Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review: 'The Supremes A' Go-Go' Expanded Edition'

In the sixties, the hits that Hitsville USA churned out were intended to be spun at 45 RPMs. Motown brass was a lot less interested in making high-quality long players, though that didn’t stop quite a few from slipping out anyway. The label’s biggest stars, The Supremes, had some of the best with rock-solid LPs such as Where Did Our Love Go, More Hits by The Supremes, The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Reflections. 1966s The Supremes A’ Go-Go was not one of these, as it leaned way too hard on remakes of past hits. Not only are The Supremes’ versions of “This Old Heart of Mine”, “Shake Me, Wake Me”, “Baby, I Need Your Loving”, and “Get Ready” redundant by their very nature, but Diana Ross’s reserved vocals also pale in comparison to The Isley Brothers, Four Tops, and Temptations’ blood-letting performances. Mary Wilson does a more convincing job of holding her own against performances past with her lead on “Come and Get These Memories”, but it still doesnt quite measure up to Martha Reeves.

Nevertheless, The Supremes A’ Go-Go was a milestone album because it has the distinction of being the first album by an all-female group to top the Billboard chart, and it did so on the strength of two of The Supremes’ very best hits: the joyful “You Can’t Hurry Love” and the grinding “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart”. There are also a couple of interesting covers that don’t invite unflattering comparisons with past Motown hits. Ross still sounds like she’s checking her watch on a version of “These Boots Are Made for Walking”, but the arrangement is very cool with a sort of Twilight Zone guitar riff running underneath the whole thing, and she rouses herself sufficiently for a set-closing take on “Hang on Sloopy”. A chunky version of Barrett Strongs “Money”is the one Motown remake that gets sufficiently imaginative with the arrangement and on which Ross gets herself sufficiently worked up.

According to UMe’s new double-disc expanded edition, Motown was not holding back a ton of choice originals when compiling The Supremes A’ Go-Go (which is presented on this set in mono and stereo). There’s “Misery Makes Its Home in My Heart”, which would find a home on Reflections in 1968, and “Don’t Let True Love Die”, which definitely would have been a welcome addition to A’ Go-Go. For the most part there were a lot of other covers that both tossed the Motown closet (“Mickey’s Monkey”, “It’s the Same Old Song”, “Uptight”, “In My Lonely Room”, “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted”, “Can I Get a Witness”, and even a radically different remake of The Supremes’ own “Mother Dear”) and looked elsewhere through the current charts for material. For those who find Tom Jones’s crotch-powered crooning a bit too smarmy, The Supremes’ rendition of “It’s Not Unusual” might prove the preferred version. Needless to say, they do not best Jagger with their take on “Satisfaction”, but at least it is very much its own thing, combining Keef’s fuzzed out riffing with the brass the Stones really wanted on their signature hit. There are also fine versions of “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”, which sports some choice contrapuntal vocal lines. Most of these tracks would eventually see release, but the new expanded set presents them with alternate vocals or mixes, many of which emphasize spine-tingling a cappella lines or reveal neat spoken asides caught on tape during the sessions.

A couple of all-new mixes are unexpectedly killer bonuses.
For those who miss Levi Stubbs on
“Shake Me, Wake Me”, the set offers a groovy new Supremes/Four Tops mash up of the track built on the original Tops backing track. A six-minute remix of “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart” will stop your heart with its dramatic backing-track drop out and drop in. Its also nice to have all of these tracks finally collected in a  chronologically honest fashion, and the fact that UMe has resumed its expanded editions of The Supremes catalogue is a promising sign that we might be able to expect expanded editions of knock outs Where Did Our Love Go, The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Reflections before too long.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Review: 'Hero A-Go-Go: Campy Comic Books, Crimefighters & Culture of the Swinging Sixties'

Adam West took a lot of guff for turning the Dark Knight into the batusi-ing goof, but for a lot of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies, the camped-up Batman of Bill Dozier’s weekly live-action series was our Batman. And to be fair, Batman had been a pretty campy dude in the funny books since comics-critic Frederic Wertham brought the whip down in the early fifties. But while Batman’s on-page goofiness lost him a fair share of followers, his on-screen goofiness won him a new generation of fanatics weaned on Warhol soup cans, zany Mod fashions, and Beatle wigs. Thus began a new era of vibrant, winking irony former DC Comics editor Michael Eury champions as the Camp Age.

In his delirious new book Hero-A-Go-Go, Eury shows that this era was actually well underway before Batman powed TVs across the globe. The goofy/groovy Teen Titans with their out-of-touch beat-speak and Archie’s caped alter ego Pureheart both debuted in mid-’65. On TV, Underdog blasted off as early as 1964 and Bob Kane himself sent-up the thing he created with Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse four years earlier than that.

There was no stopping campy crime fighters after Dozier’s Batman became a sensation in ’66. Soon TV was hosting The Green Hornet, Ralph Bakshi’s inept Mighty Heroes, Mr. Terrific and Mr. Nice, and Monkee Men; comics were home to MAD’s Captain Klutz and DC’s Inferior Five; Jan and Dean were releasing a long playing Batman record; and perhaps more coincidentally, Superman was singing and dancing on Broadway in a show called It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman! Of course, Batman, is the axle on which all this stuff swings, and Hero-A-Go-Go includes an extended look at how that classic came to be.

Eury covers the high-camp comics, cartoons, and other pop-cultural creations that preceded and followed Batman with jolly prose and eyeball-POW-ing images of comics and memorabilia, because you simply cannot wallow in nostalgia with words alone. He also supplements the story with boffo interviews with Bakshi, Lost in Space-star Billy Mumy, It’s a Bird… star Bob Holiday, Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean, and others who helped camp it up in the sixties.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Review: 'My British Invasion'

Amidst the pot-scented denim gravity of the early-seventies Rock press, journalist Harold Bronson must have been a refreshing rarity. While the scribes were oohing and aahing over lofty ideas and classical musicianship, Bronson apparently wanted nothing more than to groove to Paul Revere and the Raiders and chat with Peter Noone. That combination of seriousness about the music industry and completely unpretentious music tastes led Bronson to co-found Rhino Records, the ultra-cool reissue label responsible for helping The Monkees make their big eighties comeback and eventually achieve the critical approval they always deserved. In his new memoir, My British Invasion, Bronson admits without a trace of self-consciousness that he wished he could have done the same for Herman’s Hermits. I don’t care if you think “I’m Henry the VIII (I Am)” is twelve pounds of Velveeta—that’s pretty endearing.

Bronson is generally at his most endearing when discussing the British Invasion bands he loved and interviewed during the seventies, which he does in profile chapters devoted to the Hermits, Yardbirds, Kinks, Manfred Mann, Dave Clark Five, Hollies, Zombies, and others of their mop-toppy ilk. Interviews with key band members are the stock in most of these chapters, though unscrupulous ex-manager Larry Page is the only one extensively quoted in the Kinks one. Fortunately, Page also stars in the book’s funniest recollection when he attempts to fool Bronson into thinking he has in his possession a tape of the real Beatles recording dialogue for the delightfully cheesy Beatles cartoon TV series.

Bronson’s interviewees are interesting and the simplicity of his old-fashioned, pre-serious-rock press writing fits his band profiles fine. Marc Bolan provides enough zing for both himself and Bronson in a late 1971 rap session, and the infuriating nature of Bronson’s dealings with Dave Clark still booms through clearly despite the author’s refusal to get worked up about it. That neutral style does not suit his more personal, diary-like chapters as well, which read as flat and choppy and contain too many details about his own band and personal romances to interest the majority of readers who will likely buy their tickets to this show because of its big-name attractions. These readers will probably also be well familiar with the basic British Invasion history that Bronson spends too much time rehashing, but there are enough enlightening bits to make My British Invasion a fitfully interesting read for the mop tops of today.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review: 'Psychedelia: 101 Iconic Underground Rock Albums 1966-1970'

LSD has a tendency to confuse the senses, so it’s no coincidence that pop’s most acid-soaked years birthed its most visual music. The late sixties’ psychedelic discs often came housed in fluorescent, marvelously garish sleeves, but nothing more than the sounds in the grooves was necessary to paint multicolor images in listener’s minds. Sgt. Pepper’s, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Disraeli Gears, Axis: Bold As Love, and The Doors are among the most celebrated of these trippy masterworks, but as Richard Morton Jack hips us with his new book Psychedelia: 101 Iconic Underground Rock Albums 1966-1970, there was a lot more happening in the acid era.

Frankly, I am ashamed to admit how puny a percentage of Morton Jack’s picks I’ve heard, but I will admit that’s a good thing. Any book of this sort is useless without recommending unfamiliar music, and the hunt was on after reading the write ups on obscurities such as The David’s majestic Another Day, Another Lifetime, The Millennium’s sunny and wonderful  Begin, and The Fallen Angels’ haunting (though not exceptionally psychedelic)  It’s a Long Way Down. Yes, I missed inclusion of personal favorites such as The Monkees’ Head, The Rascals’ Once Upon a Dream, Shine on Brightly by Procol Harum, and The Who Sell Out (which received similar short shrift in another recent Sterling Publishing publication), but of course, I’ve already heard those albums. Still, Morton Jack’s details are intriguing enough that I may have learned a thing or two about these old favorites had he decided to include them.

Each entry follows a similar format beginning with a bit of background history, details about and critique of the given album (no, the author does not love every album he selects), quotes from participants, and excerpts from period reviews. I wasn’t aware that The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow and Love’s Forever Changes—two widely acclaimed classics now—were so poorly received in their days. We also get a slew of large-scale, full-color images of the genre’s vibrant album covers, which may explain why such pics were missing from that other recent Sterling book to which I referred earlier. Illuminating and suitably visual, Psychedelia: 101 Iconic Underground Rock Albums is a coffee table book that may inspire you to substitute that cup of coffee with something “a bit more potent.”*

*I’m talking about acid. You might want to take some acid while reading this book.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: 'Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ’80s Teen Movies'

I enjoy chugging a nostalgia cocktail of The Breakfast Club or Better off Dead as much as any other eighties brat, but I can’t say I’ve ever yearned to visit Shermer, Illinois, or Greendale, California. So I didn’t expect the location-centric premise of Kevin Smokler’s new book Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ’80s Teen Movies to be a big wow. However, Smokler uses the physical and temporal settings of the films he swiftly analyzes as a means to get into themes and concerns that extend beyond mere zip codes. And when you think about it, the Rockwellian ideal of Kingston Falls that serves as the setting of the gremlins’ rampage in Gremlins or the dead-end dreariness of Milpitas, California, where a teen nihilistically murders his girlfriend in River’s Edge are essential to those film’s unique states of mind. Smokler convincingly suggests that Reagan’s love of Back to the Future had less to do with Marty McFly’s match-making exploits than it had to do with the conservative’s-wet-dream setting of 1950s Hill Valley.

Smokler’s entertaining, non-academic tone makes his travelogue as entertaining as a viewing of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, though the trip is a bit too speedy at times. I could have spent more time in some of these locales even as I realize that the author’s decision to cover as many films as he does necessitates such accelerated velocity. Along with the usual bumper crop of John Hughes movies there are less typical items such as Over the Edge, Hairspray, and Stand by Me, as well as key proto-eighties teen movies such as American Graffiti, The Warriors, and Breaking Away. I didn’t always agree with his assessments (I think he overstates the racism of Gremlins and understates the racism of Sixteen Candles, for example), but I consistently enjoyed the journey, which he makes more fun by picking up bitchin’ hitchhikers such as Savage Steve Holland, Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge, and Daniel Waters for little side trip interviews along the way.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Review: '1967: A Complete Rock Music History of the Summer of Love'

The intriguing progress Rock & Roll started displaying as soon as The Beatles busted out in 1964 hit an ecstatic, elastic, multi-colored peak three years later. Any existing rules were incinerated as the pop song busted well beyond its two-minute structure, guitars were regularly muscled aside to make room for Mellotrons and sitars, and love songs were often sidelined for tunes based on Joyce’s impenetrable Ulysses or ditties about gnomes named Grimble Crumble. The LP officially displaced the single; stereo started doing the same to mono, making way for the ritual of consuming high-concept albums through headphones…possibly while under various influences; and bland band portraits plastered onto jackets no longer sufficed. In other words, Rock & Roll became art with a vengeance in 1967.

Harvey Kubernik pays tribute to the auditory and visual arts of ’67’s revolutionary music in his new book 1967: A Complete Rock Music History of the Summer of Love. That title is actually misleading unless one regards 1967 as twelve months of summer—and the Californians Kubernik favors probably did. The book is actually a month-by-month chronicle from January through December, dropping details about the year’s major music releases, festivals, innovations, main characters, and attitudes in stand-alone chunks. The book is also something of an oral history, as Kubernik’s own observations are more than supplemented with old and new commentary from the likes of Andrew Loog Oldham, Mary Wilson, George Harrison, Barry Miles, Michelle Phillips, Pete Townshend, Lou Reed, Roger McGuinn, Ravi Shankar, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin, Ram Das, Ray Manzarek, and many others. There is little effort to link the multitudinous topics, but that’s to be expected when dealing with a year that was probably a puzzling jumble of disconnected ideas and events for a lot of its participants. You know what they say about people who remember the sixties.

A coffee table book at heart, 1967 supplies a vibrant lot of images from pop’s most imagistic year, though some of the year’s phantasmagorically rendered album covers would have made for an even more kaleidoscopic visual experience. Kubernik should still be commended for covering the vinyl within the sleeves as thoroughly as he does—referencing the obvious (Sgt. Pepper’s dominates the June topic along with the Monterey Pop Festival) and the more regularly overlooked (The Hollies’ Butterfly, Donovan’s A Gift from a Flower to a Garden, Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk, the Stones’ Between the Buttons, etc.) in kind. The one inexplicable oversight is his failure to even mention The Who Sell Out, my personal pick for the finest album of pop’s finest year. Maybe Kubernik has a hole in his memory where that album belongs because he had a little too much fun in ’67.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: Star Wars Widevision Cards: The Original Topps Trading Card Series Volume One

In the days before Kenner finally shipped their little plastic Lukes and Leias, the most collectible Star Wars product was Topps’ trading card series. Sure the pictures were grainy and blurry, and certain images were repeated ad nauseum while other iconic ones were ignored altogether, but we fans were still in elementary school and gleefully accepted anything remotely related to our favorite movie. Then we grew up. By 1995, all of we kiddie enthusiasts had grown into the maladjusted, overly critical, virtually unlikable adult geeks one now thinks of as a Star Wars fan. Grainy, blurry, and repetitious would no longer do. We demanded a trading card series fit for “adults.” Topps responded with its Widevision series.

As the name implies, the updated cards were bigger than the 3 ½ inch x 2 ½ inch cards of the seventies and eighties. The expanded 5 inch x 2 ¾ inch size allowed a full aspect-ratio view of our favorite Star Wars scenes (and production paintings and poster art), and allowed for more information on the card backs, which included scene descriptions based on the screenplay, concept art, behind-the-scenes photos, and informative captions. Digitally pulled from a 35mm print of the film, the images were much higher quality as well. Even the card stock was a step up. Yes, here were Star Wars cards you did not have to feel embarrassed about framing and hanging on the wall of your mom’s basement.

Continuing its collections of Topps’ sundry Star Wars card series, Abrams Comicarts is devoting its latest volume to the Widescreen series that ran from 1995 to 1997. Once again card scribe Gary Gerani provides an entertaining introduction and fun intermittent card-by-card captions. Abrams does not repeat the mistake it made when it shrank down the majority of its Empire Strikes Back cards. In fact, the already wide-size cards get a bit wider with a very satisfying 6 inch x 3 inch presentation. The slight downside is that if you check the dates the cards ran, you’ll suspect that some Special Additions may have slipped into the series. Indeed we are not spared widevisions of CG dewbacks, Han Solo gabbing with Looney Tunes Jabba the Hutt at Mos Eisley, and a Jawa riding that thing that looks like a cross between a giant alpaca and a scrotum. But that’s only an issue for a third of the 200-or-so cards collected in an overall terrific book.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review:'The Vampire Bat' DVD

Despite its title, The Vampire Bat probably has more in common with Frankenstein than Dracula because of the way it stitches together parts of so many past horror movies. Bouncing off the phony-vampire ruse of London After Midnight and the bat-mimicking murderer of The Bat, this Poverty Row programmer also sprinkles in a villagers-and-torches hunt straight out of Frankenstein, Dwight Frye recreating Renfield (complete with iconic giggle), a bit of rooftop stalking yanked from Murders in the Rue Morgue, and a cast of horror mainstays that includes the eternally creepy Lionel Atwill, the gorgeous and affable Fay Wray, and Melvyn Douglas, the horror hero David Manners might have been if Manners had a personality.

That sublime cast and director Frank R. Strayer’s prowling camerawork help The Vampire Bat to flap above its patchwork origins. A bizarre climax involving some sort of pulsating monster meatloaf in a fish tank also helps disguise the fact that it is a horror film that tends to pull its punches and engage in a bit too much silly comic relief by way of the shrill Maude Eburne. Nevertheless, The Vampire Bat affords Frye his juiciest horror role aside from Dracula, and that is no small thing, even if Edward T. Lowe’s script forces him to talk like Tonto.

Essentially, The Vampire Bat is a mixed bag. So is The Film Detective’s new DVD. The company’s restoration of the film from 35mm elements boasts a host of video issues. There are scratches, missing frames, stability problems, speckles, washed out shots, and shots that almost look like they were captured on video. However, taken as a whole, the film actually looks good. Quite a number of shots are astoundingly crisp for a picture from 1933 that probably wasn’t at the top of anyone’s to-preserve list. Compared to the mutilated prints on all those cut-rate collections of public domain horror pictures out there, this restoration is revelatory. Plus this new disc restores a startling sequence in which those rampaging villagers wield hand-colored torches of red and yellow, which you probably won’t see on the budget DVDs. With The Vampire Bat, The Film Detective also gets into the bonus material game with a dry yet informative audio commentary from film historian Sam Sherman and a poignant seven-minute featurette in which Melvyn Douglas’s son Gregory Hesselberg discusses his troubled relationship with his dad. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Super Deluxe Edition of Beatles Landmark LP Coming Soon

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band may no longer be the unanimous choice for The Beatles' masterpiece, but there's still no denying its historical importance, and well, the fact that its a Fab album even if a lot of people now prefer Revolver or "The White Album". So on May 25, Apple Corps. and Universal Music will celebrate the (roughly) fiftieth anniversary of this watershed album with the very first Super Deluxe Edition of a Beatles album. 

The six-disc Super Deluxe Sgt. Pepper's will include a new stereo remix of the album, two discs of session outtakes (sorry... no unfamiliar songs among the debris, though "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" are represented), the original mono mix with six bonus tracks, and a DVD and Blu-ray disc both containing a new 5.1 surround sound mix of the LP plus the "Penny Lane b/w "Strawberry Fields" single and the 1992 documentary The Making of Sgt. Pepper. For the more budget-minded Beatlemaniacs, there will also be double-CD and double-vinyl LP alternatives to the big box. Here's what the main attraction will include (thanks to Super Deluxe Edition.com for this scoop):

Disc One: New Stereo Remix
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
2. With A Little Help From My Friends
3. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
4. Getting Better
5. Fixing A Hole
6. She’s Leaving Home
7. Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!
8. Within You Without You
9. When I’m Sixty-Four
10. Lovely Rita
11. Good Morning Good Morning
12. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
13. A Day In The Life

Disc Two: Sessions

Monday, April 3, 2017

Another 'Twin Peaks' Book Is, Indeed, on the Way

A month ago I reported on a tip off that Mark Frost had a second new Twin Peaks book in the works buried in a fan Q&A with him published last October. Now the fan site Welcome to Twin Peaks is confirming this by announcing Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier to be published by Flatiron Publishing, which publishing Frost's Secret History of Twin Peaks last fall. The book will appear on Halloween just a few weeks after the final episode of the series' third season airs on Showtime, and if what Frost said in the Q&A still holds true, The Final Dossier will catch us up on everything that went down during those 25 years between the second and third seasons of Twin Peaks.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Review: 'Shag: The Collected Works'

Perhaps the mid-twentieth century wasn’t a non-stop rainbow orgy of Beatnik lounges, hipster soirees, Beatles concerts, Tiki bars, surfing expeditions, and rumbles between Adam West’s Batman and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler. Perhaps. I really don’t want to think about the dreary alternative, though. I surmise Shag doesn’t either.

For over twenty years, the pop artist has fetishized the sixties and seventies in enchanting fashion, creating a wild retro realm that you just want to disappear into like Alice sinking into the looking glass. It’s a world in which every cat is super cool, every chick is ultra groovy, every color is eye-poppingly brilliant, and every environment is de-luxe. You may have seen his work in commercial settings, as it has appeared in numerous adverts and on the covers of quite a few CD collections. Nevertheless, there’s always seriousness artistry behind the method. More surprisingly, nightmarish blasts sometimes shatter the retro dreaminess of Shag’s world. He has depicted scenes of murder, torture, and Hieronymus Bosch-inspired depravity in his signature, crowd-pleasing style. He has even come clean about how his own dark times inspired some of these deviations in his work.

Shag’s light and dark, artistic and commercial work is all on glorious display in a gorgeous new collection titled Shag: The Collected Works. This book levels Shag’s wide playing field, encompassing his acrylic paintings as well as the things featuring his artwork you aren’t likely to see hanging in any museum: the CD covers, the ottomans, the coasters, the pillows, the Hawaiian shirts, the watches, the drinking glasses. It’s all marvy. So is his taste in pop culture as he gives The Beatles, The Ramones, The Velvets, the Universal Monsters, The Twilight Zone, The Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Batman, and Disneyland the Shag treatment.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

3 'EW' Covers Reunite Original 'Twin Peaks' Cast

In the run up to the highly anticipated Twin Peaks revival coming to Showtime this May, the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly features three covers reuniting a tantalizing crew of original cast members. Together the three covers form a single image with The Hurley clan (Wendy Robie, Everett McGill, James Marshall) occupying the left-hand panel; Coop (Kyle Maclachlan), Audrey Horne (Sherylin Fenn), Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), and Gordon Cole (David Lynch) in the center; and Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick), Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), and Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) at the right. One should probably expect the usual EW puffery within its pages, particularly since the specifics of the upcoming season are so hush hush, but man, that trio of covers must be where covers go when they die!
Click for full-size.
UPDATE: Entertainment Weekly has also slipped out a couple of extra shots presumably from the magazine's interior. We get a little more Norma and Shelly plus a very pleasing Denise Bryson (David Duchovny) bonus!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: 'Superman: The Golden Age Dailies 1942 to 1944'

IDW’s most recent Man of Steel campaign had the publisher compiling Superman’s full-color Sunday newspaper comics from 1943 to 1956. The final installments in that series zinged with campy adventures that found Supes hopping through time and getting amnesia more often than he changes his red underwear. Well, kids, it’s time to grow the hell up, because IDW is now backtracking to Superman’s daily strips from 1942 to 1944. These strips in sober B&W, and if you check those years, you’ll understand why the subject matter is somber. The very first panel of Superman: The Golden Age Dailies 1942 to 1944 slaps us in the face with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Under these circumstances, Superman doesn’t have time to wrangle flying horses or renovate garbage dumps as he did when we left him last year in The Atomic Age Sundays 1953 to 1956. In his Clark Kent guise, he rushes off to sign up to do his part. Unfortunately, he fails his eye test when he accidentally uses his X-ray vision to read the eye chart in the adjoining medical office.

So, you see, that although the world is at war and there are Nazis and—forgive our hero—“Japs” to contend with, there is still some of that good-old Superman goofiness going on here. When he isn’t dispensing with the buck-toothed, goggle-spectacled, offensive Asian stereotype The Leer or super-Nazi The Monocle, Superman gets to rescue a millionaire nerd, trade snipes with Lois Lane, match wits with her niece in an atypically whimsical arc, and deal with the always-delightful Mr. Mxyztplk in the imp’s debut tale. Nevertheless, the specter of a horrific war looms over this entire collection and occasionally breaks through to shade the relentless action and highjack the fun. One particularly ugly arc involves more of those offensive stereotypes gathered in an American internment camp for Japanese-Americans. More bizarrely, a short holiday arc features Hitler, Goebbels, and Santa Claus, who has been kidnapped and imprisoned in a concentration camp. I am not making this up. At times the darkness even rubs off on the Man of Steel, himself, such as when Superman gives an enemy a face full of poison, kills a nemesis in cold blood by dropping a ceiling on the creep, and terrorizes an old man to find out whether or not the guy is disabled. So be prepared for a grimmer Superman this go round… assuming you haven’t already been tipped off by those swastika-emblazoned bombs on the cover of The Golden Age Dailies 1942 to 1944.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Farewell, Chuck Berry

Perhaps it's glib to say that Chuck Berry invented Rock & Roll (as I attempted to show in this post, it was more of a group effort), but certainly no one represented or refined Rock & Roll more profoundly. That climbing, nagging riff that began so many of his songs from "Roll Over Beethoven" to "Johnny B. Goode" (two of the very, very few contenders for "definitive Rock & Roll track"). His witty, rebellious lyricism that so perfectly captures the frustrations and joys of the young people who still represent the genre's key audience. That chugging, incessant rhythm. That swing. These are the cornerstones of Rock & Roll, and indeed, they are the inventions of Chuck Berry. 

The man had his serious issues, particularly in the grotesque way he treated women and the belligerent way he treated his fellow musicians. However, the mark he left on music and twentieth century culture in general is unimpeachable. To list every artist touched by his music either consciously or unconsciously would be to list every guitar-based or lyric-focused artist since 1955. To list all of his incredible songs would be nearly as futile, but it does bear repeating that he did more than rewrite "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Johnny B. Goode" over and over-- another glib Rock critic gag. Just listen to his debut album, After School Session, and hear how deftly he handles straight blues, cool jazz, trad crooning, Latin rhythms, and however you want to define the chilling atmospheres of "Down Bound Train". The man was versatile, though he knew that the old "Johnny B. Goode" riffing was something completely, uniquely his own, and he worked it for all it was worth. 

Chuck Berry also possessed a buttery voice and six-string technique and an unparalleled work ethic. He kept pounding the boards until the age of 87 three years ago, and just last year started working on a new album, the fate of which remains unknown. What is known is that whether or not Chuck Berry invented Rock & Roll, it really feels as though Rock & Roll has died with him.

UPDATE: According to Chuck Berry's official Facebook page, his final album CHUCK is currently being prepped for release by Dualtone Records. A release date will be announced soon.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: 'Multiple Maniacs' Blu-ray

“This isn't any cheap X-rated movie or any fifth-rate porno play. This is the show you want: Lady Divine's Cavalcade of Perversion… The sleaziest show on Earth.”

So begins John Waters’s first feature to make ample use of his absurdly wordy, mostly shouted dialogue, though David Lochary’s carny pitch could just as well have kicked off Waters’s second total talky. Indeed, at first Multiple Maniacs feels like a crude dry run for the even more deliriously crude Pink Flamingos. The whole Dreamland company is present: Lochary and Mink Stole and Cookie Mueller and Edie Massey and Mary Vivian Pearce and, of course, the divine Divine. Two years before she embodied the filthiest person alive in Flamingos, Divine is the murderous main attraction of the sleaziest show on Earth— a freakshow reveling in such outrages as puke eaters and smack shooters. Compared to the very real and very graphically depicted chicken slaughtering, blowjobbing, asshole singing, and shit eating of Pink Flamingos, the simulated atrocities of Multiple Maniacs seem positively quaint.

Waters also hasn’t quite fine-tuned his shtick yet with an interminable, ten-minute-plus scene in which Divine and Mink Stole substitute a string of rosary beads for the anal kind in a church. The director would soon learn that the funniest outrages are less like forcing audiences to stare at a dead dog for ten minutes and more like just peeling the dog off the pavement and whacking the audience in the face with it.

The very cool thing about Multiple Maniacs is that it’s the closest thing Waters ever made to a monster movie. This becomes obviously true when Divine, who seems like she’s already way over the edge at the beginning of the movie, gets driven even further over the edge when a giant lobster rapes her. Then Divine takes over for Lobstora in this Baltimore Kaiju by going on a full-fledged Godzilla-style rampage.

Another cool thing about Multiple Maniacs is that it is Waters’s very first film to get the Criterion treatment. The slightly soft picture betrays the fact that Waters wasn’t exactly Gregg Toland, but there’s still a very appealing B&W indie aesthetic that is captured well here despite the stray scratch or two. Audio is similarly well presented despite any deficiencies related to amateur-filmmaking, though those who saw the film back in 1970 may be disappointed that Criterion was unable to get the unapproved Elvis songs used in the original print approved (they’re replaced with some generic Rock & Roll instrumentals).

Of the three substantial supplements, the best is by far Waters’s own typically charming, funny, and informative audio commentary that is the rare commentary to actually make watching a film more enjoyable. 33 minutes of interviews with Stole, Susan Lowe, Pat Moran, George Figgs, and Vincent Peranio is also great fun as the Dreamlanders share affectionate memories of Waters, their friends and cast mates, and filming. There’s also a ten-minute video essay by film scholar Gary Needham. All this makes for a nice package that is—fingers crossed—just the first interspecies coupling of the most prestigious home-video company in America and the filthiest filmmaker alive.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: ''Star Wars: The Visual Encyclopedia"

Star Wars is an excitingly picturesque world full of weird creatures, costumes, conveyances, and accoutrements to delight the eye. When it is doing what it was born to do, Star Wars is also a ton of fun. So it’s a bit of a drag that DK’s new edition of Star Wars: The Visual Encyclopedia isn’t more fun than it is.

Part of the problem is that Star Wars continued beyond the purely enjoyable original films to include such less fun things as CGI creatures and cartoons and the oft-criticized CSPAN leanings of the prequels. With sections titled “Galactic Politics” and “The Senate”, you can suss that fun is not at the forefront of this book’s agenda. The fact that all of the Star Wars entertainment out there has really cluttered the field is also detrimental to a book that wants to cover all that stuff to fulfill its encyclopedic purpose while also delivering on the visuals of its title. The only way to accomplish that is to shrink down the images, and too many of the photos in this book end up being too tiny to really enjoy.

Nevertheless, even little Star Wars pictures are at least a little fun, and truly dedicated fans will still find a lot to love in a book that makes room for sections on musical instruments and space food (totally gross looking space food, to be clear) and contains images of all those beloved characters, creatures, and creations (the pictures of props and decorations barely discernible on screen are fascinating and don't come off nearly as miniature as the character photos do) that all the dry, pseudo-reference book text in the world cannot dehydrate. And to be honest, you will find the occasional humorous caption if you hunt hard enough. Plus, you may even learn something, especially if you’re an original-trilogy old timer like me who didn’t know who half the robots and aliens in this book were before cracking into it. There are even things to glean about our old faves. For example, I had no idea that a tauntaun is technically a reptile. A hairy reptile. Only in Star Wars.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review: 'The Legion of Regrettable Super Villains'

When we last left the regrettable world of comics-chronicler Jon Morris, he was introducing us to a colorful cadre of super also-rans such as Bozo the Iron Man and Captain Tootsie. With his encyclopedic knowledge of characters most serious comics readers would rather forget and his bouncy wit, Morris turned The League of Regrettable Superheroes into one of the most fun reads of 2015. Two years later he is following up with a logical companion volume called The Legion of Regrettable Super Villains.

In some ways, this delightfully designed and written new book is more of the same despite its decidedly evil bent. There are many, many more asinine characters to make you giggle and cringe. 7ll’s enemy Brickbat is a schlub in a Batman cowl who hits people with poison bricks. A nemesis of The Black Hood, The Crow is an alcoholic opera singer who turns into a giant crow. The Dude gives corpses makeovers. Big Cheese of the Big Gang wields killer cheese. Egg Fu is a giant, offensive-ethnic-stereotype egg with a prehensile mustache who menaces Wonder Woman.

That’s where Regrettable Super Villains veers away from the wall-to-wall obscurities of Regrettable Superheroes. Some of these baddies actually faced off against genuinely legendary heroes, proving that even Wonder Woman, The Green Arrow, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Aquaman, Daredevil, Spiderman, and others of their A-list ilk were not immune to the taunts of D-list villains. One of these regrettable fellows— big-headed MONOK— even proved so popular that he got into it with virtually every top-line Marvel hero.

Some of these villains aren’t even all that regrettable. Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man is a rather ingenious creation who can simultaneously take on the characteristics of all three of his namesake organic matters, sprouting a dinosaur from half his face while ensnaring The Doom Patrol in hands made of crystal and tree. And I don’t need to explain to regular Psychobabble readers why I genuinely believe the natty simian Mod Gorilla Boss to be a villain right out of my own wildest dreams. Plus, any villain known to exclaim, “I am Bloor, dictator of Uranus” could hardly be labeled regrettable.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Is There Another 'Twin Peaks' Book on the Horizon?

When news that Mark Frost was at work on a new Twin Peaks book to tie in with the series' upcoming third season, a common assumption was that the book would catch fans up on everything that went down between the end of season two in 1991 and the beginning of season three 26 years later. As I reported in my review of The Secret History of Twin Peaks, that was not really the case. 

However, I was just reading through a fan Q&A Mark Frost gave on io9 last October and came across this intriguing tidbit buried deep in the conversation: after a fan identifying her/himself as TheArchiv1st asked Frost if there would be a book set between the two seasons, the series' co-creator replied: "Look for something along these lines after the show airs on Showtime." 

I prefer to steer clear of anything that smacks of rumor here on Psychobabble, but this comes right from Mark Frost. Whether or not he plans to handle this mystery project himself remains to be seen. Keep watching those woods, though...

Monday, February 27, 2017

Review: 'Kiss of Death' Blu-ray

Victor Mature is Nick Bianco, a two-bit galoot who gets pinched after a sloppy jewel heist. The coppers lean on Bianco to rat out his cronies, but he’s a stand up guy and goes up river. While he’s there, he gets the skinny that his wife killed herself after Rizzo, one of Bianco’s partners in crime, raped her, leaving Bianco’s rug rats locked up at the local orphanage. That’s the last straw for Bianco, who’s finally ready to squeal in exchange for parole. However, instead of squawking about his old accomplices, he starts playing a much more dangerous game by dishing dirt on Tommy Udo, a total psycho who did some time with Bianco.

Largely because Mature is a bit of a cold-fish lead, Kiss of Death is a slow burn, but it blazes white-hot whenever Richard Widmark steps on screen to embody Tommy Udo. No one played coyote-lean crazy like Widmark. Imagine Frank Gorshin losing the green tights and giggles and just going full on terrifying as The Riddler and you’ll get an idea of how Widmark plays Udo. The scene in which Udo pays Rizzo’s wheelchair-bound mom a visit is a classic of its grotesque sort. Director Henry Hathaway also deserves a hat tip when he plays it more subtly. The post-heist scene in which Bianco and his cronies make an excruciatingly slow escape on an elevator may have even taught Hitchcock a thing or two about suspense.

Twilight Time’s new blu-ray edition of Kiss of Death is light on the extras—it only boasts a trailer and a couple of audio commentaries—but the film looks fabulous with deep contrast, natural grain, and a very clean presentation. Audio can be a bit crackly and tinny, but it more than gets the job done, which is more than I can say for Nick Bianco.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Review: Sundazed's Standells Reissues

In 1966, L.A.’s Standells defined sixties garage rock and gave Boston its signature song when they recorded former Four Prep Ed Cobb’s “Dirty Water”. With its sneering delivery, greasy riff, and show of solidarity with “muggers and thieves” (cool people, all), the track defined the band as bad boys even though Larry Tamblyn, Dick Dodd, Tony Valentino, and Gary Lane insisted that they were a nice quartet of young fellows. However, going that route would do them no favors, and The Standells were absolutely at their best when playing the role of druggies (“Medication”), rabble rousers (“Riot on Sunset Strip”), and letches (“Try It”…the wide banning of which was a huge feather in the band’s collective cap).

They pulled off that masquerade without fail on their debut album. Dirty Water is a consistently nasty collection of menace and mayhem.  Obviously, the title track and the minor classic Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White  are fabulous, but so are relative oddities like the sexy/stoned “Medication”, the lascivious “Little Sally Tease”, and the fuzzy “Rari”. A cover of “19th Nervous Breakdown” won’t make you forget who Mick Jagger is, but it is right at home here. Even the token ballad “Pride and Joy” is tough.

The problem with The Standell’s follow up Why Pick On Me/Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White (aside from a title that makes the name of The Left Banke’s debut seem positively concise) is that they go too soft on certain tracks like the Italian-language “Mi Hai Fatto Innamorare” and the almost Four Seasons-like “The Girl and the Moon”. The approach simply does not suit The Standells. Still, the sophomore album with the name I don’t have the energy to type again has enough grungy smashes to redeem it. “Black Hearted Woman”, “Mr. Nobody”, the brooding “I Hate to Leave You”, and the tracks for which the album was named do exactly what you want Standells tracks to do, though Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White is a pointless rerun after its appearance on Dirty Water.

Released in 1967, the year of obligatory experimentation, Try It proved that The Standells could stretch themselves without violating their attitudinal ethos. Soulful horns embellish “Can’t Help But Love You” and a cover of “Ninety-Nine and a Half” powerfully, while the breezy, keyboards, mallets, and Brasil ’66-style harmonies of “Trip to Paradise” and the trippy swoops of “All Fall Down” are perfectly picturesque. In this more eclectic environment, even the light “Poor Shell of a Man” sounds really good. There are also more traditionally punky tracks like “Try It”, an acid-spitting take on St. James Infirmary”, the throbbing “Barracuda”, the psychedelic yet totally exciting “Did You Ever Have That Feeling”, and the chaotic “Riot on Sunset Strip” for those who prefer The Standells to stay in the garage. All of this makes for what may be the band’s best LP.

 Sundazed records is now reissuing these three essential Standells albums on LP and CD. The CDs also include a few bonus tracks each. A fairly weak crop augments Dirty Water, though an appropriately tongue-in-cheek version of the Batman theme is a lot of fun and features some thunderous drumming.  The trashier extras on Why Pick On Me/Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White are more essential because they help dilute the softness that plagues some of the proper album tracks. Try It, the most eclectic Standells album, also receives the most eclectic bonus tracks with the demo-like “Get Away from Here”; “Animal Girl”, which repeats the too-soft problem of those Pick On Me/Good Guys tracks; the stilted R&B of “Soul Dripping”; and the smoother soul of “Can You Dig It”. Sound across all three mono CDs is exceptional. You grumpy few who gripe that Sundazed’s discs are often too murky will have no such complaints here.
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