Friday, December 30, 2011

A Strange Case for ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’

Early in his amusing study Danse Macabre, Stephen King lays out the three essential monster archetypes: “the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Thing Without a Name.” Each of these creatures serves as the central villain of three “twentieth-century gothics which have become known as ‘the modern horror story’.” King’s categorizing of Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a vampire novel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a “thing without a name” novel need no explanation. His werewolf tale is slightly dodgier. But the gnomish ghoul in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has always sat outside the pack despite his broad influence and importance. Mr. Hyde is not a werewolf in any official sense, but it isn’t too tough to suss where King is coming from. Hyde is a monster brought on by transformation, a not-so-subtle representation of uncontrollable, destructive id. He parallels alcoholics and drug addicts neater than the Wolf Man does, but the similarities are still significant. So is King’s categorization of Hyde as a werewolf. There was never a major werewolf novel in the vein of Dracula or Frankenstein, yet that beast naturally completes the holy trinity of major monsters. The werewolf took its fated position alongside Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster in 1941 when Universal Studios released The Wolf Man; its final great, serious monster movie during its great golden age of monster movies, and one of its few without literary precedent.
Since that film’s debut seventy years ago, it’s been Frank, Drac, and Wolfie all the way. Together they scared the witless wits out of Abbott and Costello, joined forces in a

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: 'Treasures of The Rolling Stones'

Treasures of The Rolling Stones is a book for fans with a penchant for style and money to burn. Glenn Crouch compacts 50 years of the band’s history into a 60-page digest boxed in a spiffy slipcase. Their tale has been told more thoroughly and reliably elsewhere. There’s no excuse for the number of errors that appear in a book of this size, ranging from the mildly sloppy (a photo from 1967 is tagged 1965; “Under My Thumb” is mistakenly named as Chris Farlowe’s #1 hit of 1966 rather than “Out of Time”, etc.) to the egregious: “1975…The Faces had splintered after the death of bass player and songwriter Ronnie Lane…” Umm, Glenn, Ronnie Lane died in 1997. Maybe a fact checker wouldn’t have been a bad investment.

Yet Crouch’s credentials seem fairly solid. According to the back cover copy, he “worked with the Rolling Stones (at Virgin Records) for more than a decade.” He has certainly accumulated a fair share of Stones-related goodies over the years, which are the “treasures” of his tome’s title. Treasures of The Rolling Stones houses five pockets filled with reprints of Stones memorabilia: reprints of concert posters, tickets, backstage passes, programs, letters to fans, etc. The best is a note delineating the band’s lodging requirements. An ominous directive warns to “keep Bill Wyman away from Keith because of noise.” The guys’ silly road pseudonyms are run down too: Keith is “Percy Thrower”; Charlie (apparently) is “Bender.” There are also some nice black & white and color photos and fairly insightful overviews of every major L.P. and single. Big points to Crouch for being that ultra-rare Stone chronicler to praise Their Satanic Majesties Request, which he declares “the most musically inventive and innovative album in the Stones canon.” Hear, hear!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Review: '100 Hits: Punk & New Wave'

Don’t be duped by the totally no frills packaging; Demon Music Group’s 100 Hits: Punk & New Wave is a first-rate budget package collecting a bit of essential and a whole lot of obscure. The title alone is priceless. Were there even 100 punk and new wave hits during the ‘70s and ‘80s? Not likely. So the compilers aren’t required to assemble five discs of material anyone should expect to be definitive. Yes, there are beloved warhorses from The Sex Pistols, Blondie, The Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, and XTC. And certainly no one with even a passing interest in this kind of music should be without full-length L.P. by those artists. The real value of this set is the odd treasures by Department S, Fad Gadget, D.A.F., Modern Eon, Leyton Buzzards, The Records, The Flys, Honey Bane, and many others.

Because this set covers such a wide swath of sub-genres, the compilers arranged the individual discs fairly thoughtfully. There are few jarring stylistic shifts. The Human League isn't sandwiched between, say, The Saints and The Fun Boy Three. Disc one is the most eclectic, providing an overview of each subgenre to come and parading out most of the best known tracks (“God Save the Queen”! “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)””! “Hanging on the Telephone”! “Whip It”!). Disc two is mostly devoted to synthy, dancey new wave. Disc three is cheekily split between the set’s lightest and heaviest numbers. Disc four spotlights power pop and ska. Disc five is wall-to-wall punk.

There are plenty of budget CD series out there, but Demon’s 100 Hits line is unique. Along with the usual Disco, ‘80s Classics, and Rock Anthems compilations, there are such unconventional themes as Northern Soul, The New Romantics, and Indie. The concept of a Punk & New Wave compilation is nothing particularly novel, but the track choice makes it a quirky and worthwhile alternative to more essential and conventionally compiled sets, such as Rhino’s No Thanks! The ‘70s Punk Rebellion.

Here’s the complete track list:

CD 1
1  Hanging On The Telephone
2  Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've?)
3  God Save The Queen

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Carl Wilson’s Ten Greatest Vocals

Carl Wilson, quite possibly the best vocalist in the best American vocal group in pop history, was born this day in 1946. In honor of this occasion let’s take a look at ten of his finest performances.

1. “Girl Don’t Tell Me” (1965)

Carl’s first unaccompanied vocal can be found on 1964’s spotty Shut Down Vol. 2. “Pom-Pom Play Girl” is hardly the most memorable Beach Boys tune, and he makes such little impact on the track that the vocal is erroneously credited to brother Brian in the CD’s liner notes. So it’s little wonder why many fans believe his first showcase to be the sublime “Girl Don’t Tell Me” from 1965’s Summer Days… and Summer Nights!!. While Mike Love gets his own lines and the rest of The Boys harmonize on “Pom-Pom Play Girl”, “Girl Don’t Tell Me” allows Carl to have the spotlight all to himself. And what an incredible job he does capturing the romantic and erotic longing (swoon to the way he sings “Your shorts, mmmm, they sure fit you fine”) of a kid jilted by his summer fling. His pain is totally convincing, possibly because he was just a teen himself when he recorded it.

2. “God Only Knows” (1966)

Carl’s vocal on “God Only Knows” is so transcendently gorgeous that it is mind-boggling Brian Wilson didn’t have him sing more songs before it. Still, it is meaningful that Brian would have Carl sing many of his finest songs from this point on. Ethereal as Brian’s falsetto is, he tended to belt more when singing in his lower range. Carl maintained his delicacy remarkably when singing in the deeper tones “God Only Knows” required. It is a perfect match of a perfect song and a perfect voice.

3. “Good Vibrations” (1966)

Carl Wilson’s voice is haunting on “God Only Knows”. It’s downright haunted on “Good Vibrations”. Brian Wilson makes the transition from romantic beauty to psychedelic spookiness, and Carl was one of the few other Beach Boys to go along for the ride happily (Dennis was the other one). He effortlessly conveys the supernatural themes of “Good Vibrations” even after Mike love edited Brian’s original lyric to give it a more relatable boy/girl theme.

4. “Wind Chimes” (1966)

As light and airy as the vibes and bass it accompanies, Carl’s voice is positively spine tingling on “Wind Chimes”. This piece intended to play the “wind” role in Brian’s “Elements” suite in his SMiLE project didn’t see release during its own time. In its place was a less focused re-recording included on the Smiley Smile album (which Carl famously deemed “a bunt instead of a grand slam,” which SMiLE surely would have been). Fortunately, the original recording has since seen release on 1993’s 30 Years of Good Vibrations box set, and more recently on the absolutely essential SMiLE Sessions collection. Close your eyes, listen, feel a light breeze on your face when Carl expels his breathy vocal.

5. “Cabin Essence” (1966)

“Cabin Essence”, an epic tale of early Western “progress,” is one of the few SMiLE tracks Brian totally completed. As he did on “Good Vibrations”, Carl steps in to sing the multi-sectioned piece’s lightest passages. A voice of his twinkling delicacy was made to sing Van Dyke Parks’s evocative words (“Light the lamp and fire mellow… The constellations ebb and flow there”).

6. “Darlin’” (1967)

Carl was not just some celestial crooner. On the stunning R&B work out “Darlin’” from the underrated Wild Honey, he proves he can belt with the best of them. While some of his heartier vocals on the record (the title track, his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her”) strain a bit out of his range, his work on “Darlin’” is perfect: powerful without losing an iota of his trademark sensitivity. “Darlin’” is an upbeat soul number capable of bringing tears to eyes.

7. “Time to Get Alone” (1969)

“Time to Get Alone” is a waltz from the odds-and-ends disc 20/20 that pulls The Beach Boys from their familiar sand and surf setting to snowy ski slopes. Brian originally passed this deeply romantic number off on his friends Redwood (soon to achieve greater success as Three Dog Night). While their version shares its lovely backing track with The Beach Boys’ one, it is infinitely inferior for lack of Carl’s heart-stopping vocal.

8. “Long Promised Road” (1971)

By the end of the ‘60s, drugs and psychological problems essentially put Brian out of commission. Carl Wilson took it upon himself to become the band’s new team leader. Replacing a genius like Brian—and genius is an absurdly overused term in pop journalism, but in this case it applies—is neither an enviable nor a seemingly accomplishable task. Carl did the best he could, and 1971’s Surf’s Up ended up being the best Beach Boys record since Pet Sounds (or, at least, Friends). Though uneven, the record’s great tracks are so great they completely overshadow weaker ones like “Take a Load Off Your Feet” and “Student Demonstration Time”. The first truly great track on Surf’s Up is Carl’s “Long Promised Road”, a magnificently stirring statement of purpose. He vows to “hit hard at the battle that’s confronting me; knock down all the roadblocks stumbling me,” which can be read as his determination to keep his band working despite losing their long-time leader. His impassioned vocal delivers that determined message loud and clear.

9. “Surf’s Up” (1971)

The centerpiece of SMiLE was to be the mini-suite “Surf’s Up”. Brian didn’t finish recording the track he began in 1966, possibly because he ran into so many problems with Mike Love, who infamously complained about Van Dyke Parks’s poetic, inscrutable lyric. Carl knew The Beach Boys finally needed their grand slam in the face of Brian’s lessened role. He convinced the band to complete the track, Parks’s psychedelic lyric and all. Carl takes the vocal spotlight in the verses Brian possibly originally intended for himself. Later remixes of the song in which Carl’s 1971 vocal track is replaced with a 1966 vocal by Brian may be more historically accurate, but it lacks the haunting quality of the version on Surf’s Up. It remains the definitive version of what may be The Beach Boys’ greatest recording.

10. “The Trader” (1973)

The eco-friendly undertones of Surf’s Up become a full-fledged manifesto on 1973’s Holland. The Beach Boys’ green masterpiece is Carl and Jack Reiley’s “The Trader”. The track’s sweep and scope is incredible, picking up on the themes of development in Brian and Van Dyke Parks “Cabin Essence” and honing them into a sharp indictment of imperialism. Carl works himself up into a righteous froth. Then, suddenly, the track slows to silence. It resumes, quiet, hymn like. Gone is the soul shouter of “Darlin’” and “Long Promised Road”. In comes the beatific whisperer of “God Only Knows” and “Wind Chimes”, singing a paean to nature’s tranquility. Presenting the full range of Carl Wilson’s indescribably expressive voice, “The Trader” may be the ultimate example of his greatness.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Beyond the Phil: Thirteen Spectacular Non-Spector X-Mas Songs

Rock & Roll fans have little to choose from come Christmas time. While we’re inundated with holiday odes from Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole and those barking dogs, there’s precious little that kicks anything remotely resembling an ass. Then in November of 1963, Phil Spector really gave Rock & Roll fans a Christmas gift they could cherish with his monumental and appropriately titled A Christmas Gift for You. Finally, a holiday platter to drive mom and dad nuts! The kids who bought that album way back in the ‘60s are probably moms and dads themselves now, and A Christmas Gift for You—which, legend has it, flopped because it was released the day Kennedy was assassinated—is now rightfully regarded as a classic. Darlene Love’s emotionally draining “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” may be the single greatest Christmas recording, Rock or otherwise. Spector made Christmas songs cool, and a select few of his pop progeny have since recorded great ones of their own. Not all of these thirteen non-Spector holiday numbers kick the proverbial, but they’re all pretty amazing in their own ways. When you feel like heaving after the hundredth spin of that Chipmunk song, here are thirteen unconventional alternatives to cleanse your palette.

1. “The Man with All the Toys” by The Beach Boys (1964)

Certainly the best non-Spector holiday long player was created by Phil’s top pupil. In less than two years, Brian Wilson would surpass his master when he conjured Pet Sounds. He’s not quite there yet on 1964’s The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, but it’s still a damn fine and rather inventive record. The album’s best-known track is the “Little Deuce Coupe”-rewrite “Little Saint Nick”, a decently corny holiday favorite. Better is “The Man with All the Toys”, an abbreviated ode to Santa that picks up on the baroque hints of the previous summer’s “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”. Mike Love’s lyric is evocative: a peeping tom peeps on Santa and his elves in their workshop, but doesn’t dare to enter. The sharp exclamations of “Uh!” are an offbeat yet pleasing touch and the tightly controlled rhythm is hypnotic

2. “Christmas Time (Is Here Again) ” by The Beatles (1967)

The Beatles could record any old junk and make it sound pretty wonderful. Take their late 1967 single “Hello Goodbye”. McCartney’s composition is flimsy, but the performance and production elevate it to top-quality pop fluff. A short time later they recorded their annual fan club-only Christmas single, and for the first time included an actual fully produced song on the disc. As a composition, “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” is even thinner than “Hello Goodbye”, but it is created with all the joy of that single. The lyric is absolutely silly: the title phrase repeated over and over, only varied by a brief interjection from Paul about the holiday’s longevity and a cryptic spelling lesson from Ringo. But the guys’ harmonies soar and Ringo’s drumming is loose and powerful. And it’s all over in little over a minute, which doesn’t hurt.

3. “A Christmas Camel” by Procol Harum (1967)

Here’s how to write a Christmas song that won’t make listeners barf: give it a holiday-themed title, but jettison all holiday themes in favor of psychedelic gobbledygook. Keith Reid was one of the great writers of psychedelic gobbledygook, and he’s in rare form on Procol Harum’s “A Christmas Camel”. All Christmas songs should contain lyrics like “While some Arabian Sheik most grand impersonates a hot dog stand” and they should all be played with the Gothic grandeur the Harum brings to “A Christmas Camel”…

4. “Riu Chiu” by The Monkees (1967)

..but if you must stick religious themes into your Christmas carols, at least have the taste to do it in Spanish. Most listeners could only suss that The Monkees’ “Riu Chiu” is a Christmas song because they sang it (live!) in the Christmas episode of their TV series. The title translates to “Roaring River”, and the lyric imparts a prayer to God pleading for the safety of his newborn baby: Baby Jesus. Safe from what? A wolf that wants to eat him! Delicious Jesus. “Riu Chiu” is more evidence of The Monkees’ quirky tastes and wonderful vocal abilities. Micky Dolenz delivers the Spanish lyric without a single stumble. The contrapuntal harmonies are gorgeous.

5. “All Our Christmases” by The Majority (1968)

Hull’s The Majority bring their Hollies-esque harmonies and an arrangement lifted from “I Got You Babe” to “All Our Christmases”. Like Procol Harum’s “A Christmas Camel”, the holiday message is inscrutable, though less bizarre and the music is certainly more Christmassy.

6. “Christmas” by The Who (1969)

Christmas songs are often defined by their snowflake lightness. The Who aren’t. “Christmas” is the heaviest song in their relatively light Rock opera Tommy. A man ponders what might happen to the soul of his deaf, dumb, and blind son who can’t pray and grovel and do all the other nonsense one must do in order to enter Heaven because he isn’t even aware of the God concept. While Tommy’s dad agonizes over this spiritual dilemma, the boy plays a little pinball and picks his nose. A far better way to spend Christmas morning than sitting in church.

7. “Child’s Christmas in Wales” by John Cale (1973)

John Cale’s lovely “Child’s Christmas in Wales” pulls the greatest Christmas song trick of them all: the only holiday it specifically names is Halloween. The title references a radio poem by Cale’s fellow Welshman, Dylan Thomas, and like much of Thomas’s work, it’s hard to pin down. Both the song and the poem stir nostalgia, but Cale’s lyric is prickled with imagery one doesn’t expect from a holiday carol: “Ten murdered oranges bled on board ship lend comedy to shame.” Indeed.

8. “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” by Wizzard (1973)

Apparently, Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” is one of those holiday standards so overplayed in the U.K. that it drives some British folk a bit bonkers. As a yank not bludgeoned with the track, I think it’s pretty terrific. Beginning with the cynical touch of a jingling cash register, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” is a remarkable approximation of Spector’s Wall of Sound. It’s all incredibly over-the-top, with its punishing orchestrations and children’s choir and dream of 365 days of ho-ho-hoing. Considering that cash registers now start taking Christmas dollars and pounds in mid-August, Wizzard is coming distressingly close to having their dream come true.

9. “Winter” by The Rolling Stones (1973)

Mick Jagger is an underrated lyricist, and “Winter” finds him painting a portrait of the holiday season with spare images of frigid temperatures, restoration plays, and malfunctioning Christmas lights. This is no celebration of that holly jolly season but a weary lament, a prayer for a “long, hot summer.” Jimmy Miller’s murky production didn’t do Goats Head Soup many favors, but it contributes to the blizzardy atmosphere of “Winter” beautifully. Nicky Harrison’s icy string arrangement, which could easily be mistaken for the masterful work of Paul Buckmaster, whips up gusts.

10. “Father Christmas” by The Kinks (1979)

“Father Christmas” may be the greatest non-Spector holiday record of them all. The Kinks channel the punks they helped inspire, both in their muscular playing and the working class message and explicit violence of Ray Davies’s lyric. Poor kids threaten to beat up Santa and tell him to shove his “silly toys” because toys won’t help put food on the table or furnish dad with a job. They will accept a machine gun to scare all the kids on the street though. I assume they don’t mean a toy one. Mean, pointed, powerful, and absurdly catchy, “Father Christmas” is that rare Christmas song that can be enjoyed all year long.

11. “There Ain’t No Sanity Clause” by The Damned (1980)

From old-guard Rock & Rollers mimicking punks to the real deal. The Damned were actually moving away from their two-minutes-of-shouting formula in 1980. Of course, you’d never know that from the Chico Marx-quoting “There Ain’t No Sanity Clause”. It’s fast, it’s furious, it’s hilarious. The Damned bared their atheistic stance on 1979’s rampaging “Anti-Pope”. Here they rail against easier game: Santa Clause. The guys equate the holiday mascot with a succession of monsters, each of which has its own equivalent in the band. Rat Scabies thinks he’s turning into a werewolf. Dave Vanian believes he’s had visits from Dracula. Captain Sensible takes up the not-so-sensible habit of impersonating Jaws. There’s as little sanity in such behavior as there is in Santa worship. Like The Kinks, if The Damned ever met St. Nick they’d “give him some stick.” A punk carol for Christmas and Halloween alike.

12. “2000 Miles” by The Pretenders (1983)

The Pretenders emerged from the same punk scene as The Damned. Chrissie Hynde even briefly played in an ill-fated band called Masters of the Backside with Sensible, Vanian, and Scabies. But the sentiment and style of The Pretenders’ Christmas song couldn’t be more different from The Damned’s. “2000 Miles” is a pretty, gentle ballad about reuniting with an estranged loved one in the holiday season. Hynde indulges in disarmingly straight-faced sentimentality: “You appear outside under the purple sky/ Diamonds in the snow sparkle/Our Hearts were singing/It felt like Christmas time.” She’s cool enough to pull it off.

13. “Santa Claus” by Throwing Muses (1989)

Kristin Hersh is cool too, but she’s also disjointed and surreal, hence Throwing Muses’ jarring “Santa Clause”. Like “2000 Miles”, it’s a love song, although it’s hard to believe Hynde’s long lost lover looked like Santa Clause, as Hersh’s beau does. Rhythm guitar jangles like sleigh bells (or maybe the James Bond theme song). Lead guitar shrieks like a reindeer in a meat grinder. Hersh howls “Ho, ho, ho!” like an escaped psycho in a Santa suit. Your local shopping mall won’t be playing this track over the P.A. this Christmas. All the more reason why it’s so spectacular.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: 'The Hammer Vault'

Colorful, sexy, campy, and iconic, Hammer has attracted a devoted cult like no other film studio. Marcus Hearn’s new book, The Hammer Vault, will please those creepy cultists most assuredly. Hammer’s “official film historian” profiles more than 80 Hammers, beginning with its 1955 flagship horror, The Quatermass Xperiment. Although it supplies some interesting tidbits (apparently, Bette Davis really had the hots for screenwriter Jimmy Sangster!) and a fairly extensive section on unproduced movies, Hearn’s text plays a supporting role to the images of rare and precious curios that litter The Hammer Vault. We get photos of the elaborate publicity manuals designed to promote each film, which often contained pretty hilarious promotional suggestions. Why wouldn’t a cinema want to splash red paint all over its sidewalk to lure audiences to The Brides of Dracula or reproduce a sewer in its lobby while showing The Phantom of the Opera? The book reproduces promotional gimmicks ranging from the cool—comic strips used to promote The Gorgon and The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb—to the ludicrous—a  “Kandahar curry” recipe that somehow would have drew spectators to The Brigand of Kandahar. Instructions for making construction-paper bats and graveyard tableaux, paper masks and paper fangs; no gimmick was too chintzy or far-fetched for Hammer.

Other delightful materials include a characteristically kind letter from Peter Cushing to a young man he helped find employment at the studio and Christopher Lee’s Taste the Blood of Dracula script annotated with personal observations like “Ridiculous lines” and “Absurd”! There are candid shots of Hammer-freak Sammy Davis, Jr., awestruck by Lee on the set of Pirates of Blood River, a zombie eating a popsicle, and a mummy enjoying a glass of milk.

The Hammer Vault trumpets its distinction as the first book to follow the studio through its recent revival. Considering these pictures have either been decent (“Wake Wood”), well crafted yet redundant (“Let Me In”), or outright crappy (“The Resident”), this isn’t much of an allure. No big deal, since Hearn’s book already has much to mesmerize fans. That upcoming version of The Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliff does look promising, though.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Farewell "Monkees" co-creator Bert Schneider

The son of the president of Columbia Pictures, Bert Schneider was born into entertainment. As a twenty-year old he entered the business officially, transporting film cans for Screen Gems. By 1965, he was developing a network television series with his buddy Bob Rafelson for the company. “The Monkees” was to be one of the most profitable and controversial projects of the ‘60s, cashing in on The Beatles’ popularity while also introducing hippie ideology and anarchic surrealism to primetime. While the hipsters derided Schneider’s “pre-fab four,” and avoided the band's brilliantly avant garde film Head (1968), they praised the second film his and Bob’s independent studio, Raybert Productions, unleashed in 1969. Once again hippie ideology and Rock & Roll were at the heart of Easy Rider, but the public found antiestablishment sentiments much more convincing coming from Dennis Hooper and Peter Fonda than Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter. Following another major critical and commercial success with Five Easy Pieces, Schneider and Rafelson formed BBS Productions with a third partner, Bert’s childhood friend Steve Blauner. The trio continued making innovative independent films that inspired a new crop of filmmakers to embrace the gritty, naturalism that defined ‘70s cinema.

As Rafelson settled into his role as big shot movie director, Schneider focused more and more on politics, and his movie work grew sparse. Yet he continued to make major impressions as producer of the Oscar-winning, Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds (1974) and Terence Malick’s reflective classic Days of Heaven (1978). Schneider dropped out of the movie business after producing Broken English in 1981. The ongoing popularity of “The Monkees”, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, and his other major achievements kept his name alive in the movie, T.V., and pop history books. Pop experimenter, cinematic trendsetter, Bert Schneider died this past Monday of natural causes in L.A. at the age of ’78.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Psychobabble's 20 Greatest One and No-Hit Wonders of 1966!

1966 was the final year in which the 45 rpm single was the unchallenged dominating force in Rock & Roll. Although that year included such major statements as Revolver, Blonde on Blonde, and Pet Sounds, the L.P. didn’t become the ultimate Rock delivery system until the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in mid-1967. 1966 was a year flooded with amazing singles from Rock’s most popular artists—“Paperback Writer”, “Good Vibrations”, “Paint It Black”, “Substitute”, “Eight Miles High”, to name just a few—but groups that never achieved the celebrity of The Beatles or The Stones contributed just as integrally to the rainbow quilt of ’66 pop. Some of these groups went on to develop mighty cult reputations. Some sank into obscurity. But they all made at least one monumental statement, whether it climbed into the top forty or not. Here are twenty of the most incredible one-off hits and flops of 1966.

Note: I had to amend my original list when I learned that Question Mark and the Mysterians had a #22 hit in the U.S. with “I Need Somebody” and Los Bravos hit #16 in the U.K. with “I Don’t Care”. That’s why “96 Tears” and “Black Is Black” didn’t make the final cut even though they’re often remembered as the work of one hit wonders.

20. “Why Don’t You Smile Now” by The Downliners Sect

While Lou Reed and John Cale were infecting the New York underground with their new band, Twickenham’s The Downliner’s Sect were attempting to climb the charts on the other side of the pond. They’d heard “Why Don’t You Smile Now” in demo form, perhaps unaware it had already flopped for R&B group The All Night Workers. The Downliners’ reimagining of the song as a hard-driving, echo-laden variation on “Louie Louie” didn’t win them a hit either, but its status as an early co-composition by Reed and Cale, who’d been grinding out made-to-order ditties for the Pickwick label, guaranteed its place in history. Its relentless fuzzy funk guaranteed its status as one of the great misses of 1966.

19. “Fight Fire” by The Golliwogs

With its nagging riff, hip-shaking percussion, pulsing rhythm, and mid-song freak-out, “Fight Fire” is the quintessential 1966 rocker. Yet San Francisco’s Golliwogs failed to turn it into a hit. No matter. A 1968 change in name and musical approach resulted in one of the biggest and best bands of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s: Creedence Clearwater Revival. “Fight Fire” isn’t as monumental as “Green River”, “Fortunate Son” or “Up Around the Bend”, but it is early and convincing evidence of John Fogerty’s songwriting talents… especially when played alongside The Golliwogs’ otherwise weak output.

18. “Eventually” by The Peanut Butter Conspiracy

With their universal love philosophy and ultra-dated psychedelic moniker, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy seem like prime candidates for irrelevance. But

Monday, December 12, 2011

20 Things You May Not Have Known About ‘The Wolf Man’

Today marks 70 years since Larry Talbot first spied the mark of the wolf in the palms of his victims. One of the greatest and most iconic of Universal’s great and iconic monster movies, The Wolf Man is essential viewing for any novice horror hound. Those who wish to further their lycanthropic education may learn a thing or two by boning up on these 20 Things You May Not Have Known About The Wolf Man

1. Universal’s The Wolf Man is not the first film to bear that title. In 1924, Fox Films presented a silent melodrama starring John Gilbert and Norma Shearer called The Wolf Man. No lycanthropes were present.

2. Screenwriter Robert Florey first conceived of a werewolf movie called The Wolf Man in 1932. The potential Boris Karloff vehicle failed to materialize partly because Universal execs feared the officious Catholic Church would take issue with a scene in which the werewolf transformed in a church confessional.

3. Jack Pierce first designed the well-known Wolf Man makeup for Henry Hull in Werewolf of London. Hull supposedly nixed the makeup because it was so uncomfortable to wear.

4. Bela Lugosi was the first choice to play the lycanthropy-spreading Dr. Yogami in Werewolf of London, a role that ultimately went to Warner Oland. Six years later

Friday, December 9, 2011

Track by Track: ‘A Quick One’ by The Who

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

As was their way, The Who entered 1966 in a cyclone of tumult. They’d recently sacked Shel Talmy, the American producer who clamored up their first L.P., My Generation. The split was acrimonious, and the contract dissolution left Talmy with a 5% piece of The Who’s pie for the next five years. Dissent was also strong in the band itself. Roger Daltrey’s frustration with a group that had long since slipped out of his control brewed violence. Sick of taking the occasional thumping from their thuggish singer, the other guys and manager Kit Lambert asked Roger to quit. Afraid of losing a good thing, he resolved to be “Peaceful Perce” from then on. But violence still loomed in The Who’s ranks. In May of 1966, Pete Townshend wacked Keith Moon with his guitar when the drummer showed up late to a gig. As The Who played their next few shows with a stand-in, Moon convalesced and schemed to steal away bassist John Entwistle to form a new group with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page called Lead Zeppelin.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review: 'Butterfly on a Wheel: The Great Rolling Stones Drugs Bust'

Swinging London’s principal players heaved a collective groan when Donovan was busted for possessing a small amount of hash in 1966. The colorful, creative, bleary-eyed party was about to come to an end now that Rock & Rollers were on the Blue Meanies’ radar. Donovan’s bust was teatime compared to what was about to go down in The Rolling Stones’ camp. The Redlands party of February 12, 1967, is one of those infamous turning points in Rock & Roll history, like the death of Buddy Holly or The Stones’ own Altamont blunder. At the tail end of a lovely day in which Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull enjoyed their first acid trips in the vicinity of Keith Richards’s West Wittering home, the cops descended on the dreamy scene. Four long-forgotten pep pills discovered in Jagger’s coat pocket. Heroin tablets in the possession of art dealer Robert Fraser. Richards’s home used for some alleged pot smoking. The Stones were busted, and they weren’t about to get off with the wrist slap Donovan received. During a year in which The Beatles turned the pop world on its cranium with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Who, Otis Redding, and Jimi Hendrix became stars at the Monterey Pop Festival, The Rolling Stones were practically out of commission, spending their time in lawyers’ offices, courtrooms, and jail cells. Jagger faced three months in prison. Richards faced a year. Brian Jones’s mid-year bust put the band in further jeopardy.

The Stones’ busts were important on a grander level than merely putting an end to that band. It meant other musicians had to fear police invasion. It meant there was potential precedent of long-term prison sentences for innocuous drug offenses. Judge Block’s initial harsh ruling had more to do with public outrage over The Rolling Stones’ anarchic persona than the severity of their drug use. Public outcry over the decision was tremendous. As expected, The Stones’ musical peers and fans went to bat for them with protests. But they also received support from unexpected sources, most notably conservative editor of The Times William Rees-Mogg, whose famous “Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel” editorial played a crucial role in putting Jagger and Richards’s sentences into rational perspective.

The Redlands bust is an integral chapter in any Rolling Stones biography or Swinging London retrospective, but it has never been examined with the thoroughness of Simon Wells’s new book, Butterfly on a Wheel: The Great Rolling Stones Drugs Bust. Wells spends his first 60 or so pages zooming through the usual account of The Stones’ early years. Then he comes to a halt at Donovan’s bust to home in on the central story. The author crafts a vivid portrait of perhaps the most vivid period in pop history. He details the Redlands party’s acid trip, the intrusive bust, the trial, Mick and Keith’s brief jailing, Brian’s ordeal, and the aftermath of it all intricately. Wells sets out to examine and evaluate all of the myths associated with the infamous affair, and not just the long-ago debunked “Mars Bar” incident, but enduring details, such as David “Acid King” Schneiderman’s role as possible informant. Sometimes Wells resolves lingering questions. Sometimes the mystery persists.

Beautifully written in the mode of In Cold Blood or Helter Skelter, Butterfly on a Wheel unfolds with so much drama and detail that when I reached Mick and Keith’s acquittal I felt like cheering even though I was already well familiar with that outcome. Butterfly on a Wheel is the final word on one of the most discussed incidents in Rock & Roll history and essential reading for all Stones fans.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review: 'Some Girls: Deluxe Edition' by The Rolling Stones

As soon as The Rolling Stones moved beyond the rudimentary blues and Chuck Berry homages of their first couple of records, they became Rock & Roll’s greatest bandwagon jumpers. Whether the times were ruled by pop, psychedelia, or the Dylan-led roots revival of the late ‘60s, The Stones were always game and almost always did it better than anyone else. After the rough transition that saw them lose their most polished guitarist, Mick Taylor, and their most competent producer, Jimmy Miller, The Stones got straight on 1978’s Some Girls. Although they’d definitely lost a good deal of true grit in the years that saw them gain the gritty Ronnie Wood but slip into a jet set lifestyle more befitting decadent royalty than decadent Rock stars, Some Girls is a solid selection of ten tracks well steeped in the late ‘70s triumvirate of New York punk, disco, and Smokey and the Bandit-style hick country. This may not be The Stones at the peak of their powers, but it is further proof that they could casually dip into the zeitgeist and come up with a bona-fide winner. Some Girls became their biggest seller and is regularly cited as the band’s last great record.

The new deluxe edition of Some Girls is genuinely fascinating because it reveals that even with all the fashionable posturing entombed on that record, The Stones never lost their love for the earthy Rock & Roll and blues that defined them in their earliest years. Appended to the original album— which is presented as a louder, though not necessarily clearer or punchier, remaster than the 1994 CD—is a bonus disc of The Stones sounding looser and more sincere than they had since 1964. Between channeling Studio 54 on “Miss You” or Johnny Rotten on “Respectable”, The Stones were jamming away on Hank Williams and Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon classics just because they dug them. Along with the covers are untailored originals such as “Claudine”, a lively Rock-a-Billy jam, the pumping blues “So Young”, a close cousin to “Dead Fowers” called “Do You Think I Really Care”, a light-hearted, slightly Latin jaunt called “Don’t Be a Stranger”. Fresh stuff.

A few of these tracks—“No Spare Parts”, “Don’t Be a Stranger”, “You Win Again”—didn’t receive vocal overdubs during the original sessions, so Mick gave them a go in 2011. Because his vocal delivery had already gotten more affected in his current style by the Some Girls sessions, his new vocals don’t stick out as much as they did in the bonus tracks on last year’s deluxe Exile on Main Street. You’d be hard pressed to detect any significant difference between Mick’s delivery on “No Spare Parts” and his work on “Do You Think I Really Care”.

At a non-sprawling twelve tracks, the Some Girls bonus disc creates the pleasing illusion of a long-lost Rolling Stones L.P. If it isn’t essential, it’s certainly a more respectable collection than Black and Blue or Dirty Work. Like Black and Blue, these numbers are more about performance than composition. Unlike Black and Blue, none of them are long-winded or half-hearted. Ultimately, the bonus disc is more of a contrast than a compliment to Some Girls, proof that real hearts still beat in the guys at a time when they seemed to be transforming into automated mimics for good.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: 'Quadrophenia: The Director's Cut' by The Who

Like so many Who projects, Quadrophenia is an album universally regarded as a classic yet with some fairly common reservations. Vocalist Roger Daltrey was the first to balk about how his vocals were buried in the original 1973 mix, and others have griped about the balance in subsequence years. Some critics take issue with a song cycle about the R ‘n’ B and power-pop-obsessed Mod cult that bears no trace of those influences. Rather, Pete Townshend’s songs are epic, synthesizer laden, and more than a little proggy, a very ‘70s hard rock extension of his work on the Lifehouse/Who’s Next project. Still, Quadrophenia is a great album because its musical grandiosity is balanced with some of Townshend's most beautiful compositions: "5:15", "I'm One", "The Punk Meets the Godfather", "Love Reign O'er Me", "The Dirty Jobs", to name a few. All the synths and horn overdubs and rhythmic hubbub (which is incredibly impressive) and bellowing can’t trample the torment, regret, and longing that keeps the songs afloat across four sides of vinyl.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Like all major American holidays, Thanksgiving hauls along a bevy of iconic images and events. Hand-traced turkeys. Black and white clad pilgrims. Nine-hour football games. Monster fanatics who lived in the New York area during the late ‘70s/early ‘80s may have a particularly peculiar association with Thanksgiving. Along with the turkeys and the pilgrims and the parades and the rest, Thanksgiving meant giant apes. That’s because WOR-TV hosted King Kong marathons on Thanksgiving from 1976 to 1985. Every fourth Thursday in November, New Yorkers switched to channel 9 to spend five hours with King Kong, Son of Kong, and honorary Kong flick Mighty Joe Young... not to mention a glut of Crazy Eddie commercials.

I could give you the whole run down of the history of King Kong and WOR-TV, but then I’d just be ripping off a web article about this phenomenon more than I already have. Those of you who still pine for those pre-turkey gorges of King Kong movies (and post-Thanksgiving marathons of Godzilla ones!) should check out Joe Cascio’s terrific piece “Holiday Film Festival…” here. Happy Kongsgiving.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Review: The Rolling Stones' 'Some Girls Live in Texas '78'

No offense to Ron Wood, but there’s little denying that The Rolling Stones crossed an unfortunate threshold when they lost Mick Taylor in 1974. Heavy drugs, superstardom, and a bloated reputation for hedonism started taking the place of genuine inspiration. If Goat’s Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll displayed a definite decline in quality from the Exile on Main Street high-point, 1976’s Black and Blue was The Stones at their most desperate, flailing through boring jams and pathetic grasps at trendiness. The sloganeering “Hot Stuff” alone is evidence that the once threatening Rolling Stones had gotten kind of sad. The exploding punk movement of the following year (“No Beatles, Elvis, or The Rolling Stones in 1977!”) didn’t make them seem any more relevant, yet Jagger’s penchant for trend hopping meant his band was going to incorporate those now sounds into their music whether they liked it or not.

Surprisingly, the experiment wasn’t a total failure, and 1978’s Some Girls is regularly cited as The Stones’ last consistently great album of all-new material. After the directionless Black and Blue, Some Girls found them making a calculated effort to write well-realized songs and recapture the most celebrated and condemned aspects of the now-mythic Stones persona: their casual offensiveness and misogyny, their “fuck you” humor, their willingness to explore transgressive topics, as well as their soulfulness and lean muscle.

When The Stones toured Some Girls, that same attitude ruled their performances. The show captured by filmmaker Lynn Lenau Calmes at the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, Texas, is a testament to this. The Stones work hard, delivering a clutch of classics and most of Some Girls with force and speed without slumping into the sloppiness that sometimes called their “World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band” status into question. Ronnie Wood has assimilated into the band nicely, recreating Mick Taylor’s slide lines on “All Down the Line” with uncanny ease. This is a professional band playing at the peak of its powers. So why does the guy out front keep drawing attention away from that serious Rock & Roll with his goofy jumping jacks?

As The Stones settled into their professional routine, Mick Jagger settled into his role as clown. At his most self-conscious, he’s absolutely ridiculous in the new DVD Some Girls Live in Texas ‘78, grabbing his and Ronnie’s cocks and mumbling about how the band is weary from fucking all night. Jagger’s attempts to give the people the shocks he thinks they want from the bad, bad Rolling Stones are as inauthentic as the “punk” swastika T-shirt he reveals toward the end of the set. Ooooh! Dangerous!

But amidst all his insufferable posing, Jagger can’t help allowing authenticity to peak through from time to time. Not when he has cats as genuine as Keith and Charlie powering away behind him. So we get moving versions of “Beast of Burden” and “Love in Vain”, even though it’s jarring to see a guy wearing garbage-bag trousers paying tribute to salt-of-the-earth Robert Johnson.

Jagger also deserves credit for the unexpected versatility he displays on this DVD, contributing extra guitar on several numbers and keyboard parts on “Far Away Eyes”. And if much of his stage shenanigans are ludicrous, it’s refreshing to see such a lack of spectacle at a show that took place after The Stones had become a splashy juggernaut. There are no inflatable boners. The stage is small and intimate. The supporting musicians are limited to official sixth-Stone Ian Stewart and Ronnie’s former bandmate Ian McLagan on keyboards. And let’s face it, even if this isn’t prime-era Stones when one could really be in awe of everything they ape here, it’s still the fucking Stones, which means the guys still put on a damn good concert.

Along with embalming Jagger’s silliest tendencies and grabbing some genuinely mean music, Some Girls Live in Texas ‘78 also features a great selection of bonuses. There are vintage and new interviews in which Mick comes off as infinitely more authentic and charming than he does in the concert they accompany, further drawing attention to the fact that he was really just playing a role on stage. Even better is The Stones’ full appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in October 1978, both the 12-minute musical portion and the “Tomorrow” sketch in which Dan Aykroyd plays Tom Snyder interviewing Mick. The band is kind of sloppy and the singer sounds like he has laryngitis, but the sketch is still hilarious, with Mick holding his own nicely against Akyroyd’s rock-solid comic capering. An actor to the end.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: ‘Phil Spector Presents the Philles Album Collection’

Phil Spector built a pop empire on the otherworldly singles he produced in the early ‘60s. His reputation at 33 1/3 rpms was less solid. The long player didn’t become a vital Rock & Roll conveyance until the British Invasion that ended Spector’s reign. So he didn’t always put a great deal of thought into the way his albums were presented. When he finally resolved to make a masterful L.P., he released it the same day JFK was assassinated. A mourning public didn’t feel much like jingling all the way, and A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records flopped. Justly, that album has gone on to achieve classic status with its numerous reissues over the decades. Philles Records’ other L.P.s were never afforded that same boost until now.

Phil Spector Presents the Philles Album Collection collects all six non-holiday albums released on Spector’s label on CD for the very first time. This set is fascinating both for its pleasant surprises and its emphasis on just how cavalier Spector was about everything but his single A-sides. There is a large and disappointing amount of overlap between these discs. The Crystals’ first two records, Twist Uptown and He’s a Rebel, are nearly identical. More of the group’s songs are repeated on The Crystals Sing the Greatest Hits Vol. 1. One third of the tracks on that particular L.P. are tossed-off covers of creaky standards, such as “The Wah Watusi” and “The Twist”. And The Crystals aren’t even the artists on those tracks! The Ronettes are!

Yet Spector’s offhand approach to making albums could also be genuinely interesting. Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans’ Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah finds him experimenting with greater abandon than he usually dared on his hits. His use of cagey distortion, odd bits of discordance (the guttural, out-of-tune bass on “Baby, I Love You”), and tightly controlled tempos and dynamics make an already eccentric selection of songs—“The White Cliffs of Dover”, “This Land Is Your Land”, the title track, which was certainly Spector’s oddest hit— even odder. Even the Disney-esque cartoon on the front cover is kind of unusual. Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah also provides the box set’s most concentrated dose of Darlene Love, whose magnificent solo material is sadly underrepresented here.

Even weirder is Phil’s Flipsides, a bonus compilation of the two-minute instrumental improvisations Spector’s Wall of Sound Orchestra recorded to fill the B-sides of his hit singles and discourage DJs from playing the wrong sides. By design this isn’t the producer’s most essential music, but the combination of wacky Rock & Roll instrumentals and pretty convincing straight jazz is refreshing. Half this disc would sound smashing on a John Waters soundtrack. The other half is great cocktail party mood music. The goofy titles further reveal how little Spector cared about his non-A-sides: “Flip and Nitty”, “Chubby Danny D.”, “Dr. Kaplan’s Office” (named for Spector’s psychiatrist, who was apparently pretty shitty at his job).

Phil Spector Presents the Philles Album Collection will be most appealing to Spector completists, but there is a lot of amazing music here. Granted, those two debut Crystals records are pretty flimsy. The best of their tracks are collected on Sings the Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and the various-artists compilation Philles Records Presents Today’s Hits, which also features a handful of Darlene Love solo sides, including the transcendent “Wait Til’ My Bobby Gets Home”, and The Alley Cats’ fun novelty “Puddin’ N’ Tain”. Best of all is Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, Spector’s first truly great album despite its failure to generate classic status. All of the group’s prime-era hits (“Be My Baby”, “Walking in the Rain”, “Baby, I Love You”, “I Wonder”—Yow!), classic oddities (“You Baby”, “So Young”), and some unexpected surprises (a raucous phony live version of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say”) converge in a spectacular line up. Along with The Beach Boys, who it so inspired, this is the freshest pop that came out of America during the first year of the British Invasion.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: Dave Davies's 'Hidden Treasures'

The Kinks were at a commercial low point but a creative high point in the late ‘60s. Ray Davies wrote an excess of songs during the sessions that would spawn his masterpiece. On their way to becoming The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, several of those tracks were considered for an alternate album titled Four More Well Respected Gentlemen. Ray pondered a solo album and schemed to make a full-length musical out of his Village Green concept (which he would realize less than spectacularly in the mid-‘70s). Amidst all this activity, Pye Records started pushing Dave Davies to make his own solo album to capitalize on the success of 1967’s “Death of a Clown”—a Dave and Ray-penned Kinks number released as a solo single under the younger Davies’s name. Despite his long history of begrudging his brother’s higher profile in The Kinks, Dave was not enthused about the project. He preferred placing his songs on proper Kinks albums.

The process of writing Dave’s solo record was a bit of a drudge, though the recording sessions with The Kinks as his backing band and Ray producing birthed a quantity of quality songs. Occasionally the chore-aspect was apparent in somewhat halfhearted, repetitive numbers, such as “Do You Wish to Be a Man” and “Are You Ready”. But the best of Dave’s solo material—the joyous “Lincoln County”, the desperate yet exhilarating “This Man He Weeps Tonight”, the Dylanesque “Susannah’s Still Alive”, the magnificently brooding “Mindless Child of Motherhood”—could go toe-to-toe with any of Ray’s songs of that same period. The Kinks were rarely more ferocious than they were on “Mindless Child” and the sinister rocker “Creeping Jean”.

Alas, Dave’s lack of enthusiasm and renewed commercial hopes for The Kinks following the release of Arthur: or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire in 1969 put the unnamed solo project to rest. Most of the tracks ended up on flop Dave Davies singles and Kinks B-sides. But fans have long wondered how that completed L.P. would have sounded.

As a sort of bonus companion to its recent wave of superb Kinks deluxe reissues, Universal/Sanctuary Music is finally giving us the best approximation of Dave Davies’s unfinished solo album with Hidden Treasures. Compilers Russell Smith and Andrew Sandoval based this new CD on a 1969 acetate of Dave’s sessions assembled by Warner Reprise. The thirteen tracks flow quite nicely, and though many of them were included as bonus tracks on those deluxe Kinks discs, it’s nice to hear them placed together. And there are quite a few rarities to uncover here. Though not Dave’s best songs, “Do You Wish to Be a Man” and the gospel-flavored “Are You Ready” have only previously been available as scratchy acetate copies on bootlegs. Much better is the newly unveiled “Crying”, a mournful but catchy track on which Dave gets off some rather Hendrixy rhythm licks. The B-side “There Is No Life Without Love” is presented in an unfamiliar stereo mix in which Dave’s vocal is pulled out of the mass of harmonies to the front line.

The compilers include a wealth of bonus tracks, including most (but not all) of Dave’s Pye-era Kinks compositions, mono alternative mixes of several of the core album’s tracks, a brassier mix of “Mr. Reporter”, and a scratchy early take of “Hold My Hand”. A “rare” studio version of “Good Luck Charm” is pitched as an unreleased track, although it sounds suspiciously like the one on the Picture Book box set. Aside from the latter two bonus tracks, Hidden Treasures sounds fantastic, with dense bass and crisp acoustic details. Russell Smith’s liner notes, which detail the recording and writing of these tracks extensively, are as worthy as the music they annotate. But the greatest pleasure is the wonderful music, and Hidden Treasures is a concentrated testament to the often-overlooked songwriting talents of Dave Davies.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

80 Artists Celebrate 80 Years of 'Frankenstein' with 80 Bizarro Busts

When Boris Karloff staggered backward through a doorway to reveal his horrifically pancaked cranium in Frankenstein, an icon that would last 80 years (and counting) was born. In celebration of the milestone anniversary of that visage crafted by Karloff, director James Whale, and make-up wiz Jack Pierce, 80 artists have contributed their own takes on the Frankenstein Monster for the "It's Alive" Project. Sculpted busts mash the Monster with such fellow icons as The Joker, Paul Stanley, Frankenberry, The Wolfman, and Abraham Lincoln and Dracula (fused in one particularly bizarro bust!). Others recast him in glitter or jigsaw puzzle pieces or as a cinema popcorn box or an etch-a-sketch. Amazing stuff, and sales of the busts benefit the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to advance the cure and treatment of pediatric diseases.

Check out the stunning gallery of busts at the official "It's Alive" Project site here.

Thanks to Frankensteinia for this scoop.

Friday, November 4, 2011

An Evening with the Karloffs in California

Those in the Idyllwild, California, area... beware! Saturday, November 5th, Sara Karloff will be presenting a screening of her daddy's watershed horror flick Frankenstein at the Caine Learning Center. Karloff will then take part in a discussion about papa Boris and present some home movies the official event announcement ensures will be "startling." Of course, it's hard to imagine they'll be more startling than this:

The event begins at 6PM and is totally free.

Caine Learning Center
54385 Pine Crest Ave.

Stay tuned for more Frankenstein business here at Psychobabble as the movie celebrates its 80th anniversary this month!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Review: 'Peter Gabriel: New Blood Live in London'

On March 23rd and 24th of 2011, Peter Gabriel appeared at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo in London and performed a selection of covers and his own classics with the New Blood Orchestra. This is the kind of thing that would be nothing more than a pretentious folly if mounted by most artists (case in point: “I've always wanted to do a collection of my acoustic numbers with the London Philharmonic, as you know.”—David St. Hubbins). But Gabriel—a guy once known to take the stage in a giant fox helmet— tends to welcome pretentious folly with disarming frankness, so the orchestral setting captured on the New Blood Live in London DVD suits him. John Metcalfe’s arrangements are consistently atmospheric, although the concert is front-loaded with dirgy tempos that can be monotonous. At times, this tendency can be fascinating. Gabriel and his orchestra transform Paul Simon’s effervescent “The Boy in the Bubble” into a stark nocturne and it works. But arrangements of songs by Regina Spektor and The Magnetic Fields are as perfunctory as Gabriel’s performances. When given inspired backing, his old penchant for dynamic drama resurfaces, as it does with refreshing regularity in the second half of the show.

Beginning with an intense, “Bolero”-like arrangement of “Biko”, New Blood gets considerably stronger and more varied. Again, these tracks don’t always work. Metcalfe’s attempt to bring a funky vibe to “Digging in the Dirt” fails to ignite; Gabriel and his co-singers seem restrained by the arrangement. But a version of “Downside Up” gets that more rhythmic feel right. The strings do an uncanny job of mimicking the acoustic guitars that introduce the studio version of “Solsbury Hill”, but a strategically placed kettle drum roll and some emphatic brass could have helped the number to achieve the climactic transcendence of the original. It’s all simmer and no boil. Otherwise, there’s little to gripe about in the second-half of New Blood. “San Jacinto” receives a shimmering arrangement. Emphasis on percussion and pizzicato strings helps “Mercy Street” to stand out from the pack. Metcalfe’s tasteful restraint suits “In Your Eyes” quite beautifully.

Even when he sounds less than fully engaged in the material, Gabriel is in strong voice throughout. His calculated use of his instrument’s rasp lends a raw undercurrent to the sometimes overly polite orchestrations. The film itself would have benefitted from richer photography. Flat video fails to convey the moodiness of the music and the shadowy, sometimes psychedelic stage lighting. A fox helmet or two wouldn’t have hurt either.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: ‘More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead’

George Romero revolutionized the zombie flick with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. While transplanting zombies from Caribbean voodoo rituals to Middle America and transforming them from the brain-dead pawns of some nefarious witch doctor into a relentless mob of cannibals, Romero’s film also helped build the Midnight Movie phenomenon of the ‘70s. With 1978’s Dawn of the Dead he sharpened the political implications of his first film, almost making the zombie movie a respectable form of social satire. By the time he made the righteously anti-military Day of the Dead in 1985, finger waving threatened to devour the essential purpose of all zombie movies: a fun, scary time watching zombies eat people.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: ‘You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks’

Power chord cro-magnons who grind out scrap-metal like “You Really Got Me” and “Destroyer” or sensitive fops who float out autumnal delicacies like “Days” and “Waterloo Sunset”? The Kinks’ career is a heap of contradictions both fascinating and disheartening. How could the soft-voiced soul famous for his empathy and his loyalty to tradition be so callous to his own brother? How could that beatific brother devoted to matters spiritual be so free with his fists? Listen closely to even the most fragile Kinks songs. Undercurrents of rage, regret, envy, and deep sadness are usually detectable. Perhaps that complexity is what so fascinates we Kinks fans.

Monday, October 31, 2011


Arriving less than a month after that initially exciting, ultimately drudging return to the classroom, the season sweeps in early October. Crisp days flush out late summer oppressiveness. The sun’s early descent swathes all in gold glow. Then, gradually throughout the month, peaked eyes leer out from closed windows, glowering and glimmering with candlelight in the evening. Beistle cutouts of orange, green, yellow, and black decorate doors, giving early indication of the houses worth visiting come the 31st. Jack-o-lanterns. Witches. Black cats. Cartoonishly rendered haunted houses and skulls with rats peering from empty eyes. Nature gets in on the festivities by strewing dead leaf confetti. As the day nears, kids and spirited adults debate costume choices. Some start their planning considerably earlier. Nearer still come the trips to costume shops or the rummages through junk piles to construct homemade disguises. Traditionalists duck under white sheets to howl and rattle chains or grease-up with green paint to play vampires and witches. And as that one day on which prowling little wolves take the streets approaches, they take the airwaves too when kids cartoons invade primetime TV: “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, Halloween Is Grinch Night”, “Bugs Bunny’s Howl-o-ween Special”.

Then the 31st, when store clerks shed their smocks and students shun their school clothes to take on new personas for the day. In the aurous afternoon or at twilight, small strange creatures creep down sidewalks and across lawns, rapping on doors, demanding sweets, exploring neighborhood nooks never intruded any other day of the year. They build appetites that can only be sated with tiny bags of candy corn, miniature Snickers bars, Pixy Stix, rolls of Smarties, Dum Dums, and candy cigarettes. When little legs grow too weary, when loot sacks and plastic pumpkins fill to capacity, when the welcoming lights in homes extinguish, the time comes to return home. But a month-long diet of ghosts and monsters populates young imaginations. They second guess. And though they’ve passed that tree on countless slogs to school or jaunts to friends’ homes, doesn’t its gnarled limbs resemble talons tonight? And doesn’t the wind rustling its remaining foliage sound more like malignant whispers? And doesn’t the darkness seem that much darker when parents are home, going about their mundane business as they would any other night, while they’re children are out roaming, masquerading as evil things? Could a child’s costume fool real goblins into drifting up from the netherworld, believing their kind really has inherited the Earth? Hurry back to your homes, where you can comb through your sugary stash in safety, and recall the thrill of when the night spirited away your reason. That fanciful, frightening, fantastic sensation only comes on Halloween.

Frightening Halloween may be. It may be a day fixated on monsters and devils and evil. But is there a more innocent day of the year? On what other day do parents trust their children to venture out alone to literally take candy from strangers? On what other day do adults place so much trust in each other to treat each other’s kids safely and respectfully? During the ‘70s and ‘80s, reports of razor blades concealed in apples and candy spiked with angel dust went beyond the usual Halloween frights. These suburban myths made parents take a more active role in Halloween activities, accompanying older kids on their Trick-or-Treats and inspecting their candy like amateur Homeland Security grunts. But isn’t the kind of trust that comes with Trick-or-Treating valuable? Does paranoia have to taint the more fanciful fears that are Halloween’s sustenance just as it now contaminates our airports and subways tunnels? Shouldn’t kids learn to feel comfortable in their own communities? Because beyond its creatures, Halloween is different from all other days of the year, different from all other holidays, because it is about community. Most of us spend Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hanukah inside our homes with friends and relatives or in the homes of those familiars. Halloween is the only holiday on which adults send their children outside to discover unfamiliars, knock on their doors, and interact in one of the more intimate ways by asking them for food. There’s no exchange of money, no expectations on the part of the giver. For a lot of people, Halloween is the one day of the year they are actually charitable. Unlike the 4th of July or Thanksgiving, it has no nationalistic component. Unlike Hanukah or Christmas or Kwanzaa it has no enduring religious one. Halloween is for everyone.

Halloween also differs from other holidays because of the way it grows up with us. We may give and get different kinds of gifts as we get older, and hopefully we no longer believe those gifts come from Santa Claus when we’re adults, but Christmas doesn’t change significantly through life’s stages. Halloween does. It is Trick-or-Treating when we’re young, light mischief making when we’re too old for candy begging, parties when we’re old enough to host them. Those who choose to have children discover that Halloween changes again as they see the holiday through the eyes of their kids, reliving their own Trick-or-Treating adventures, the satisfaction of a bag bulging with colorful empty calories, the delightfully irrational fears: all the things their kids will remember fondly when they’re old enough, and possibly pass along to their own kids.

But let’s not forget the single best thing about Halloween: it’s a holiday completely devoted to monsters! Wrap your skull around that as if its fresh news. America has a national holiday that revolves around monsters and ghosts. What a gift to horror movie fans like us! Western fans don’t get All Cowboy’s Day. There’s no Laughmas for comedy geeks. Sci-fi junkies are deprived of Robot Hashanah. But we often-maligned horror fans are allowed a holiday on which our gruesome obsessions become the nation’s. What a weird, wonderful day Halloween is. Have a great one.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: The Criterion Edition of ‘Island of Lost Souls’

Ask a classic monster fanatic what the most unjustly unavailable movie is and that nut would likely respond, “Island of Lost Souls.” Why Erle C. Kenton’s brilliant 1932 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau has been out of print for so long has never been satisfactorily answered. Fortunately, that question is no longer relevant since Criterion has now given this overdue movie its due. We can finally revel in Charles Laughton’s dastardly portrayal of sadistic vivisectionist/mad scientist Moreau and Bela Lugosi’s desperate Sayer of the Law (“Are we not men?!?”) and Kathleen Burke’s sexy, tragic Lota the Panther Woman and Kenton’s enthralling atmosphere and pre-code edginess on DVD and Blu-ray any time we please.

Criterion’s transfer is a composite of several sources of varying quality. The restoration is not immediately striking because the film is front-loaded with the rougher bits. The daylight scenes that dominate the beginning of the film are gauzy, giving the false impression of weak images. The actors almost seem to glow. Once the picture moves into the shadowy, higher-contrast nighttime scenes that dominate it, the restoration looks very, very good. The composite also includes passages of dialogue censored since the film’s original release. They most likely include Moreau’s “Do you know what it means to feel like God?” which closely resembles a similarly censored line from Whale’s Frankenstein.

We get an audio commentary from the charming horror historian Gregory Mank and four very different video commentaries. The most traditional is a scholarly analysis by David Skal, our best monster movie documentarian and author of the absolutely essential Monster Show. He discusses Wells’s novel and the film’s themes and sources, the most-revelatory suggestion being that Laughton may have based his Moreau on Oscar Wilde. I’m not convinced of his claim that the film reflects co-screenwriter Philip Wylie’s misogyny, though. Both female characters are sympathetic and both are responsible for rescuing the men. Only villainous Moreau expresses any contempt for women. Compared to something like King Kong, Lost Souls is practically progressive.

Next up is a fun roundtable with John Landis, Rick Baker, and Bob Burns, who geek out about the performances, makeup, and atmosphere. Burns also gets off the best comment on the DVD when Landis asks him why he likes Kenton’s schlocky House of Frankenstein. Burns responds, “It has Frankenstein and the Wolf Man.” Hear, hear.

We also get a talk with director Richard Stanley, who was let go from the disastrous 1996 adaptation starring Marlon Brando and completed by John Frankenheimer. Stanley goes in depth about Wells but is fairly dismissive of all the film versions and could have provided more information about his ousting from his own project.

The oddest extra in the bunch is a discussion with Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale of Devo, who talk about the film’s influence on their image, philosophy, and songs (“Are we not men? We are Devo”). The talk leads them on some fascinating tangents about Ohio horror host Ghoulardi, who’s show introduced the guys to the movie, and the infamous Kent State protest/cop-shooting-spree that inspired Neil Young’s “Ohio”. Also included is a valuable Devo short film from 1976, which is basically an edit of music videos for “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo” that doesn’t quite look like the union of German Expressionism and McDonald’s commercials the guys intended it to be.

Diary of the Dead 2011: Week 4

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Friday in October (this year I’ll only be discussing movies I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on this site). I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 21st

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972- dir. Charles B. Pierce) **½

The Legend of Boggy Creek arrived amidst a weird wave of Big Foot Fever. A few years earlier, two jokers named Patterson and Gimlin made news with grainy film of one of their buddies in a monkey suit. A few years later, the Six Million Dollar Man duked it out with Sasquatch. Fonzi jumped over him in water-skis. Boggy isn’t much more convincing than any of those things, but the documentary conceit was certainly novel at the time. It also justifies the amateur acting and “In Search Of”-quality narration. Stretching the gimmick to 87 minutes is a bit unnecessary. A reasonable person can only watch so much footage of NRA cardholders assholing around in a swamp. I admire director Pierce’s restraint in not giving us a good look at the monster. The country muzak songs are delightfully wretched.

Blood and Roses: U.S. Edit (1960- dir. Roger Vadim) ***½

Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s pre-Dracula novel Carmilla was adapted a bunch of times, most famously as The Vampire Lovers. Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses was the first one to leave the book’s essential lesbian romance intact. That theme was gutted from the U.S. edit, which is

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Psychobabble’s 200 Essential Horror Movies Part 9: The 2000s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through 100 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 200 most monstrous works, decade by decade.
(Updated in September 2021)

153. Shadow of the Vampire (2000- dir. E. Elias Merhige)

Review: ‘The Unknown Peter Cushing’

The Unknown Peter Cushing is a pile of research in search of a book. Frustrated by the failure of other biographies to discuss Cushing’s grandfather’s stage career, author Michael G. McGlasson performed a pretty impressive archival dig to illuminate this aspect of the Hammer-Horror star’s ancestry. McGlasson understands that fans of Cushing’s monster movies are the most likely to check out his book, so he gives us some interesting tidbits about how Grandfather Henry rubbed elbows with Bram Stoker and played Wagner in Faust. When the author switches focus from Henry Cushing to Peter half-way through his book, he seems to do the very thing he criticizes about other Cushing books in his pompous introductory chapter by regurgitating available information. Indeed that introduction leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth as the author checks off other books by name, dismissing them as “scant,” “heavy with redundancies,” and “ponderous.” It’s never a good idea to begin your book by criticizing the work of others, especially when yours is as ponderously written as the scant, 85-page Unknown Peter Cushing. Cushing completists who will not be satisfied until they explore absolutely every crevice of the actor’s history will probably want to add McGlasson’s book to their collection. Everyone else would probably do better to check out one of the books he dismisses in his introduction, or better yet, Cushing’s own An Autobiography and Past Forgetting, which McGlasson quotes heavily in his totally non-redundant book.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: ‘Karloff as The Invisible Man’

A swarm of potential Karloff vehicles materialized in the vapor trails behind Frankenstein. Universal jolted many into existence: The Old Dark House and The Mummy and The Black Cat. Several were stillborn, including films that would eventually be realized with different actors in their lead roles. Too bad for Boris, but The Wolf Man would make a star of Lon Chaney, Jr., and The Invisible Man would do the same for Claude Rains, even though the actor’s face is only non-invisible (or visible, if you prefer) for mere seconds before the credits roll. Of course, Frankenstein made Boris Karloff a star, and such scant screen-time hardly befitted a creature of his stature. Director James Whale saw his latest horror project (and his latest project to delay his career-long obsession, The Road Back) run through a number of variations before he deemed it suitable for filming. By that point, Karloff was off the project because studio execs Carl and Junior Laemmle had failed to give him the salary increase he deserved.

A voice as distinctive as Karloff’s dulcet lisp would have made the actor as recognizable as an invisible man as a visible one, but early drafts of the film would have given viewers far more glimpses of his equally iconic face than the completed film starring Rains. In the latest essential volume in his essential “Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters” series, Philip J. Riley collects all that remains of the discarded swipes at The Invisible Man. After his brief overview of the film’s history, Riley hands over the reins to R.C. Sherriff, who would ultimately compose the script James Whale filmed in 1933. In an extended excerpt from Sherriff’s 1968 autobiography, No Leading Lady, the screenwriter spends much time wringing his hands over the faithfulness of his accepted script. Apparently, Universal expected its screenwriters to use their source material as the merest seeds that might sprout almost completely original ideas (it is unclear whether this was Sherriff’s interpretation of the studio’s desires or if the Laemmeles specifically demanded originality). Indeed, his plot is the most similar to the one in H.G. Wells’s novella, though the author took issue with Sherriff’s decision to have the invisibility formula turn Dr. Griffin into a madman.

One can only guess how violently Wells would have reacted to James Whale and novelist Gouveneur Morris’s treatment, which recasts the Invisible Man as a sort of evil faith-healer, who lives in seclusion because of his horribly scarred face like the Phantom of the Opera and fears crucifixes like Dracula. Or Richard Shayer’s distasteful unfinished treatment/script, which would have set Karloff off on a rape-spree through Manhattan. John Huston’s treatment is the eeriest, but Sherriff clearly made the right decision by adapting Wells faithfully while working in the humorousness of the Shayer draft. And Sherriff quite sells himself short in his autobiography by suggesting he did little more than reformat Wells’s novella as a screenplay. He enriched that tale by inventing the madness-inducing drug Monocane, introducing the love interest that would somewhat humanize the otherwise deplorable Griffin, and nudging in the humor that surely appealed to cheeky Whale and helped make his film a classic. Because the unfilmed treatments all end abruptly, Riley includes the complete first draft of Sherriff’s shooting script, which is most notable for missing some of the film’s funniest flourishes.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Diary of the Dead 2011: Week 3

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Friday in October (this year I’ll only be discussing movies I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on this site). I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 14th

Frankenstein Unbound (1990- dir. Roger Corman) **

Roger Corman hadn’t directed a movie in nineteen years when he made Frankenstein Unbound. Why he decided to make his comeback with this insane hooey is anyone’s guess. John Hurt is a scientist in the year 2031. He creates a WMD that somehow produces a Hun on horseback who zaps him and his Knight Rider car back to 1817. There he meets the similarly disaster-prone scientist Dr. Frankenstein (Raul Julia). For some reason, Percy (Michael Hutchence!) and Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) coexist with her literary creations. Corman holds up Frankenstein and his monster as forerunners of all the bad, bad science that would wreak destruction in the future. An interesting idea, and Hurt and Julia are great actors, but the package is just so damn silly. Corman plays it totally straight, so Frankenstein Unbound never achieves the campiness that is its true calling.

October 15th

The Evil Dead (1983- dir. Sam Raimi) ***

Once you’ve seen its brilliant sequel/remake, The Evil Dead is tough to view as anything but a rough demo. Sam Raimi intended his first feature to be serious horror, but the cheesy script and acting prod it toward camp. By fully embracing that inclination, he made Evil Dead 2 one of the funniest and most energetic horror/comedies. Its predecessor

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: The Criterion Edition of ‘Kuroneko’ (1968)

From out of the wind-rustled bamboo grove surrounding a small cottage creeps a samurai horde. They storm the cottage, rape the mother (Nobuko Otowa) and daughter-in-law (Kiwako Taichi) who live there, and burn the women alive. A black cat surveys the wreckage, crying. When it licks the women’s charred bodies, a demon spirit grants them renewed life in exchange for a vow of vengeance. The women are happy to oblige, as they must now drink the blood of all samurai who cross their vampiric path.

Director Kaneto Shindō (Onibaba) takes this seemingly simple premise into astoundingly complex territory with Kuroneko (Black Cat). Strategically placed peaks in the sound mix illustrate the animal brutality of both the samurai and their spectral victims. Subtle trick shots transform nature into a predatory entity stalking the samurai who fall into the specters’ trap. Sudden tempo shifts transform their feline attacks into shocking moments of horror. The rapes are so intrinsically horrific that Shindō doesn’t have to do much more than capture them and the leering faces of the onlookers. Most provocatively, his script does not spare these wronged women the dehumanizing effects of waging war. When they reunite with their abducted son and husband (Kichiemon Nakamura), they learn he has been decorated as a samurai during his absence and is now destined to be their next blood donor.

As all great antiwar films are, Kuroneko is harsh and profoundly tragic. It is also an eerie horror film and a dazzling showcase of cinematic magic tricks. Criterion augments this already rich film with an hour-long interview with Shindō from 1998 in which the director talks about his body of work, though oddly not Kuroneko. In another extra, film critic Tadao Sato rights that oversight with an insightful discussion of the film, focusing on its roots in kabuki theater and Shindō’s anti-samurai stance. Criterion presents the beautifully restored picture in its original ultra-wide 2:35:1 aspect ratio.
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