Monday, March 31, 2014

Review: Mono Vinyl Reissues of Harry Nilsson's 'Pandemonium Shadow Show' and 'Aerial Ballet'


At the very, very end of the hallucinogenic year of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Rock’s Pied Piper released an album so radical it inspired all of his underlings to abandon their sitars and Mellotrons and get back to Rock & Roll’s rustic roots. Dylan’s John Wesley Harding actually wasn’t that radical considering that Rock & Roll had always been cyclical and always would be. It was inevitable that someone would eventually lead the pack away from psychedelic fads (in fact, Dylan’s album wasn’t really even the first back-to-the roots record of late ’67; The Beach Boys’ Wild Honey was).

For a truly radical late-1967 album, check out Harry Nilsson’s RCA debut, Pandemonium Shadow Show. It’s as psychedelic and as rootsy as a Stephen Sondheim musical, yet it houses trappings of both pre-and-post John Wesley Harding pop. Nilsson’s cover of The Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That” encapsulates this perfectly by quoting a dozen tracks by the kings of psychedelia to a back porch rhythm section of acoustic guitar and bongos. Nilsson mapped out a totally individual pop approach by tarting up such unfashionable styles as jazz, lounge, olde tyme brass band, and Broadway with wiseass humor. He made it more than mere novelty by interpreting this material with a truly gorgeous voice, often laid down in blankets of flawless overdubbed harmony. Even tarter, he undercuts all the offhand satire with “1941”, a stark, breath-snatching piece about the daddy issues that haunted his life and work.
           
This topic plops down at the very start of Nilsson’s second RCA album, 1968’s Aerial Ballet, as “Daddy’s Song” (later made famous by The Monkees in their movie Head, leading him from cutting the track from second pressings of Aerial Ballet). Despite the ironically light approach of this track, the rest of the album is less comic than Pandemonium Shadow Show and more of a personal artistic statement. The previous album had been evenly divided between covers and Nilsson originals. The new one only contained a single cover, a version of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” that ended up being its most well-known track when John Schlesinger used it in Midnight Cowboy. Nilsson’s own composition “One” would be an even bigger hit when covered by Three Dog Night the following year.


Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet are both lovely, melancholically funny, and emotionally tender records, and both were released just as mono was falling out of favor, leaving the stereo mixes far more common. Sundazed Records has unearthed the mono versions for new 180 gram vinyl reissues produced with all due love, respect, and authenticity (even the RCA label’s are retained). Two of the most unique records of the late sixties are now more unique than ever.


Get Harry Nilsson’s Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet on Amazon.com here:

Friday, March 28, 2014

Review: 'The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters'


You know you’re not reading a typical encyclopedia when it starts with a quote from Bugs Bunny. Nevertheless, The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters earns its name, covering an array of fantastic creatures in a single, monstrous 625-page volume. Editor Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock whittled his initial list of 1,000 monsters down to about 200, but because some of those entries are very wide-ranging (Animals, Monstrous; Bible, Monsters in The; Women, Monstrous) Weinstock’s contributors check a lot more than 200 off the list. With that multitude of contributors comes a multitude of approaches, some more successful than others, to studying creatures from Angel to Zombie. Some of the most pervasive monsters— Demon, Extraterrestrial, Ghost, Witch/Wizard—comprise a sizeable chunk of the book with multiple contributors exhaustively detailing how they have been portrayed in books, films, TV shows, comics,  and games throughout world history. Some get more attention than they deserve (Brownie is a slightly longer entry than Devil, The, Dracula, or Frankenstein’s Monster). At least one of the most essential and influential monsters—Hyde, Edward—is absurdly short-changed, the most essential and influential of his films—Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation— not receiving any mention at all. Some entries are little more than lists of books and films with microscopic synopses and little in the way of historical background or analysis (Death, Personified, for example).

Most entries, however, strike a strong balance between the histories, insightful analyses, and lists of examples we expect of an authoritative encyclopedia. There are no significant absences and plenty to discover in the way of relatively unfamiliar creatures, such as Devil-Bug, the monster doorman from George Lippard’s The Monks of Monk Hall, the soothsaying Donestre of the Middle Ages, the child-killing Empousa of ancient Greek folklore, the world-creating ocean goddess Tiamat, a big Kosher bird called Ziz, and Kappa, a goofy-looking Japanese swamp monster that pulls kids’ internal organs out through their butts.

Get The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters at Amazon.com here:


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review: 'Batman: The Silver Age Dailies and Sundays 1966-1967'


Batman has existed in a swarm of guises. He’s been a comic book and a campy live-action TV series and a Saturday morning cartoon and a Mego action figure and more than one movie franchise. One of the guy’s lesser-discussed incarnations is his turn as a newspaper comic strip. Batman first popped up in your local paper in 1943, only lasting there a few years before flapping back to the funny books. He had more success during his return run from 1966 to 1970 thanks to Adam West and Burt Ward.

At first the black & white daily and full-color Sunday strips skipped in the TV show’s boot prints quite faithfully. They were zany, funny, corny, campy, peppered with “special guest stars,” and very much of their time. You could see Batman examining a parrot’s rap sheet, foiling a quartet of crooks “dressed in extreme mod fashion,” bumping and grinding with Poison Ivy at a discotheque, opening a hotel with Conrad Hilton, or standing aside while Jack Benny punches a gorilla. He faced off against all of the series’ most memorable fiends: the Joker, Cat Woman, the Penguin, and even the Riddler, who always enjoyed more exposure on the screen than on the page. Then halfway through 1967, the newspaper strip started to shift back to the caped crusader’s more serious side with an epic, winding eight-month storyline that found Batgirl discovering Batman’s secret identity after he loses his memory when Blue Max nearly kills him.

Reading these strips in the first of The Library of American Comics/IDW’s new omnibus series, Batman: The Silver Age Dailies and Sundays, it’s hard to imagine reading the measly three-panels doled out from Monday to Saturday back in the sixties. Whether they’re daffy or dark, these stories demand to be read continuously. As written by Whitney Ellsworth and illustrated by Sheldon Moldoff, Joe Giella, and on a few occasions, the legendary Carmine Infantino (though always credited to Bob Kane), they are as strong as the stories appearing in the Batman comic books of the day. The Silver Age Dailies and Sundays 1966-1967 is the ideal presentation in every imaginable way, compiling the tales in a much more readable fashion than they originally received. The daily stories were independent of the Sunday ones through 1966. In this new book, those particular Sunday stories are grouped together without interruption. It is also a splendidly designed hardcover with ribbon-strip bookmark. The pages are heavy stock and the color Sundays are recreated flawlessly without digital alterations. There’s also a nice splash of additional memorabilia—ads, comic book covers, stills from the TV series, press kit materials, etc.—among Joe Desris’s introductory chapter and the storyline annotations that close the book.

Get Batman: The Silver Age Dailies and Sundays 1966-1967 at Amazon.com here:

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: 'Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career'


By the fourth quarter of the twentieth century, TV had overtaken movies as America’s number one entertainment for good, so it is fitting that the number one moviemaker of that period got his start on the little screen. Steven Spielberg was a TV junkie who’d made his name directing episodes of “Marcus Welby, M.D.”, “Columbo”, and most famously, “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery” when he was still barely old enough to drink. In 1971, he got his first break into feature-length movie making, though Duel was consigned to his usual living room-based medium. Spielberg’s ABC movie-of-the-week adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story, however, revealed a big screen talent. This brutally minimalistic showdown between a suburban schlub and a literal monster truck was filmed with all the consideration and imagination of a major motion picture. That may not sound like a big deal in the day of “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones”, but it was completely revolutionary in an age when TV movies were low-budget, disposable filler between episodes of “The Brady Bunch” and “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”. In fact, Duel was so high quality that it earned a critically smashing feature run in Europe. Spielberg’s career as a TV director was coming to an end.

Duel is not generally mentioned among Spielberg’s signature films, but based on this above brief history, I’m sure you’ll understand its significance. If you need any further convincing, check out Steven Awalt’s excellent new book Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career. Awalt gets deep into this film’s creation, from the inspiration for and publication of Matheson’s story to the film’s eventual American theatrical run in 1983 in the wake of Spielberg’s domination of cinemas with E.T. The history is complete, amusing (the “casting” of the automobiles is documented here, as is the Incredible Hulk’s theft of Duel footage), critical (though mostly of Awalt’s fellow Duel theorists), and often just as thrilling as the film it details. The author relates Matheson’s near-death experience that inspired his tale and Spielberg’s boyhood short movie about a head-on collision between model trains with a master storyteller’s grasp of suspense. He also really emphasizes the importance of master storyteller Richard Matheson in this history. Because Duel is so significant a milestone in Spielberg’s career, Matheson’s major role in its creation is often minimized. Not so in this book, which also contains that writer’s complete teleplay for his and Spielberg’s film. So this book functions as both an informative—and very entertaining—resource for students of Spielberg and a nice tribute to the recently deceased Richard Matheson.

Get Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career on Amazon.com here:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Psychobabble Babbles with Robert Rodriguez About The Beatles' 'Solo Years'!


As the author of Fab Four FAQ, Fab Four FAQ 2.0: The Solo Years, The Beatles: Fifty Fabulous Years, and Revolver: How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll, Robert Rodriguez has emerged as one of the foremost Beatles scholars of the twenty-first century. His obsession continues in his podcast with fellow Fab Four freak Richard Buskin (Days in the Life: The Lost Beatles Archives; Beatles 101: The Need-to-Know Guide; Beatle Crazy! Memories and Memorabilia) and his most recent book, Solo in the 70s: John, Paul, George, Ringo 1970-1980, which fills in the cracks of Fab Four FAQ 2.0 with a feast of information on Beatles bootlegs released in the ’70s, songs they covered as solo artists and solo songs covered by others, their promotional films, studio collaborators, legal entanglements, and business associates, as well as an immersive 165-page timeline that places their solo achievements into historical context. Solo in the 70s is the first title on Robert’s new imprint ParadingPress (you are a true Beatles fan if you suss why he chose that name). He is also the creator of Backbeat Books’ FAQ series, of which my own upcoming book The Who FAQ is a part. So thanks again, Robert, for helping me get that job and thanks for Psychobabbling with me here on Psychobabble!

Psychobabble: I have the attention span of a housefly, and about halfway through writing The Who FAQ I started getting a little antsy with writing about the same band every day. You, however, have really committed to being a Beatles scholar, writing five books on them to date and conducting the ongoing Something About The Beatles Podcast. Do you ever find yourself with a serious Beatles hangover?

Robert Rodriguez: Well, it does sometimes blow people's minds when I only half-facetiously say that The Beatles aren't even my favorite band. I'm only partly kidding about that: while there are other artists whose work I enjoy equally as much, there aren't many that I have been so driven to explore in such depth as these guys. But when you've written five books on the same subject – something I never set out to do, by the way – there's often a presumption that that's all you live and breathe, 24/7. Or that my house is completely tricked out with Beatles, as far as the eye can see. No and no.
 Guess Who's one of Robert's other favorite bands.

Now obviously, you cannot steep yourself in The Beatles' history as long and as deeply as I have and not come away feeling like you would toward members of your own family: you always love them but you don't always like them. I think that the capacity for keeping a critical distance helps my ability to do what I do, processing their work analytically and not purely emotionally. It keeps the writing honest, and the readers deserve no less. That said, as John Lennon once noted, you don't fall in love intellectually. So I am quite sure that there are any number of things that I am fond of within their body of work that may strike people as indefensible. I'll cop to that!

A cool question came up the other day at the end of a podcast taping, one we'll probably address on a future show: if you could only listen to either Beatles music, or solo Beatles music, on a desert island for the remainder of your days, which would it be? Without hesitation, I said solo, which drew an incredulous response. Why would I want to listen to songs I already know inside and out, forever? That would be like reading the same twelve books over and over again: no matter how good they are, sooner or later the mystery tends to dissipate, you know what I mean? The Beatles group catalog has been inescapable – it's everywhere, and I am one of those people that will just as likely turn the dial if a Beatle song comes on.

The solo body of work, though – that's a whole other thing. Notwithstanding the fact that there's so much more of it, even my favorite solo albums are still fresher to me personally than The Beatles product. And I haven't even explored every single one in depth yet, truth be told.

So to circle back to your original question: while I may not listen to their stuff all the time, the story and the history I always find compelling. Especially the post-sixties era, which is at once so intriguing and less familiar.

PB: I imagine that there’s more to sink your teeth into with the solo years since there’s more to criticize.

RR: Well, there's that. The whole aspect of the period being unrelentingly fascinating, as well as – to a certain degree - uncharted territory and therefore, a challenge. It's one that I think the free-standing chapters as a structure is very well suited to. I hold onto the hope that no one that reads the book can come away thinking that they have a handle on who my favorite ex-Beatle is: I tried to diss them all equally!

Seriously though, contrasted with covering The Beatles as a group, I think that there's a natural tendency to look for patterns and some sort of arc. We find that when studying The Beatles, a subject whose story is already so familiar. When I was researching the Revolver book, the only real preconception I had was that it was on an undeniably higher artistic level as an achievement than was the much-lauded Sgt. Pepper – especially as a group effort. It was therefore striking to me to step back and see that it not only represented their high-water mark, but it came precisely at their half life: three years after Please Please Me and three years before Abbey Road. It was the end of the four-headed monster and the marking of group dominance passing from John to Paul.

Studying this first post-Beatles decade, one looks for similar patterns. Now George had been on an upward trajectory at least as far back as 1968 in terms of developing as an individual artist, outside The Beatles paradigm. I do believe that once he achieved world validation as this talent who had been hiding in plain sight all these years, he no longer tried as hard. It was as if once the world gave him the recognition that John and Paul had denied him, on some level he felt he'd done it and thereafter, made music for his own satisfaction, mostly. The achievement that was All Things Must Pass completely overshadowed the 1970 debuts of all three of his ex-bandmates.

John had been asserting his independence from The Beatles with his outside excursions well before the official split. I don't mean the experimental stuff with Yoko, but the Plastic Ono Band stuff. “Instant Karma” is as solid a piece of work as any of the singles the group issued during their final few years. But I do think that on some level, John missed facing a direct competition from Paul the way he had when they were in the same band. They paid close attention to each other's work, especially during those early years, but at the same time, they failed to recognize that what made The Beatles The Beatles was that in-house challenge they had to try harder. Furthermore, their respective spouses were, as George Martin was quick to point out, no substitute for what they had in each other.

Assuming that as artists they had in mind the goal of continuous growth and not repeating themselves, I think that they really could have benefited by, at the very least, putting themselves in the company of someone on their artistic level. I really don't think that studio session players, Elephants Memory or the members of Wings really qualify. At least – during that brief shining moment known as the “lost weekend” – John was intuitively seeking out other successful artists to work with: Nilsson, Bowie, Elton, Mick Jagger. He should have done more of that: found people to challenge him. Look at who George worked with, in comparison: Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Gary Wright, the Dominoes, Leon Russell – all artists that had their own identities. It could not help but raise his game.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Review: 'A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock'


Although Thomas Leitch and Leland Poague don’t dare say as much in their introduction to A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock, they certainly seemed to have compiled their essay anthology to be a sort of final word on Hitchcock scholarship. Now this is no more likely than the idea that Mark Lewisohn’s sprawling All These Years series will put an end to Beatles books, but there is a similar sweeping scope to A Companion that could keep a lot of students from bothering with another Hitchcock study.


Our two editors are well aware of all the other anthologies on the market and selected their essays accordingly. There have already been ample discussions of Hitchcock’s macguffins and his storyboarding and his theories about suspense vs. surprise and his cynicism, misogyny, and so on. Any new volume can only serve its purpose by approaching this well-exhausted topic in fresh ways without overreaching. A satisfying number of the thirty essays contained in A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock accomplish that, as when Lesley Brill counters the usual accusations of cynicism by convincingly repainting Hitchcock as a romantic both in his treatment of love and his charming reliance on fairy tale structure. Richard Allen reaches beyond the usual noir suspects to look at the director’s influence on less recognized followers, such as Last Year at Marienbad, Blow Up, The Tenant, Something Wild, and Jurassic Park. In general, the writers also do a decent job of looking beyond the most over-analyzed Hitchcock films (Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, etc., which are well-represented here too) and into such relative obscurities as The Pleasure Garden, I Confess, and The Lodger, making for a fuller picture of his work than we often receive.  Teachers and students alike will find much to keep themselves busy in A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock... at least until the next heavy-duty study of his work arrives.

Get A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock at Amazon.com here:

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Beatles are Coming... from the Criterion Collection! Pre-order Now!

Huge news for fans of the highest quality home video and the highest quality pop... on June 24th, the Criterion Collection will be having its way with A Hard Day's Night, and it's ready to pre-order now here.Although The Beatles' first film, one of the very best pop movies ever made, has already seen DVD and blu-ray release, it has not seen it like this...here are the specs straight from criterion.com:

  • New 4K digital film restoration, approved by director Richard Lester, with two audio options—a monaural soundtrack and a new 5.1 surround soundtrack made by Apple Records—presented in uncompressed monaural and DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray (dual
  • Audio commentary featuring various members of the film’s cast and crew (dual-format only)
  • In Their Own Voices, a new piece combining interviews with the Beatles from 1964 with behind-the-scenes footage and photos
  • You Can’t Do That: The Making of “A Hard Day’s Night,” a 1994 documentary program by producer Walter Shenson
  • Things They Said Today, a 2002 documentary about the film featuring Lester, music producer George Martin, writer Alun Owen, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, and others (dual-format only)
  • New piece about Lester’s early work, featuring a new audio interview with the director (dual-format only)
  • The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film(1959), Lester’s Oscar-nominated short featuring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan (dual-format only)
  • Anatomy of a Style, a new piece on Lester’s approach to editing (dual-format only)
  • New interview with Mark Lewisohn, author of Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years—Volume One (dual-format only)
  • Deleted scene (dual-format only)
  • Trailers
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Howard Hampton
  • More!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: Flicker Alley's 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' blu-ray


Regardless of the political implications of deeming Quasimodo—a disfigured human (though hardly a disabled one—the guy has more gymnastic skills than Mary Lou Retton)—a monster, there’s no question that Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame launched the Universal Monster age. And while the title characters’ monstrousness may be in question, the film’s horror element is not. None of its genre peers are as horrifically violent; none display such acts of cruelty—from the torture Quasimodo and his unattainable love Esmeralda suffer to his crazed molten lead retaliation against their would-be captors. Yet this is also a film of stark compassion and mercy, best conveyed by the divine Lon Chaney’s expression when Esmeralda gives him a drink after his whipping.

Mastered from a multi-tint 16mm print struck from the original negative, Flicker Alley’s new blu-ray edition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame gives us what will likely be the clearest details of Chaney’s nuanced performance we’ll see. Not that it will fool you into thinking it was filmed last week. Scratches and artifacts are pervasive. I don’t doubt that this 16mm print is beyond complete restoration, but I wonder if more could have been done about some of those blemishes. Nevertheless, compared to the utterly unwatchable reprints proliferating public domain collections, this improvement is striking. I’m not sure how marked the improvement is over Image Entertainment’s “Ultimate Edition” DVD from 2007 (which runs 117 minutes versus this blu-ray’s 110—additional speed correction could account for the time difference), but I do know that most of that edition’s extras reappear on Flicker Alley’s, including Robert Israel’s elegant realization of Donald Hunsberger’s compiled score, Chaney biographer Michael F. Blake’s audio commentary, stills galleries (sans the DVD’s 3-D content), and a short film of Chaney on set in his street clothes. The major new edition is the surviving thirteen minutes of Joseph De Grasse’s charming 1915 fairy tale Alas and Alack, in which Chaney briefly appears as a hunchback.

Get The Hunchback of Notre Dame on blu-ray at Amazon.com here:


Friday, March 14, 2014

Review: 'The People’s Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Songs'


I subsist on a pretty steady diet of books about pop music because I like to help Psychobabble’s dear, dear pop-obsessed readers make informed book purchases and because I’m a pop-obsessed reader too. Yet reading book after book after book after book and The Beatles, Stones, Who, and so forth, I do crave an invigorating break from the norm, something that ventures beyond the usual bio, day-by-day diary, or song analysis.

Stuart Maconie mostly hits the spot with The People’s Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Songs based on his BBC 2 radio series. Each chapter uses a particular very popular song (not necessarily a critically acclaimed one) as an entry way into discussing a particular aspect of British culture or history from World War II to the present. I say mostly because some of these chapters are typical of pop books. A number of them cover familiar territory by address specific music genres: prog (under the auspices of Tull’s “Living in the Past), psychedelia (Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”), skiffle (Lonnie Donegan’s version of “Rock Island Line”), disco (The Bee Gee’s “You Should Be Dancing”), metal (“Sabbath’s “Paranoid”), goth (The Cure’s “The Love Cats”… an atypically jolly example of the genre), etc.

The People’s Songs really gets interesting when it deals with Britain’s story beyond pop music, when Maconie sets an exploration of the country’s Jamaican community on the shoulders of Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop”, uses Bowie’s “Starman” and Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” as examples of homosexuality’s mainstreaming in a country where it had been outlawed as recently as 1967, establishes Wings’ “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” as a platform for a talk about The Troubles or Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” as one for the Falklands War. Throughout it all, Maconie presents himself as the people’s writer, chatting humorously, entertainingly, evenhandedly, and mostly informatively across all topics. This time I’m using mostly because there are a few lazy errors that may flag others I’m too ignorant to recognize. For example, he repeats the myth that the Stones were playing “Sympathy for the Devil” when Meredith Hunter was murdered at Altamont, when any of the band’s fans can tell you they were really doing “Under My Thumb”. More significantly, he partly includes The Tornadoes’ “Telstar” in his book for being the first British single to hit number one in the States when that distinction actually belongs to Mr. Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore”.

One might reasonably argue that a few boners like that are acceptable in a book so busting with information, so broad in its musical and cultural scope. For serious pop book readers, it may be the only one that gets you skimming through the chapter built around The Beatles’ “She Loves You” and sharpening your focus to read about how The Shamen’s house-music triffle “Ebeneezer Goode” became a lightning rod for a government crackdown against rave culture.

Get The People’s Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Songs at Amazon.com in hardback nowor pre-order the paperback here:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Kiddie Book Coming from Grampa Keef

Considering the massive critical and commercial success of his autobiography Life and the problems during last year's tour with The Rolling Stones, it's no surprise that Keith Richards has decided to pen another book. The content may be a bit more surprising. It won't be the drugs, jail, and Rock & Roll story he has already told in Life; it will be the "my first guitar story" he already told in Life, and he's aiming it at your children. With illustrations by his daughter Theodora, Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar will be about about how Keith's jazzbo grandpa set him on his life's path by giving him his first guitar. Gus & Me will be arriving from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on September 9. 

That's it. You can look elsewhere for hilarious comments about how his next book will be called Exile on Sesame Street or Harry the Littlest Heroin Syringe or whatever. This post is over.


Review: The Criterion Edition of 'The Hidden Fortress"


Considering the scope and scale of his films, it’s a little surprising that Akira Kurosawa didn’t explore widescreen—oops, I mean “Toho Scope”—until 1958’s The Hidden Fortress, a film that often fills the frame with vast, vacant vistas of sand and rock. That just makes us concentrate all the more on the four characters who are Kurosawa’s real interests. From the bottom of the class system are Tahei and Mataschichi (Minori Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara), a couple of greedy, endlessly scheming, and totally inept peasants. They want to score big by capturing the missing Princess Yuki Akizuki (Misa Uehara) and serving her up to the enemy that put a price on her head. Tahei and Mataschichi don’t realize she’s already in their company, masquerading as a mute girl under the watch of stern General Rokurōta (the ever awesome Toshiro Mifune). As the quartet traverse inhospitable landscapes and foes, there is much action and more comedic hijinks than you’ll find in any other Kurosawa picture, thanks to Chiaki and Fujiwara’s cartoonish capering. But this is still a Kurosawa movie and darkness pervades. Although the peasants are ostensibly comedic figures, they’re also really, really rotten, at one point drawing straws to decide who gets to rape the sleeping princess. While classism does play a role in the seedy portrayal of the peasants, their so-called betters can also be grey figures, as when the upstanding Rokurōta allows his own sister to be beheaded in the princess’ stead and doesn’t express nearly as much grief about it as she does. On the flip side, a character introduced as wholly villainous is also capable of noble heroism at a moment when he really seems to have gone completely down the dark path.

Kurosawa hadn’t made a big crowd pleaser since The Seven Samurai four years earlier, and this was his idea of a bit of good old entertainment. Indeed, The Hidden Fortress often is great fun even as the characters’ immorality or moral complexities make for uneasy fun. In fact, these days the film’s biggest claim to fame is that it was a major inspiration for the ultimate fun flick. George Lucas based R2-D2 and C-3PO of Star Wars on Tahei and Mataschichi. Wisely, Lucas didn’t have his droids contemplate raping anyone though.

As film historian Stephen Prince points out in his commentary on Criterion’s new blu-ray/DVD combo of The Hidden Fortress, the film was also highly influenced by and influential on American Westerns, which should also give extra inkling of its action-focused entertainment value. Prince’s commentary is the most significant new extra of this upgrade. The Hidden Fortress was one of Criterion’s early titles. This new blu-ray edition enjoys a 2K digital upgrade and the picture looks fabulous and blemish-free. Old features include the Hidden Fortress episode of the terrific 2003 series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create”, which features interviews with the filmmaker as well as numerous cast and crew members, and an interview with George Lucas, who like Prince, plays down the direct influence Kurosawa’s film had on his. I’m not sure I agree that the influence was so slight, though, and I’ll admit that some of the fun of watching The Hidden Fortress is spotting the details that would play a part in Star Wars.

Get The Hidden Fortress on Blu-ray/DVD on Amazon.com here:


Monday, March 10, 2014

Turn Left at Greenland, Part 3: ‘The Beatles Second Album’


In this monthly feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been looking at how The Beatles were presented on long-playing vinyl in the United States.

Not even three months passed between the releases of The Beatles first and second LPs on Capitol. During that time they’d dug their Cuban heels deep in American soil by rocking “The Ed Sullivan Show” for 73 million viewers on February 9, 1964.  On March 2, they started shooting their first feature film, which would ultimately prove the guys’ prowess across media. So would John Lennon’s book of fanciful gobbledygook, In His Own Write, published March 23, and selling a reported 90,000 copies in the U.S. in its first print. During that period, American shops were flooded with Beatles merchandise licensed by Brian Epstein’s Seltaeb merchandising company and otherwise: shirts and suits and badges and dolls and wigs. With such mad demand for anything and everything Beatles, one could hardly expect Capitol to keep its latest and hugest property in reserve—certainly not when all this Beatlemania hoo-ha would likely flash out as quickly as it stormed in. Bundling up the five leftover covers from With The Beatles that didn’t make it to Meet The Beatles!, both sides of their second U.S. number one single, side B of their third one, side B of their third UK single, and Side A of the as yet unreleased Long Tall Sally EP (marking the first time fresh Beatles material would reach the states before Britain), Capitol’s Dave Dexter, Jr., had enough material for an all new hodgepodge at the ready.

It took a lot of raw material to make The Beatles Second Album

The ever-so imaginatively titled The Beatles Second Album showed all the signs of its hasty assembly. It is the first U.S. album with no UK equivalent (though certainly not the last). For the first and final time, covers would outnumber originals on LP. The five originals are all strong—and at least “She Loves You” and “You Can’t Do That” are monumental—but the fact that John is the prominent voice on all of them, and the sole composer of two (“You Can’t Do That” and “I Call Your Name”), sketches an imbalanced picture. Today The Second Album feels like a dry run for Rock & Roll Music, half of its tracks finding a home on Capitol’s double-LP compilation of 1976. There is none of the stylistic variety of Please Please Me, With The Beatles, or Meet The Beatles! this time; no show tunes, no light ballads. The B-side “I’ll Get You” provides a moment of relative respite, though with a chorus trembling on the precipice of feverishness, it’s hardly another “P.S. I Love You” or “Till There was You”. The Miracles cover “You Really Got a Hold on Me” is even slower and more melancholic, but this time Lennon does not hold the reins on his full fire, shouting with the desperation he expressed on his rockers. So as Meet The Beatles! showcased John, Paul and George as new pop craftsmen, The Second Album celebrates them as house-burning rock and rollers worthy of stomping in the steps of Chuck Berry, Barrett Strong, and Little Richard. While I personally feel its preponderance of covers makes it a bit less interesting than Meet, Second has its share of devotees, inspiring AllMusic’s Bruce Elder to declare it The Beatles’ “best pure rock & roll album.” Back in the nineties, future U.S. Albums notator, Bill Flanagan, pleaded with Neil Aspinall to release it—if no other Capitol album— on CD. The head of Apple Corps. apparently never even heard of the album, scoffing, “You mean Capitol actually put out an LP called The Beatles Second Album?” No one has ever defended that lazy title.

If anything reins in The Beatles Second Album, it is Dexter’s usual monkeying with the sound. One interesting, and rather nice, addition is the extra blasts of harmonica edited into “Thank You Girl”. The additional harmonica contributes additional color to this joyous pop rocker. Otherwise, the alterations are indefensible. The tracks are more trebly. The immediacy of most is muddied with Dexter’s beloved reverb. The cowbell on “I Call Your Name” makes an early entry. Their original tapes lost or stolen, “I’ll Get You” and “She Loves You” were not available for stereo remixing, so fake stereo had to suffice. “You Can’t Do That” is slowed down rather painfully (the UK mix falls squarely in the key of G; the U.S. one falls in the crack between F# and G). This had to have been a mistake made in haste; even one as blinkered as Dexter could not have thought such sluggishness a more commercial “improvement.” Well, at least he didn’t shuffle The Beatles’ fiery originals with a bunch of Muzak instrumentals. That wouldn’t happen for another two whole months when United Artists Records got in on the free-for-all, further jumbling The Beatles’ presentation in the U.S.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review: 'Vamps et Vampire: The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg'


With a rep for being a droll smut-peddler who reveled in misogynistic objectification, Serge Gainsbourg was an unlikely savior for the female singers of sixties French pop. Yet, that is basically what he did when he gave the cheerfully innocent France Gall some dirty double-entendres to chirp and played into Francois Hardy’s darker persona with songs of melancholic doubt that revealed the poetic complexities of his writing.

Ace Records’ new compilation, Vamps et Vampire: The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg, gives ample airing to the variety in the man’s music as voiced by some of the many women who’ve interpreted it. For such singers, doing a Serge song was a fast track to scoring a hit and a bit of edge. Not every singer on this 25-track compilation fully grasps the Gainsbourg way, and this can be particularly apparent when they cover songs he also recorded in his sneering, Gitanes-stained croon. France Gall’s hit version of “Les Sucettes” is a Disney soundtrack cast-off compared to Serge’s sexed-up psychedelia. That probably only makes her version more subversive, which no doubt delighted the composer. However, the very best tracks are the ones on which the artists slip into more appropriate character. Brigitte Bardot is, of course, the very best Gainsbourg interpreter, infusing way ahead-of-their time rockers like “Harley Davidson” and “Contact” with the fizz he never would have mustered. April March delivers the wiry rocker “Laisse Tomber les Filles” with attitudinal glee. Marianne Faithfull sings the regretful “Hier Ou Demain” with a stiff upper lip that can’t mask the sadness underneath it. The cracks in Jane Birkin’s limited voice draw the eroticism out of “Jane B.” as they did with her duet and Serge’s duet on “Je t'aimeMoi Non Plus”. That most famous/infamous of Gainsbourg records is not included here, keeping the all-female voice pure.

The only time Vamps et Vampire: The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg really falters is when it stumbles into the eighties with tracks such as Isabelle Adjani’s “Pull Marine” and Birkin’s “Con C’est Con Ces Consequences”, both utterly sabotaged by the decade’s horrid pop production follies. These moments almost made me wish this album’s subtitle had been The Sixties Songs of Serge Gainsbourg, but then we wouldn’t have gotten that amazing April March track.

Get Vamps et Vampire: The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg at Amazon.com here:


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Review: 'A Brief Guide to Stephen King'


Don’t fret over the title of A Brief Guide to Stephen King, or the idea of the writer’s gargantuan body of work being boiled down to a mere 265 pages. Paul Simpson’s career overview may be brief, but it is satisfying. He covers every one of King’s novels, novellas, short story collections, digital and other uncollected stories, screenplays, and comic book scripts to date, as well as a nuts-and-bolts biography and overview of select non-fiction work. Each entry includes a short synopsis before getting to the goods with a pretty lengthy look at the tales’ genesis, the reactions it provoked, and adaptations it inspired (yes, that does include the Shining porno spoof Naughty Little Nymphos 5). The structure and content reminded me quite a bit of Marc Scott Zicree’s essential Twilight Zone Companion right down to his refusal to hold back spoilers. Simpson is less critical though. Since he clearly knows his King, it would have been nice if he’d provided a bit more personal assessment for each title so that his book could also provide recommendations better. For the most part, he remains neutral, allowing quotes from the critics of the past—many of whom are most certainly not Stephen King fans— to give each work the “yay” or “nay.” So you may just have to make up your own mind about whether or not you should read about preteen sewer orgies and shit weasels.

Get A Brief Guide to Stephen King at Amazon.com here:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Online Petition to Get WB to Release Hammer Horror Blu-rays in the U.S.

In the U.S., the rights to Hammer Horror titles are as all over the place as the pre-op limbs of Frankenstein's Monster. Millennium Entertainment (Dracula: Prince of Darkness; Frankenstein Created Woman), Shout! Factory (The Vampire Lovers), and Synapse Films (Hands of the Ripper; Countess Dracula) have already gotten started on putting out some of these movies on blu-ray stateside. However, the two companies that own the most essential Hammers--Universal (Brides of Dracula; Curse of the Werewolf) and Warner Brothers (Horror of Dracula; The Curse of Frankenstein)-- continue to sit on their catalogs of classics. To call the latter company to task, Diabolique Magazine has started up one of those online petitions asking for the release of the following movies on Blu-ray:

The Curse of Frankenstein
Horror of Dracula
The Mummy
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
Dracula, AD 1972
Taste the Blood of Dracula
Dracula Must Be Destroyed

 I'm not convinced that these kinds of petitions ever actually accomplish anything. I'm pretty sure Warner Brothers will release these films in hi-def when it damn well feels like it (or not). I signed the petition nevertheless. For what it's worth, you can too here.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Review: 'The Who – Sensation – The Story of Tommy'


Tommy was one prolific deaf, dumb, and blind boy. The Who’s 1969 double album didn’t just set their career on track at a time when it seemed to be sputtering and officially entered the term “rock opera” into the pop lexicon. It became an ace vehicle for the band’s stage shows, an all-star symphonic album and concert series, an overblown Ken Russell movie, and a Tony-winning Broadway musical. Fortunately, Martin R. Smith’s 2013 documentary The Who – Sensation – The Story of Tommy is really only concerned with the original album that— along with the rock performances it spawned—was the best thing about the phenomenon. Pete Townshend and his buddy and faithful Who-chronicler Richard Barnes do most of the heavy lifting, while Roger Daltrey, soundman Bob Pridden, artist Mike McInnerney, and a small clutch of rock critics contribute additional color.

Because Sensation is mostly concerned with what Pete Townshend intended Tommy to mean, and because that meaning is so intensely personal to him, some of the story of the opera’s creation gets short shrift. Manager Kit Lambert’s role in helping steer the songwriter into the rock opera realm is underplayed, as are the contributions of John Entwistle (who composed two key episodes in Tommy Walker’s troubled childhood) and Keith Moon (who devised the zany holiday camp aspect of the story). Nevertheless, it is always fascinating to hear Pete Townshend to talk about—well—pretty much anything. He is especially candid in Sensation, getting deeper into some of his own childhood traumas he’d discussed in his autobiography Who I Am. His candor makes Sensation more than some rote “Classic Albums” episode, and we learn how extensively the rock opera was inspired by his own experiences. Townshend’s ability to weave personal sadness into such grand success is a true triumph.

Augmenting the feature on Eagle Vision's new home video release is one fantastic extra: The Who’s complete 1969 Tommy special from the German series “Beat Club”. As well as miming along to eight Tommy tracks with his band against a chroma-key backdrop of pinball tables and Mike McInnerney’s artwork, Townshend fields questions about his newly written opera. The special is a fab piece of Rock & Roll kitsch very true to the spirit of The Who.

Get The Who – Sensation – The Story of Tommy at Amazon.com on blu-rayor DVDhere:


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