Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review: 'How to Kill a Vampire: Fangs in Folklore, Film, and Fiction'

Liisa Ladouceur upends the dour face of vampirism with her gleeful new book How to Kill a Vampire: Fangs in Folklore, Film, and Fiction. Like a Goth Mary Roach, she offers a breezy yet detailed history of vampires in culture (pop and otherwise), paying special attention to the myriad ways to dispatch a peckish vamp. We learn the roots of vampires’ allergies to silver, sunlight, stakes, and all other sundry preventive measures. There are profiles of slayers from Van Helsing to Buffy and an international dictionary of vampire-like demons and the various ways those creatures can be killed (nastiest method: destroy the Penanggalan of Malaysia by snaring its exposed intestines on thorns; least nastiest method: give the Langsuir, also of Malaysia, a haircut and neatly place the trimmings in a hole). Valuable information, of course, but it’s Ladouceur’s writing that makes How to Kill a Vampire a full-on fun read. Her style is witty and jolly throughout, even when running down the litany of vampire suicide methods or describing how vampire babies tend to tear through their moms from the inside.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: 'The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds'

When The Birds was released fifty years ago, there probably weren’t a lot of folks who thought it would one day receive a full-length study all its own. Critical notices were mixed, many movie goers felt hoodwinked by its open ending, and it made little more than a third of what Alfred Hitchcock’s previous film, Psycho, earned at the box office. Even members of its own cast and crew viewed The Birds as seriously flawed (star Rod Taylor would rather be best known for Young Cassidy, whatever that is). Such is the fate of a film seriously ahead of its time. Within a few years, the history books would tell a much more favorable tale regarding The Birds (its 1968 TV debut was the highest rated of any feature film to that point), and tales don’t get much more favorable than Tony Lee Moral’s new book The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Moral’s book is both a close inspection of The Birds’ genesis, production, aftermath, and meaning and a contrasting perspective of a more recent reputation Hitchcock and his film have acquired. Last year, Julian Jarold’s film The Girl presented a highly unfavorable portrayal of Hitchcock’s filmmaking methods and his alleged sexual obsession with star Tippi Hedren. Moral goes out of his way to dismiss all of that as sensationalistic mythmaking with reminiscences from other members of the production team who never witnessed any inappropriate behavior. What happened in private between Hitchcock and Hedren may only be known by them, but the fact that he sneak-attacked her with live birds, and proceeded to do so for five days straight, while filming the attic attack is widely known. Moral dismisses the sadism of this incident as all for the greater good of capturing a great scene. Yes, the results are great, and as a huge Hitchcock fan, I certainly wasnt hoping for confirmation that he was a creep, but at the very least it’s a bit insensitive to downplay the very real emotional toll it took on the actress.

Although that particular detail left a slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth, the mass of The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds is excellent and illuminating. We see Hitchcock’s intense care in fashioning the minutia that brings realism to this fantastical film, such as having Melanie play a bit of Debussy on a piano to indicate she has talents a purely two-dimensional fashion plate would not or ensuring the locals at Tides Restaurant would be distinct individuals instead of interchangeable small town stereotypes. We learn of ideas discarded from the finished product, such as screenwriter Evan Hunter’s plan to include a murder mystery angle, and weird bits of trivia, such as Suzanne Pleshette getting pooped on during her death scene or Jean Cocteau’s dying wish to see The Birds. While Moral’s downplaying of Tippi Hedren’s difficulties and his reference to the director as “the Great Man” indicate an uncritical agenda, the author does not shy from including a few unfavorable quotes, particularly from Rod Taylor, who believed his director “had no streak of tenderness for relationships between men and women.” These details give us a bit more perspective of the man behind the flock, but those looking for a lurid, psychological dissection of Alfred Hitchcock won’t find it in this book, which is generally reverent and concerned with the day-to-day process of making and releasing one of cinema’s most brilliant shockers.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: 'Keith Richards on Keith Richards: Interviews and Encounters'

The cover shot says everything you need to know about the Keith Richards attitude. The bird he’s flipping says, “Fuck off.” The smile says, “Don’t take it so seriously, baby.” This is the Keith we encounter time and again in Keith Richards on Keith Richards: Interviews and Encounters, largely because Sean Egan chose so many pieces from the eighties onward when Keith was in full I-know-Im-a-living-legend mode. The editor, who also put together the excellent recent anthology The Mammoth Book of The Rolling Stones, had his reasons for skewing so post-golden years. In the sixties, Keith was actually third in line behind Mick Jagger and Brian Jones in the Stones hierarchy, so there were fewer interviews with him. Because Rock journalism had not matured yet, the interviews of that period tended to be lightweight anyway.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Look Out! 'The Who FAQ' is Officially on the Way!

Just a quick Who FAQ update to let you know that my manuscript has received the official stamp of approval from Backbeat Books, so there's no stopping its June 2014 publication now. I've also been informed that I'm no longer allowed to update the manuscript, so don't blame me if if Pete joins One Direction or Roger gets gender reassignment surgery over the next year and it fails to get a mention in The Who FAQ: 50 Years of Maximum R&B. Perhaps "49 Years of Maximum R&B" would be a more accurate subheading, but it doesn't have the same ring.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review: Sly and the Family Stone’s 'Higher!'

Sly Stone turned 70 earlier this year, and Epic/Legacy is celebrating his milestone with the first proper Sly and the Family Stone box set. Higher! is four discs of Sly’s freaky, funky fusion of soul, pop, psychedelia, jazz, and Rock & Roll, a space-age sound that crossed racial and gender barriers in both the band’s ranks and the charts. The Family released only six albums during their peak years, but those records covered a lot of sonic ground—the undisciplined euphoria of A Whole New Thing, which suggested a band trying to cram every idea they could onto their first record in case they never got a chance to make a second one; the triumphant “we’re here to stay” party of Dance to the Music; the fully mature and unbelievably confident Life; the stunning transformation from pop hit machine to insane jam troupe of Stand!; the drugged up, tuned in, and fuzzed out masterpiece-despite-itself that is There’s a Riot Going On; and the slicker, more conventional Fresh. Those records are all represented by choice cuts on Higher!, though the versions are often unfamiliar: a big helping of mono single mixes; a snack of wild live performances from the Isle of Wight 1970 concert (“Fun” is the only major classic not here in any form).

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Review: 'The Z Files: Treasures from Zacherley's Archives'

When I was a kid, my dad would creep down into the basement and unearth his copy of Spook Along with Zacherley every October 1st, which then served as our household Halloween carols for the rest of the spooky season. I was born too late to actually have seen Zach’s act on the classic monster movie showcase “Shock Theatre” or the Rock & Roll dance party “Disc-O-Teen,” but the record was all I needed to get him. The photo of him in frock coat and cadaverous make up on the cover. The silly songs about the Transylvania P.T.A., a Ring-a-Ding Orangutaun, and the return of Frank and Drac he crooned in a very un-Rock & Roll bass-baritone. As a devotee of “The Munsters,” “The Groovie Goolies,” and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the corny songs resonated with me even though I never got the chance to see the Cool Ghoul step on screen in the middle of Dracula’s Daughter to explain that the burns he got while dragging the Count from a funeral pyre prevented him from attending a cocktail party in his honor. Since TV archiving wasn’t super meticulous in the early sixties, I’m still unable to see much footage of Zacherley in action. Fortunately, there’s The Z Files: Treasures from the Zacherley Archives to provide a bit of a simulation.

Published last year, Richard Scrivani and Tom Weaver’s book collects a King-Kong’s ransom of choice artifacts from Zach’s personal collection. There’s a complete script of his Dracula’s Daughter show (which admittedly doesn’t read as well as it probably played on screen). There are scripts for three of his WOR-TV shows (ditto). These are neat, but I really loved the weird miscellany leading up to these major pieces: a stereotypically hyperbolic juvenile delinquency article about some kids who broke into a mausoleum to steal a skull for their Zacherley Club House, the angry letters from “Shock Theatre” viewers who didn’t appreciate his intrusions on their favorite movies, a letter from the New Jersey Television Broadcasting Company warning Zach’s cameramen to stop zooming in on the dancers for “bust” and “fanny” shots, an article about a Zacherley impersonator who’d been arrested for public drunkenness, and so on and so on. There’s also a good selection of B&W Zach pics, several of them displaying sweet-faced John Zacherle without his ghoulish get up. Apparently, there is also an accompanying DVD in the works, which hopefully will include whatever surviving footage there is. Until that emerges from the crypt, The Z Files fills the gap well.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ten Great Bruce Thomas Basslines

Bruce Thomas is a controversial guy in Elvis Costello-fan circles. Some have never forgiven him for portraying their hero as a whiny guy who sweats a lot in the semi- autobiographical novella The Big Wheel.  Elvis certainly hasn’t. Yet few Elvis fans would be stupid enough to dismiss Bruce Thomas as a musician, and as bass guitarists go, he deserves a place at the top with James Jamerson, John Entwistle, and Paul McCartney. Today, on his 65th birthday, let’s take a listen to some of the lines that make Bruce one of pop’s most amazing bassmen (Bruce has done some fantastic work outside of The Attractions, particularly with Suzanne Vega on the great 99.9F°, but here Ill just be focusing on his work behind Elvis).

1. “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” (1978)

Elvis Costello has always been more of a colorist than a lead guitarist. This often left Steve Nieve and Bruce Thomas responsible for the hook. In the case of the first single released as Elvis Costello and the Attractions, all three musicians supply memorable riffs, with Elvis jittering out triplets and Steve Nieve countering the amphetamine paranoia of that guitar riff with a languidly creepy descending line on his Vox Continental. Yet it is Bruce Thomas’s uncharacteristically simple reggae bassline that best catches the ear. His halting major triad riff pins down the verses, while his capricious slides give momentum to the bridge even as the overall dynamic remains constant.

2. “Pump It Up” (1978)

Bruce Thomas’s bass stands out on “Chelsea.” On “Pump It Up,” it practically is the song. Elvis’s Dylanesque rap, which droves of kids learned word-for-word as a sort of New Wave badge of honor (until it R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” took it’s place), is no small thing. However, all the melody flows from Bruce’s fingers. He squeezes in two totally distinct, totally memorable lines: the hopping riff of the verse and the three-note descent that supplies super-gravity between verses. His two-steps-forward/-one-step-back climb under the chorus is not as iconic as those other two riffs, but it’s the most technically spectacular bass work on the track.

3. “The Beat” (1978)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: 'The Art of British Rock: 50 Years of Rock Posters, Flyers, and Handbills'

As Rock & Roll progressed radically throughout the sixties, so did the way it was packaged, from the groovy new record sleeves to the posters and flyers that advertised them and concerts. The latter advances are on vivid display in writer Mike Evans and designer Paul Palmer-Edwards’s new book The Art of British Rock: 50 Years of Rock Posters, Flyers, and Handbills. We begin with the kinds of block-letter, boxing-style posters that unimaginatively announced concerts in the pre-British invasion age, but quickly whisk along with the eye-blasting pop art and art nouveau styles of the psychedelic age. The prog, punk, new wave, brit pop, and contemporary eras follow on a wave of wild variety.

A lot of books like this make the mistake of trying to cram in too much, shrinking the art for the sake of quantity. Palmer-Edwards is more concerned with quality, giving us large-scale representations of some amazingly detailed works that really require keen attention. Stripped of all their original commercial intentions, many of these pieces are as artistically conceived as the finest pop, op, and graphic arts hanging in any museum. And while a lot of Rock art books allow the art to do almost all of the talking, Evans's captions provide valuable information about the artists, the techniques, and the tools that brought these works into being. There are also full-page profiles of the most significant artists, including Roger Dean, the Hipgnosis team, Barney Bubbles, Jamie Reid, and Vaughn Oliver, while Rock’s most visually-striking band, The Who, receive special attention throughout. And is it just me or is the Fairport Convention poster on page 71 clearly the inspiration for Castle Grayskull?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The 20th Anniversary X-Files Reunion Panel Discussion!

Mulder and Scully have sex on their first date, and their baby makes a surprise appearance! Chris Carter resists discussing a third "X Files" movie until he can resist no longer! Vince Gilligan plugs "Breaking Bad"! All this and more at the hilarious, historic 20th Anniversary X-Files reunion panel discussion. You've heard all about it. Now watch it. Watch it!

Many thanks to the original poster of this video...

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Farewell, Karen Black

Sad news today. Following a two-year bout with cancer, Karen Black died earlier today. 

Although she wasn't crazy about her association with horror movies (she preferred to think of them as "Sci-Fi films"), she still found a permanent place in the creepy canon mostly because of her iconic role in Dan Curtis's TV portmanteau Trilogy of Terror. The "Amelia" segment still has the power to terrify after nearly forty years. She will be missed. 


Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review: 'Abominable Science!: Origins of Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids'

Multiple choice question: 80 years ago this month, a fellow named George Spicer published a letter in the Inverness Courier in which he described a bizarre and terrifying encounter. He and his wife had been motoring around Loch Ness when he suddenly encountered a:

A)   chicken
B)   man-eating robot
C)   dinosaur
D)   man-eating chicken
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