Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Psychobabble recommends 'Cagliostro: An Alternate History for ClassicFilm Monsters'

Count Allesandro di Cagliostro was an 18th century magician, scam artist, opportunist, and globetrotter. He founded an occult church called the Egyptian Rite of Masonry, lived in an ornate palace full of hieroglyphic-etched walls and statues of Egyptian gods and goddesses, and was ultimately put to death during the Inquisition. Such a colorful character was made for the movies, but as a monstery successor to Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster, Cagliostro didn’t quite deliver the ghoulish goods. That’s why Universal Studios saw to it that Nina Wilcox Putnam’s screenplay inspired by the wicked mountebank was rejiggered into the film we all know and adore as The Mummy.

The script by Putnam, a novelist and short story writer with a biography nearly as eccentric as that of Cagliostro (she created the 1040 income tax form and was known to tool around in a toga as a protest against “the madness of clothing”!), displays some essential similarities to the horror classic it would become. Both center on dual-identity creeps who slither out of the past to reclaim their lost loves via bizarre Egyptian rituals. But, as stated above, Universal wanted a more traditionally iconic monster rather than a time-hopping magician, and some of the scenes Putnam included in her script likely drew gasps from the studio suits. It’s hard to imagine the climactic ritual sequence featuring a bloody, severed goat’s head, “almost naked” dancing girls, and elaborately described half human/half animal gods and goddesses making its way into a 1932 film.

While there’s no doubt that there would be a void in Monster Moviedom without The Mummy, Putnam’s script contains enough scenes like the one above to make me miss Cagliostro a little. There’s also a terrific magic-show sequence (which, bizarrely enough, would basically be shot for the 2006 film The Illusionist) and a genuinely suspenseful race to rescue the damsel from Cagliostro. We may not be able to watch these sequences on screen starring Boris Karloff (who, of course, would be cast as the lead in The Mummy), but the publication of Philip J. Riley’s Cagliostro or The King of the Dead: An Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters makes it possible to read Putnam’s vivid screenplay. The book is supplemented with Wilcox’s even less-monstery 10-page treatment, biographies of her and the subject of her unproduced film, and some essential details regarding the development of the script. As is the case with all of Riley’s “Alternate Histories for Classic Film Monsters”, it’s to be treasured by Classic Film Monster freaks.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Pick This Book Up Off the Floor: 5 Essential Studies of The Who

The Who may sit in Rock & Roll’s top tier with The Beatles, Dylan, and The Stones, but they’ve inspired less text than these peers. Perhaps this is because their most insightful and informed critic is the band’s own Pete Townshend. The average Townshend interview is worth any 600-page tome by an outsider.

Still, there have been several excellent books about Rock’s most explosive combo, several of which were written by Who insiders. Consequently, the honesty, fearlessness, and obsession that helped make their music so striking are present in the best of these books. Now, none of them are perfect, which is strangely appropriate considering The Who’s defiant shunning of perfection, but here are five that provide a complete portrait of The Who when taken together.

1. Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere: The Complete Chronicle of The Who 1958-1978 by Andy Neil & Matt Kent

Neil and Kent’s Day-by-Day Chronicle of The Who is not a fully rounded biography or critique like Richie Unteberger’s White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day, which is probably the best such book I’ve read. It only charts the band through Keith Moon’s death and pays little mind to the guys’ solo work. Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere was written before the Day-By-Day Chronicle fully evolved, so it’s a pretty straightforward diary of all the shows, recordings, and major events strewn throughout the first 20 years of Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle, and Moon’s music career. As such, it is as exhaustive and accurate a reference as anyone could hope for, and unlike many of the more recent Day-By-Day Chronicles, it is printed in full color and busting with ravishing photos of Rock’s most garishly photogenic quartet.

2. Before I Get Old: The Story of The Who by Dave Marsh

 If Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere doesn’t quite come through as a biography, Dave Marsh more than picks up the slack with his 500-page-plus biography Before I Get Old. Marsh is a former editor of Creem, an avowed Who freak, and an associate of the band. Following Moon’s death, Townshend must have sensed The Who’s history was drawing to a close and requested Marsh write the book (he obviously couldn’t picture himself with a paunch windmilling at the Superbowl almost thirty years later). The group agreeably participated in its research. Like Neil and Kent’s book, it peters out before the end of the story, even though a new edition was published as recently as 2003. But at least the wretched splatter-paint cover from the 1983 edition was replaced with a nicely moody portrait of the band.

3. Full Moon by Dougal Butler

Dougal Butler was Keith Moon’s chauffeur, drinking buddy, and enabler, and he brings that personal insight to the most entertaining biography I’ve ever read. Also published as Moon the Loon: The Amazing Rock & Roll Life of Keith Moon, I first read Butler’s book as Full Moon, and found it hilarious, sad, and stupefying in equal measure. Composed in Cockney slang (don’t worry, yanks, there’s a glossary), the book is a love letter to Butler’s late employer that details his many outrageous stunts (my favorite involves a loudspeaker atop Moon’s limousine he’d use to impersonate a traffic cop) without shying from Moon’s more odious qualities. His treatment of his wife Kim is appalling, yet Butler still manages to evoke sympathy for the drummer without mentioning that Moon’s erratic behavior was likely the result of a borderline personality disorder.

4. The Who: Maximum R&B by Richard Barnes

 Richard Barnes is yet another Who insider, the guy credited with christening the band and a prodigious gatherer of Who memorabilia. Essentially, Maximum R&B is a scrapbook of his collection glued together with a biography. The biography is slight compared to Marsh’s book, but the reprints of full-color photos, magazine articles, tour posters, bootleg covers, etc. are staggering. The book is kind of like a print equivalent of the brilliant scatter-shot documentary The Kids are Alright. Key nuggets include Keith Moon’s uproarious primary school photo and secondary school report card (his art teacher’s assessment: “Retarded artistically. Idiotic in other respects) and a piece from ’67 in which each of the guys explains what he loves and hates most about his band mates (what Entwistle loves about Daltrey: “His beautiful, blond hair”).

5. The Who on Record: A Critical History by John Atkins

 What’s missing from all the above books? Keen critiques of The Who’s incredible body of work. John Atkins’ The Who on Record doesn’t plum the depths that Tim Riley’s Beatles analysis Tell Me Why does, but it goes far enough to satisfy. Atkins was the brain behind the Who fanzine Generations, although his critique of the group’s music is not a fanboy’s fawning. As such, it may rub fans the wrong way at times (John, John, why so hard on “Happy Jack”?), but at other times he may inspire new appreciation of some of the band’s less-celebrated recordings (Finally! Someone acknowledges the greatness of “Dogs”!). Atkins covers the band’s major singles and albums (his chapter on Quadrophenia could be a book in and of itself), as well as their abundant outtakes and B-sides. Riveting stuff.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Things That Scare Me: Case Study #12: Raiders of the Lost Ark

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 #12: Raiders of the Lost Ark

I went into my first “viewing” of Raiders of the Lost Ark with such extreme prejudice that I kept my eyes closed and my fingers in my ears for, essentially, the entire movie. I’m not exaggerating. This “Things That Scare Me” feature is too therapeutic for me to waste time cracking jokes at my own expense. I’m not exactly sure where I got the idea that this movie might terrify me since my seven-year-old self knew virtually nothing about it before my mom dragged my sister, my grade-school best pal Antonio, and me to the theater. I do recall that my parents went on a married-couple date to see it before taking the kids. My guess is that there was some discussion regarding what effect the film would have on their highly impressionable and embarrassingly lily-livered son, which I most likely overheard. Such a conversation would have affected me not only because its topic was the possibility I would see something that might toss more fuel on the eternal flame of my nightmares but also because of the way it probably happened. I could imagine my parents having this discussion in hushed tones, believing themselves to be out of my earshot. These kinds of conversations always hit me as weighty, ultra-serious. What could this Raiders of the Lost Ark movie contain that would warrant such a talk? A graphic autopsy? A monster that turns to the camera and says, “Tonight, Mike Segretto, I’m going to kill you in your sleep.”

Friday, August 13, 2010

Meet the Song of the Day: "Run Run Run" by The Who

New feature!

I ain’t superstitious but some folks get freaked when Friday the 13th rolls around. There is little agreement on why the day is considered unlucky. Is it because of numerology (apparently symbolizing irregularity), Bible stories (Jesus was supposedly crucified on a Friday), or its connection to a crappy film series (hockey masks)?

Was Pete Townshend among the superstitious? When the time came to deliver new material for The Who’s second record, the normally prolific Townshend found himself short on fresh material. Manager Kit Lambert suggested that the other boys in the band compose two songs each to fill out the album and put a bit of royalty money in their pockets. While Roger Daltrey (who only managed one song) and Keith Moon turned in respectable efforts, it was John Entwistle who emerged as the true star of the bunch with a pair of genuinely unique, hilarious, and macabre numbers: “Boris the Spider” and “Whiskey Man”. Still, Townshend had to supply material for the rest of the record.

Aside from Entwistle’s surprising display of latent songwriting talent, A Quick One is most celebrated for its title “mini-opera”, another result of Lambert’s fertile imagination. The manager recommended Townshend string together some of his unfinished songs to create a sort of narrative suite. “A Quick One While He’s Away”, of course, was the seed from which Tommy eventually grew, as well as The Who’s most stunning live tour de force and one of their most thrilling and inventive early recordings. But there are other Pete-penned treasures to be discovered on A Quick One. The best of these is the powerful “So Sad About Us”, which recycles the guitar lick from The Byrds’ “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”. However, the album’s opening track is the fiercest track on the record, and the only one that really recaptures the anarchic noise of the first Who record, My Generation.

As a composition, “Run Run Run” is kind of slight: a rudimentary riff over which Daltrey shouts about the unluckiest girl in the world: she walks under ladders, cracks mirrors, opens umbrellas indoors, hangs out with black cats. Basically, she’s looking for some cosmic trouble. What makes “Run Run Run” a stand-out is that overdriven, overloaded, overhyped performance. Townshend’s guitar and The Ox’s bass are well in the red. Moon’s drumming is a wash of abused cymbals. Daltrey plays cock of the walk. Then Townshend rips off an effortlessly blazing solo that burns the whole enterprise to the ground before the band catches their second wind for a final-verse modulation that finds them ranting and raving into the sunset with that most unlucky lady on their collective arm.

Have an unlucky Friday the 13th, kids…

Visit the Song of the Day page here to shake and shout to “Run Run Run”…

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Psychobabble recommends 'Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, The Band, and The Basement Tapes'

Even before Rock geeks obsessed about such great lost recordings as The Beatles’ “Get Back” tapes and The Beach Boys’ SMiLE, they frothed over the tapes casually cut over the summer of ’67 in Woodstock by Bob Dylan and The Hawks (soon to be The Band). This is likely because some of the recordings that would eventually become known as “The Basement Tapes” were gathered on the first widely distributed Rock bootleg. These sessions, which both Dylan and the ex-members of The Band regarded as relatively minor points in their respective careers, yielded a wealth of great songs, some of which would be made famous by Manfred Mann (“Quinn the Eskimo”), Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger (“This Wheel’s on Fire”), The Byrds (“Nothing was Delivered”, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”), and The Band, themselves (“Tears of Rage”, “I Shall Be Released”). A scoop of these songs was eventually released officially in 1975 as a double LP called The Basement Tapes (it received a long-overdue re-mastering last year). But somewhere in the realm of 100 other songs recorded in Woodstock remain in the can, which naturally has kept fascination with The Basement Tapes stoked for over 40 years.

Count Sid Griffin, whom you may know as the frontman of the great garage/alt. country group The Long Ryders, among the stoked. His obsession comes through loud and clear in Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, The Band, and The Basement Tapes. Griffin’s book reads like the most thorough box-set liner notes ever written (and indeed, it makes a spectacular companion to the high-quality four-disc bootleg A Tree with Roots: The Genuine Basement Tape Recordings). Griffin maintains a lively yet informative tone as he takes a brief jog through the six-year period prior to the “Basement Tapes” sessions before settling down in Woodstock, first to painstakingly recreate the events surrounding the motorcycle crash that kept Dylan out of the public eye during his most prolific year, then to ruminate on how six men gathered together at each others’ homes with a rudimentary recording set-up and a stash of exceptional songs, and basically, had fun. Dogs and children wandered in and out, noisy furnaces caused a little easily overcome trouble, everyone mellowed out with a joint or got their pulses racing with the high-octane coffee Dylan guzzled all day long. Griffin renders a portrait of low-key domesticity that couldn’t be further from the crazed psychedelics in which Dylan’s peers indulged while he and his buddies were getting rustic with their mandolins and acoustic basses. He also marshals his investigative skills to suss when and under what circumstances each recording was made. This massive feat is accomplished during his ambitious track-by-track exploration of the 100-something recordings: the good, the great, and the drunkenly haphazard. The writer finishes off with looks at the diluted (but wonderful) 1975 album, some of the more high-profile covers the sessions inspired, and what other artists—including Nick Lowe, Billy Bragg, and a refreshingly critical Al Kooper—thought of it all. No Dylan education is complete without Million Dollar Bash.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Nuggets Record Buying Guide: The Monkees

I’d certainly heard music from the ‘60s before discovering The Monkees during their massive 20-year-anniversary revival in 1986, which saw their TV series snare a new generation on MTV, all of their original albums reenter the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and three of the original members mount a hugely successful tour. But, as much as Dylan and Beatles songs appealed to me, it was still my dad’s music. Seeing my grammar school peers dig The Monkees made them OK for me too dig, too, and their jangly guitars, irresistible pop hooks, and sweet harmonies were a welcome antidote to the shit purveying the contemporary pop scene. I was too young for college radio, so my love of R.E.M., Throwing Muses, Elvis Costello, and other great mid-‘80s acts that didn’t receive the air-time that Lionel Richie, Mr. Mister, and Peter Cetera did was still years away. The organic, guitar-based pop of The Monkees appealed to my twelve-year-old self far more than the glossy synthesized garbage that then littered top-forty radio and MTV.

As they were for twelve year-olds in the mid-‘60s, The Monkees served as a gateway to my interest in more sophisticated Rock bands during the mid-‘80s. They also sparked my obsession with '60s pop: The Monkees begat The Beatles, who begat The Rolling Stones, who begat The Who, who begat The Pretty Things, and so on, and so on. I did go through a phase in which I scoffed at The Monkees when I grew a bit older, but after rediscovering them a few years after the Listen to the Band box set appeared in 1990, I found that many of my favorite hooks were right where I left them. I was shocked by how well much of The Monkees’ music held up, even as I now recognized what critics had been hating about them for almost thirty years.

And here lies The Monkees problem. Their best music is often their least known. Their best known songs threaten to confirm the major criticisms lobbed at the group: (1) they were put together by cynical TV-producers bent on cashing in on the success of A Hard Day’s Night, a film starring a group that came together organically to make the decade’s greatest music, (2) they didn’t play their instruments (“Last Train to Clarksville”, “I’m a Believer”), and (3) they played lightweight, saccharine bubblegum sung with a mere trace of competence (“A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”, “Daydream Believer”).

The first of these complaints is the easiest to dismiss: the same thing could be said about The Sex Pistols, and no one questions their credibility just because they were assembled by Malcolm McLaren. The “Monkees don’t play they own instruments and therefore are completely illegitimate” gripe has always been a hollow one, too. The Beach Boys, one of pop’s most respected bands, rarely played the instruments on their records. Not a Beach Boy touched an instrument during the SMiLE sessions. Groups less monumental than The Beach Boys, but still more respected than The Monkees, used studio players at times, as well: The Byrds and Love being two (I’d never lump in, say, The Mamas and the Papas, with these groups as others do, because no one should expect a vocal group to play the instruments on their recordings). And as anyone with the slightest knowledge of pop history knows, The Monkees successfully fought for the right to play on their records after existing for little over six months. That is quite a feat, but one that never won them an iota of respect from the hip music press.

The final complaint is perhaps more legitimate, but one that can be traced to a single individual: Davy Jones. Davy’s little-boy good looks obviously won the group a gargantuan following of pre-teen girls, but his equally prepubescent voice did the music no favors. Much of his material is fluff, and that includes big hits like “Daydream Believer” and “A Little Bit Me”. Davy’s cloying numbers mar the best Monkees records. The fact that his material is better known by non-fanatics than Mike Nesmith’s sophisticated contributions has done immeasurable damage to The Monkees’ reputation.

Not surprisingly, when Rhino Records chose a Monkees track to include on Where The Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968 (2009) they went for a Nesmith composition. “Daily Nightly” was a good selection not just because of its quality, but because of its relevance to the box set’s theme (it is a surreal yet oddly journalistic report on the Sunset Strip curfew riots between hippies and cops in the summer of ’66). The track also helps counter The Monkees’ bubblegum image with its razor sharp bass lick, psychedelic poeticism, and genuinely cutting-edge squalls of Moog synthesizer (another well-traveled nugget of Monkees-lore is that Micky Dolenz was only the third person to own one of these futuristic instruments, the first being Paul Beaver and the second being, strangely enough, country legend Buck Owens).

“Daily Nightly” is nestled in the album most likely to entice non-believers into a serious Monkees habit. The Monkees (number one on Billboard for 13 weeks) and More of the Monkees (number one on Billboard for an astounding 18 weeks) may have sold more copies, and Headquarters may be the only album on which The Monkees serve as their own backing band on every track, but Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (1967) is the most consistently fine Monkees album.

As much as Peter Tork— the Monkee who most craved legitimacy— wanted the group to continue working together as they had on Headquarters, their intense schedule (which included media appearances, TV filming, and live performances, as well as recording sessions) and diverging interests made it impossible. As a result, Tork rates Pisces below Headquarters, but The Monkees’ fourth record offers a more confident selection of compositions and performances. And, in all fairness, The Monkees are still the backing band for the most part here. Chip Douglas, the former Turtle who played bass on Headquarters and produced that album and Pisces, was essentially a fifth Monkee spared having to appear on the hit-and-miss TV show. His consistently excellent bass playing can be heard on Pisces, as well. Micky Dolenz, who basically learned to play the drums while making Headquarters, sits out most of Pisces (he only contributes the fairly simple beat on “Cuddly Toy”). Instead, The Monkees used ace session man “Fast” Eddie Hoe, whose playing made the sessions run smoother and delivered monumental performances on tracks such as “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Salesman” that could never be matched by Dolenz’s rudimentary chops. Otherwise, that’s still Nesmith playing guitar throughout the record and Tork playing keyboards and even Jones whacking his tambourine. This mixed approach suited The Monkees best, but the real strength of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones Ltd. comes from its great songs and the ever-increasing presence of Mike Nesmith.

No other Monkees record contains as many lead vocals by the very adult-sounding Nesmith as Pisces does. Oddly, most of his vocals are on songs written by others, but the songs he chose to sing are all top-notch: the funky Tex-Mex twanging “Salesman”, a put-down of drug pushers written by Nes’s buddy Craig Smith from The Penny Arcade, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s spectacular “Love Is Only Sleeping”, on which Nesmith plays an infectiously wiry guitar riff and hits his eeriest falsetto, Lewis and Clarke’s Byrds-like “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?”, which is among The Monkees’ most beloved album tracks, and Chip Douglas and Bill Martin’s transcendentally beautiful folk-rocker “The Door Into Summer”, my vote for the group’s greatest creation.

Nesmith also sings his own “Don’t Call On Me”, a lounge-lizard experiment that manages to be both genuinely pretty and ironically amusing (his breathy sigh before the velveteen organ solo is hilarious). He handed “Daily Nightly” to Dolenz, who also played the avant garde Moog part, which starkly contrasts the more musical lines played by Paul Beaver on Goffin and King’s “Star Collector”. That particular track contains one of Davy Jones’s more bearable vocals, possibly because he mostly shouts it (no vomit-inducing whispers of “I love you” here) and possibly because the fabulously chaotic backing track still threatens to overwhelm him. Jones also does a fairly respectable job on the Tom Jones-like rocker “She Hangs Out”, a superior remake of a song that briefly appeared on the B-side of “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”. His other two performances are a bit harder to stomach: “Hard to Believe”, a smarmy bossa nova he co-wrote (and tellingly, the only Pisces track on which the other Monkees do not play), and Harry Nilsson’s sleazy combo of bubblegum melody and porno lyricism, “Cuddy Toy”. Despite recalling “a Hell’s Angels’ gang-bang” while trumpeting Jones’ sticky sweetness, “Cuddly Toy” became a sort of minor Monkees classic.

Micky Dolenz, who so dominated The Monkees’ first three records, makes less of an impression here, but each of his contributions are major. Aside from “Daily Nightly” he takes co-lead on the two tracks that made up the group’s best double-sided hit: Gerry Goffin and Carol King’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, one of the few Monkees tracks on which all members of the band make upfront vocal contributions, and Tommy Boyce and Bobby’s Hart’s spooky “Words”, which features a tasty call-and-response between Dolenz and Tork.

So, if you’re quick on the draw when it comes time to skip “Cuddly Toy” and “Hard to Believe”, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones, LTD. is the album most likely to convert you into a Monkees fan. The next step would be Headquarters (1967). Not as consistently rich as Pisces, HQ houses the pleasure of hearing a damn good garage band coming to life. Nesmith’s “You Told Me” and “Sunny Girlfriend” and the Little Richard-inspired band composition “No Time” rock hard and mean. The sweet and sour “Shades of Gray” and Boyce and Hart’s Simon & Garfunkle-esque “Mr. Webster” offer moments of true gravity off-set by the “we realize we’re just winging this” goofs of “No Time”, “Band 6”, and the weird a cappella experiment “Zilch”. Micky Dolenz’s “Randy Scouse Git” works as both comedy and a thrillingly inventive track. It’s the best thing he’s ever written and among the best Monkees recordings. Headquarters really only has one bad cut, the Jones-sung "I Can't Get Her Off My Mind", but it is considerably worse than anything on Pisces.

Bold listeners should then check out Head, the avant garde soundtrack to The Monkees’ avant grade 1968 cult film. The album contains the highest percentage of excellent Monkee songs, but the fact that there are only six of them on the record makes it less of an easy listen than Pisces and Headquarters. Aside from Nesmith’s ferocious “Circle Sky” (as far as I’m concerned, this studio version pulverizes the more lauded live one from the film), Tork’s exotic “Can You Dig It?” and exhilarating “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?”, the gorgeous ballad “As We Go Along” (with guitar by Neil Young), the monumental psychedelic excursion “Porpoise Song”, and “Daddy’s Song”, a better Nilsson/Jones confluence than “Cuddly Toy”, the record is filled out with bizarro montages of sound effects and dialogue from the Head film edited with cheeky mischievousness by co-screenwriter Jack Nicholson.

The Monkees' two biggest sellers lack the adventure of their albums that followed, but both The Monkees (1966) and More of the Monkees (1967) still have much to recommend them. No one but those addicted to TV theme songs needs to listen to “(Theme from) The Monkees”, and Davy commits two of his worst crimes with “I Wanna Be Free” on the first album and “The Day We Fall In Love” on the second, but Nesmith’s pioneering country-rock work-outs “Papa Gene’s Blues”, “The Kind of Girl I Could Love”, and especially “Sweet Young Thing” are great. So are the more garagey numbers, such as “Saturday’s Child”, “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day”, “Let’s Dance On”, “She”, “Mary Mary”, and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”. Davy even manages to get off one terrific bubblegummer with his rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” on More.

The remainder of The Monkees’ catalogue is sketchier. Each album contains a handful of tracks essential for true-believers, but the less committed should stop with the first four records and Head. The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees (1968) is the best of the remainder, but it’s a hodgepodge with Nesmith’s freakiest experiments rubbing elbows with Jones’s fluffiest bubblegum. Still, you wouldn’t want to be without “Tapioca Tundra” or “Auntie’s Municipal Court”, Nesmith’s two greatest fusions of country and psych. The Monkees Present (1969) is more consistent, with Jones finally hitting on a more adult approach to his brand of pop and Dolenz discovering light jazz-pop, but the material is less exciting. Instant Replay (1969) is an unfortunately assembled outtakes compilation. The Monkees had a slew of great stuff in the can, so there’s no excuse for the inclusion of “Me Without You”, “Just a Game”, and “Don’t Listen to Linda” aside from attempting to confirm The Monkees’ reputation as pap for teenyboppers. Dolenz’s suite “Shorty Blackwell” may have been an attempt to cast the group as heavyweight freaks, but it isn’t particularly listenable. But “I Wont’ Be the Same Without Her”, a leftover from The Monkees’ earliest sessions, is gorgeous, and the lacerating “You and I”, which features a more prominent Neil Young lead than “As We Go Along”, is hands down Jones’s best song and vocal. Changes (1970), The Monkees’ last gasp after Nesmith finally quit the group (Tork departed after Head), is the worst of the bunch, but even this thin platter contains one great rocker, the Jones-sung “99 Pounds”, and one last superb Dolenz raver, “Midnight Train”. Anything released as “The Monkees” after this shouldn’t even be touched with a twenty-foot, poo-covered cattle prod.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Lost World: Hammer Studios' 'Nessie'

Developing a movie project is such a convoluted process that it’s amazing any films ever get made at all. There are the budgetary problems, and the casting difficulties, and the conflicts between directors and producers that have caused more than a few projects to be aborted before reaching term. In this on-going series I’ve dubbed “The Lost World”, I’ll be looking at some of these sweet abortions.

What would have become of Horror had it not been for Hammer Studios? By the 1950s Sci-Fi allegories buzzing with UFOs and the nefarious aliens who piloted them had essentially subsumed their Gothic cousins. Hammer restored the genre, returning tried and true creeps such as Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, and the werewolf to their rightful places within desiccated abbeys and quaint European villages. The artistry of Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, The Brides of Dracula, The Curse of the Werewolf, and The Devil Rides Out are basically inarguable (at least among aficionados). The value of the sexier, bloodier, kitschier fare that followed—The Vampire Lovers and Taste the Blood of Dracula and Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Lust for a Vampire—is more a matter of taste, so to speak. As wonderful as Britain’s venerated studio surely was, Hammer could never really compete with Psycho or Peeping Tom or Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby in terms of sophistication. So to continue luring hapless victims into cinemas during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Hammer amped up the luridness and the silliness. For those who appreciate high-camp, there is much to enjoy in these pictures, but they still signaled the unfortunate fact that Hammer was running low on inspiration.

Hammer was not only running low on fresh ideas; the coffers were drying out, as well. Britain was in the midst of a major recession sparked by the oil embargo declared by OPEC in response to the U.S. supplying the Israeli military during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The situation was not aided by the policies of Tory chancellor Anthony Barber or a miners strike resulting in significant electricity cuts the previous year. Britain’s film industry felt the pinch. Hammer went from cranking out 19 films in 1968 to 6 each in ’72 and ’73 and a mere 5 in ’74. Cinemas were closing and transforming into Bingo halls. In 1975, two of Britain’s major production companies, Elstree and Pinewood, produced no films. Hammer was down to a single one.

The origins of Nessie are sketchy. The man most associated with the film is Bryan Forbes. In 1969, Forbes became managing director of EMI, which had just merged with Rank Films, a company that, despite its name, was associated with stodgy tastefulness. Forbes readily admits in Sinclair McKay’s Hammer history A Thing of Unspeakable Horror that Horror was “not really my genre.” Yet he was the man whom Hammer executive Michael Carreras approached about writing the studio’s next feature. As EMI was funding the comparatively profitable Hammer films, Forbes may have had extra incentive for saying “yes” to Carreras’s offer. He certainly had the screenwriting credentials to do the job: The League of Gentlemen, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, King Rat. He’d go on to write even higher profile films, including International Velvet and Chaplin. He’d also proven himself a strong director with Séance, Rat, and The Stepford Wives. But whether the idea of writing a horror film involving the Loch Ness Monster came from Forbes or Carreras is not known.

In his A Thing of Unspeakable Horror, McKay described Nessie as “a sort of cross between King Kong and Jaws.” Forbes completed the screenplay, and according to the official website of Toho Films— the Japanese studio responsible for all those giant monster movies starring Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan —was also slotted to direct. Revered media personality David Frost, of all people, apparently was 

Less bizarrely, Toho wanted in on the action, as well. In fact, pre-production work supposedly was underway at Toho. Teruyoshi Nakano, who was behind the special effects in all those Godzilla pictures, created the Loch Ness Monster prop, which is possibly depicted in this photo at Tojo Kindom.

Forbes has supplied little information on his script, only telling McKay that one draft involved “underwater oil ruins and oil rigs in the Indian Ocean getting wrecked.” His explanation for why the film fizzled is equally nebulous. “Just disappeared without a trace, really,” he told McKay.

Hammer wound up producing the spectacularly sleazy To the Devil a Daughter, starring Christopher Lee and 15-year-old Nastassja Kinski, instead. The film would be the Studio’s last Horror, if not its last hurrah (that would be the 1976 Hitchcock remake The Lady Vanishes), in its original incarnation. But the Nessie project supposedly persisted. Even as financial backing was vanishing, Toho created an advance poster for the film in 1978. But the film was officially scrapped the following year.

Had Nessie materialized it may have done its part in reviving Hammer. The Godzilla films are certainly perennial favorites and Nakano’s creation is cheesily promising. But fans of Hammer’s Gothic tradition may have only been baffled by a giant sea-monster movie starring a hand puppet. A similar effort written and directed by Larry “Mars Needs Women” Buchanan in 1981 called The Loch Ness Horror produced nothing more than guffaws. But that film didn’t have Bryan Forbes on board. Would he have written and directed a contemporary King Kong or a six-years-early Loch Ness Horror? Only dwellers in The Lost World know for sure…

Monday, August 2, 2010

Track by Track: ‘Cheap Trick’ by Cheap Trick

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, I’ll be taking a close look at albums of the classic, underrated, and flawed variety, and assessing them Track by Track.

1977: the year that Punk provided Rock & Roll with a much-needed high colonic. The new guard led by The Clash and The Sex Pistols chided the old guard of classic rockers (“No Beatles, Elvis, or the Rolling Stones in 1977”) no matter how much that new guard owed to the old one. Still, punk did its damnedest to flush out the pretentious concepts, endless guitar and drum solos, and godlier than thou stance that had been dominating popular music since the end of the ‘60s. The punks initially scoffed at the artiness that had seeped into Rock & Roll since psychedelic ’67, though, many of them—including The Clash, The Damned, Radio Birdman, Pere Ubu, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Adverts, and The Buzzcocks— would soon incorporate many psych trappings in their most interesting work. If it wasn’t raw, raunchy, shouted, and shredded, it was nowhere. And though the best punks welcomed elements of old-fashioned, Who-inspired power pop into their music, they were careful not to stray too far from the two-chords-and-a-pissy-attitude formula (another posture that would soon fade). This is why the purists cast a skeptical eye toward folks like The Jam, Joe Jackson, and Elvis Costello, with their skinny ties and pesky melodies.

Cheap Trick never received flack for being posers the way Weller, Jackson, or Costello did because they operated on their own power-pop planet. Too polished for the punks, too snide for the classic rockers, Cheap Trick was a band bred for culthood. Robin Zander may have looked the golden god, with his pretty puss and blonde mane, but his demented yowl may have even been too much for the Zep Heads. Rick Nielsen’s lead guitar work (“and when we say lead, we’re not kidding: he’s got thirty-five guitars” future novelist Eric von Lustbader boasted in the original liner notes) could go head-to-head with that of Jimmy Page, but his Huntz Hall get up wasn’t going to get him on any centerfolds. Bun E. Carlos looked more like he should be wiping dipsticks than waving drumsticks. Only bassist Tom Petersson really looked and played the part of classic rocker, but who paid any attention to him?
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