Thursday, November 28, 2013

Review: 'Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me'

In 1973, Big Star had their most significant coming out at a rowdy convention for rock writers (Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe were among the attendees). A very apt event since the Memphis power poppers were always best loved by the critics. In a time when rock was all about big stadium bands like Led Zeppelin, Yes, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Big Star’s concise, fresh-faced, jangly pop was at odds with popular tastes but a total balm to the professional music listeners chaffing beneath all the proggy bombast. Today it seems amazing that music so instantly accessible and timeless could have ever been unfashionable, but it’s at least one explanation for why Big Star never got to be the big stars they deserved to be.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review: 'The Walrus & The Elephants: John Lennon’s Years of Revolution'

While the most popular image of John Lennon remains the peace-sign waving peacenik who sang “Imagine all the people living life in peace,” it has recently become more fashionable to call him out as a bully, misogynist, and rich hypocrite who sang “Imagine no possessions” and refused to take a firm stance on positive revolution.  What a lot of us commentators sometimes forget (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone else) is that John Lennon wasn’t an image, he was a man, and a very complex one at that. Yes, at times he was a bully, a misogynist who sang “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man,” and a soft-on-revolution splash of cold water who tried to assure us “it’s gonna be alright” (it wasn’t), but as writer James A. Mitchell reminds us, John Lennon wasn’t always all those things. In the early seventies he worked hard on making amends for the rough man he’d been. After walking the middle of the road through much of The Beatles’ career, he decided to use his booming voice for more ideologically positive purposes, championing feminist principals as early as 1970’s “Well, Well, Well”; taking up with such high-profile activists as Jerry Rubin, Tariq Ali, and Bobby Seale; and moving from his plush Tittenhurst Park estate to a grubby apartment in Greenwich Village.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: 'Haunted Horror'

Chamber of Chills. Web of Evil. This Magazine is Haunted. Baffling Mysteries. None of these golden age horror comics enjoy the familiarity of E.C.’s Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, or Haunt of Fear, but they all share those books’ taste for ironic comeuppances and oozing creatures. They also suffered less high-profile but similar fates when the Senate Subcommitte on Juvenile Delinquency brought the whip down on horror comics in 1954. E.C.’s horror comics endured for a number of reasons. William Gaines bravely faced down the committee, which brought a temporary end to his comics but made him something of a celebrity, and rebuilt his empire with MAD Magazine. Then came the successful incarnations on screens big and small, guaranteeing Tales from the Crypt’s infamy among a lot of people who never even touched a comic book. And let’s not forget that the artists behind E.C.’s books were really, really amazing.

One will definitely recognize that Chamber of Chills, Baffling Mysteries, and the rest did not have illustrators of the caliber of Jack Davis or Graham Ingles (the oozing monsters are particularly poor looking), but they are still charmingly vile in their own ways. Take “The Constant Eye” (This Magazine Is Haunted… love that title!), in which the peepers of a dead man pursue the dude who offed him. Or “Black Magic in a Slinky Gown” (Baffling Mysteries), in which a spider woman takes revenge for all the squashed arachnids of the world. How about “Kill, My Minions of Death” (another fabulous title!) (Baffling Mysteries), which blends The Hands of Orlok and Frankenstein to shockingly gruesome effect? Let’s not even think about the necrophiliac sea creature of “Haunt from the Sea” (Journey into Fear)… it’s too horrible!

These horrible horrors are just a few of the stories Yoe Comics started compiling into a line called Haunted Horror in 2012. This is a really smart way to bring back lesser-known books that may not be able to sell as reissues on title alone. By skimming the cream of this creepy crop, horror comic freaks are not left wishing they were gazing at the Crypt Keeper instead.

Yoe has now compiled its first three issues of the Haunted Horror compilation into a sweet hardcover book of that same name. The full-color, partially glossy cover, with its groovy end papers depicting HH’s own ghoulunatics, contrasts the rough and ready presentation of these old comics. Unlike the E.C. Archives line that continues to drip out from a variety of publishers (the ball is currently in Dark Horse’s court with new volumes of Crypt and Vault now on sale and in the pipeline) there has been no attempt to recolor the original comics. They are printed on nice, course paper that makes it feel like you’re reading actual comic books. The Haunted Horror compilation also includes a couple of bonus stories that did not appear in its comic book form (one of which is presented in gorgeous pre-inked black and white) and an intro by horror comic geek supreme and Misfit Jerry Only.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Mountain and the Meadow: The Day 'The Beatles' and 'The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society' were Released

November 22, 1968. The date arrived toward the exhausted end of a year that started with the United States taking a crippling blow in the Vietnam War with the Tet Offensive on January 30 and acting out in the most horrendous of ways with the My Lai massacre of March 16. Two weeks later, Martin Luther King, Jr., would lead a march through Memphis that would end with the death of a teenage boy and the injuries of sixty other people, and King, himself, would be murdered on April 4. On the 23rd, the cops would bring a violent end to a demonstration at Columbia University, and on May 6, student demonstrators in Paris would engage in their own revolutionary conflict against gas-grenade hurling officers. Andy Warhol shot on June 3. Robert Kennedy shot two days later to die on the 6. Protesters beaten by police in Chicago on August 28 and murdered by police and soldiers in Mexico City on October 2. And then on November 5, Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States, ensuring many more dark days to come.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review: 'Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece'

Violent, vibrant, and endlessly quotable, Reservoir Dogs knocked me out and psyched me up to see how Quentin Tarantino was going to top it, because if there was one thing I could tell from that audacious debut, it was that the director was just getting started. When word got out that Pulp Fiction was coming, I went into a state of hyper anticipation. When I finally got to see it in autumn 1994, it infected me completely. My best friend at the time and I didn’t just see the movie in the theater five times (which is more times than I’ve ever seen any other film in the theater during its first run); we wanted to be Jules and Vincent. Actually, I think we both wanted to be Jules. He was just too fucking cool. Like a little Fonzie. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: The Beatles' 'On Air—Live at the BBC Volume 2'

The Beatles recorded 88 different songs for the BBC, the cream of which was released in 1994. The most thrilling thing about The Beatles Live at the BBC was getting to hear a plethora of songs they never put out on their proper albums, and it didn’t hurt that they rendered oldies such as “Some Other Guy”, “I Got a Woman”, “Too Much Monkey Business”, “Clarabella”, and “The Hippy Hippy Shake” with such excitement. Perhaps most significant of all was the release of “I’ll Be on My Way,” a pretty and wistful Lennon/McCartney original otherwise unavailable.

On Air—Live at the BBC Volume 2 gets closer to the bottom of the barrel, relying on a lot of material from Please Please Me and a lot already available on the first volume, only offering two otherwise unreleased numbers (the soppy standard “Beautiful Dreamer” and Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You” featuring the riff Paul copped for his bassline on “I Saw Her Standing There”), and no revelatory Lennon/McCartney rarities. Still, this is The Beatles’ barrel we’re talking about, which is a pretty good barrel. There are certainly some cool things to hear on On Air. There’s a version of “Words of Love” recorded fifteen months before it made its vinyl debut on Beatles for Sale. There’s a positively vicious version of “Money” (and am I hearing Lennon scream, “I wanna be free, bitch!” at the climax of the track?). There are also several of versions of big hits— “Please Please Me”, “From Me to You”, “She Loves You”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, an electrified “And I Love Her”—that were surprisingly passed over for volume one (which is receiving a remastering and rerelease in conjunction with its sequel). But what strikes me most about these recordings is the clear differentiation of instruments when compared to the (albeit less weedy) album versions. These recordings were the best ways to hear Paul’s bass work until Revolver. On a less musical note, there are also interesting Rubber Soul and Revolver-era solo interviews with each Beatle, their soberness providing a jarring counterpoint to the goofy clowning of the between-track banter elsewhere on On Air. I actually think this is the only time I’ve ever heard George address his role as the quiet one and Paul discuss his personal cultural renaissance that would so influence Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the following year.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Review: 'Pink Floyd: Behind the Wall'

Having spent most of their career looking dour in T-shirts and jeans, Pink Floyd wasn’t the most photogenic of bands. Perhaps that’s why it has taken so long for someone to publish an image-heavy illustrated history of the band when there are already quite a number devoted to their brethren in The Beatles, Stones, Who, and Zeppelin. On the up side, they were always interesting to look at in their paisley garb during their most vital era with Syd Barrett and their stage sets were awe-inspiring enough in the later years to consume the eye.

Writer Hugh Fielder seems pretty consumed by those sets, spending quite a bit of time discussing the logistics of setting them up in Pink Floyd: Behind the Wall. Otherwise, his text is a broad-stroke history of the band. Fielder is definitely not writing for my fellow Syd cultists, summing up Syd’s albeit brief tenure in the band in about thirty pages and giving the bulk of his attention and accolades to Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. For the majority of the book, Fielder is not very critical of the music one way or the other, saving his album-by-album assessment for an appendix as safe as the rest of it. My favorite part was a two-page spread on the wacky Wizard of Oz/Dark Side connection. More fun side roads such as these would have been welcome.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Review: 'The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion'

The 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz won’t happen until late next summer, but Turner Entertainment Co. is so excited to see its property hit that milestone that it’s rushing several commemorative releases into the shops. The beginning of October saw the debut of a 3D Blu-ray of the film, and the end of the month saw publication of Jay Scarfone and William Stillman’s The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion. You can’t really blame Turner for jumping the gun since this movie has been stirring anticipatory excitement since before its 1939 premiere. Scarfone and Stillman’s book relates a pre-release frenzy the likes of which seems surprising in the pre-Star Wars age, let alone the pre-Internet one. The papers were abuzz with debates over whether the movie should be live action or a cartoon. The casting of Judy Garland was big news, as was the blond wig she was supposed to wear to make her look more like the Dorothy in L. Frank Baum’s book. Baum’s fans were writing threatening letters to producer Mervyn LeRoy to ensure he didn’t stray too far from their favorite book.

All of this electricity indicates how ahead of its time The Wizard of Oz was, and few films still resonate with viewers of all ages as it does. Those dedicated millions will find much to tickle them in The Official 75th Anniversary Companion, which compliments Scarfone and Stillman’s storytelling with choice artifacts from Turner Entertainment’s Oz archives. There’s a rare shot of Garland and Toto with Richard Thorpe, the director originally lined up to make the movie. There’s a copy of the agreement with uncredited director King Vidor stipulating that he would, indeed, receive no credit for his work on The Wizard of Oz. There are black & white and color shots of Garland in her inappropriately glamorous blond wig. There’s also a creepy shot of Ray Bolger in an early makeup that would have made him look more like the Wicked Witch of the West than the Scarecrow; several test shots of original witch Gale Sondergaard, who left the movie because she was too pretty; and production sketches, vintage advertisements, and images of funky old merchandise, such as Wizard of Oz Valentine cards and Wizard of Oz peanut butter. It’s all delightfully designed, finished off with a grab bag pouch containing a bookmark (very functional!), copies of the Witch’s death certificate and the hero’s rewards (Heart! Brain! Courage! Home!), a booklet of lobby card reproductions, a cardboard picture frame for displaying the character headshots included, and more.

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