Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review: 'Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons'

Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons compiles twenty-two interviews David Ensminger conducted for such landmark ’zines as Thirsty Ear, Maximumrocknroll, and yes, his own Left of the Dial. My interest in his book was sparked by the inclusion of a chat with The Damned’s Captain Sensible, so I was slightly disappointed when I saw how brief that conversation was and how many post-first wavers were featured in Ensminger’s anthology. My disappointment melted when I realized how fine an interviewer our host is and how insightful and articulate his selection of punk icons is.

Left of the Dial offers a fascinating range of experiences from such subjects as The Dils’ Tony Kinman, a first waver who lays out a near academic history of Rock & Roll, and Minuteman Mike Watt, who offers a harrowing account of the illness that nearly killed him. The diversity is impressive too as we get perspectives beyond the white, hetero dudes who constitute the prevailing punk stereotype to dig the experiences of what it’s like to be Latino (El Vez of The Zeros), female (Kira Roessler of Black Flag), gay (Gary Floyd of The Dicks), or black (Freak Smith of Beefeater) in the scene. Ensminger is a good interviewer too, respectful of his subjects but not afraid to call out the somewhat prickly Shawn Stern of Youth Brigade about the apparent weakness of the 1992 comeback record Come Again or query Lisa Fancher of Frontier Records on her sometimes-criticized business practices. Best of all is a riveting mini-oral history of San Francisco’s Deaf Club, an actual gathering place for hearing-impaired patrons to feel the beat from such performers as X, The Dils, Dead Kennedys, and a performance artist who’d receive an enema on stage.

My only gripe is that Ensminger could have oriented the reader better by indicating exactly when his interviews took place. It was a little jarring to be reading along only to discover that 9/11 had just taken place or Bush had just invaded Iraq. But that’s a pretty minor quibble about a selection of interviews so readable that I guess they now qualify as timeless.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: 'The Hidden World Revealed ' by The Three O'Clock

When MTV hit in the early eighties, and all you needed was a single digit to finger a Casio-keyboard and an industrial-sized can of Aquanet to become a superstar, a small sect of L.A. bands rejected the latest styles to worship at the pointy boots of The Beatles, The Byrds, and Syd Barrett. Michael Quercio gave this movement a name: the Paisely Underground. His band, The Three O’Clock, helped define the sound with other groups such as The Rain Parade, The Dream Syndicate, and the most successful one of the lot, The Bangles.

What set these bands apart from the pseudo-psychedelics of groups such as The Dukes of Stratosphear (aka: XTC in disguise) and Naz Nomad and the Nightmares (aka: The Damned in disguise) is that they didn’t strive for utter authenticity. Their embracing of synthesizers and up-to-the-minute production values resulted in a sound that can be instantly placed in the eighties even as it pays reverent tribute to the sixties. That totally groovy sound is represented among the tracks familiar and otherwise on The Hidden World Revealed, Omnivore Recordings’ new Three O’Clock anthology.

Newbies will get turned on by infectious bubblegum classics such as “With a Cantaloupe Girlfriend,” “Jet Fighter,” and “All in Good Time,” with its tinkling, early-Rick Wright-style piano fills. The faithful will dig into the oddities, such as a B-side version of the Latin hymn “Regina Cæli” that begins like a meditative Pet Sounds homage before exploding into a Hurdy Gurdy Man wall of sound. A demo of “Jennifer Only,” cut when The Three O’Clock were still called The Salvation Army, sounds like a bit of raging pre-punk noise piped in from Liverpool’s Cavern Club circa 1962. Despite some overtly eighties-synthesizer arches, “A Day in Erotica,” presented in an alternate version, is the purest psychedelia in the collection, with its warped mid-section sound collage. As a starting point into the strange world of The Three O’Clock—where everything always sounds slightly sped-up and romantic partnerships with fresh fruit are not out of the question— The Hidden World Revealed does a fine job. The demos, alternate versions, and rare single sides make it valuable to those who’ve already ventured down into the Paisley Underground.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Farewell, Richard Matheson

 His work helped launch Steven Spielberg's career, was a staple of "The Twilight Zone," and essentially birthed the modern notion of the zombie (the swarming variety versus the voodoo one). Richard Matheson was one of horror and sci-fi's greatest yarn spinners, as I covered a couple of years ago in this piece written in honor of his 85th birthday. This very brief tribute marks a sadder occasion as Richard Matheson died yesterday at the age of 87. So pop Duel or "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" into the DVD player or give I Am Legend a long-overdue reread tonight in celebration of the many shudders the man gave us during his remarkable lifetime.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Cult Club: 'Dragonslayer' (1981)

In this feature, Psychobabble looks at classic cult items beyond Horror and Rock & Roll.

Sound cinema’s first half century had no shortage of magicians, from the Kong-conjuring Willis O’Brien to his greatest protégé Ray Harryhausen, from the filmmaking team that brought L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz to the screen to the one that realized Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes. Of course, no name was so consistently responsible for dazzling fantasies as Walt Disney. Beginning with 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Disney seemed to effortlessly role out fairy tales tailored for children but with enough pure artistic craft and cinematic scope to enthrall parents too. The trend continued beyond Walt Disney’s 1966 death with such box office breakers as The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and The Rescuers. The latter film was released in 1977, and we all know what happened that year. Suddenly, cartoons would not be good enough for young filmgoers. Adaptations of old fairy tales and talking mice wouldn’t be either. The new generation would require high-tech hardware and state-of-the art effects. The name Walt Disney would instantly seem as though it was echoing from a quainter past. The name George Lucas was roaring in from the future.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Review: 'The Rolling Stones: Sociological Perspectives'

Is there something inherently wrong about taking anything as visceral as Rock & Roll and holding it up to an academic analytical lens in the same way one might examine the literature of Goethe? I’m not sure, but that’s exactly what editor Helmut Staubmann does in his introduction to The Rolling Stones: Sociological Perspectives, using Goethe as a touchstone to lead us into the discussions that follow. With a career as rich and a cultural impact as powerful as that of The Rolling Stones, maybe it isn’t out of line to dig deeper than “Good beat; you can dance to it.” Keith Richards may believe it’s only Rock & Roll, but Mick Jagger has certainly plotted his work, career, and public persona as deviously and carefully as, say, Federico Fellini, and no one would take an academian to task for subjecting 8 ½ to sociological analysis.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Review: 'My Name Is Love' by Darlene Love

If the cliché that great suffering makes great blues singers holds true, and the same could be said of great rhythm and blues singers, then there’s no wonder why Darlene Love possessed the greatest R&B voice of her generation. The daughter of an abusive mother uprooted from a liberal South Californian community to a racist Texas burg, a magnet for unfaithful men, and one of the many victims of Phil Spector’s huge ego and insidious business practices, Darlene Love’s mightily expressive voice can be heard on some of the biggest records of the sixties, both as a soloist and as in-the-shadows support to artists as diverse as Sam Cooke and Bobby “Boris” Pickett. Yet because her name so rarely appeared on the labels of these discs, she never received the acclaim she deserved. The bitterness such misfortunes brewed is evident in Darlene’s autobiography My Name Is Love, which often swells into outright nastiness.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Psychobabble’s 20 Greatest Singles of 1963!

Few artists were thinking in long-playing terms in 1963. Yes, The Beatles, Beach Boys, Dylan, and Spector all put out A-level albums that year. Everyone else was focused exclusively on the hit parade, and the competition was deadly. Along with the aforementioned artists, there were Smokey and Marvin and Roy continuing their lush, soulful onslaught. The Trashmen and Kingsmen made known the rumblings in many an American garage. The Stones, The Supremes, and The Ronettes made their first major statements, and the mighty Darlene Love belted out from more stunning discs than those that actually bore her name. Even Elvis managed to hang on while the new guard raged around him to release one of his last great discs. In a lesser year, any one of the following 45s could have been record of the year. But this is 1963, one of the greatest notches on the Rock & Soul timeline.

20. “Bossa Nova Baby” by Elvis Presley

In the year ruled by Motown, Phil Spector, and the Fab Four, the writing was well on the wall for the man who helped launch the Rock & Roll era so all those upstarts could have their shots. As recently as 1962, Elvis’s recorded output was still pretty consistent, if far poppier than the raw records of his electrifying early days. In 1963, he only managed two truly memorable sides. First up was the radical mood shifter “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise,” which John Lennon supposedly likened to a Bing Crosby record. More interesting was Leiber and Stoller’s frantic “Bossa Nova Baby.” With its freaky percussion, sudden Mariachi horn solo, and lead guitar work out, “Bossa Nova Baby” shined even as an unusually restrained Elvis sounded like a guest on his own record. The following year, he’d release the similar sounding “Viva Las Vegas,” which would be his last decent single until “Suspicious Minds” five years later.

19. “My Boyfriend’s Back” by The Angels

While the King of Rock & Roll no longer seemed capable of exuding Rock & Roll attitude, a trio of Jersey bad girls were putting out enough snarl for a dozen Elvises. The Angels sound anything but angelic as they purr sexy threats to a letch who hung around to bother the girls every night and say “things that weren’t very nice.” Sorry, sucker, but their beau is back now and you’re gonna get your ass kicked. Peggy Santaglia’s audible smirk as she tells her nasty admirer what’s coming to him lends the song a near sadistic tone, and when she loses control at the end of the record, she sounds like she’s going to dish out the punishment herself. “My Boyfriend’s Back” was apparently originally cut as a demo fro The Shirelles, but it’s hard to imagine those sweethearts working up as much switchblade edge as The Angels do on their slashing hit version.

18. “Pride and Joy” by Marvin Gaye

Speaking of sweet, was anyone sweeter than Marvin Gaye in 1963? Gorgeous to look at and hear, Marvin was a heart melter, and on “Pride and Joy,” he lets you know that you ain’t so bad yourself. Backing up Marvin on this cool cube of finger-snapping soul was a group who’d break out on their own a couple of months later with a hot hit you’ll find occupying the sixth spot of this list.

17. “Pain in My Heart” by Otis Redding

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Review: 'Paul McCartney and Wings: Rockshow'

When The Beatles retired from the stage in mid-1966, venues were getting bigger but bands had yet to adapt to the changing nature of rock shows. They were all still twanging through inadequate amps and chirping over inadequate sound systems. What a difference a decade made. No more Beatles. No more weak equipment. No more fumbling with how to meet the challenge of entertaining a stadium of 60,000 people. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Review: 'Horror Comics in Black and White: A History and Catalog, 1964 – 2004'

Like black & white photography or cinema, B&W horror comics have their highly partial fanatics. Comics historian Richard J. Arndt ranks among them, and his new book Horror Comics in Black and White: A History and Catalog, 1964 – 2004 gives his obsession with titles such as Creepy, Vampirella, Eerie, and Nightmare a neat outlet.

After a general history of the genre (not surprisingly, the writer emphasizes how the anti-comics congressional hearings of 1954 were still hovering over the horror comics industry a decade later), Arndt breaks down each chapter by publisher, providing specs, historical data, and a brief review of each individual issue. Horror Comics in Black and White is coolest when spitting out historical tidbits, such as the updates on which future artists (Iron Giant/Ratatouille filmmaker Brad Bird being one example) sent in fan mail. Arndt’s reviews tend to be fairly cursory, as when he deems the cover of Creepy issue #21 “probably the worse (sic) single cover Warren ever published on their comic magazines. Absolutely awful” without explaining why or what the cover depicted. Such teasing comments about the art and contents of these comics also made me wish Arndt’s book was a bit more generous with its illustrations. Still, even with its flaws, Horror Comics in Black and White is a worthwhile overview of a strain of horror comics that generally doesn’t get as much attention as its splashier color cousins. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Review: 'The British Pop Music Film: The Beatles and Beyond'

In his introduction to The British Pop Music Film: The Beatles and Beyond, author Stephen Glynn describes his study as a two-faced, Janus-like creature hoping to both impart the cultural, social, and political implications of the movies he discusses and convey the “foot-tapping fun” that really is the pop film’s reason for being. In between his overly academic introduction and conclusion, Glynn does a bang-up job of fulfilling his wish. The British Pop Film may make you see new subtextual layers in old favorites such as A Hard Day’s Night and Yellow Submarine, which he subjects to a fascinating multi-faceted reading (Disney parody; jeering reaction to the wackos who burned Beatles records after Lennon’s insightful “more popular than Jesus” statement; etc.) appropriate to the film’s kitchen-sink aesthetic. It may put the implications of Performance, an atypical pop film he views as a surprising summation of many of the pop-film tropes that preceded it, and the ultimately self-defeating Pink Floyd: The Wall into clearer focus. It may also light a fire under you to see such relatively obscure films as the precociously satirical Expresso Bongo and Privilege, the first wholly “serious” pop film.

These kinds of studies of pop culture forms primarily created to turn a quid rather than make a profound socio-political statement (Privilege and Performance notwithstanding) sometimes say more about the analyst than the works being analyzed, but Glynn makes strongly convincing arguments. His organizational structure, which tucks each film into a timeline progressing through the “primitive” (the Cliff Richard and Adam Faith films), “mature” (the early Beatles films), “decadent” (druggy Yellow Submarine, Privilege, and the Rolling Stones films), and “historical” (That’ll be the Day/Stardust and the Who films), is a particularly neat way to show how these films built on and deconstructed each other.  Glynn also balances his analyses with well-researched historical backgrounds for each film, so the highly readable British Pop Film will be of interest to more than the semiotics crowd. I definitely dug it.

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