Thursday, June 28, 2012

Cult Club: ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ (1965)

In this new feature, Psychobabble looks at classic cult items beyond Horror and Rock & Roll.

Cult cinema became a self-conscious movement in the ‘70s when audiences hopped up on goofballs and near-lethal doses of irony started convening at urban cinemas to hoot along with midnight showings of Pink Flamingoes and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s amazing to consider that Russ Meyer made Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! a decade earlier when every aspect of it seems consciously contrived for the midnighters. Perhaps that’s because it was so influential among the makers of those ‘70s cult items. Pink Flamingoes-director John Waters has called Pussycat “the best movie ever made… possibly better than any film that will be made in the future.” Waters, a master ironist himself, may have been joshing a bit when he wrote this in his autobiography Shock Value, but was he at least a little right?

Legions of critics would catcall, “Not even close!” Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! has been derided for its obvious offenses for decades (certainly one reason Waters holds it so close to his mustachioed heart). Even its entry in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die tisks at its "troublesome sexual politics." Russ Meyer is perhaps history’s most famous breast-fetishist, and there is certainly no shortage of female objectification in his best-known picture. The man was no less enamored with violence, which is well present, too. So sex and violence, eh? That’s why Meyer is so much more horrible than every other filmmaker, none of whom would ever indulge in such things? Well, the naysayers say “nay” because Meyer so lingers on his actresses’ cleavage, he so revels in his character’s violence. His plot hangs on sex and violence as wispily as Tura Satana’s catsuit hangs on her bodacious frame.

In Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Varla (Satana), Billie (Lori Williams), and Rosie (Haji) are a trio of go-go dancers who dig nothing more than swinging with each other and tooling around the California desert in their hot rods. When they run into a square (Ray Barlow) and his bikini-clad girlfriend Linda (Susan Bernard), Varla challenges the dude to a drag race. As he starts gaining on her, she forces him off the track. When he gripes about her poor sportswomanship, Varla karate chops him to death (with a twist of back breaking). Linda gets all bent out of shape after watching her boyfriend bite the dust, so Varla commands her go-go underlings to drug and kidnap the girl until they can think of what to do with the potential squealer. While refueling at a gas station, Varla learns about a local wheelchair-bound man (Stuart Lancaster) who lives on a farm with his sons: sensible Kirk (Paul Trinka) and a muscleman known as The Vegetable (Dennis Busch). The Old Man also happens to be sitting on a big pile of cash. At the farm, he tries to get his paws on Linda, Billie tries to get hers on The Vegetable, and Varla tries to get hers on the scratch. Mayhem ensues, leaving all but our two dullest characters, Linda and Kirk, dead.
Tura Satana

Meyer uses this goofy plot as an excuse to exploit the boobs and bashing for which he is infamous. While Meyer couldn’t have possibly conceived Faster, Pussycat! as a mainstream film, he still seems bound by the restrictions of mid-‘60s American cinema. Nudity and graphic bloodshed are taboo. So is the triumph of his villains, hence the plethora of deaths that end the film. For those criticizers who’ve actually seen the film, the opening monologue about the “rapacious new breed” of violent women and Varla’s death are the strongest arguments for Meyer as misogynist, but the time in which his film was made has to take some of the blame. If we can forgive the rote moral and our antihero getting her rote comeuppance, we have without a doubt the strongest woman to appear in an American film thus far.

Specs and Pre-Order Info for the Limited Edition "Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection" on Blu-Ray



On September 25, 2012, Universal Studios Home Entertainment will be releasing a Blu-ray box of 15 Hitchcock films in the Masterpiece Collection. What are the producers' idea of Hitch's 15 greatest masterpieces? Well, some of these choices are a little questionable (Torn Curtain? Topaz? Family Plot?), but the major omissions are few (Strangers on a Train should definitely be here. I've always been partial to The Wrong Man, which is absent).

You can pre-order the set now through Amazon.com here:

Each disc is loaded with bonuses, plus you get the films "digitally restored from high resolution film elements," according to the press release. Here are the details:

Saboteur
• Saboteur: A Closer Look
• Alfred Hitchcock's Sketches
• Production Photographs
• My Scenes

Shadow of a Doubt

• Beyond Doubt: The Making of Hitchcock’s Favorite Film
• Production Drawings by Art Director Robert Boyle
• Production Photographs
• My Scenes

Rope
• Rope Unleashed
• Prodution Photographs
• My Scenes

Rear Window

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Review: 'Character Actors in Horror and Science Fiction Films: 1930 – 1960'

Laurence Raw pays tribute to 96 familiar faces in his new book Character Actors in Horror and Science Fiction Films: 1930 – 1960. These are the twisted assistants and the wizened scientists, the screaming damsels and the officious police detectives who granted essential support to stars Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, etc. They’re Zucco and Frye and Atwill and Ankers and Naish.

Such a volume is well overdue, but I would have liked Raw to focus more on these actors. The jacket describes Character Actors in Horror and Science Fiction Films as a “biographical dictionary,” but there is very little biography. Rather each entry begins with a line or two about an actor’s background before recapping their characters' roles in various films. While there is some interpretation of how an actor’s looks or mannerisms affected viewer’s understanding of underlying themes, Raw spends too much time analyzing plot and the characters as written on the script’s page. He misses some interesting opportunities, such as a discussion of how Wallace Ford played the same character in two different films (The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb) with two completely different tones (comedic and tragic). Some major bit players, such as Una O’Connor and Laird Cregar, do not get entries at all. Some of these actor’s major films get slighted too. There’s no mention of Son of Frankenstein in Lionel Atwill’s profile; no mention of The Wolf Man in Claude Rains’s. Raw manages better balanced profiles for actors who allow him to get deeper into politics, particularly African-American players like Mantan Morland, Noble Johnson, and Sir Lancelot. Too often, though, the actors seem like background players in this book. Appropriate, but unfortunate.

Get Character Actors in Horror and Science Fiction Films: 1930 – 1960 at Amazon.com here:

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Review: 'Pink Floyd: The Story of Wish You Were Here' (Classic Albums series)

The Classic Albums series has dealt with Pink Floyd before in its 2003 dissection of the groundbreaking Dark Side of the Moon. Nine years later it has taken the next step to cover the band’s follow up L.P., Wish You Were Here. Like most episodes of the documentary series, all surviving players get to say their piece, from Roger, Dave, and Nick (Rick makes appearances through older clips) to backing singer Venetta Fields (who admits to not being a fan of the band’s music and approaching her work with them from a purely professional stance) to “Have a Cigar” guest-vocalist Roy Harper to promo-film animator Gerald Scarfe to cover photographer Storm Thorgerson to stuntman Ronnie Rondell, who had the privilege of being set on fire for that iconic sleeve portrait. The one voice that is silent throughout the film, even as his presence resonates over it all, is that of Syd Barrett, the subject of the album’s two-part super-epic “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. As is the case in so many Pink Floyd documentaries, Syd’s disintegration casts a poignant, somber pall over the story, and that famous photograph from when he wandered into the Wish You Were Here sessions, bald and overweight, is trotted out again to grim effect.

While Wish You Were Here is a good album, this documentary mostly made me wish that we were finally allowed a celebration of Syd’s shining brilliance rather than another elegy to his decline. It would be nice if the Classic Album series could break out of its focus on the ‘70s a bit to give us a view of the Piper at the Gates of Dawn sessions. It’s a much better album than Wish, too.

Piper dreams aside, the documentary we do have is produced with the care and professionalism that goes into all installments of this series. The holes in the tale are more down to the interviewees than the documentarians. Apart from addressing how they had diverging concepts for Wish You Were Here, Dave Gilmour and Roger Waters don’t delve too deeply into the rift that first developed between them during the album’s creation. An ingenious sequence intercutting Dave's solo performance of the title track with Roger’s says more about the distance between them than anything the guys actually say in the film.

Get Pink Floyd: The Story of Wish You Were Here (Classic Albums series) at Amazon.com here:

Monday, June 25, 2012

Review: 'Bride of Frankenstein': The Vintage Novelization Reprinted!

Several years ago I attended a showing of Bride of Frankenstein at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The crowd was mostly made up of people who probably first saw the film when it was released in 1935. Without the burden of a modern sensitivity to irony, the older folks in the theater seemed to take the film at face value. As they shuddered and gasped at the Monster’s antics, I understood Bride of Frankenstein as a genuinely horrifying horror movie—as opposed to a knowingly camp monster movie, which is how I always enjoyed it— for the first time. However, I did not feel the film’s horror until reading BearManor Media’s new reprint of Michael Egremont’s vintage novelization. Without being filtered through director James Whale’s ironic eye and acted by camp pioneers like Ernest Thesiger, Una O’Connor, and Dwight Frye, Bride of Frankenstein proves to be a genuinely horrifying tale; more so because Egremont took it so seriously. Yes, there are still all the consciously humorous lines that helped make the film one of our first truly funny horror-comedies (both gin and a good cigar are still Dr. Pretorius’s only weakness). However, the scenes of horror are described so ghoulishly that the comedic aspects shrink well into the background. Egremont pores over the corpse Pretorius procures to serve as the Monster’s bride in grotesque detail, with her eyelids “sunk into the pits beneath,” her eyes “long collapsed and desiccated,” her cheek revealing “the shining jawbone, and the little, even teeth,” and her neck “pitted and corroded by time and time’s grim assistant, the conqueror worm.” Shudder.

To put a fine point on how much the tone of the novelization diverges from that of the film, Frye’s googly-eyed assistant Karl is renamed Franz and given a gruesome back story and a far different and more well-developed resolution. O’Connor’s shrieking housemaid Minnie “might have gone down to History as one of the great investigators of the world”! And that’s how Egremont handles the comic relief! As for our ostensible villain, The Monster (who is so remolded that his iconic flat pate is now described as “domed”) becomes a bit less sympathetic when we actually witness his attack on some peasant girls, a sequence the film largely glosses over. The novelization also restores his wrestling match with a statue of Christ, a scene the censors deemed so blasphemous that the crucifix was replaced with a statue of a generic bishop in the film. Despite that radical move, Egremont still felt it necessary to rewrite history by misrepresenting Percy Shelley’s “The Necessity of Atheism” (misnamed “A Defence of Atheism”) as a “practical joke.” I guess a novelization can only handle so much iconoclasm.

BearManor Media continues to do horror film history a great service with its “Nightmare Series” of novelizations, shedding additional light on familiar cinema classics by dredging up the strange and the rare. One quibble though: I understand that a small press does not have the editorial staff of a large one, but there still really isn’t any excuse for the number of typos that appear in so many of their volumes, including this one. They’re sloppy and distracting. Of course, if you let that stop you from reading this or any of the press’s other fascinating books, you might need a brain transplant. Hold on while I get Franz and Pretorius on the phone…

Get Michael Egremont's The Bride of Frankenstein at Amazon.com here:

Friday, June 22, 2012

Review: 'Small Faces' (Immediate) Deluxe Edition

When we last left Small Faces they were suffering ignominiously at the hands of a record label cobbling together an unrepresentative compilation and tossing it out just two weeks before the band's second proper album was due for release on their new label. Just as the Small Faces’ story shifted from Decca to Immediate back in 1967, it moves from UMe to Charly music today. The latter label is reissuing multi-disc deluxe editions of the Immediate albums Small Faces and Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. The change in labels (both of the original and reissue variety) is most appropriate as Small Faces had become a very different band during the switch. The band could still whip up a mighty soul wallop, and Steve Marriott could still unleash his Stax howl to shred the shingles from the roof, but an acid infused Small Faces now made music of great delicacy too. Their second eponymous album is a more diverse affair than the first one, mixing soul, heavy Rock, British folk, baroque tinkling, calypso, rowdy knees-ups, and swirling psychedelia in equal proportions.

Charly presents this intricate music in a classier package than the UMe deluxes, stowing it in a high-quality digibook instead of the flimsier digi-pak foldouts that housed Small Faces (Decca) and From the Beginning. While all the material on those previous deluxes really could have fit on single-disc editions, there’s enough stuff on Charly’s Small Faces (Immediate) to warrant a double. We get the album in both its mono and stereo incarnations, as well as some of the group’s finest singles and radical alternate-mixes as bonuses. “Green Circles” is presented in four totally distinct iterations that sport diverging experiments with phasing and equalization, as well as unusual vocal arrangements. An alternate version of “Things are Going to Get Better” features some cheeky whistling, and a mono alternate of “(Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me” has super upfront lead vocals and a creepier blend on the bridge. You’ll have further fun spotting the differences between the standard mono and stereo mixes, particularly on the delightful hit “Itchycoo Park”. Fortunately, one avenue in which the Charly reissue copies the UMe ones is sound: the same remastering team worked on Small Faces (Immediate) and it sounds phenomenal. You’ll think Ronnie Lane is trapped in your speaker when he starts cooing “Something I Want to Tell You”.

Coming next month, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. For now, you can pick up Small Faces (Immediate) on Amazon.com here:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Review: 'Brian Wilson: Icons of Pop'

These days Rock commentators toss around the word “genius” pretty indiscriminately. Way back in Rock & Roll’s earliest days, no one would dare call some greasy haired goof with a guitar a genius unless he or she wanted to get laughed off the playground. That began to change in 1966 when Beatles publicist Derek Taylor started freelancing for The Beach Boys, mounting the now legendary “Brian Wilson is a Genius” promo campaign. Surprisingly, the first time “genius” was applied to a Rock & Roller, it was actually apt. Yet even with some of Rock’s most brilliantly constructed and recorded music on his resume, there are still those who contend the whole “genius” thing was nothing more than a great big advertising sham, that Brian was little more than a purveyor of dopey tunes about surfing and cars sung in piercing falsetto, that the “genius” label mostly derived from music no one ever got to hear (of course, that final argument has now been neutralized by last year’s release of The SMiLE Sessions).

In his installment of Equinox Press’s Icon series, writer Kirk Curnutt addresses even the stupidest charges against Brian’s genius to explain it in accessible yet musically knowledgeable terms. Curnutt delves into every aspect of the man’s music—not only his recording, singing, and composition techniques, but less analyzed matters too, such as his lyrics, keyboard skills, and bass playing. For those of us who are already converts, the music speaks clearly enough for itself. So the book often shines a greater light on the ignorance of music critics than as-yet-undiscovered nooks of Brian Wilson’s genius. While the complaint about him receiving too much praise for unreleased work may have once held water, charges that the relative brevity of his songs and albums, his complete lack of cynicism, and The Beach Boys’ perceived “whiteness” are somehow musical flaws are so ludicrous they hardly deserve to be acknowledged at all. Yet Curnutt does acknowledge them, always with seriousness, respect, and intelligence, as if he’s the world’s greatest parent patiently telling a tantrum-throwing tot why he can't have cookies for dinner. Even if this book doesn’t change any of the naysayers’ minds, it articulates why we fans are so devoted very well, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Get Brian Wilson: Icons of Pop at Amazon.com here:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

20 Things You May Not Have Known About Brian Wilson

As the head Beach Boys turns 70 today, Psychobabble takes a look at twenty things you may not have known about brilliant Brian.
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1. Murry Wilson instilled a fascination with the Old West in his oldest son, believing frontier tales would make Brian a rugged individualist… and possibly, a singing cowboy. Old West themes would later play a central role in SMiLE.

2. Brian has often blamed the deafness in his right ear on a punch he received from Murry as a toddler. His doctor, however, believed it to be nerve impairment, while his mother thought the deafness was either a congenital disorder or the result of a street fight with a fellow two-year old!

3. When he was a boy, Brian’s favorite ride at Disneyland was the Matterhorn Bobsleds rollercoaster.

4. Brian scored As and Bs in all of his twelfth-grade classes. Well, all but one. He received a C in piano and harmony. One of the reasons he got such a relatively poor grade in his area of expertise was the F he received for a sonata-writing assignment. Apparently, “Surfin’” is not a sonata.

5. Brian is renowned for his beautiful falsetto, but one man is not a big fan. The singer, himself, was always ambivalent, often embarrassed, about his high voice and confided to the women in his life that it was one his biggest “hang ups.” Although he has said he purposely wanted to "sing like a girl" on Pet Sounds, he apparently nixed "Let Him Run Wild" from the Good Vibrations: 20 Years of The Beach Boys box set because he hated his sublime performance, feeling he sounded "like a little girl... a sick chick." Al Jardine later theorized that Brian purposely ravaged his voice with cigarettes and drugs to get a rougher, more “manly” voice, like his brother Dennis.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review: ‘Adventures into the Unknown: The Pre-Code Horror Anthology’

All Horror comics will always cower in the shadows of EC’s terror titles. Tales from the Crypt will forever remain notorious for introducing young comics enthusiasts to oozing corpses, bringing down the whole shebang when Bill Gaines defended his wares against the “frigid old maids” of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, and for reanimating as a tremendously popular HBO series in the late ‘80s. But there’s one thing EC cannot claim for itself: it wasn’t the first Horror comic series. That distinction belongs to the ambiguously titled Adventures into the Unknown. Published by the American Comics Group for a record 20 years (1948-1967), the comic somewhat managed its longevity by skulking under the radar. The Senate did not target Adventures because its title avoided red-flag words like “Terror” and “Horror” and the artists generally avoided gore even before the whip came down in the mid-‘50s.

That doesn’t mean Adventures into the Unknown was wholly tame. The line trafficked openly in murder and offered the usual menagerie of zombies, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, witches, mummies, ghouls, and phantoms. A panel depicting a suicide by cranial gunshot in the tale “The Old Tower’s Secret” is easily as disturbing as any of the more fantastic and explicit deaths EC unloaded.

Adventures suffers under the inevitable comparisons with its far more famous follower. The comic did not have an artist as gruesomely distinct as Graham Ingels or Jack Davis. It was not presented by any memorably punning horror hosts. The writing is more primitive and less socially conscious. Of course, drawing comparisons with the paragon of any field is always a losing bet. Judged on its own merits, Adventures into the Unknown is actually a terrific purveyor of thrills, as Dark Horse’s new anthology reminds us. Each of the four issues contained in the collection is overstuffed with a variety of tales. Along with the expected one-off originals are pieces based on stories by Horace Walpole and Sir Walter Scott, ones based on famous historical ghost stories, and text tales that trump the similar ones that would later appear on EC’s pages. There’s also an uproarious recurring character called The Living Ghost (one of the series’ many, many generation-spanning ghosts), who inspires one potential victim to shudder, “Brace yourself, Tony… He’s only one part man… the rest is ghost!” What a hoot! The original stories often veer toward the whimsical and really weird, such as the time-traveling “Giants of the Unknown” and the homunculus-populated “Creekmore Curse”.

Nearly as fascinating as the stories are the vintage supplements reproduced throughout this volume: ads for ladies’ wristwatches, weight loss pills, girdles, garters, and a suspiciously vibrating exercise device. Who the hell did they think was reading these comics? The sundry weirdness gets underway with an insightful and very funny essay by Incredible Hulk-writer/illustrator Bruce Jones. He does a great job of encapsulating Adventures into the Unknown’s place in the Horror comics controversy of the ‘50s. Plus, if you ever wondered why this very site is devoted to the seemingly dissimilar subjects of Horror and Rock & Roll, Jones explains it more succinctly than I ever could.

Get Adventures into the Unknown: The Pre-Code Horror Anthology at Amazon.com here:

Monday, June 18, 2012

Paul McCartney’s Ten Greatest Bass Performances!

Paul McCartney is a songwriter and singer of such astounding gifts that it is sometimes easy to overlook what a spectacular bass player he is too. As he turns 70 today, Psychobabble looks back on ten of the greatest four-string performances he contributed to his first band’s body of work.
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1. “Think for Yourself” (1965)

Originally positioned on guitar, Paul McCartney took the role of Beatle bassist when Stuart Sutcliffe resigned in 1961. Though he wasn’t trained on the instrument, his innate sense of melody was present in his work from the words “One, two, three, FAH!” which launched The Beatles’ debut album. McCartney’s early bass work could be quite impressive, especially since he played the Chuck Berry-inspired lines of “I Saw Her Standing There” and the swinging walking pattern of “All My Loving” while singing in perfect pitch. No easy feat. His bass work did not really reach new plateaus until he ditched his hollow Höfner 500/1 for the heavier but more distinct Rickenbacker 4001S. The instrument’s weight may have been the reason Paul passed on the bass when Francis C. Hall of Rickenbacker showed him the model in 1964. The following year, Hall gave his axe another pitch and McCartney bit, possibly because it was now free of charge.

As he continued using the lightweight Höfner on stage to ensure maximum mop-top shaking, McCartney started experimenting with the Rickenbacker in the studio while recording Rubber Soul. There is quite a bit of debate regarding which tracks featured the Höfner and which featured the Rick. It is possible that Paul dubbed both instruments onto George Harrison’s “Think for Yourself”. The track features a standard bassline shadowed by one run through a fuzz box (again, the box is a matter of debate with some insisting that Abbey Road technicians had developed their own pedal and some contending that Paul used a proto-type of the Vox Tonebender). It is quite possible that Paul used the Höfner for the clean, barely detectable line and the Rickenbacker for the more trebly fuzz parts. Some sources claim the fuzz bass is actually a standard six-string Epiphone Casino, but it is unlikely such a guitar could reach the low tones he achieves on “Think for Yourself”. No matter the specifics of its recording, “Think for Yourself” sports a striking bassline that eases the listener through George’s tart chord changes with its uncommon melodic sense.




2. “Rain” (1966)

By the Revolver sessions, Paul had transitioned to the Rickenbacker on nearly every track (he reverted to the Höfner to achieve a soft snore on “I’m Only Sleeping”). Further bass innovation was present in the way the instrument was recorded. New engineer Geoff Emerick schemed to give Paul’s instrument extra push by capturing it through a bass speaker rewired to function as a microphone. The wacky plan was put to the test while cutting the “Paperback Writer”/“Rain” single. It worked, and for the first time, McCartney’s playing really leaps off the vinyl. On both tracks he played almost exclusively at the tippy-top of his bass’ neck, and the high-end notes further distinguished his playing. His work on both tracks is stunning, but its particularly vibrant on “Rain” where he mimics Ringo’s unusually active drumming with acrobatic octave jumps and sudden drizzly garnishes.




3. “Taxman” (1966)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Review: ‘Parallel Lives: Blondie’


For obvious reasons, Blondie was disgusted with their record companies’ decision to market the band by exploiting Debbie Harry’s sexuality. They were equally put off by the “Blondie is a Band” campaign intended to give extraordinary songwriter Chris Stein, brilliant drummer Clem Burke, iconic keyboardist Jimmy Destri, and the rest of the guys their due. They felt the catch phrase drew too much attention to the band’s imbalance of power, which still hasn’t really been resolved some 36 years after their debut album. Take Dick Porter and Kris Needs’s new bio Parallel Lives. The writers clearly sympathize with all the fine musicians who’ve passed through Blondie over the decades, but they just can’t keep their narrative from zooming back to Debbie as a magnet finds steel. With the exception of Stein, the other members of the band largely remain background players to Rock’s most recognizable front woman, because her story remains so unique. From small town Jersey girl to Greenwich village hippie to the voice of the biggest American rock band of the New Wave era to reluctant thirty-something sex symbol to recovering heroin addict and grand dame club kid loath to play the nostalgia game, Debbie Harry has a tale quite unlike most women in Rock. In the ample interviews the writers conducted with her, she displays a refreshingly ego-free perspective on her gargantuan fame, viewing her younger self as a carefully cultivated character named Blondie, while maintaining as down-to-earth a lifestyle offstage as anyone with her history could hope to achieve.

Because Parallel Lives is so Debbie-centric, we sometimes crave more information about non-Debbie matters. Porter and Needs never fully explain Frank Infante’s fall out with the band, which is frustrating because it got so severe that his lawyer once instructed him not to “talk to” or “hit” anyone while filming a music video. In any event, such acrimony is fairly par for the course for a band as successful as Blondie. What isn’t par for the course is the Debbie Harry story, and Dick Porter and Kris Needs fashion a fascinating look at a great Rock band by homing in on the main ingredient that made them great.

Get Parallel Lives: Blondie at Amazon.co.uk here:

Monday, June 11, 2012

Review: ‘Heaven Is in Your Mind’ (mono edition) by Traffic

The release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967 ushered in an era of Rock-album-as-art and brought an end to the one in which British L.P.s were hacked to pieces in the U.S. for purely commercial reasons. Oddly, an exception in this new era was one of its most genuinely artful records, and its pond-crossing alterations were some of the most convoluted. In the U.K., Traffic’s debut was titled Mr. Fantasy, contained no tracks previously released as singles, and favored several solo compositions by guitarist Dave Mason. In the U.S., Heaven Is In Your Mind lost two Mason tracks, both examples of his delightfully naïve and exotic psychedelic pop, and gained the singles “Paper Sun” and “Hole in My Shoe”, as well as “We’re a Fade, You Missed This”. The latter track is a clear attempt to give the U.S. album a sort of Pepper-esque reprise as it is a brief sample of the extended fade from an alternate version of “Paper Sun”. The almost subliminal snatches of the single “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” used to link most of the tracks are also used for conceptual unity. In other words, Mr. Fantasy was butchered in the States for reasons both commercial and artistic. To muddle the story further, the title of the American L.P. was soon changed to Mr. Fantasy, yet the altered track listing remained.

Monkeying with U.K. albums for the U.S. market will always be a controversial practice. For the most part, Americans received inferior products. In some odd cases, they received albums arguably stronger than their purer British counterparts (Rubber Soul, perhaps? The Rolling Stones Now! vs. Rolling Stones No. 2, maybe?). Mr. Fantasy vs. Heaven Is In Your Mind is a bit of a case of “six of one/half dozen of another.” Heaven Is In Your Mind may have trumped Mr. Fantasy had it lost some of its less spectacular tracks, such as the jazzy jam “Giving to You”, but the Mason tracks lopped off it are basically as strong as the two singles included. There’s a specific reason Mason’s tracks were the ones that were sacrificed, though; he’d left the band since its creation, hence his absence from the cover of the U.S. album.

So what Americans were left with was a drastically changed album (the running order was juggled too) that may have been more in tune with the post-Pepper era than the band intended it to be. An odd duck indeed. Questions of purity aside, Heaven is In Your Minds is an excellent product of its time with all the idioms represented. Acoustic psychedelia? Check. Baroque folk? Check. Sweeping psych anthems? Check. Raga rock? Check. Mellotrons and harpsichords and noodling woodwinds and whimsical narration and sitars and the aforementioned reprise and jazz and music hall gestures? Check, check, check, check, check, check, check, and check. There’s also Steve Winwood’s stunning soul wail to tether the sundry celestial debris to the Earth. Lovely stuff.

Sundazed Records has just re-released this American oddity in its even odder mono mix. Sourced from the original masters and remastered with the sensitivity we’ve come to expect from the label, Traffic’s stateside debut sounds better than ever. Get it from Amazon.com here:

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Watch 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1928) on Psychobabble

It may only be early June, but I'm already researching a new series for this coming Halloween season. As part of my work, I finally watched Jean Epstein and Luis Buñuel's 1928 adaptation of "The Fall of the House of Usher". I'll reserve my commentary for October, but I urge you to take a look at one of the most bewitching pieces of hallucinatory Gothic horror of the silent era:

A thousand thanks to the original poster.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Farewell, Ray Bradbury

I had my issues with Ray Bradbury's prose, which is purple as grape Kool-Aid, but not even I can question the man's influence on science-fiction, and more on point for this particular site, horror fiction. Bradbury had such high regard for the written word that the greatest horror he could imagine was its outlawing, and Farenheit 451 still stands as one of the few truly original dystopian novels because its focus is so keen and its resolution is so strangely optimistic. He was also able to locate the terror in more personal matters, such as aging (Something Wicked This Way Comes) and the realization you never really know your partner (the seemingly silly yet utterly terrifying short story "Gotcha!"). Without Bradbury there probably would not have been a "Twilight Zone" or E.C. Comics or, well, "Ray Bradbury Theater". With such a rich life, Bradbury's death at the ripe age of 91 yesterday can't quite be called tragic, but it is sad and he will be missed.

Review: ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Reconstruction’

In 1985, Philip J. Riley began doing his part in the film preservation movement with London After Midnight: A Reconstruction, a literary attempt to piece together Lon Chaney’s long lost vampire(ish) film from 1927. Three years later, he turned his sites on another Chaney classic. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is hardly a lost film, however the version with which we are familiar today is quite different from the one released in 1923. That original 35mm print was some 10 or 15 minutes longer than the 16mm copy currently available and included scenes of Quasimodo bringing Esmeralda a winged gift and Jehan’s dalliance with black magic, as well as numerous extra sequences involving Clopin. Although that footage is apparently gone, Riley did his best to recreate the original print by supplementing the heavily notated shooting script with production stills. That’s what makes The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Reconstruction historically important. What makes it fun are the numerous additional baubles, most notably the film’s original program reprinted in its entirety and a charming remembrance from Esmeralda–portrayer Patsy Ruth Miller. BearManor Media’s republication of Riley’s 1988 volume is supplemented with a new introductory note by the author that includes a lengthy excerpt from The Strongman, the autobiography of stuntman Joe Bonomo, who performed Quasimodo’s incredible acrobatic feats.

Get The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Reconstruction at Amazon.com here:

Monday, June 4, 2012

Psychobabble’s Sixteen Greatest Post-‘Pepper’ Albums of 1967

The influence of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was immediate. In February of 1967, the single release of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, a track recorded at the very beginning of the album’s sessions, revealed just how far The Beatles were taking studio possibilities. Brian Wilson was apparently so devastated by the record that he started having second thoughts about his own SMiLE, an album he partially conceived as a riposte to The Beatles’ recent experimentation and one that may have been the record of 1967 had he completed it. Less paranoid artists took healthier inspiration from “Strawberry Fields” and tales of The Beatles’ studio exploits. Such Pepper-esque platters as Their Satanic Majesties Request and Axis: Bold as Love were underway even before the June 1st release of Sgt. Pepper’s. Tellingly, several others— Forever Changes, After Bathing at Baxter’s, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, LTD.—were started in June. Some were created in parallel, as fellow Abbey Road occupiers Pink Floyd and The Pretty Things took much inspiration from the sounds bleeding beneath The Beatles’ door (and vice versa, for sure). Brian Wilson’s meltdown notwithstanding, the one-upmanship was healthy, and a great deal of great music was born throughout those magical post-Pepper months of 1967. Here are Sixteen of the best.

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(Release dates in parentheses were mostly pulled from Wikipedia, which means it may be wise to take them with a grain of salt.)

16. Buffalo Springfield Again by Buffalo Springfield (10/30/67)
The Buffalo Springfield sound may have been laid back, but relationships in the band were anything but. Neil Young was always a mercurial cat, and his constant comings and disappearances made the recording of the band’s second album tense. Stephen Stills and the rest couldn’t complain too much, though, because when Young did show up, he always pushed the band into the challenging territory that kept them from getting left behind in the post-Pepper age. The three songs he brought to Buffalo Springfield Again are the album’s most audacious tracks, and each one is totally different from the other: the raging “Mr. Soul”, the dreamy and uplifting “Expecting to Fly”, and the fractured, avant-garde puzzle “Broken Arrow”. Instead of trying to compete with Young’s wild imagination, Stills kept up by doing some of his best work in his established folk-rock style, particularly “Bluebird” and “Rock & Roll Woman”. Richie Furay’s work is more varied as he dabbles in country, soul, and jazz, but really, it is Neil Young who makes Buffalo Springfield Again a work of art.  15. Revolution! by Paul Revere and the Raiders (August 1967)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Coffin-Load of Universal Horrors are Coming to NYC's Film Forum!

This year marks the 100th Anniversary of Universal Pictures, and the Film Forum in NYC is well aware of the studio's status as the finest purveyor of horrors in cinema history. This July and August, the Forum will be rolling out the very best of Universal Horror, both golden-age monster movies and later classics from heavyweights like Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Carpenter. The program also offers some non-horror greats like The Incredible Shrinking Man, Cape Fear, Touch of Evil, Shadow of a Doubt, and E.T., so the entire schedule is worth a look. For those of you who demand horror, horror, and nothing more, here's the run down of all the creature features scheduled:

Frankenstein (July 12)
Dracula (July 12)
The Phantom of the Opera (July 12)
The Birds (July 20)
Jaws (July 21)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (July 22)
John Carpenter's The Thing (July 23)
The Man Who Laughs (July 24)
Bride of Frankenstein (July 27)
The Black Cat (July 27)
It Came from Outer Space (July 27)
The Wolf Man (July 29, 30)
The Invisible Man (July 29, 30)
The Mummy (July 29, 30)
Son of Dracula (August 3)
Jurassic Park (August 4)
Dracula (Spanish Language Version) (August 8)

Learn more about tickets and showtimes at Film Forum.org.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Much to its benefit, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is no longer unanimously regarded as the greatest album ever made. As undeniably influential as it is, it’s not even the best Beatles album, let alone the best album, period. There’s too much of an emphasis on oompah beats, and a few of the songs are fairly slight (“Fixing a Hole”, “Goodmorning Goodmorning”, “She’s Leaving Home”, “Within You Without You”). For all the album’s supposed innovation, there isn’t much on it that The Beatles hadn’t already done. We’d already heard the brass that permeates the record on “Got to Get You Into My Life” and “Yellow Submarine”. “Within You, Without You” revisits the raga rock of “Love You To” without the vital aggression. The tape loops of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” sound tame after “Tomorrow Never Knows”. “She’s Leaving Home” is “Eleanor Rigby” with more musicians and a less interesting lyric. Etcetera, etcetera.
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Held up to reasonable standards, Sgt. Pepper’s is a great album, and even those aforementioned slight songs are pretty terrific, each displaying the group’s lyrical sophistication and George Martin’s production genius. The great songs—of which there are many—are excellently executed in every respect. The title track squashes accusations that the album is devoid of good, old-fashioned Rock & Roll, even if it does veer off into big band pomp. “With a Little Help From My Friends” is another great vehicle for Ringo, and its genial message is tarted up with enough Lennon cynicism to avoid saccharine sentimentality. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” projects Lennon’s most endearingly whimsical pictures over magically serene verses and hard-rocking, sing-a-long choruses (and Kurt Cobain thought The Pixies invented LOUD-quiet-LOUD). “Getting Better” seems like the record’s most straightforward track, until we notice the intrusion of Indian tamburas on the simple four-piece rock-band arrangement and the complex lyrical back-and-forth between McCartney and Lennon. “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “Lovely Rita” are fanciful, colorful character sketches, and two of the album’s most underrated and rousing numbers. “A Day in the Life” is its most rightfully lauded; an apocalyptic finale that crushes the album’s preceding onslaught of escapist whimsy under a hobnail boot of depressing headlines, mundane commuting, acoustic weariness, terrifying orchestral crescendos, and one of the longest single-note fades on record. It also proves that The Beatles still had plenty of genuinely revolutionary tricks up their satin sleeves. As we shall see in Monday’s post, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band blew the possibilities of pop record-making wide open, but when all the hyperbolic hoopla inevitably faded, we were still left with a collection of excellent Beatle songs.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released 45 years ago today.

Peruse Psychobabble's Twelve Greatest Pre-‘Pepper’ Albums of 1967...

See Psychobabble's Sixteen Greatest Post-‘Pepper’ Albums of 1967...
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