Friday, July 30, 2010

Psychobabble recommends 'Lennon and McCartney: Together Alone'

No pop body of work has been pored over more than that of The Beatles. The amount of ink dropped to explain why Revolver or “The White Album” are so fab may be excessive (especially considering how well they speak for themselves), but few other Rock & Roll artists have created material so worthy of deeper analysis. The fascination with Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison’s songs drops off significantly with the Beatles’ break-up. Though there is little doubt that The Beatles as individuals rarely lived up to their accomplishments as a unit, each of the composing ex-Beatles released at least one or two great albums. Lennon (whose solo career receives the most praise, whether deserved or not) had Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. McCartney had Ram and Band on the Run. Harrison trumped them both by crafting the best pop album of the ‘70s with All Things Must Pass. Because these solo careers are rife with ups and downs, there isn’t as much attention paid to them as The Beatle’s collective career, even as those ups and downs make them riper for critique.

John Blaney’s Lennon and McCartney: Together Alone attempts to rectify this situation by taking a look at the solo paths of The Beatles’ two chief writers. As a discography, the book is invaluable. Blaney covers each of Lennon and McCartney’s post-Beatles releases in microscopic detail, providing all relevant dates, personnel, variations between labels and album jackets and inner sleeves. He also supplies a trove of facts about the music’s inspirations and recordings supported by impeccably researched testimonies from the book’s two main subjects, as well as the musicians, producers, and wives who worked with them. Such historical information will be the main draw for fans. Blaney’s critiques of the music are generally sharp but not as deep as the best assessments of The Beatles’ catalogue (Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why or Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, for example). Occasionally Blaney’s assessments lapse into fanboy fervor. Granted, Lennon’s elephant-shriek guitar runs on Yoko Ono’s “Why” are stunning, but to write “Lennon’s work on this track eclipses anything produced by Hendrix or any other guitar hero” is pure hyperbole. Same goes for the assertions that Wild Life “has several McCartney compositions that are as good as anything he’s written” and McCartney’s embarrassing treacle “My Love” is “on a par with The Beatles.” Such statements are pretty crazy, but instances of them are minimal. Blaney doesn’t flinch when slicing into poor solo efforts like Lennon’s Sometime in New York City or McCartney II. At times his evaluations even made me rethink my opinions of the guys’ solo work. So, even with its minor flaws, Lennon and McCartney: Together Alone remains a book that should be read by both ex-Beatlemaniacs and solo skeptics.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Things That Scare Me: Case Study #11: The Wicked Witch Breaks the 4th Wall

In spite of (or, perhaps, because of) my adult infatuation with all things horrifying and horrific, I was scared of absolutely everything when I was a kid. A television commercial for a horror movie was enough to send me racing from the den in a sweaty palm panic. As an ongoing series here on Psychobabble, I've been reviewing some of the things that most traumatized me as a child and evaluating whether or not I was rightfully frightened or just a wiener.

Case Study #11: The Wicked Witch of the West Breaks the Fourth Wall

Statistics may not actually exist to support this statement, but I still say with complete confidence that no children’s movie traumatized more kids than The Wizard of Oz. Certainly others have had their brain-scarring impacts. The surreal riverboat sequence from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in which Gene Wilder recites a poem of befuddled despair in an increasingly demented wail and a chicken gets its head lopped off in graphic detail surely did a number on many youngsters. The diabolical Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang loomed large in his share of nightmares for obvious reasons. Even Disney, a studio often chided for over sanitizing the grimmest fairy tales, dealt out some pretty potent shocks in cartoons, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and live-action flicks, such as Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dragonslayer. But the terrors of The Wizard of Oz trump the rest, possibly because it is watched more often than these other movies. Or maybe it’s because The Wizard of Oz is the first movie a lot of children see, or at least, the first movie with horror elements they see. I’d guess a lot of parents screen the movie for their kids because of its delightful songs and cute characters and status as a children’s classic without fully taking into account the terrifying witch and her cadre of hideous flying monkeys and the ugly, incongruously named Winkie Guards and the floating, booming head of Oz the Great and Powerful (or “Oz the Great and Terrible”, as he was more aptly titled in L. Frank Baum’s book). The Wizard of Oz certainly isn’t the ultimate scary kiddie flick because its depiction of an innocent being pursued by a relentless boogey man/woman is unique. Most of the movies mentioned above have this in common.

Honestly, as much of a lily-livered weinie as I was as a kid, I watched The Wizard of Oz year after year when it aired on CBS around Easter time. I was aware of the movie’s rep as a child-traumatizer, but it didn’t really have that effect on me. Then one year, the horror suddenly clicked. The moment was brief. All of the flying monkeys and Winkies and disembodied heads still failed to push my panic button. Even the majority of the Witch’s appearances wooshed by as usual. But then I noticed something I’d apparently never noticed before. At the tail end of the scene in which Dorothy speaks to Auntie Em through a crystal ball while trapped in the Witch’s tower, and Em transforms into the mocking Witch, she gazes directly into the camera.

I believe I’ve written before of my terror of fourth-wall breaking, but I’ll reiterate it. I am terrified of fourth wall breaking. This is when a character in a film looks directly into the camera, seemingly interacting directly with the viewer. Sometimes this technique can enhance the humor of a comedy, like when Eddie Murphy gives the viewer a “Do you believe this patronizing asshole?” look after Randy Duke explains that bacon might be found in a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich in Trading Places.

Or it can heighten the poignancy of an emotional scene, like when Giulietta Masina gives the viewer a quick, teary smile in the last frames of Nights of Cabiria.

This heightening goes for scary scenes, as well. Being seven, or however old I was at the time, and having the Wicked Witch of the West make eye contact with me from my TV screen was paralyzing. On top of this was a strange feeling of betrayal. Remember, at this point in my life, The Wizard of Oz was an old friend that visited my home every year. And now— now after all these years and all these viewings—now it was going to be scary? Now I was going to start having nightmares in which I was being pursued—or worse, looked at—by Margaret Hamilton in her green makeup? What the fuck, Wizard of Oz? I thought we had an agreement? Where do you get off doing this shit.

The Verdict: Normally I set up these “I was justified in my terror” verdicts with a slew of excuses, but I believe none are necessary this time. The fact that I’d watched The Wizard of Oz so many times as a kid without being terrified is a veritable point of pride. And when it finally did scare me, I was still pretty young. So I can say without a trace of hesitation that I was justified in my fear.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Psychobabble’s 10 Greatest Singles of 1960!

1960 is generally regarded as a rough time for Rock & Roll. Although it was the year Elvis Presley’s Army stint ended, the new recordings he made that year were not his most dynamic. Chuck Berry was beset with legal problems because of his dirty-old-man peccadilloes. Buddy Holly had died the previous year. Little Richard was in the midst of a serious Jesus addiction.

These are the clichés often trotted out to dismiss that dry period between the ‘50s’ end and the start of the British Invasion. The fact is that with the exception of Elvis, none of these hard Rockers ever dominated the charts. Featherweight jokers like Pat Boone, Debbie Reynolds, and Paul Anka were scoring massive hits during Rock & Roll’s late-‘50s golden age. That the biggest hits of 1960 were novelties like “Running Bear” and “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, pop fluff like “Teen Angel” and Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”, and saccharine pap like “Theme from ‘A Summer Place’” wasn’t much different from the previous decade’s situation. And it sure doesn’t change the fact that some great records slipped out in ‘60ar. Here are ten of them…

10. “Chick A’ Roo” by Rick Wayne and the Flee-Rakkers

Like Phil Spector, producer Joe Meek— not the singers and groups he chose to record— was the star of his recordings. Unlike Spector, Meek displayed remarkably poor taste when it came to choosing singers (supposedly, many of his choices were driven by his desire to have sex with cute guys rather than a yen for genuine vocal talent). Yet Meek’s records are great because he draped them with such startling otherworldly effects that he could have made Mickey Mouse sound like Elvis. Rick Wayne was a particularly lousy singer, but “Chick A’ Roo” is a killer chunk of vinyl because of its charmingly goofy hipster lyric and some hard-driving backing from The Flee-Rakkers, who also released a couple of excellent, Meek-produced instrumentals that year, including a surf update of “Green Sleeves” called “Green Jeans”.

9. “Bye Bye Johnny” by Chuck Berry

As mentioned above, Chuck Berry was not having a great year in 1960, but that didn’t stop him from cutting a handful of very good records. None of them matched the power of his ‘50s recordings (though his mojo would return the following year with stellar stuff like “I’m Talking About You” and “Come On”). Of course, sub-par Chuck Berry still smokes most of contemporaries. “Bye Bye Johnny” is the

August 19, 2009: The Nuggets Record Buying Guide: The Turtles

The Turtles are probably the most high-profile group included on the first Nuggets box set. Of course, they aren’t represented by any of their ubiquitous mega-hits like “Happy Together” or “Elenore”, both of which would be undeniably out of place amongst the punky garage rock on Nuggets. Their rendition of Warren Zevon’s “Outside Chance” fits in splendidly, though. It’s a short, sharp blast of driving, riffy Rock & Roll and a neat indicator of how diverse the Turtles could be. They are primarily known as purveyors of schlocky pop like the two hits mentioned above, but during their brief record-making career (1965-1969) they recorded five eclectic albums, each one worth owning. But where to start? Where to start? Relax… answering this question is the point of the Nuggets Record Buying Guide.

The obvious launching point may seem to be Happy Together/She’d Rather Me with Me (1967). It boasts the Turtles’ two biggest hits (as indicated by its painfully unimaginative title) and a couple of popular misses (the slow-burning “Me About You”; “Guide for the Married Man”, the title song from a Walter Matthau vehicle). Happy Together is not the Turtles’ strongest album, though. Some of the cuts are fairly non-descript, and the idiotically sung “Rugs of Wood and Flowers” is unlistenable. Even a couple of the more well-known cuts aren’t must-haves: “Happy Together” has been murdered by over-exposure and “Guide for the Married Man” sounds as disposable as most pop movie themes were in the mid-‘60s. You don’t want to be without “Me About You”, “She’d Rather Be With Me”, and some of the stronger album cuts (particularly “The Walking Song” and “Too Young to Be One”), but this record should be placed on the back burner for a bit. Same goes for The Turtles Present the Battles of the Bands (1968), which also contains a pair of huge hits (“Elenore” and “You Showed Me”), but there are too many goofy comedy tracks flanking them (the album’s conceit finds the band impersonating various groups in various genres, Sgt. Pepper-style). Again, there are some great songs here (“You Showed Me” is one of the Turtles’ best hit singles), but it’s pretty spotty overall.

The real launching point for a Turtles-habit is their final album. Turtle Soup (1969) does not include a single hit, but considering that plenty of listeners never took the Turtles’ hits very seriously, this is not a hindrance. The Turtles were so enamored with The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968) that they nabbed Ray Davies to produce Turtle Soup, and the album shares the spare-but-intricate instrumentation that helped make VGPS an album that can be listened to over and over without being heard the same way twice. Also like Village Green, Turtle Soup covers a number of musical styles but remains unified by its production. There’s some ecstatic jangle-pop (“She Always Leaves Me Laughing”), Lovin’ Spoonful-style good timin’ (the May/December love song “Bachelor Mother”), delirious Rock & Roll ( “Hot Little Hands”), baroque pop (the beautiful “John and Julie”), a country-fried waltz (“Dance This Dance”), spooky mysterioso psych (“Somewhere Friday Night”), a Wagnerian pocket symphony (“Love in the City”), and a fabulous variation on the quiet-LOUD-quiet recipe that made a hit of “Happy Together” (“You Don’t Have to Walk in the Rain”). Perhaps out of respect for their guest producer, the band turned in their most serious roster of tunes. There isn’t a “Rugs of Wood and Flowers” in the bunch, and after the hit-and-miss comedy of The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, this more serious direction is welcome. There are still moments of humor on Turtle Soup (most notably the sex-crazed “Hot Little Hands”), but there aren’t any of the silly pastiches or jokey performances that made some of their previous records lopsided. Impressively, Turtle Soup is also the Turtles’ only album to not contain a single song written by an outside composer, and each member of the group contributes both compositions and lead vocals.
Next, you might want to check out the Turtles second album, another lazily titled platter called You Baby/Let Me Be (1966). It’s a transitional record, finding the Turtles with one foot in the Byrdsy folk-rock of their debut (It Ain’t Me Babe [1965]) and one in the bubble gum of future hits like “She’d Rather Be with Me”. Both styles are evidenced in the two hits for which the album was named, but the record also has some gutsy garage rock (“Flyin’ High”; “Pall Bearing Ball Bearing World”) and blues (“House of Pain”), and a funny rumba (“Suburbia”). It Ain’t Me Babe is almost as good. The Turtles’ cover of “Like a Rolling Stone” is unnecessary (especially in light of the two superior Dylan covers with which it shares vinyl space), but their versions of P.F. Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction”, “Your Maw Said You Cried” (later covered by Robert Plant), and “Glitter and Gold” (covered by the amazing Canadian group Sloan in the ‘90s) are essential.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 21, 2010: Psychobabble recommends John Cale’s ‘Fear’

After Lou Reed booted John Cale from The Velvet Underground in 1968, Cale wasted little time getting on with his work, producing Nico’s terrifying The Marble Index and The Stooges’ classic debut the following year. In 1970 he recorded his first solo album, a collaboration with minimalist composer Terry Riley heavy on extended, instrumental, jazz-like workouts. Church of Anthrax would not be issued until 1971, a year after Cale released Vintage Violence, a solo debut dominated by relatively straight-forward singer-songwriter material influenced by The Band. These two records—both interesting yet flawed—indicated that Cale’s solo career would take a mercurial path, but neither hinted at the confidence and variety he’d achieve on 1974’s Fear. Strong in voice and composition on each of the album’s nine tracks, Cale produced an album that deserves classic status.

The record commences its seduction with “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend”, which starts off as a Bowie-esque, piano-based pop song before climaxing with frenzied bass noise and paranoid primal shrieks. It’s exhilarating, scary stuff and a sharp contrast to the deliberate, choral beauty of “Buffalo Ballet”, which follows. A reggae-tinged rhythm lays the groundwork of “Barracuda”, but Cale provides the hooks with his mumbled melody, circusy organ fills, and screechy viola solo. “Emily” is an expansive, gorgeous ballad, and —like “Buffalo Ballet”, “Barracuda”, and the soulful “You Know More Than I Know”— makes very tasteful use of female backing singers (a real rarity in the mid-‘70s!). “Ships of Fools” is woozy and romantic with a sparkling arrangement that conceals a creepily Gothic lyric. Rolling along on a strolling rhythm, “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy” is as funny as it sounds. Critics tend to compare this number to The Beach Boys, although to my ears, it sounds more like a lift of Van Morrison’s “Straight to Your Heart (Like a Cannonball)”. These are all superb tracks, but the album’s masterpiece is the eight-minute stomp “Gun”, a sweaty-palmed tale of a criminal on the run (later covered to great effect by Siouxsie and the Banshees). Lou Reed may have gotten all the press with his solo career, but I’ve never heard him do anything as accomplished as Fear post-Velvets.

July 20, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘Psycho II’

Psycho II is a movie I avoided for a long time. I’d never seen a great sequel to a great director’s great movie that wasn’t made by that same great director. The non-Kubrick sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey? An unimaginative, dated trifle. Part 2 of Spielberg’s Jaws? My two-word review simply reads “shit sandwich.” Why should I expect any more from a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movie made three years after Hitch died? Robert Bloch, author of the Psycho novel, was not involved either because Universal execs supposedly hated his own literary sequel published in 1982. Anthony Perkins, however, is back as Norman, who is finally being released from the mental institution in which he’d been imprisoned since committing his—errr—youthful indiscretions. So is a tough-to-recognize Vera Miles, who reprises her role as Lila Crane, sister of the showering woman Norman knifed in 1960.

That Psycho II begins with an extended clip of that original murder is not a good sign. A bit of advice to director Richard Franklin: when making an unauthorized sequel to the masterwork of one of cinema’s legendary filmmakers, don’t actually include footage from that filmmaker’s film; it will only make it easier to draw comparisons that place you on the losing end (editor’s note: Richard Franklin is too dead to actually take this advice). It was also a bad idea to shoot a shot-by-shot remake of that shower scene with Meg Tilly, who plays Norman’s co-worker and would-be girlfriend Mary, even if you do toss in a lazy bit of ‘80s body-double boobs.

So, yeah, there are some major problems with Psycho II (I haven’t even mentioned the bad-taste violence that might be kind of funny elsewhere but feels really out of place in this picture. Oh, wait a minute… I just did). Yet this is actually a pretty good flick. Surely it suffers in comparison to Hitchcock’s movie. That’s a given. But Tom Holland, who went on to write good stuff like Fright Night and Child’s Play, put together a script that remains true to the spirit of the original while also taking the story in some interesting new directions. About an hour into the picture I thought I had the inevitable twist all figured out, but Holland keeps playing games right up until the final scene. He even includes an ingenious parody of the most notoriously clunky scene in Psycho.

Equally important, Anthony Perkins never misses a beat; Norman is just as twitchy, uncomfortably sympathetic, and way creepy as he was 23 years earlier. I also like the fact that director Franklin was actually an associate of Hitchcock, who supposedly schooled his protégé about the ins and outs of German Expressionism. I would have liked it better if he’d used more of what Hitch taught him. Aside from a small handful of distorted shots, the direction is too straightforward. And though it is interesting to see all those iconic sets and props from the original film in full color—and Franklin really luxuriates over them— I think this sequel would have been much better in black and white. Still worth a view, though, even for skeptics like myself.

July 19, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘Jack Bruce: Composing Himself’

In the introduction to Composing Himself: Jack Bruce (Jaw Bone Press), Harry Shapiro explains that when he told a friend he was writing Bruce’s biography, the friend asked, “Well, what are you going to write about after Cream?” In some perfect alternate universe, such a question would never be asked. Jack Bruce’s shiver-inducing tenor, manic bass playing, and freaky songwriting defined Cream far more than anything Eric Clapton contributed to the band, and Bruce’s first solo album, Songs for a Tailor, was far more adventurous than any of Clapton’s. Still, the guitarist went on to an extremely popular and successful post-Cream career while Bruce’s ever eclectic work was only familiar to fanatics. Reams of text have been scribbled about Slow Hand—and even a good deal has been laid down regarding deranged Cream drummer Ginger Baker—while Bruce’s life and work has received a lot less scrutiny. Chances are Composing Himself will not only be the first but the final biography focusing solely on Jack Bruce. Fortunately, it gets the job done well enough that no other will be necessary.

Probably since so much has been written about Cream, Shapiro doesn’t dwell on that band too much here. The group’s existence is limited to roughly 30 pages of this 300-page book, although their legend looms over much of what proceeds. This leaves plenty of room to discuss Jack’s early career as a serious jazz musician and a journeyman with crucial British blues groups like The Graham Bond Organization, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and Manfred Mann and his numerous—and often quite bizarre—projects following the demise of Cream in ’69. The cast of characters is enormous, including Mick Taylor, Lou Reed, Fela Kuti, Jim Keltner, Ringo Starr, Leslie West, and Todd Rundgren. The breadth of his work is even more expansive: hard rock jam bands and jazz-fusion or avant garde groups, and somewhat sadly, a host of nostalgia groups that include a Beatles cover band. Bruce’s personal life is equally varied: a devout left-winger of Scottish Communist stock in a largely right-wing, English Rock world (no pro-Enoch Powell on-stage rants from Bruce, friends!), a longtime heroin-addict, an occasional dabbler in theater.

Shaprio’s writing is solid and supported by Bruce’s close involvement (this is one of those “authorized” biographies), multiple interview sources, and a quite good forward by Clapton, which makes some of the book’s stranger detours not only palatable but mesmerizing. There is a nightmarish interlude at a Mafioso’s compound where famed session pianist Nicky Hopkins is being held prisoner, possibly by black magic, and Bruce’s extended hallucination following liver surgery. Some of this stuff would not work if dropped in a less assured book. Here, it adds some extra color to an already fascinating tale.

July 7, 2010: Ringo’s Ten Greatest Beats

For a guy who is doubtlessly the most famous drummer who ever lived, Ringo Starr has received a fair share of guff for his behind-the-kit skills. He’s been called The Beatles’ weak-link and the luckiest guy in the world for hooking up with three superiorly talents musicians, but those kinds of flippant barbs miss how fine a drummer Ringo is and how much he changed his instrument. The Ringo Starr beat is unmistakable: that constant wash of semi-open hi-hat, that hard kick drum, those odd-ball fills that lead with the toms (a consequence of him being a left-handed drummer forced by his grandmother—who believed lefties to be minions of Satan—to play a right-handed kit). His playing has been copied by major players from Charlie Watts (check out his work on “Dandelion”) to Max Weinstein to basically every other player who’s picked up a pair of stick since 1964— whether he or she realizes it or not. Anyone who still questions the man’s prowess on a four piece Ludwig need only hear Ringo’s Ten Greatest Beats

1. “I Feel Fine” (1964)

“I Feel Fine” is a track that perfectly illustrates why Ringo’s drumming is so misunderstood: his work is deceptively simple and seems perhaps too lax, yet it’s actually quite metronomic and perfectly compliments what the other Beatles are doing. Ringo’s salsa stumbles in behind Lennon’s propulsive guitar riff and matches its effervescence loosely but not lazily. Then he shift gears radically for a hard bass/snare fill following the guitar break before easing back into that salsa and riding the record into the sunset.

July 12, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day’

The contemporary trend in Rock & Roll retrospectives is the day-by-day chronicle; exhaustive accounts of the where and when of every doing—both major and marginal— of Rock’s hugest institutions. I’ve read books of this nature about The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Monkees. All of these have been essential and valuable reference guides even if they don’t provide the fluid reading experience of a straight biography.

Published last year by Jaw Bone Press, Richie Unterberger’s Velvet Underground chronicle delivers even greater OCD exhaustiveness than these other books, while also dragging the genre closer to the realm of classic biography. As such White Light/White Heat is the most traditionally readable day-by-day chronicle I’ve perused, tethering all of those dates and details about recording sessions and concerts together with insightful critiques of the band’s records and shows, as well as personal information that truly attempts to answer every conceivable lingering question about the freaky East Coast horde. If you’re still wondering why John Cale quit, how and why the band made such a radical transition from hedonistic avant-gardists to a pop group that could record stuff like “Who Loves the Sun?”, or how they fell into the hands of Doug Yule, Unterberger does his damnedest to answer you. As a Brit Rock fanatic, I was tickled to read about the Velvets jamming on stuff like “Day Tripper”, “The Last Time”, “My Generation”, and “I Can’t Explain” and Lou Reed’s effusive praise for The Easy Beats and Something Else by the Kinks. This certainly cleared up the pop question for me.

Along with covering all relevant incidents pertaining directly to The Velvet Underground, Unterberger allows no periphery detail escape him. Amusingly, he even mentions the BMI registration of a song written by one Lewis Reed— who clearly is not the Mr. Reed relevant to this book. I also like the way he gradually folds the various stars who will be most influenced by The Velvet’s into the story, particularly David Bowie, Jonathan Richman, The Plastic People of the Universe, and Patti Smith. Such artists are crucial figures in VU history since a good deal of the band’s significance lies in how heavily they altered Rock & Roll by inspiring a new generation of artists.

As fine as White Light/White Heat inarguably is, all but the most devoted fans may still find themselves skipping around a bit. The incredible number of concert overviews gets a bit repetitious and I quickly lost interest in all details regarding pre-fame Velvet Angus MacLise, whose activities are chronicled here long after his departure from the band. Still I was greatly appreciative of how closely Unterberger followed Nico and John Cale’s post-VU careers (I can’t wait to pick up a copy of The Marble Index!). The writer’s obsession with cult acts, which made his earlier books Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll and Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers so indispensable, fully flourishes when detailing Rock’s ultimate cult act. Maddeningly definitive.

June 28, 2010: 21 Underrated Beach Boys Songs You Need to Hear Now!

Summer’s here again, which means it’s time to listen to copious amounts of The Beach Boys. But where to start; where to start? That raggedy old copy of Endless Summer perhaps? Or a stack of tracks covering the usual sandy paths: “Good Vibrations” and “I Get Around” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Surfin’ USA”? Perhaps you’d like to branch out a bit, and a discography as rich with buried treasure as that of The Beach Boys is certainly worth a deeper dive.

When I composed similar “21 Underrated Songs” lists for The Rolling Stones and The Who, I had little trouble deciding what constituted an underrated song. I basically just stuck with anything that hadn’t appeared on a major Greatest Hits type album. The Stones released very few of these, so a wide portion of their catalogue was ripe for inclusion. The Who released a ton of them, but nearly every one of their “Best of” collections consists of picks pulled from the same pool of 20 or so songs. The Beach Boys have also put out a lot of compilations, but there is wider variation among them. So, I basically stuck to songs that were not released as single A-sides or on the first two Beach Boys comps I bought: Endless Summer and Good Vibrations: Best of the Beach Boys.

This means some exceptional tracks that are relatively underplayed did not make this list: “The Warmth of the Sun”, “Girl Don’t Tell Me”, “Let Him Run Wild”, “Friends”, “Surf’s Up”, “Sail On Sailor”, etc. Those all deserve to be heard more often than they are, but I set some parameters for myself and stuck to them, damn it. That being said, maybe you’ll discover something that will wow your soul among these 21 Underrated Beach Boys Songs You Need to Hear Now!

1. “Lonely Sea” (from the album Surfin’ USA!) 1963

The common misconceptions of those skeptical of the artistic value of The Beach Boys’ music and the cult it inspired is that the group didn’t show signs of progress until Pet Sounds and, in the words of Rolling Stones magazine’s Dave Marsh, “Brian Wilson became a Major Artist by making music no one outside his own coterie ever heard” (Marsh is talking about SMiLE, which I’ll discuss more further down this list). This is wholly untrue, and evidence of Wilson’s “Major Artistry” (those are Marsh’s smugly mocking caps, by the way) is apparent as early as The Beach Boys’ second album, Surfin’ USA. For those who don’t think the ecstatically fresh title song is enough to qualify Wilson as an important artist (i.e.: people who neither care about nor understand Rock & Roll), there’s “Lonely Sea”. In this one largely forgotten ballad is all of the harmonic inventiveness and heart-wrenching pathos that would help make Pet Sounds the monster classic it has become. Unlike Pet Sounds, the arrangement is as sparse as could be. Some lightly brushed drums, barely-there bass, and a gently picked, heavily tremeloed guitar are the only backdrop to Brian’s chilling lead vocal and the guys’ gossamer harmonies.

2. “We’ll Run Away” (from the album All Summer Long) 1964

Another beautiful ballad, this one pulled from The Beach Boys’ first great album, All Summer Long. One of the few songs from that album that has not become an overly-familiar favorite, “We’ll Run Away” is like a precursor to

June 29, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘The Bat Whispers’

Roland West’s The Bat Whispers
(1930) is far from a perfect movie. The creaky plot about a seemingly supernatural burglar/murderer was surely fresher the first time around in the 1920 Broadway play The Bat and the second time around in West’s silent 1926 chiller of the same name. West telegraphs his big surprise ending about a half hour before the picture ends with lighting and makeup. Perhaps revealing a character’s villainy by lighting him from below, mussing his hair, and giving him dark circles under his eyes had yet to become a trope in 1930, but this kind of stuff has since become easy shorthand for “Look out! This cat’s evil!” What’s more, West’s talky script is a bore, and the ample moments of comic relief are as funny as screwdriver in the pee hole.

Yet The Bat Whispers remains remarkable for West’s staggeringly inventive trick photography and swooping camerawork. The opening shot, which zooms in on a bonging clock tower before plummeting down its length to a bustling Manhattan street, is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in a film from this era. He also makes the best use of shadows since Nosferatu. For much of the film, the title villain is only seen as a black shape stalking along walls, and when we finally meet him in the flesh, that shadow collapses to the floor only to have a hooded figure grow back out of it in unsettlingly bizarre fashion. I’m not sure how West achieved this shot, and that’s OK by me because I wouldn’t want its magic spoiled. There’s also the terrific setting, an old dark house loaded with secret passageways, the wonderfully stormy atmosphere, and an utterly charming epilogue in which star Chester Morris informs the viewers that The Bat is a good friend of his who would surely go on a murder spree if anyone in the audience dares reveal the film’s twist ending. With such a knack for getting a large group of people to do what he wants by scaring them, Morris could have gotten himself a job in the Bush administration.

The Bat would be remade under its original name yet again in 1959, and while very entertaining and sporting superior performances from the likes of Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price, it’s no visual match for The Bat Whispers.

June 24, 2010: Psychobabble recommends Philip J. Riley’s ‘Lon Chaney as Dracula’

Before Bela Lugosi forged his iconic performance as Count Dracula, another horror legend was slotted to play the role. Having risen to superstardom by playing grotesques in silent pictures such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera, and London After Midnight, Lon Chaney Sr. was to play the vampire in what would have been his second talking picture. The film was well past the planning stages—with Tod Browning hired to direct and Dudley Murphy and Louis Bromfield penning the script—when Chaney’s death by throat hemorrhage in 1930 halted it. Losing little time, Universal replaced Chaney with Bela Lugosi and hired Garrett Fort to write a new script in time for the film to be released less than six months after Chaney’s death.

Long thought to be lost, Murphy and Bromfield’s unproduced Dracula script is the latest discovery of cinematic archaeologist Philip J. Riley, whose Alternate History for Classic Monster Movies series continues to marvel. This latest volume is a more eclectic affair than the ones about James Whale’s Dracula’s Daughter and Wolfman vs. Dracula. Beginning with Riley’s brief introduction to the subject, the book moves on to Bromfield’s extensive, 50-page treatment, complete with long stretches of dialogue. Chaney was adamant that his film-adaptations remained faithful to the novels on which they were based, and the treatment reveals a picture considerably closer to Bram Stoker than Fort’s script based on the Dracula stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. The Count is also described in more animalistic terms, with his hairy body, wolfish ears, and long fangs, than Lugosi’s vampire, probably to take better advantage of Chaney’s makeup prowess. After the treatment comes the opening passage of Murphy and Bromfield’s script, which draws out Jonathan Harker’s arrival at Castle Dracula for 20-pages, suggesting a more epic film than the one with Lugosi. The script ends abruptly during Harker’s initial meeting with Dracula because of Chaney’s death, but Riley’s book still has several more treasures in its crypt: a complete cast, crew, and title list for the 1931 Dracula, F.W. Murnau’s complete shooting script for Nosferatu, which includes numerous notes by the director (Bromfield was given a copy of the script to help him along with constructing his vampire tale), and most valuably, Lon Chaney’s 12-page autobiography originally published in the September 1925 issue of Movie Magazine. While any classic horror enthusiast should be sufficiently lured by Bromfield’s fascinating treatment, Chaney’s autobiography is a clincher, offering a rare opportunity to read the man’s story in his own words, not to mention a wealth of terrific pictures.

June 20, 2010: An Open Letter to ‘Jaws’

Dear Jaws,

It’s not your fault. For 35 years (happy birthday, by the way) you’ve been taking the blame for ruining serious cinema, for turning viewers into a horde of explosion-craving mush heads. You’ve been fingered as the culprit behind the tired “summer blockbuster” phenomenon that defecated True Lies, Speed, Independence Day, and Transformers (among many, many, many others) into cinemas. OK, granted, you were the first film to receive wide distribution, opening in 464 theaters throughout the country on a single date (that would be this date, 35 years ago, as if you didn’t know). You were the first movie to net more than $100 million at the box office. You even climax with a smartass one-liner (“Smile, you son of a…”) and an explosion. But I still contend that the treatment you’ve received over the years has been wholly unfair. The naysayers fixate on your special effects (which, let’s face it, were good but hardly spectacular), while ignoring your smart dialogue (“Smile, you son of a…” notwithstanding…), your flawless acting (Robert Shaw gives what may be the greatest performance ever seen in a horror movie), and your emphasis on finely detailed characters over splashy spectacle. Perhaps the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were more impressive than your shark, but have any of that movie’s characters taken hold of the pop-culture imagination as Quint or Brody or Hooper or even Larry Vaughn have? Does Jurassic Park have a scene as riveting as Quint’s recollection of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis? Does any movie? Compare the dialogue in that scene to the following, which is the first “memorable quote” on imdb from James Cameron’s record-breaking Avatar released last year. That there is some shit writing.

June 21, 2010: Super ‘70s Time Capsule: “Mr. Jaws” edition

In the wake of Jaws-mania, the record “Mr. Jaws” (1975) by Dickie Goodman sat on prominent display in any record store worth its salt. As a kid, I was mildly fascinated with this record. What might a Jaws comedy record entail? Hilarious descriptions of people getting gnawed to death by great white sharks? That would have actually been a lot funnier than the actual contents of Mr. Jaws, which consists of Goodman as a Walter Mitty-esque reporter asking “Mr. Jaws” (i.e.: the shark in Spielberg’s blockbuster) dopey questions like “What did you think when you took that first bite?” Mr. Jaws then “responds” with cutesy clips from FM Super Hits like “Get Down Tonight” by KC and the Sunshine Band, “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain & Tennille, and “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell.

As a comedy record, “Mr. Jaws” is some appalling shit, but as a time capsule of cheesy Jaws merchandising tie-ins and the kind of Top 40 pop trash that helped necessitate the emergence of Punk, it’s solid gold.

June 18, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘Stones in Exile’

That Stones in Exile kicks off with a string of random celebrity comments doesn’t bode well for Stephen Kijak’s doc. Jack White, I love you, but I came for The Rolling Stones, not you., aren’t you partly to blame for that awful “My Humps” song? Benecio del Toro, what are you even doing here? Fortunately, the talking heads disappear quickly and the hour-long film settles into telling the story of The Stones’ most celebrated, if not their best (that would be Beggars Banquet), album.

All surviving personnel—not just the core band, but Bobby Keys, Andy Johns, Anita Pallenberg, and others—contribute contemporary recollections about fleeing to the South of France to avoid Britain’s stiff tax take, recording the double-disc in Keith’s sweaty, low-security manor, Bianca, drugs, decadence, and the rest. None of this is revelatory stuff, but it is nice to hear these well-traveled tales from the Stones’ own mouths for a change. The most interesting comments come from Jagger regarding his offhand approach to lyric writing. Footage of The Stones on stage, backstage, at play, and in the studio is extraordinarily valuable, even though a good share of it was siphoned from Ladies and Gentlemen… The Rolling Stones and Cocksucker Blues, which aren’t officially available otherwise. At least not yet. Eagle Rock Entertainment, the company responsible for Stones in Exile will be releasing Ladies and Gentlemen… this coming November. Now how about giving The Stones the complete history once over, à la The Beatles Anthology, so we can hear the boys tell the rest of their story?

June 16, 2010: Anatomy of a Psycho: 50 Years of Hitch’s Masterpiece

“First customer of the day is always trouble…”

Psycho was a first in many ways, and has been causing tremendous trouble for fifty years. If there is a single film that ultimately legitimized the horror film, it is Psycho, even if there were well-crafted, artful, serious horror films before it. But such films—Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People for example—did not make the impact Alfred Hitchcock’s low-key slasher did. Along with Terence Fisher’s Dracula, Psycho essentially mapped out the way horror would develop throughout the ‘60s, but Dracula glared over its shoulder as Psycho fixed its glassy eyes on the future. Even with its new-fangled fascination with blood and sex, Dracula was still a remake, an adaptation of a 63-year old novel, and a period piece reliant on decrepit Gothic castles and supernatural hokum. These are all elements that made the film wonderful, but they do seem more in step with the cinema of 30-years prior than the contemporary world. Regardless, Dracula held massive appeal for a generation of youngsters who’d discovered Tod Browning’s original on late night TV and spent their days thumbing through Famous Monsters of Filmland and constructing their Aurora Monster model kits. Fisher’s Dracula (more so than his somewhat less memorable Frankenstein from 1957) was successful enough to lead British Hammer Films to fashion a string of similar— though increasingly bloody and sex-fixated—hit Monster movies. It inspired American producer/director Roger Corman to make like-mindedly retro Gothic horrors by plundering the works of Edgar Allan Poe. It inspired American TV producer/Dan Curtis to adapt Stoker to the small screen for his smash series “Dark Shadows”.

Yes, old-fashioned Monster stories, creaky castles, and rubber bats had not gone out of style during the sophisticated ‘60s, but another breed of horror was born as well. In sharp contrast to the traditionalist Hammer and Corman pictures, Psycho was based on a new work (Robert Bloch’s novel was published a mere year before the film’s release). The movie and its progenies were contemporary in setting, Gothic castles being replaced by Gothic motor lodges, Gothic apartment buildings, and Gothic suburban neighborhoods. Supernatural monsters were passed over in favor of seemingly ordinary, innocuous human beings harboring monstrous inner selves. The fang is replaced by the kitchen knife. For every bloodsucker that popped up in response to Fisher’s Dracula, there was a gritty, realistic, psychological horror that never would have been born if not for Psycho. Hitchcock’s film established a

June 8, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie’

Mellodrama, the title of a new film about the Mellotron, is more than just a clever play on words. There is a surprising level of intrigue, double-crossing, and impassioned archaeology in Dianna Dilworth’s documentary about the early synthesizer that was a staple of ‘60s psychedelia and ‘70s progressive rock. Thorough yet brisk and accessible enough for non-cultists, Mellodrama provides an engrossing trip through the Mellotron’s history. We see vintage footage of Harry Chambelin, the man who invented the Chamberlin organ in the ‘40s and personally hawked it to music stores like a traveling salesman, marketing it more as home entertainment appliance than serious instrument. Chamberlin’s son Richard is present to describe how a former business partner ripped off his dad’s invention and sold it to a British company that rejiggered and marketed it as the Mellotron to much greater success. This leads to discussions of the instrument’s renaissance among Rock musicians.

Although Mellodrama is short on original recordings of the songs that made it legendary (the high cost of music rights is surely the culprit), we do get to see Mike Pinder of The Moody Blues replicating the Mellotron part of “Nights in White Satin” on his sampler and Brian Wilson noodling with “California Girls” on the real thing. More significant are the stories the musicians tell. Pinder describes how he turned The Beatles on to the Mellotron, which led to the creation of some of their most important work. Rod Argent talks about how The Zombies’ masterwork Odessey & Oracle was affected by a Mellotron The Beatles left behind in Abbey Road. Claudio Simonetti of Goblin discusses how he worked the Mellotron into the horror films of Dario Argento. Richard Chamberlin talks about how a Mellotron mesmerized Stevie Wonder. Matthew Sweet, Michael Penn, producers Mitchell Froom, and Jon Brion describe their quests to hunt down or revive these rare objects. We also learn how the Lawrence Welk Orchestra, the British military, and the Third Reich contributed to the development of the Mellotron, and how its temperamental nature (The Moody Blues actually cancelled shows because of their chronically malfunctioning Mellotron!) caused its downfall. By the end of Mellodrama, the Mellotron has emerged as a character more fully realized than many human roles in Hollywood films. Highly recommended to both those interested in the Mellotron as a piece of pioneering technology and fans of the artists who made it a cult item worthy of its own film.

June 7, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘The Jaws Log’

There are only three things that will get me to set foot in a church: a wedding, a funeral, or a book sale. One of the churches in my neighborhood in Jersey City hosts a book sale every Sunday, and it’s a great place to stock up on Stephen King paperbacks for 50 cents a pop (nice to know that you can still buy something for 50 cents, even if it is a well-traveled copy of The Dead Zone). Occasionally, the find is richer. I came home from one of my recent book-sale trips with a fifth edition of Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log (1975). Gottlieb performed a thorough polishing on Peter Benchley’s original Jaws script, appeared in the movie as ethics-devoid newspaperman Meadows, and bunked with director Steven Spielberg in a log cabin throughout the movie’s long and harrowing production.

The writer is upfront in the preface that his journal-like document of the making of Jaws was composed after the fact, as he was kept plenty busy with constant script rewrites while the film was being made, but that does nothing to detract from its enjoyment or educational value.

June 1, 2010: 15 Amazing Uses of the Mellotron

Like the sitar or the Theremin, the Mellotron is an instrument with such a unique sound that contributed so integrally to the atmosphere of psychedelia that it has developed a cult as devoted as any that follow the various bands who dabbled in Mellotronia. And this is not limited to cult acts like The End, Tintern Abbey, and Family. Giants from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones to Pink Floyd worked this proto-synth into some of their best-loved creations.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Mellotron (and if that is the case…boy, have you stumbled across the wrong site!), the keyboard utilized analog tape loops of actual instruments, the most popular being flutes and orchestral strings. Artists often used the Mellotron as a substitute for pricey session musicians, although its wavering, ethereal tone has a charm that is quite distinct from any of the instruments it mimics. Here are 15 of the finest uses of the Mellotron in classic pop songs…

1. “Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles (1967)

May 26, 2010: 20 Things You May Not Have Known About George Romero

This Friday, George A. Romero unleashes Survival of the Dead, the sixth installment in his beloved “Living Dead” film series. Romero not only spearheaded the zombie craze that continues to rage but also made the greatest films in the genre (save one priceless exception by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg) with his original trilogy of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. Of course, there’s a lot more to Romero than reanimated corpses that snack on entrails. Here are 20 Things You May Not Know About George Romero

1. While making one of his first eight-millimeter films, The Man from the Meteor, 14-year-old George Romero was arrested for tossing a flaming dummy off a roof. His parents bailed him out… then sent him off to a Connecticut prep school where he continued to make low-budget movies.

2. Before he had even turned 20, Romero took a less-than prestigious position as a grip on a tremendously prestigious film: Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

3. The first commercial film George Romero made was the short “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy” for the children’s program “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”. Romero has jokingly called it “possibly the scariest movie I’ve ever made.”

4. Judy O’Dea was not Romero’s first choice to play the starring part of Barbara in Night of the Living Dead. Betty Aberlin—Lady Aberlin of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”—was Romero’s original selection, but Rogers would not allow one his own cast members to act in a horror film!

5. George Romero originally targeted his friend Tom Savini to do make-up on Night of the Living Dead, but the budding effects wiz was shipped off to Vietnam to serve as a combat photographer instead. Savini’s gruesome experiences in Vietnam, including the time he almost stepped on a disembodied human arm, influenced his work heavily on Dawn of the Dead a decade later.

6. Romero shot the siege that concludes Night of the Living Dead with a shaky, handheld camera to mimic evening news reports from violence-ridden locales like Vietnam and Watts.

7. While Romero can take credit for much of what makes Night of the Living Dead the most memorable zombie movie ever made—having directed, co-written, edited, and shot the film—there is one thing for which he was not responsible: the oft-quoted line “They’re dead; they’re all messed up” was ad-libbed by actor George Kosana.

8. Following a screening of Night of the Living Dead for possible distribution by American International Pictures (AIP), execs from the famed purveyor of B-movies told Romero they’d pick up the film if he shot a new “upbeat” ending. Wisely, Romero refused.

9. In his introduction to John Russo’s novelization of Night of the Living Dead, Romero explained that the film’s campy dialogue was consciously patterned after the clichéd ghastly gasps common in E.C. horror comics such as Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear. Romero paid even more explicit homage to E.C. with his later film, Creepshow.

10. Having established himself as a horror heavy hitter with Night of the Living Dead and The Crazies, Romero branched out to direct a TV documentary about football star O.J. Simpson called “Juice is on the Loose” in 1974. Of course, the underlying horrific nature of this ostensible sports doc would not be apparent until two decades later…

11. Romero edited his cult-favorite vampire flick Martin down to 95 minutes from an original cut lasting close to three hours. While he says a print of the three-hour version did exist, it has long since been lost. The novelization by Romero and Susanna Sparrow covers the excised material from the film.

12. Romero’s original cut of Dawn of the Dead had Peter and Fran, the two characters who ultimately survived the released version, committing suicide right before the closing credits. Fran was to kill herself with the helicopter propeller-blade, much like the most famous zombie death in the film.

13. While Day of the Dead, the third installment of Romero’s original “Living Dead” trilogy is not as acclaimed as its two predecessors, the filmmaker has said that the film has become his favorite in the series. His favorite film in his overall body of work is Martin.

14. Romero has worked in connection with horror giant Stephen King on several occasions, including his adaptation of King’s novel The Dark Half and Creepshow, which was scripted by and co-starred King. However, a couple of King-related projects never made it past the drawing board, including Romero-helmed versions of King’s novels Salem’s Lot and The Stand. Both projects were eventually born as TV miniseries by other directors.

15. Romero is notoriously critical of his own work, even going so far as to say his 2000 revenge-flick Bruiser was the first on which he “really knew what [he] was doing,” according to an interview with Home Page of the Dead.

16. Romero wrote his first draft of Land of the Dead prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks. Following the attacks, he made some alterations to his script, revising the Fiddler’s Green building to resemble the Twin Towers and adding topical lines like “I don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

17. Mayor Tom Murphy, of Romero’s hometown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, named June 22, 2005, the day Land of the Dead was first previewed, “George Romero Day.”

18. While Romero has generally been indifferent regarding the mass of zombie films that followed in the wake of his groundbreaking work, he has been quite vocal regarding his love of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s hilarious Shaun of the Dead. He was so taken with the film that he cast Wright and Pegg in zombie cameos in Land of the Dead. Pegg also performed uncredited voice work as a newsreader in Diary of the Dead.

19. In 2008, Romero listed his ten favorite films for the British Film Institute. They are Richard Brooks’s The Brothers Karamazov, Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, Compton Bennet’s King Solomon’s Mines, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, John Ford’s The Quiet Man, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Aside from Repulsion, not a single horror movie in the bunch.

20. Despite his massive success, Romero professes to live a largely simple lifestyle. His one extravagance is his love of travel.

May 27, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear’

George A. Romero madness continues with a look at his 1988 flick, Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear...

Allan (Jason Beghe) has it made in the shade. He’s a super-buff champion runner dating gorgeous Linda (Janine Turner shortly before “Northern Exposure” and long before her side-job as a rightwing crackpot). But he loses his career and his lady friend after getting creamed by a truck and losing the use of his arms and legs. Enter Ella, an almost freakishly adorable capuchin monkey. Ella’s already extraordinary intelligence is further bolstered by brain-infused injections administered by Allan’s buddy, the mad doctor Geoffrey (John Pankow). At first Ella performs household tasks for Allan: answering his phone, preparing his lunch, changing the battery in his electric wheelchair. She even does windows. But as she becomes addicted to Geoffrey’s shots, the monkey-junkie develops an unnatural psychic/romantic bond with Allan. Before long, she’s offing his sundry enemies, which include an antisocial parakeet.

Did George Romero set out to make Monkey Shines a bizarre comedy? He’s a smart guy, so I won’t rule this out, but there’s such a lack of self-consciousness in the acting and execution that I’d wager this was genuinely intended to be “an experiment in fear.” Let’s call the experiment a complete failure, but the film an immensely enjoyable winner. We get to see Ella best Geoffrey in a knife fight, Allan doing an uproarious Clint Eastwood impersonation as he threatens to rip out Ella’s eyes, Allan’s mother giving him several strangely sensual sponge baths, Allan shaking the stuffing out of Ella with his teeth, and an Alien-inspired dream sequence that will drop your jaw. This ain’t Night of the Living Dead, but it sure is a lot funnier than Creepshow. And somehow Ella remains monumentally adorable even when she’s trying to stick a syringe in Allan’s girlfriend’s eyelid. Yow!

May 13, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love’ by John Einarson

Love was the greatest American band of the ‘60s to never score a national hit. Arising from an LA scene that spat out superstars like The Byrds, The Doors, and Buffalo Springfield, Arthur Lee and company were widely regarded as the godfathers of the Sunset Strip. Jimi Hendrix admired Lee; Jim Morrison worshipped him. Even the Stones borrowed liberally from Love (although the reverse is true, too). Love’s first three albums, particularly 1967’s Forever Changes, are regarded as a triptych masterpiece even though each section is completely unlike the others. Yet Love has not endured as their contemporaries have because Lee refused to play the major label game. He hated flying and being jarred out of LA— where he lived in a castle, was regarded as royalty, and the mixed-race nature of his band wasn’t a major issue— so he refused to tour. His controlling, stubborn, angry, paranoid nature alienated many of the people who most wanted him to succeed. Eventually he became a serious coke addict who hypocritically chastised his bandmates for their drug use. Of course, Arthur Lee was also a genius by pop standards, and his complications have earned him a cult similar to those that revel in every eccentricity of Brian Wilson, Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett, and Peter Green. Forever Changes has topped many a “greatest album of all time” poll in the UK, where Love enjoyed far greater success than they did in the U.S., and its timeless beauty has inspired a horde of later-generation artists, including Led Zeppelin, The Damned, XTC, The Soft Boys, Belle and Sebastian, The Shins, and The Soundtrack of Our Lives.

John Einarson’s new authorized biography Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love (Jaw Bone Press) captures all sides of the Love polygon, acknowledging Lee’s brilliance without skimming over his belligerence, self-indulgence, and unpredictability. Although Einarson spends ample time poring over Lee’s less desirable qualities, he remains objective by structuring his book as a near-oral-history with the majority of quotes coming from Lee’s unpublished autobiography. The rest of the book largely consists of interview excerpts Einarson collected from 60 subjects, including many surviving members of Love’s various line-ups. Johnny Echols— the vastly underrated guitarist who drove the group’s revered first albums with his fierce, stuttering leads— is particularly enlightening, helping to dispel many of the myths surrounding the band. Although Lee is the chief focus of the book, all supporting players are adequately profiled. Bryan MacLean, who composed “Alone Again, Or”, the most enduring track on Forever Changes, is represented by interviews conducted before his death in 1998, as well as conversations with his mother and his sister, Maria McKee (later of Lone Justice). Einarson’s clean, cohesive prose glues it all together seamlessly.

Forever Changes becomes a bit of a heavy read halfway through when Lee’s drug-issues really take over and he becomes an increasingly less sympathetic figure— smacking around girlfriends, firing bandmates for failing to kiss his ass adequately, etc. — but it’s all part of the Love story. Lee would experience better times after being released from prison following a weapons charge in late 2001 and taking Forever Changes on the road to massive success. The onset of leukemia, which took his life in 2006, brought a sad end to this resurgence.

May 11, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘I Was a Teenage Werewolf’

Movie monsters have always been handy vessels for metaphor. Dracula is the embodiment of sexual terror and venereal disease. Frankenstein plays on distrust of science. Dr. Jekyll is a junkie. The Creature from the Black Lagoon symbolizes man’s inherent fear of fish. But no monster is as metaphorically ripe as the werewolf. Werewolves represent the subsumption of the ego by the id… an inarticulate, self-control devoid, hairy-palmed, snarling, drooling, havoc-by-moonlight-raising id. Sound like someone you know? No? Well then you’ve never been or spent time around a teenager. By all accounts, teenagers are pimply, violent, amoral, unhygienic creatures, and no one believed this more than the adults of the 1950s. Before that decade of pre-fab housing and six-martini lunches, teens were essentially societal nonentities. They were only bit players in both everyday life and fiction. Hell, even the fucking Bible totally skips over Jesus’s teen years. This changed in the ‘50s when things like TV-watching, comic book-reading, and record-buying made teens viable demographics to advertisers. In other words: they became actual people. But the programs they watched, the comics they read, and the records they dug convinced a good portion of adults that this once invisible minority was being pumped with a disturbing dose of rebelliousness. Adults imagined a generation of kids hopped up on the dope, filled with murderous impulses by E.C. comics, and driven to unimagined heights of sexual mania by Buddy Holly records. Teenagers became enemies every bit as formidable as Joe Commie. They were all id.

So it was only a matter of time before some cagey maker of B-pictures drew the parallel between teens and werewolves. That someone was Herman Cohen of American International Pictures (AIP), the gentleman responsible for such classics as Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla and Magnificent Roughnecks. The film: 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf starring that icon of unfettered sexuality and carnal rage, Michael Landon. When I was a kid, the image of Landon with his facial pompadour, bucky fangs, and letterman jacket as Tony the Teen Werewolf glowered back at me from many a library book about monster movies. But that was as close as I could come to seeing the movie because it almost never played on TV. It still remains unissued on DVD, so it has taken me about thirty years to finally see the movie often used to illustrate the junk proliferating drive-ins after the end of horror’s 1930s/1940s golden age. Once again, You Tube is our knight in shining armor.

No one is going to argue that I Was a Teenage Werewolf is a work of monstery art on the level of Bride of Frankenstein or Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but as far as ‘50s drive-in junk goes, it’s top-drawer stuff. Tony is a sullen rebel-without-a-cause getting heavy slabs of jive from his high school peers, his perky blonde girlfriend Arlene (Yvonne Lime), and the fuzz (Barney Phillips, a ubiquitous presence in the ‘50s perhaps best known for playing an alien diner cook on “The Twilight Zone”). A possible cure to Tony’s teenagerness arrives in the form of geeky shrink Dr. Brandon (Whit Bissell, the Olivier of geeky-doctor roles), who employs a radical treatment of hypnotherapy and hypodermic drugs to stop Tony from obsessing about fighting and fucking. But it backfires, and in a nutso departure from the usual mythology, the treatment causes Tony to transform into a murderous teen wolf.

Questioning the logic of this is kind of dumb considering how illogical werewolves are in the first place, so let’s just skip to the reasons why I Was a Teenage Werewolf is such a stand-out in its genre. Teenage culture is basically presented as cluelessly here as it is in any other picture of its era. Adults apparently thought their kids all spoke in a non-stop stream of hipster lingo and broke out into spontaneous song-and-dance routines to faux-Rock & Roll tunes way jazzier than the real stuff. But the movie does a good job of capturing the inarticulateness, frustration, and sexual confusion one experiences while slouching toward adulthood, which surely resonated with the teens who were the main audience for this kind of picture. Significantly, adults —not comics, not Rock & Roll— are portrayed as the culprits behind their kids’ waywardness, which probably also appealed to the movie’s young audience. Dr. Brandon is a brain-tinkering quack (read as: your science teacher’s a psycho). Barney Phillips’s Detective Donovan is a stupid flatfoot who paves the way for Tony’s werewolfism by hooking him up with the mad doc in the first place, and the janitor at the police station does a better job of solving the murders than the cops do (read as: the cops that hassle you and your friends are morons). Arlene’s parents spend their nights sitting on opposite ends of their living room (read as: your girlfriend’s parents have intimacy problems); her dad pounding beer and playing solitaire (read as: your girlfriend’s dad drinks while he masturbates). Tony’s dad is a milquetoast too busy obsessing about his late wife to notice his son’s antisocial behavior (read as: your dad’s a necro). The adults in I Was a Teenage Werewolf are uniformly unappealing— notice the cops’ callous self-concern during the grim denouement— while Landon’s wolf is rather sympathetic, even if he is a killer. He brings a disarmingly complex combo of unruly darkness and little-boy vulnerability to the hormonal lycanthrope. The music and daddy-o dialogue are a hoot, and the wolf make-up is memorably cheesy, but the film never dives into the camp deep end as other AIP flicks like The Screaming Skull and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die did. That means I Was a Teenage Werewolf may not be as much fun as these other pictures for some viewers, but I also cared more about Tony than I did about anyone in The Headless Ghost.

April 22, 2010: The Bride’s Many Veils: 75 Years of Bride of Frankenstein

When this site was in its infancy, one of my first posts was a list of my 100 favorite horror movies. I’ve since deleted the post because tastes change. But one thing hasn’t: James Whale’s 1935 Bride of Frankenstein is still #1 as far as I’m concerned. At the time, a reader took issue with this, writing that while the film has its charms, it does not even try to be frightening, and, therefore, doesn’t qualify as a horror movie. A few months later I attended a showing of Bride of Frankenstein at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. I was on a date with my then girlfriend, now Bride, Elise. She’d taken me to see her favorite movie, West Side Story, at MOMA recently, and though I’m not a fan of musicals, I went along to score new-boyfriend points. To my surprise and delight, West Side Story was a brilliant piece of work: colorful and energetic, but deepened by a strong atmosphere of dread (actually, this shouldn’t have been that surprising since director Robert Wise also made the brilliantly energetic and powerfully dreadful The Haunting). What made the film all the more enjoyable was the responsive audience. The attendees who were moved to sing along were pretty annoying, but the ones who laughed at the odd moments of humor and swooned at the stretches of romance and shimmied in their seats to the music made the film a more engaging experience.

Going tit for tat, I asked Elise to come to that Bride of Frankenstein screening with me, even though she’s pretty indifferent about horror movies, classic or otherwise. Seeing the theater was full of folks who were probably old enough to have seen the movie during its original release, I felt a little twinge of disappointment. I figured this wouldn’t be the invigorating experience that West Side Story showing had been. Well, call me an ageist bastard, because I guess that’s what I was, but I certainly learned my lesson that evening. As soon as the Universal logo flashed on the screen, the crowd sprang to life. But what really took me by surprise was the way they audibly shuddered when Karloff first appeared in his monster make-up.

As much as I loved the movie for its humor and its bizarre imaginativeness and its wonderful characters and its Gothic style, I couldn’t really argue with that commenter who insisted that Bride of Frankenstein wasn’t scary. Yet now I was sitting in a theater full of spectators who would disagree. There truly was a time when Karloff’s square-head haunted dreams, there was a time when the abomination of reviving stitched-up corpses was a concept too ghastly to ponder, and in a way, this screening was like traveling back to 1935 and experiencing that firsthand.

That Bride of Frankenstein could be viewed as a genuinely horrifying horror film, as opposed to a merely ironic one made by master-ironist James Whale, added an extra level to a film that already possessed so many levels that to accept another made it seem almost greedy. Bride already stood as a brilliant comedy, what with Una O’Connor’s snappy housekeeper Minnie providing a bit of slapstick and the diabolic Dr. Pretorius offering wry double-entendres and dry witticisms (“Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn't be much more amusing if we were all devils, and no nonsense about angels and being good.”). As James Whale was one of Hollywood’s earliest luminaries to intrepidly step out of the closet, the film is also often viewed as a milestone of gay cinema, with Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Pretorius (openly gay Ernest Thesiger) serving as a male couple who father the monster together. This theory is particularly emphasized in Bill Condon’s bio-pic Gods and Monsters when Ian McKellan’s Whale tells Matt McKenzie’s Clive that his character is a little in love with Pretorius. Most film historians suggest the gay subtext of Bride is revisionist theorizing and wasn’t Whale’s intention. David Lewis, Whale’s longtime boyfriend, insisted the director never created a film in accordance with any social, sexual, or political agenda. Still, while Whale may not have consciously allowed his homosexuality to influence his work, he may have done so subconsciously, and Bride is difficult to view outside of that context today.

Along with being a (definite) comedy and a (possible) pioneering gay text, Bride of Frankenstein is also an affecting melodrama (the Monster’s absurd yet undeniably moving encounter with a blind hermit; his brief and tragic courtship of Elsa Lanchester’s Bride), a trove of indelible cinema iconography (the Monster, the shock-quaffed Bride, Frankenstein’s oft-referenced shriek of “She’s alive…alive!”), a fairy tale (Pretorius’s miniature people; the fantastical forest the Monster wanders), a goofy history (the uproarious prologue in which Lanchester plays author Mary Shelley), a costume spectacle, and a knowing parody of monster-movies. And now, on top of all this, we’re to also accept Bride of Frankenstein as an actual horror movie? Most younger viewers will have a tough time swallowing that, even though the film was deemed “a grotesque, gruesome tale” by the New York Post in 1935 and was heavily edited for its horrific content overseas (particularly in Asia and Sweden). For my six pence, the only horror picture of the ‘30s that still holds up as genuinely scary is Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and perhaps “disturbing” or “upsetting” might be more accurate descriptors than “scary.” As such, Jekyll can’t really be called “fun,” even though Fredric March’s early scenes as Hyde are quite funny. Bride of Frankenstein, however, does not possess a frame that isn’t delirious fun, which is the real reason viewers have been returning to it for precisely 75 years. No other classic Universal monster flick can match it for sheer enjoyment, and few films of any other ilk can, either. I suppose that was the most overwhelming revelation of that MOMA screening: everyone in the joint—whether they were in their ‘20s or their ‘90s—was having one hell of a great time.

Bride of Frankenstein was released 75 years ago today.

April 14, 2010: Psychobabble recommends Philip J. Riley’s ‘The Wolfman vs. Dracula’

Several months ago I reviewed the first book in film historian Philip J. Riley’s “Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters” series. His book on the version of Dracula’s Daughter that was to be directed by James Whale was an invaluable archive of treatments, scripts, and notes about a film that may have been a milestone fusion of horror, comedy, sex, and fantasy along the lines of Whale’s masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein. The second volume in Riley’s series, The Wolfman vs. Dracula, is not as bursting with original documents, but the film's utter obscurity makes it nearly as essential. That Whale was originally slated to direct Dracula’s Daughter is pretty well known among classic horror cultists. David Skal’s indispensable The Monster Show, published in 1993, contained an abundance of key details about the script. However, even Riley had never heard of The Wolfman vs. Dracula until recently. I sure hadn’t. Screenwriter Bernard L. Schubert (Mark of the Vampire; The Mummy’s Curse) unearthed his script for this long forgotten project sometime in the eighties. His scant recollections about the film preface his complete script in Riley’s book.

In short, the film was to serve as a direct sequel to both Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and Son of Dracula. Lon Chaney Jr. was to re-don his fuzzy make-up as lycanthrope Larry Talbot. More significantly, the film was also intended to return Bela Lugosi to his rightful place as Dracula (a most welcome return considering Chaney’s hopeless portrayal of the count in Son… although an early concept had Chaney playing both Talbot and Dracula in Schubert’s film!). The film was also to be the second Universal Monster movie shot in color (Phantom of the Opera with Claude Rains was the first). There are several references to this in the script.

The film was dropped because Universal didn’t think they needed to waste the expense of color film stock on a monster movie that already had a built-in audience. Schubert went off to write The Mummy’s Curs, and filed his script away in his garage for forty years. The closest we got to Dracula meeting the Wolfman in their own picture was Columbia Pictures’ The Return of the Vampire with Lugosi as a vampire who hangs out with a werewolf henchman. That film was released in 1944— the same year Universal’s The Wolfman vs. Dracula was scheduled to hit.

This one remaining artifact of The Wolfman vs. Dracula (dated May 29, 1944) is a first draft, which means it probably would have gone through numerous changes had it eventually been shot. As it stands, the script tells the rather perverse tale of Talbot marrying a peasant girl in order to impel her hangman father to plug him with a silver bullet, ending his reign of wolfy terror once and for all (well, at least until the inevitable sequel). Unfortunately, Dad has already promised his daughter’s hand to Dracula, who takes issue with Talbot’s cock-blocking. Written in the charmingly clunky, exposition-heavy manner of later day Universal Monster flicks like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, but with a greater emphasis on drawing-room debate than bestial carousing, The Wolfman vs. Dracula would have been quite a strange entry in the monster canon, especially considering the intention to film it in color. Yet I could still hear Chaney’s dejected voice speaking Talbot’s dialogue and Lugosi’s chewy baritone speaking Dracula’s in my head as I read this book. Monster fans won’t want to be without it.

April 17, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘The Nanny’

Hammer’s bread and butter was gory Gothic Monster Movies, but the studio also pumped out a number of twisted psychological thrillers in the Hitchcock vein, such as Maniac (1963) and the exceptional Taste of Fear (1961). By far the best of these pictures I’ve seen is Seth Holt’s tremendously morbid The Nanny (1965). Little Joey Fane (William Dix) has just been discharged from a kiddie mental institution, where he was placed after allegedly drowning his pre-K sister, Susy. Joey is certainly an antisocial sort, who delights in tormenting “middle-aged women” by staging his own suicide, but he believes the true culprit behind Susy’s death is his nanny, Nanny (Bette Davis). What follows is a bizarre clash between ten-year-old Joey and Bette-Davis-in-1965-aged Nanny, who is also given to some rather unwholesome behavior. Davis’s casting seems to have been inspired by her recent “crazy old lady” turns in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), but The Nanny is not the high-camp exercise those films were. This is a grim, surprisingly complex thriller, and the real reason behind Susy’s death is both genuinely surprising (particularly for a film of this sort) and expertly handled by Holt. Davis is terrific, of course, but so are Dix and Pamela Franklin, who plays Joey’s Mod 15-year old neighbor, Bobbie. Franklin later starred in another Psychobabble recommended flick, The Legend of Hell House (1973).

April 13, 2010: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost on “Twin Peaks”!

Keeping the "Twin Peaks" 20th Anniversary madness rolling, I went hunting for interesting "Peaks"-related nuggets and came across this segment from "Frost and Pegg's Perfect Night In", a 2007 BBC special hosted by the stars of our favorite zombie-comedy, Shaun of the Dead. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost talk a little about the series (Frost has some particularly fascinating insights) to set up interview footage with Kyle MacLachlan and Mark Frost (no relation to Nick). Warning: Simon gets well shitted up.

April 12, 2010: 10 Great Dylan Versions That Aren’t by The Byrds

When The Byrds released their beat version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” 45 years ago today, they established a tradition of radical interpretations of Bob Dylan’s music. Dylan songs were ripe for such imaginative tinkering because they are melodic yet fluid in form. One doesn’t necessarily miss the multitude of verses McGuinn and the gang excised from “Mr. Tambourine Man”—a veritable epic poem on Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home—because the band restructured it to the point where it nearly became a different song. Dylan’s arrangement is Spartan: voice, two guitars, and harmonica. The Byrds’: ringing twelve-string Rickenbacker, swooping bass, a rock-steady backbeat, and velveteen vocal harmonies. In their hands, “Mr. Tambourine Man” became an entirely different animal incomparable to the original. The Byrds’ version did not trump Dylan’s, and vice versa. Both are perfectly wonderful for their own reasons. Compare that to any cover of, say, the Beatles, which will invariably be inferior to the original because The Beatles’ songs are so inseparable from George Martin’s brilliantly definitive productions. Before going whole-hog electric (Dylan only cut half of Bringing It All Back Home with a band), he recorded in true troubadour tradition, allowing his work to be as interpretable as “Greensleeves” or any other folk standard.

The Byrds were without question Dylan’s greatest interpreters—not just “Mr. Tambourine Man”, but “My Back Pages”, “Spanish Harlem Incident”, “Chimes of Freedom”, “All I Really Want to Do”, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, etc.—but several other artists did right by Mr. D and his repertoire. Here are ten of the best.

1. “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” by Manfred Mann (1965)

Manfred Mann weren’t as intrinsically linked with Dylan as The Byrds were, but they were no slouches when it came to interpreting the master either. Their version of “With God On Our Side” is stately and poignant and they scored a UK #1 hit and a US top ten by reinventing “Quinn the Eskimo” as a euphoric blast of bubblegum retitled “The Mighty Quinn”. But their best take on Dylan may have been a twangy, wistful reading of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”, which Dylan did not release himself until it appeared as a failed Dutch single in 1967. Two years after that, Fairport Convention further reinvented the song as a cooking Cajun French-language freak-out, but more about that band a little later.

2. “It Ain’t Me Babe” by The Turtles (1965)

The Turtles made their biggest splash as purveyors of kitchy bubblegum like “Happy Together” and “Elenore”, but they were actually regarded as fairly serious folk-rockers early in their career. This was largely due to their menacing hit version of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe”. Odd that their decision to record P.F. Sloane’s sugar sweet “You Baby” would be met by such righteous outrage from the folkies considering that “It Ain’t Me Babe” isn’t exactly Dylan’s most socially conscious song. But I guess a folkie doesn’t need much of an excuse to indulge in righteous outrage.

3. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” by Them (1966)

“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is one of Dylan’s most caustic songs, which makes this version by Van Morrison and Them a real oddity. Angry young Them were kings of rage, shredding numbers like “Mystic Eyes” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” to ribbons, but they chose to take on Dylan at his angriest with one of Morrison’s more placid vocals and a shimmering pre-psych guitar line (which many of you may know as the lead sample on Beck’s “Jack-Ass”). Taming “Baby Blue” could have resulted in something ineffectual, but the arrangement is so unique, Morrison’s growls so beautiful and pure, that this version ranks among the best Dylan covers.

Oh, and I have no idea why the following video matches this song with pictures of the Rolling Stones logo. You Tube can be pretty fucking weird sometimes.

4. “I’ll Keep It With Mine” by Nico (1967)

For obvious reasons, Dylan was quite taken with German model and occasional Velvet Underground singer Nico, but handing her his “I’ll Keep It With Mine” was an act of generosity beyond the beyond. Dylan had actually recorded the song a few years earlier (which can be heard on the Biograph box set), but didn’t release it during its time despite it being an exceptional song, even for him. On Nico’s solo debut, Chelsea Girl, “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is a standout among a uniformly superb collection of songs. Icy as her singing style was, Nico will tear your heart in half as she reaches the climactic refrain. Larry Fallon’s baroque arrangement is exquisite.

5. “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)

The only Dylan cover that could vie with The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” in terms of familiarity and impact. Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, and Noel Redding took one of the rustic mock-parables on John Wesley Harding and transformed it into a mind-melting freak-show of otherworldly guitar work, tortured wailing and stormy rhythms. The Experience so owned “All Along the Watchtower” that a lot of people don’t even realize it’s a cover. As is the case with all of these songs, Dylan’s original is still a masterful piece of work, but the Experience’s version is a monolith.

6. “Tears of Rage” by The Band (1968)

Dylan’s most intense collaboration of the ‘60s was with The Band. When the Great Divide-crossing group was still called The Hawks, they backed up Dylan in ’66 as both his stage band and the sessionmen on Blonde on Blonde. The horde took their collaboration further the following year when they mounted the extensive sessions released nearly a decade later as The Basement Tapes. One of the songs they recorded was Dylan and Richard Manuel’s “Tears of Rage”. Less ramshackle and more soulful than the Dylan/Band version is the recording The Band cut on their own with Manuel singing lead. His vocal and Garth Hudson’s Lowrey organ both sound as though they’ve descended from the clouds.

7. “Million Dollar Bash” by Fairport Convention (1969)

Another Basement Tapes leftover, “Million Dollar Bash” is a hilarious screed against the decadent rich given one of Dylan and The Band’s best performances. So it’s quite a feat that Fairport Convention bested them. The party atmosphere is heightened by the multi-singer approach, and when Sandy Denny steps in to holler the third verse, the effect is sublime. The album for which it was recorded, Unhalfbricking, contains several fine Dylan covers—including the earlier mentioned French version of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” and a gut wrenching take on “Percy’s Song”—but the most exhilarating is “Million Dollar Bash”.

8. “Wicked Messenger” by The Faces (1970)

For the first track on their first album, the raggedy Faces chose one of the Biblical farces from John Wesley Harding. With its ready-made-for-heavy-rock riff, “Wicked Messenger” was a perfect choice. The Faces hammer out the song in typically sloppy fashion, but the nearly out-of-sync vocals, guitars, and drums all cling to that riff like it’s a magnet. The greatest cocktail of Dylan and whiskey-drenched mischief ever spilled on vinyl.

9. “If Not For You” by George Harrison (1970)

The same year Dylan sang the atypically tender ballad “If Not For You” on his album New Morning, pal George Harrison recorded it for his triple-LP masterpiece and solo debut All Things Must Pass. Also atypical is Phil Spector’s production, which veers from his pounding Wall of Sound to more ethereal territory. The woozy slide guitars, glistening organ, and George’s audible smile compliment the romanticism of Dylan’s lyric gorgeously, while interjections of wheezy harmonica pay a more jestful tribute to the writer.

10. “This Wheel’s on Fire” by Siouxsie and the Banshees (1987)

Cover albums tend to be desperate stop-gaps released while the recording artists either recoup their creativity or come to terms with their absence of original ideas. Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Through the Looking Glass is a rare exception, an album as essential as any of their collections of original material. Their versions of John Cale’s “Gun”, The Doors’ “You’re Lost Little Girl”, and Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” are magnificent, as is this rendition of The Basement Tapes’ most covered song. Co-written by Dylan and Band-man Rick Danko, “This Wheel’s on Fire" has been recorded by The Byrds, The Hollies, Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger, Golden Earring, and of course, The Band. Several versions were recorded as the theme song of Britcom Absolutely Fabulous, including a new take by Driscoll and Young One Adrian Edmondson and a version by Debbie Harry. But the best may be the one by Siouxsie and the Banshees, which soars with Mike Hedges’s exotic string arrangement and Siouxsie Sioux’s exoticer howl.

April 8, 2010: “Twin Peaks” A-Z

Twenty years ago this day saw the premier of a television show that was nothing less than a monolith for the medium. Much like those big slabs of black rock in 2001: A Space Odyssey, “Twin Peaks” marked the next leap forward in television’s evolution by revealing that programs could be complex, genre-defying, rule-smashing, surreal, and cinematic. Anything on television that attempts to forge new directions owes some debt to “Twin Peaks”, even though David Lynch and Mark Frost’s series lasted a mere 30 episodes. Despite its brevity, “Twin Peaks” continues to resound with the pie-devouring, coffee-gulping cult it inspired because that handful of episodes was jam-loaded with enough intricate details, plot points, allusions, intoxicating music, touching and terrifying moments, happy accidents, directorial feats, unforgettable lines, and undesirable villains to keep fans caffeinated for two decades. It’s also loaded with enough intriguing elements to warrant an overview I call…

WARNING!: This post has enough spoilers to choke a pine weasel, so if you’re a “Twin Peaks” novice, I recommend you finish up the series before reading on...

David Lynch and Mark Frost shared a love of pop culture that thoroughly informed the show they created together. “Twin Peaks” is rife with post modern allusions to cinema and television to the degree that listing them all would probably double the length of this article, but some of the most prominent ones are:

• Laura Palmer’s forename was nabbed from Otto Preminger’s 1944 noir Laura, in which the memory of a murdered woman haunts those who loved her and the detective investigating her death.

• Laura Palmer’s cousin Madeline Ferguson got her name from the two main characters of one of David Lynch’s favorite films: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which starred Kim Novak as Madeline Elster and Jimmy Stewart as John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson.

• During the second season, former West Side Story stars Richard Beymer (Tony/Benjamin Horne) and Russ Tamblyn (Riff/Dr. Jacoby) are brought together to sing a song for old time’s sake. Of course, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was not culled from West Side Story.

• In episode 18, Peggy Lipton and Clarence Williams III share an exchange for no other reason than their history as co-stars of “The Mod Squad”.

• The scene in which Cooper has trouble adjusting his stool in Ronette Pulaski’s hospital room is an homage to a similar scene in which Humbert Humbert struggles to open a folding cot in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, another favorite film of Lynch.

• Dancing fool Leland Palmer was named after the actress and dancer of the same name who appeared in Bob Fosse’s 1979 film All That Jazz.

• Gordon Cole, the hearing-impaired FBI Regional Bureau Chief played by Lynch, was named after an unseen character in yet another of his favorite films: Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

• Sitcomy couple Lucy and Andy owe their monikers to sitcom pioneers Lucille Ball and Andy Griffith.

• In keeping with “Twin Peaks’” notorious sweet tooth, brothers Ben and Jerry Horne allude to a famous duo of ice cream makers.

• Schizo one-armed man Phillip Gerard/MIKE is a reference to both the police lieutenant of the same name and the murderous one-armed man in the classic TV drama “The Fugitive”.

• In Black Edward’s excellent 1962 chiller Experiment in Terror, Lee Remick is terrorized in the (real) town of Twin Peaks, San Francisco. And the terrorizer’s name? Red Lynch.

 With the arguable exception of “The Twilight Zone”, no series has ever had a score as eerie, as evocative, as beautiful or enduring as the music Angelo Badalamenti composed for “Twin Peaks”. “The Bad Angel” got his start as “Andy Badale”, the pseudonym under which he scored Ossie Davis’s blaxploitation flick Gordon’s War (1973) and a cop movie with Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine called Law and Disorder (1974). The most fruitful collaboration of his career began in 1986 when David Lynch hired him to coach Isabella Rossellini as she prepared to play a nightclub singer in Blue Velvet. Lynch and Badalamenti forged a quick friendship and wrote “Mysteries of Love” for the film together. Lynch then hired Badalamenti to write the jazzy, noirish Blue Velvet score. That same sensibility infused his work on “Twin Peaks”. The three-note synthesized bass line of “Falling” kicked off the show each week, masterfully setting the tone for all the off-kilter crime, romance, comedy, and dreaminess to follow. Each episode closed with the gorgeously creepy piano-and-synth duet “Laura Palmer’s Theme”. In between was a symphony of chromatic jazz basslines, brushed drums, squealing saxophones, pastoral clarinets, and occasionally, the ethereal voice of Julee Cruise singing under Badalamenti’s direction. Lynch and Badalamenti have since worked together on all of the director’s feature films, creating a cinematic and musical partnership as distinctive as the ones between Hitchcock and Hermann or Fellini and Rota. Their most popular and well-known work can be heard on the “Twin Peaks” soundtrack, the Fire Walk With Me soundtrack, and a second-season “Twin Peaks” CD released in 2007. The pair presented a collaboration of a different sort in 2001 when Badalamenti made an unforgettable on-screen appearance as espresso-connoisseur Luigi Castigliani in Mulholland Dr.
All written content of is the property of Mike Segretto and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.