Monday, May 25, 2015

Review: Little Richard's 'Directly from My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years'

Chuck brought the wit, Buddy brought the craftsmanship, and Bo brought the rhythm, but Rock & Roll would reside in Nowheresville without cuckoo energy. Little Richard was the architect responsible for that crucial construction. Whenever you hear a song veer out of control, whenever a singer can’t hold back a whoop or a shriek or starts speaking in tongues (“A-WHOMP-BOMP-A-LOO-BOP, A WOMP-BAM-BOOM!” “BAMA LAMA BAMA LOO!”), there’s probably more than a little Richard Penniman in his or her bloodstream.

Little Richard did his most electrifying work for Specialty Records in a tight two-year period. This was the reign of “Tutti Frutti”, “Long Tall Sally”, “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, “Lucille”, “Jenny, Jenny”, “Good Golly Miss Molly”, “The Girl Can’t Help It”, “Ohh! My Soul”, “Keep A-Knockin’”, and every other record that made Little Richard matter. Before then he was a more conventional soul singer who bore a startling resemblance to Nina Simone. After it he found Jesus and made forgettable devotional music for a few different labels for a few years before returning to the demonic abandon that was his true calling. There was one more disc for Specialty that recaptured his former energy—“Bama Lama Bama Loo” b/w “Annie Is Back”—before Little Richard moved to Vee-Jay. While he didn’t cut any supreme classics for the label, he’d at least shed any compunction about rocking, rolling, hollering, and shimmying, and came toting a fresh affinity for pure blues. Allegedly, his band was toting Jimi Hendrix too.

The triple-disc Directly from My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years largely skips the conventional early years and walks around the religious ones as if they’re a pile of dog excrement to present the true finest of Little Richard’s recordings. Everything you want to hear from the man is here, and it makes for a timelessly torrid listen, particularly once we hit “Tutti Frutti” eight tracks into disc one. This is when Little Richard finds the ignition switch for the rockets in his windpipe.

Really, though, this box set is not the best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years; it is the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years. There is only one track he put out on either of those labels—Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog”—that is not included on Directly from My Heart. It’s hardly Richard’s most essential recording, but its absence is puzzling considering the set’s otherwise all-inclusiveness and the fact that there’s lots of spare space on each of its discs. But, as I said, the version is no classic, and a huge chunk of the tracks that are present are classics. And aside from a half-dozen Vee-Jay cuts that sound like they were pulled from scratchy acetates, everything sounds great here: warm and clear and bristling with the distortion that shuddered forth every time Little Richard stepped in front of some poor microphone that just wasn’t built to handle what he had.   

Get Directly from My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years on here:

Sunday, May 24, 2015

With Lynch's Return, "Twin Peaks" Goes Home and Doubles

Perhaps David Lynch realized what a nasty trick it was to say, "Hey, 'Twin Peaks' Freaks! I'm going to direct nine new episodes of 'Twin Peaks'--on second thought, no I'm not!" because he's been making some serious amends lately. First he said that after re-negotiations with Showtime he would be directing those new episodes after all. Then Showtime CEO indicated that there would be more than a mere nine new shows. Now, according to "Peaks" stars Sheryl Lee and Sherilyn Fenn, we can expect eighteen new episodes in the series' delayed third season (no word yet on whether those episodes would be contained in one season or spread across two yet). Speaking on a panel at Seattle's Crypticon today, they revealed some more details that are sure to please the devoted. Firstly, and most importantly as far as I'm concerned, original "Peaks" maestro Angelo Badalamenti will be composing the score. This is major since Badalamenti's too-dreamy music is as integral to the series as having Lynch behind the camera and Lee and Fenn in front of it. Secondly, the entire new series will be filmed in the North Bend/Snoqualmie, WA, area. Only the pilot episode of the original series was shot on location-- studio sets sufficed for the rest of them-- so this is an interesting development that indicates the pilot's cinematic quality will extend through the entire return to "Twin Peaks". Once again, Twede's Cafe in North Bend will be the setting of the Double R Diner. Thanks to Welcome to Twin for announcing this delightful news.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Star Wars Generation

My generation was like none before it because me and my friends and my enemies and all the other small kids in America (and much of elsewhere) had one weird thing that bound us all together. To say it was a movie would be incredibly reductive, because although the whole Star Wars craze—a craze that’s been active for nearly forty years now but pops to the surface periodically like a herpe—obviously began with a movie, it has always been more than a movie. I would wake up every morning on my Star Wars sheets, wearing my Star Wars pajamas, part my Star Wars curtains to allow in the sunlight by which I’d get dressed in my Star Wars sneakers and T-shirt before ambling downstairs to eat Star Wars cereal (C-3PO’s) out of a Star Wars bowl, then strap on my Star Wars backpack and grab my Star Wars lunchbox and head to school where I’d take notes in my Star Wars notebook until 3 PM when I’d return home to play with my Star Wars figures until it was time to gobble down dinner off a Star Wars plate and guzzle some sort of sugar-based formula out of a Star Wars Burger King glass as quickly as possible so I could pop Star Wars into the VCR before going back upstairs to wash my hair with Star Wars shampoo, getting into another pair of Star Wars pajamas, and laying down to dream about Star Wars.

Click to see what my brain looked like when I was six.
This might sound like the behavior of someone suffering from a cripplingly extreme case of OCD if it weren’t for the fact that nearly every little boy (because, let’s be truthful, most of the kids who did this kind of shit were boys... thats what happens when you create a rich and detailed universe with only one woman in it) I knew did the same exact thing. And today kids of all genders and interests do the same damn thing with Frozen and Kung Fu Chickenbots or whatever else kids are obsessed with these days (amazingly, it’s still Star Wars for a lot of them who weren’t even born in the century that birthed the original trilogy!). Equally amazing is that this kind of thing really didn’t exist before Star Wars. It didn’t. In the sixties, Batman came very, very close, but it was not as pervasive and there was no Batman cereal. Other pop-culture obsessions like Davy Crockett and Planet of the Apes and even The Wizard of Oz essentially came and went.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pete Townshend Reissue Campaign Begins Next Month with New 'Best Of'

Universal Music has announced today that it will be launching a reissue campaign of Pete Townshend's solo catalog this year. It all starts on June 29 with Truancy: The Very Best of Pete Townshend (clearly, the title implies that he sneaked in his solo career while playing hookey from a  certain band). The new comp only includes a couple of previously uncompiled nuggets ("Face Dances Pt. 2"--an early MTV favorite mysteriously missing from Pete's other hits collections-- and "You Came Back"), but it is notable for the inclusion of two new recordings: "Guantanamo", on which he'll likely give his take on a controversial topic, and "How Can I Help You". Hopefully, the big question this collection will answer is what Universal means when it says the following reissues will be "remastered and reworked." I for one hope "reworked" merely means we'll get some nice bonus tracks and not that we'll get remixes of the original LPs or something. We'll know for sure this year and next, as the reissue campaign will continue into 2016. As for today, happy 70th birthday, Pete!

Truancy: The Very Best of Pete Townshend
  1. "Pure and Easy"
  2. "Sheraton Gibson"
  3. "Let's See Action (Nothing Is Everything)"
  4. "My Baby Gives It Away"
  5. "A Heart to Hang On To"
  6. "Keep Me Turning"
  7. "Let My Love Open the Door"
  8. "Rough Boys"
  9. "The Sea Refuses No River"
  10. "Face Dances (Pt. 2)"
  11. "White City FIghting"
  12. "Face the Face"
  13. "I Won't Run Anymore"
  14. "English Boy"
  15. "You Came Back"
  16. "Guantanamo"
  17. "How Can I Help You"

Friday, May 15, 2015

Watch the Long-Lost Short That Ran with 'The Empire Strikes Back'

While George Lucas was at work on The Empire Strikes Back, he had a brain wave very in  line with his classic-Hollywood approach to movie making: he decided to commission a short film to run before his Star Wars sequel in the UK, Australia, and Scandinavia. Roger Christian, the set decorator of the first Star Wars film, stepped forward with a story that Lucas dug, and the big dog gave Christian the go ahead to make "Black Angel". The resulting 25-minute sword-and-sorcery tale wasn't exactly rich in plot or action, but Christian crafted his sketchy concept beautifully. "Black Angel" is a work of art in terms of atmosphere and cinematography. Special mention must also go to the haunting score from Trevor Jones, who went on to a long career that included scores for The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and Arachnophobia. One must also give Lucas credit for allowing a film that requires a good deal of patience to screen before a movie on which he had so much riding. 
"Black Angel" was instantly influential, inspiring effects in a scene in Empire, as well as the look and feel of John Boorman's Excalibur (also scored by Jones). Sadly, Christian's film's influence did not have a far reach, since it never received home video release and the negative apparently disappeared for 31 years. After being rediscovered in 2011, "Black Angel" screened to much acclaim in 2013, and was supposedly available to stream for a time on Netflix last year and is still available to purchase on iTunes. However Christian has quite thoughtfully uploaded his movie to You Tube free-of-cost with a newly filmed introduction in anticipation of some sort of "Black Angel"-related announcement coming on June 2. Watch it now here:

Review: “Battlestar Galactica: The Remastered Collection” and “The Definitive Collection”

Any successful pop-cultural item will inspire its share of pretenders. Few pop-cultural items—hell, few items—are as successful as Star Wars. Most of the pretenders that drifted from the debris of the exploded Death Star have been lost to sci-fi geek history: Starcrash, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Last Starfighter, Krull, etc. Although it initially lasted a mere single season from 1978-1979, Glen A. Larson’s “Battlestar Galactica” has had surprisingly active legs. It first returned in 1980 for a short-lived, little-loved run as “Galactica 1980”. More significant was its 2003 Sky TV/Sci-Fi Channel remake that spawned a critically acclaimed mini series and four-season run. In terms of philosophical complexity, Ronald D. Moore’s remake trounces Larson’s military-glorifying/pacifism-mocking cartoon. The thing is, the twenty-first century “Galactica” isn’t much fun.

Not that the original “Battlestar Galactica” begins with an explosion of fun. In fact, the series’ first episode is unrelentingly violent and tragic as a space president (Ray Milland) disarms his space navy, making way for an invasion from the axis-of-evil Cylons, who wipe out nearly everyone who isn’t aboard the war ship that gives the series its title. In contrast to the president—whose clashing two-dimensions are buffoonish pacifist and selfish materialist—is the Battlestar Galactica’s Commander Adama (Lorne Greene), a kind and thoughtful man who believes good and evil are black and white and the best way to solve a problem is to shoot it in the face. His goal is to find Earth, a place where his war-torn crew might find some refuge and peace. Good luck with that.

Getting past the series’ depressing viewpoint that peace is a goal of fools, the opening of “Battlestar Galactica” is seriously gripping drama. The devastation the Cylons rain down has genuine gravity, and when characters we’ve barely known for twenty minutes die, we miss them because the survivors really mourn.

Monday, May 11, 2015

There's an Air Date for That "X-Files" Revival

While we continue to mourn the demise of the hastily announced and hastily aborted revival of "Twin Peaks" (which may not be quite dead yet according to Dana Ashbrook, but I refuse to get my hopes up by pretending it isn't totally kaput), we can at least take heart in the fact that another great nineties supernatural-drama is moving forward. Mulder and Scully will start flirting with each other and little green men again on Sunday, January 16, 2016, immediately after the NFC Championship, which I imagine is some sport of sports game. Unfortunately, if I know one thing about sports games (and really, I only know one thing), it's that they tend to go on and on and on and on beyond the point they are supposed to end. So expect episode one of the new "X-Files" to air on FOX sometime around 4 AM on January 17. But take heart that episode 2 airs the following night at 8 PM, and will continue to play on Mondays at 8 for the duration of its six-episode run. Start gussying up, little green men.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Review: 'Jobriath A.D.: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fairy Tale'

In 1972, David Bowie made history when he declared “I’m gay” to Michael Watts of Melody Maker. During the earliest days of the gay pride movement, it was a big deal to have a major pop star come out of the closet in a major music paper. Just six years later, Bowie was once again chatting with Watts in the pages of MM, only this time he heavily implied that his “homosexuality” was all part of building the Ziggy Stardust character.

The year after Bowie made the declaration that would continue to be a topic of discussion even after he admitted he’d always been heterosexual, an artist regularly diminished as “The American David Bowie” made a similar announcement. The big difference was that Jobriath actually was gay, and instead of being an offhand provocation in the press, his homosexuality was an outright publicity campaign. There was barely a scrap of press written about the singer-songwriter that didn’t dwell on his orientation. This was not Jobriath’s idea. The mastermind behind selling the singer’s sexuality was his manager, Jerry Brandt. Sadly, Brandt completely misjudged the tenor of a time that was pretty staunchly homophobic despite those initial uprisings in the gay movement. Jobriath’s pop career never got off the ground. Neither of his albums charted. Brandt dumped him. Jobriath ended up on the cabaret circuit and barely left a footnote in Rock & Roll history as “The American Bowie” whom Bowie, himself, wrote off as a piffling fraud. Jobriath died of AIDS in 1983.

This is part of the story told in Kieran Turner’s new documentary Jobriath A.D.: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fairy Tale, but it is hardly the story in full. We are not introduced to Jobriath as a failed pop star or a confused kid struggling with his sexuality or any persona that might make way for clichés. Our first Jobriath is a great success, starring in the L.A. production of the smash musical Hair alongside R&B legend Gloria Jones. A few years later he is signed to Elektra Records and cutting his debut album with famed producer Eddie Kramer (and Richard Gere on backing vocals!). His face and body are plastered on billboards and bus ads. He is not a joke. He is not a mere David Bowie clone. He is an original voice melding prog rock, glam, cabaret, and Beethoven. We spend the first thirty minutes of Jobriath A.D. with a star.

Then we backtrack to his troubled home life, the introspective man he really was, how an incident going AWOL from the military resulted in young Bruce Campbell morphing into Jobriath. Turner’s structure is brilliant, forcing us to rethink the scraps of information we thought we knew about the obscure pop singer. The filmmaker fills out the tale with illuminating interviews (Brandt emerges as a deeply flawed and fascinating character in his own right) and imaginative animated sequences that illustrate some of the stranger episodes of Jobriath’s story, such as his aborted Paris Opera House spectacular that would have found him playing King Kong scaling a model Empire State Building that would transform into a giant penis before the star transformed into Marlene Dietrich.

Jobriath A.D. is one of the most moving, most insightful, most revelatory Rock documentaries I’ve ever seen. Factory 25 presents it on home video with a deservedly lavish presentation. Extras include a director’s commentary and extended interviews with the likes of Gloria Jones, Marc Almond (valuable since he receives very little time in the proper film), actor Dennis Christopher, Jayne County, and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott among others. Giving fuller air to music is 16 minutes of crackly footage of Jobriath recording his debut album and a video for Almond’s cover of “Be Still”.

The DVD is packaged alongside a clear-vinyl LP featuring Jobriath running through a scrapped musical concept alternately known as “Popstar” and “The Beauty Saloon”. After composing a made-to-order score for producer Joe Papp’s adaptation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, Jobriath went to work on an original piece marrying details from his own pop star years with gangster movie tropes. Between songs he provides narration and stage direction. Though the music is a product of Jobriath’s cabaret years (when he went by several names, including the not-too-subtle “Cole Berlin”), there’s some real Rock & Roll energy in the work, particularly on the pumping “Time Sat on My Face”. The recording is crude, but its intimacy is touching, another welcome revelation among many in the wonderful Jobriath A.D. project. I hope David Bowie is listening and rethinking.

Get Jobriath A.D.: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fairy Tale on here:

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Review: 'The League of Regrettable Superheroes: Half-Baked Heroes from Comic Book History'

I like to believe there’s some bizarro world where grown men line up in front of cinemas to see the latest Dr. Hormone or Brother Power the Geek movie and plucky girls don red-cross-emblazoned masks every Halloween to impersonate Pat Parker, War Nurse, and the names of Superman and Wonder Woman elicit nothing more than a nonplussed shrug for all but the most hardcore comic book geeks. I suspect Jon Morris feels the same way. He has compiled a wittily written and lavishly illustrated encyclopedia of such D-list crime fighters from 1939 to 1997 called The League of Regrettable Superheroes.

Regrettable? Well, maybe Doctor Vampire, a confusingly named full-time vampire killer and part-time racist, was a bit regrettable. But what about Amazing Man, the near-naked marauder known to bite snakes to death and beat up “green Nazi gorillas”; Bozo the Iron Man, a super murder-bot who bashes sharks against walls; or Captain Tootsie, who teaches kids to operate assault rifles while buzzed on a diet of Tootsie Rolls ©? What’s regrettable about that lot? Or how about their super nemeses? What about Mr. Lucifer, a circus clown with delusions of demonic grandeur; Rossinoff, a donkey man his enemies call “Assinoff”; Dress Suit, an occupied yet deadly jacket and tie combo; and an undefined menace named Johnny Boom Boom? Those guys warrant a similar volume of their own!

I firmly believe that each and every one of these heroes and villains were worthy of careers as long and fruitful as those of Superman and Wonder Woman and the rest. Sadly, a lot of these failed superheroes were forced to put their capes in mothballs not because of their inherent jack-assedness but because their publishers simply went out of business. Perhaps if Harry “A” Chesler Publishing hadn’t gone belly up, The Black Dwarf would still be offering criminals “a bite of knuckle pie” today. In the bizarro world of my dreams, he is.

Get The League of Regrettable Superheroes: Half-Baked Heroes from Comic Book History on here:

Friday, May 1, 2015

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1985

The dire direction the most popular pop took in 1984 continued to meander the following year. At least the biggest smash of ’84 was the genuinely great “When Doves Cry”. The most popular record of ’85? “Careless Whisper”. As is evidenced on that schlocker, the saxophone threatened to displace the guitar as pop’s key tool, and more often than not, the guitars of ’85 sounded more like over processed synthesizers than guitars. More often than not, the over processed synthesizers sounded like shit. Harrumph, harrumph.

Wait. No. On second thought, scratch that. 1985 was a great year for music, because there actually were some organic and exciting examples of record making that year—and believe or not—everything with a synth or sax wasn’t a wash out either. In fact, I was quite surprised to find that the deeper I searched through the year’s detritus, the more truly excellent albums I uncovered. I even found myself with enough worthy ones that I wrestled (well, maybe that’s too strong a word. Perhaps “thumb wrestled” is more apt) with which to cut. You’ll find five of those after the following ten great discs.

10. Songs from the Big Chair by Tears for Fears

Like Synchronicity, 1984, and Purple Rain, Songs from the Big Chair was a hit-laden mid-eighties chart gobbler. Unlike The Police, Van Halen, and Prince, Tears for Fears did not make their defining statement well into their career. In fact, Big Chair was only their second album. That is an impressive achievement considering that the clanging “Shout”, wistful “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, and woozily romantic “Head over Heels” are three of the very, very best mid-eighties hits (the more dated but more danceable “Mothers Talk” is really good too). The album’s less-familiar tracks aren’t as stunning. “The Working Hour” is a good song but it overindulges in’85’s signature farty sax work, and “Broken” is straight-up filler, fusing the big drum sounds of “Mothers Talk” with snippets of melody and lyric that would be used to much better effect in “Head over Heels”. However, “I Believe” (later re-recorded and released as a single in the UK) is a pretty cocktail jazz torch song and the concluding minimalist synth epic “Listen” is haunting and strange, drawing out the experimentalism crawling beneath Big Chair’s surface that makes it such a fascinating listen.

9. Psychocandy by The Jesus & Mary Chain
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