 7, 2012. Vinyl editions are also in the works. All track and pre-order information can be found on the official "Why Pink Floyd?" site.

10 Reasons Donovan’s the Most

Donovan quickly evolved from a folksinger many critics dismissed as the UK’s pale response to Dylan to a completely unique psychedelic minstrel. As Mr. Leitch turns 65 today, let’s dig ten reasons why he’s the most.

1. Do Look Back

With his little cap and acoustic guitar, the press were quick to label Donovan a Dylan clone, and Bob was rightfully skeptical when reading headlines about his new rival during the 1965 tour D.A. Pennebaker captured in Don’t Look Back. When Dylan hosted a Double-D summit in his hotel room, the guys sat down and debuted their latest songs for each other. Donovan’s was the flimsy, twee “To Sing for You”; Dylan’s the lacerating “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. For years this sequence was held up as a prime example of Dylan’s hipness and Don’s lameness. Viewed decades removed from the incident, it’s hard not to see this scene in a totally different light. Sitting off to the side in his shades as Donovan sings, Dylan is condescending and patronizing (“Hey, that’s a good song, man!”). Donovan comes off as sweet and gracious in light of the undercurrent of ridicule. In just a little over a year, Donovan would reemerge with a totally new sound, and no one could justifiably accuse him of clinging to Dylan’s Cuban heels again.

2. All Raga All the Time

In 1965, The Kinks (“See My Friends”) and The Beatles (“Norwegian Wood”) introduced a new pop subgenre by melding modern folk-rock with the drone and instrumentation of Indian raga. By the next year, everyone was jumping on the “raga rock” wagon: The Stones, The Cyrkle, The Byrds, The Yardbirds. And though The Kinks and The Beatles were not finished with the form yet, only one artist fully explored raga rock as a conceptual thread streaming through nearly every track on 12 inches of vinyl. In September of 1966, Donovan released Sunshine Superman. Aside from a couple of rocking tributes to Swinging London (the title track, “The Trip”) and one spooky vision of apocalypse (“Season of the Witch”), the LP was essentially Rock’s first full-length raga rock album. Donovan approaches the style from the modal acoustic folk of “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” to sitar spiked stuff such as “Three King Fishers”, “Ferris Wheel”, “Guinevere”, and “The Fat Angel”. Intoxicating.


3. Legend of a Girl Child Linda

Linda Lawrence thought she had it made when she hooked up with Brian Jones, the pretty, enigmatic, and absurdly talented original leader of The Rolling Stones. Things turned sour when she became pregnant with one of the many kids Jones sired. True to form, he lost interest in Linda when she broke the news. Even more loathsomely, he got violent. Brian and Linda’s scuffles were so dire that The Pretty Things, who roomed below Jones, could here the crashes through the ceiling of their flat. Linda lucked out when Jones took off for good, and sweet, gentle Donovan entered her life. After a long courtship, the two married in 1970, and Don became father to young Julian Brian Jones, now Julian Brian Leitch. Linda and Donovan had two kids together, and celebrated their 40th anniversary last year, which must be some sort of Rock & Roll record.

4. Busted

The Drug Bust that rattled the ‘60s pop world was certainly the one that went down at Keith Richards’s Redlands estate on February 12, 1967. Keith and Mick faced stiff sentences on trumped-up charges, and the outcry from their fans, peers, and even the press (conservative William Rees-Mogg’s famous Times editorial “Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?”) was unprecedented. The Stones’ bust may have been Britain’s loudest, but the first was aimed at innocent little Don. A few months after some of Donovan’s friends were depicted enjoying a toke in the TV doc A Boy Called Donovan, the blue meanies arrived to whisk him off for holding a little grass. Fortunately, the charges evaporated and Don was free to continue sprinkling his psychedelic pixie dust on the tracks that would comprise Sunshine Superman. If Donovan’s bust shocked the older generation, his complete renunciation of all drugs after meeting Maharishi Mahesh Yogi a couple of years later must have been equally shocking to the kids.

5. Sky of Blue...

John, Paul, George, and Ringo were quite generous with their talents, assisting pals such as The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Ron Wood, Cream, and Elton John in the studio. But the first artist deemed worthy of a Beatle’s helping hand was Donovan. Paul McCartney could be heard bumping and grinding on Don’s late ’66 hit “Mellow Yellow” (he is especially audible ad-libbing during the instrumental break). Months earlier, Donovan became the first composer aside from Lennon to co-write a tune with McCartney when he contributed the “Sky of blue, sea of green” line to “Yellow Submarine”.


6. “All they know is what we teach ‘em.”

Donovan made an even greater contribution to Beatledom in 1968 when he tagged along with the Fabs on their Indian retreat with the Maharishi. During the trip he reportedly taught both Paul and John the fluid finger picking technique taught to him by finger picking virtuoso Bert Jansch years earlier. Without this valuable knowledge, “The White Album” may have lacked such tracks as “Blackbird” and “Julia”. Thanks, Donovan!

7. “Getting a little bit better, no doubt.”

Lots of ‘60s rockers spoke out against war, but few put their money where their mouths were like Donovan did. His first single of’67 was, in the opinion of this writer, his greatest. “Epistle to Dippy” is musically beguiling, with its twangy guitar hook and cheeky fiddle break. Lyrically, it is a message to Donovan’s old friend, who went by the nickname “Dippy” and was currently serving in the ranks of the British Army stationed in Malaysia. When Dippy heard himself name checked in Donovan’s latest hit, he contacted the singer. And what did Donovan do after reconnecting with his buddy? He personally paid for Dippy’s military discharge! We should all have friends like that.


8. For Little Ones

The inescapable popularity of “Yellow Submarine” inspired every artist swinging in mid-‘60s London to bake up their own confection for the kiddies. The Kinks, The Who, The Move, even The Rolling Stones all made records fit for pre-teen consumption. But none of these artists were as apt for such tunes as whimsical Donovan. In late 1967, he released Rock’s first full-on children’s album. The double-disc (and Rock’s first box set) Gift from a Flower to a Garden included one record aimed at adults called “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and one appropriately titled “For Little Ones” on which he delivered such delicate fantasies as “The Enchanted Gypsy”, “The Tinker and the Crab”, and “Starfish-on-Toast” (the two discs were released as separate albums in the U.S.). Solidifying his devotion to making listenable music for tots, he put out H.M.S. Donovan in 1971. This time all four sides of the double L.P. were custom made for the kiddies. Young parents must have expelled a hearty sigh of relief knowing they could finally toss those old copies of “The Hokey Pokey” in favor of a platter more pleasing to mature ears.


9. Truth

Those who may have been inclined to dismiss Donovan as a lightweight have long praised him for one monumental contribute to heavy rock: his “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is the first record to feature all three of Led Zeppelin’s instrumentalists: Jimmy Page, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones. Actually, it isn’t. In fact, John Paul Jones is the only Zep to contribute to “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, but that does not squelch Donovan’s heavy credentials. On his next L.P., Barabajagal, he recruited The Jeff Beck Group to back him on the title track and “Superlungs (My Supergirl)”. The results are two bits of white-hot evidence of Donovan’s power as a pure rocker and the Jeff Beck’s Group’s ability to stir up a funky murk to rival Sly and the Family Stone.


10. “One chants out between two worlds.”

The Beatles got all the press for following Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but his most devoted pop follower was Donovan. More than four decades after his first Indian excursion to visit the Maharishi, Donovan continues to lecture about the benefits of transcendental meditation as a path to opening the consciousness and achieving inner peace. Donovan’s TM advocacy also resulted in one of pop-culture’s most unlikely teams when he joined forces with fellow meditator and freaky genius David Lynch to spread the word. As a member of the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace, Donovan works to promote the introduction of transcendental meditation into school curriculums.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Lavish 'Jaws' Book Coming...

Just in time for summer, Moonrise Media will be publishing a new tome documenting the impact Jaws had on the sleepy Martha's Vineyard community in which it was filmed, although I don't recommend taking it to the beach. Not because it might scare you away from the water, but because it looks like the kind of book you wouldn't want to soil with sand or smear with suntan lotion. Matt Taylor's Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard is a lush, nearly 300-page photo document boasting more than 1,000 images shot during the making of Steven Spielberg's nautical shocker. The book will be available in paperback and hardback "Limited Collectors" editions.


Here are the specs:

Both Editions

• foreword by JAWS director Steven Spielberg
• hundreds of never-before-seen photographs of the production’s inner workings, taken by local participants and bystanders, as well as a detailed account of how the filmmakers chose Martha’s Vineyard as their shooting location
• recollections of local crew and cast members
• newly illustrated schematics by JAWS Production Designer Joe Alves explaining the intricacies of the revolutionary sea sled fin mechanism, as well as his original 1974 storyboards
• insight on adapting JAWS from the page to the screen from Hollywood professionals including Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, Location Casting Director Shari Rhodes, and more

Limited Collectors Edition

* Hardcover special-edition of “JAWS: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard”
* Deluxe portfolio containing:
o 1″x1″ piece of the fiberglass hull of the Orca II (a.k.a., sinking Orca) used in the movie JAWS with note of authenticity from owners Lynn and Susan Murphy.
o DVD containing eight millimeter behind the scenes footage of the JAWS production shot and narrated by Islander Carol Fligor.
* Hardcover and portfolio packaged in a unique special edition case.
* Limited to a series of 1000 numbered copies
* 12″ x 10.5″, 296 pages
* More than 1,000 full color and b/w images

The Limited Collectors Edition of Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard will not be available in stores. You can preorder both versions from the book's official website here.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Beach Boys Fans will SMiLE in September

We're still waiting for a specific release date for this year's most anticipated release--the SMiLE Sessions box set chronicling the rise and fall of The Beach Boys' aborted masterpiece--but an interview with SMiLE lyricist Van Dyke Parks posted today on Mojo.com sets the release in September 2011. Parks also discusses his new project in which he'll be releasing six vinyl 7"s of new material beginning this month.

 Brian pounds the keys; Van Dyke shimmies.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review: Jefferson Airplane's 'Flight Log: (1966-1976)'

The record industry may still be struggling, but reissues of classic albums certainly seem to be arriving with vigor. Even some of the odder compilations have started receiving sonic upgrades. HD Tracks recently issued the U.K. editions of The Rolling Stones’ Big Hits albums as high-def FLAC files (they never even made it to CD). Now BGO is issuing the Western CD debut of Flight Log (1966-1976), the most eccentric comp by one of the most eccentric—and the best—San Fran psych group: Jefferson Airplane. Well, this 1977 double album is credited to the Airplane, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. The first disc is mostly devoted to that band, but the second checks in on the various projects the individual band members got up to following Jefferson Airplane’s early ‘70s dissolution. There are selections from Jefferson Starship, Grace Slick solo, Grace Slick with Paul Kantner, Hot Tuna, and Jorma Kaukonen’s Quah.

The song choices are unusual, passing over most of the popular favorites collected previously on The Worst of Jefferson Airplane for folkier album cuts that present the Airplane as a less punky band than they really were. The post-Airplane tracks are oddballs, too. There’s nothing from the Starship’s breakthrough Red Octopus (and thankfully, this set appeared years before rubbish like “We Built This City” or “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” could have made the running). Rather we get a gritty workout from Hot Tuna that allows Kaukonen room to show off his superior finger-picking skills: the guy was a good electric guitar player, but an absolute dynamo on acoustic. There’s also Jefferson Starship’s magical “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight”, some Slick histrionics on “Silver Spoon”, her more conventionally pretty “¿Come Again? Toucan”, and Quah’s lovely baroque folk “Genesis”. The booklet reproduces Patrick Snyder’s vivid original liner notes, as well as a priceless shot of the band dolled up as lounge lizards.

I love the idea of compilations like this getting second airings. A lot of listeners used such collections as gateways into the catalogues of their favorite bands, so they pack maximum nostalgia value. I’d personally love to see Good Vibrations: The Best of The Beach Boys (1975), The Beatles’ Rarities (1980), and Monkee Flips (1984) dragged out of the basement and into the mastering booth. Flight Log is a nice start, though.

Get Flight Log (1966-1976) at Amazon.com here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Chug-a-Lug, Donna! "Twin Peaks" Party Coming to Brooklyn!

When you see the Bell House in Brooklyn again, it won't be the Bell House. That's because the bar/concert venue will be transforming into a makeshift Black Lodge on Monday, May 9, for an event titled "TV Party: Twin Peaks." Episodes of the show will be playing on a big screen, there will be a "backwards-talking contest," Miss Twin Peaks pageant, donuts and coffee will be served, and other Peaksy business. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at Ticket Web.com.


"TV Party: Twin Peaks"
7PM Doors/8PM Show
The Bell House
149 7th St, Brooklyn, NY 11215
718-643-6510
info@thebellhouseny.com
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