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.

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