Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review: 'Long Title: Looking for the Good Times: Examining The Monkees’ Songs, One by One'

While examining “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” in his book Long Title: Looking for the Good Times: Examining The Monkees’ Songs, One by One, Michael A. Ventrella writes, “I’ve never been much of a fan of this song. I’m not sure why; I can’t really point to anything wrong with it.” Hmm. Are you sure you’re the best person to be examining The Monkees’ songs one by one? Because I expect better insight than what Ventrella and his co-author, Mark Arnold, try to pass off as analysis in this book. “I don’t know why I don’t like this; I just don’t” may cut the mustard in a Facebook comment, but it does not belong in a book. And beginning that book by stating, “neither Mark nor I claim to be Monkees experts” does not give you a pass when it comes to the facts either. If I’m reading a book about any topic, I expect the writers to really know what they are talking about, to do as thorough a job of tackling their goal as possible. And there certainly is a lot one could do with a book examining a discography like The Monkees’. There were so many composers, so many musicians, so many influences, so many genres attempted, so many varying circumstances under which the music was made, so much variation in quality. In a sense, The Monkees’ body of work is much riper for analysis than The Beatles’ because it is so all over the place.

Friday, December 22, 2017

How to Have Yourself a Merry Little Psychobabble X-Mas

A real evergreen decked with handmade ornaments. Choruses of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” around a roaring fire. A ham dinner with all the trimmings for you and yours. Midnight mass. These are the things that make up an old-fashioned Christmas. But there aren’t very Psychobabbley.

Here on Psychobabble, old-fashioned does reign supreme, but it ain’t that kind of sweater-vest brand of old-fashioned. It’s the stupendously, tremendously retro brand. Don’t understand what I mean? Well, don’t fear, don’t panic, and don’t throw yourself in front of the next oncoming reindeer-drawn sleigh. My holiday gift to you is the following 24-hour schedule for having a very merry Psychobabble-style X-Mas….with all the groovy trimmings.

December 25

Midnight: Wake up. Ideally you spent the entirety of Christmas Eve sleeping and building up reserves of energy, because the following is—as I’ve already stated—a 24-hour schedule. No sleep ’til Boxing Day. And you’re really going to need that energy because the first task on our holiday schedule is stocking up on the gifts. No lazy shopping in front of your fancy home computer. We do it the old-fashioned way: Midnight Sale at Toys R’ Us.  Be prepared to gouge out the eyeballs of a fellow loving parent for that last Cabbage Patch Kid on the shelf, because in Psychobabble Land, that kind of thing still happens.

1:00 A.M.: Now get all that booty home and wrap it as fast as possible because it is time to deck some fucking halls the Psychobabble way. If you’ve already set up projected LED snowflakes or any other newfangled decoration, tear that shit down and replace it with toxic melted plastic peanut snowmen on the windows, garish blow-molded Santa and reindeer display on the roof, and flaming hot C7 ½ multicolored bulbs around the eaves. Tarp up that brick fireplace and hang your stockings from a vintage cardboard fireplace by Toymaster. Finish it all off with an aluminum tree sprinkled with satin-covered Styrofoam balls and bathed in the artificial glow of a motorized color wheel.  

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review: 'The Rolling Stones On Air'

Until very recently, ABKCO/Universal has kept a pretty tight lid on the Stones’ 1960s vault. This began to change in 2016 with the release of the long anticipated Rolling Stones in Mono box set, and more recently with the unanticipated-by-everyone-but-me deluxe edition of Their Satanic Majesties Request. This new access continues with Rolling Stones On Air, a double disc collection of BBC recordings the guys made from 1963 to 1965.

This is the first taste of real rarities yet as we get to hear renditions of eight songs that never made it onto the Stones’ proper LPs or singles and versions of popular faves with more pronounced differences than a mere shift from the familiar to stereo to the slightly less familiar mono. The chance to hear the Stones’ takes on gems such as Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae” (which they’d later rip for “their own” “Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man”), Tommy Tucker’s “High Heel Sneakers”, Bo Diddley’s “Cops and Robbers” and “Crackin’ Up”, Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby”, and a whole mess of Chuck Berry tunes will probably provoke the most purchases. The other stuff may not be quite as valuable, but it’s still very cool to hear things like “Cry to Me” and “I’m Moving On” with greater clarity than the more familiar versions.

Sometimes the greater clarity is not really an asset as it demystifies the murky alchemy of “Satisfaction”, “Mercy Mercy” (complete with way out-front falsetto by, I believe, Bill Wyman, who was no John Entwistle in the falsetto-singing bassist department), and “The Last Time”, but it’s always fun and interesting to hear such well-worn material in any different light. In at least one instance, hearing a lack of difference is actually fascinating. I’ve always marveled at the fluid, effortlessness of Keith Richards’ playing on “Down the Road Apiece” and surmised it was something our sloppy hero could never recreate. The fiery rendition of that number recorded he recorded for the Top Gear program proves me wrong in the most wonderful way.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: The Beatles' Christmas Records Box & the 'Sgt. Pepper's' Picture Disc

In December of 1963, UK kids received their biggest reward for joining the Beatles’ Official Fan Club: a flexi-disc arrived in the post containing messages of good will and “Happy Crimble” from the Fab Four. Each year throughout The Beatles’ brief career, fan-club devotees received such a holiday record from their fave group.

For their first Holiday platter dished out on December 6, 1963, The Beatles grunt “Good King Wenceslas” and whistle “God Save the Queen” as John Lennon gives a neat recap of the first phase of his band’s success and says “gear” more times than a John Lennon impersonator. Paul McCartney begs for a moratorium on the chucking of Jelly Babies, Ringo Starr reprises “Wenceslas” like a lounge lizard, and George Harrison gets silly before all four fabs mangle “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” while plugging another famous schnoz into the lyrics.

In 1964, Beatlemania officially spread from the UK to the rest of the globe, and the boys’ recent discovery of Ms. Mary Jane seems to be the fuel on their Yule-log flame. The banter is a bit more lackadaisical than on their first Holiday Record. Or perhaps they were just exhausted. They do sound as knackered as they looked on the cover of the recently released Beatles For Sale… well, at least until the brief but frenzied piano demolition that ends this year’s message.

The Beatles’ 1965 message gets started with a rowdy knees-up of their latest rowdy number, “Yesterday”, before getting on to their usual heartfelt holiday messages. Taking some time out from recording Rubber Soul, John voices his appreciation for some rather original gifts he received from fans, then sings silly songs in an…ummm, I don’t know? Scottish accent? Next up is a reference to a George Harrison B-side that wouldn’t be released for another three years, a quick Four Tops parody, and a deranged version of “Auld Lang Sine” sung with Dylan-esque gravitas. Finally they all get sucked down some sort of reverb-laden vortex, no doubt gearing up for a New Year of acid experimentation and being bigger than that guy allegedly born on December 25th.

Not their most well-remembered holiday carol, “Everywhere It’s Christmas” (sung like the Upperclass Twit of the Year) begins the record shipped to fan club members in December, 1966. What follows is a far more elaborate production than those featured on previous holiday records, with the boys enacting a surreal holiday story complete with weird chorales and George’s memorable portrayal of Podgy the Bear.
1967 saw featured the most famous Beatles’ fan club record thanks to the inclusion of their first and only full-band holiday song: “Christmastime (Is Here Again)”,  a number as tunefully frothy as their recent number one hit, “Hello, Goodbye”. Inter-cut within the song are snippets from a broadcast on Radio LSD, which features that beloved World War II chestnut “Plenty of Jam Jars” by The Ravelers.

To commemorate 1968, Paul McCartney does a “Blackbird”-reminiscent improv, John name-drops his new paramour amidst his usual verbal gobbledygook, Ringo goes insane, and a very stoned-sounding George pals around with Tiny Tim, who lays down a characteristically shrill version of “Nowhere Man” on his uke! All of this is glued together with some avant garde tape-tomfoolery straight out of “Revolution 9”. Freaky.

Sure, The Beatles couldn’t stand each other by 1969, but that neither stopped them from tossing together another holiday record or kept Yoko Ono—who sloshes through the snow with her new hubby and sings like a Disney thrush—from getting in on the fun. A bit of “The End” played beneath this recording gives a good idea of where The Beatles’ heads were in late ’69. Ringo plugs his burgeoning acting career, perhaps because he knows he’ll soon be without a job. However, a little X-Mas ditty by Paul provides an unexpectedly sweet holiday treat.

While original individual copies of these rare discs fetch as much as $600 today, a new box containing the entire set of these rather bizarre and often hilarious discs is now available for a fraction of that cost, and instead of crackly, wafer-thin flexi discs, they are on proper and rather heavy vinyl in a multitude of festive colors courtesy of Universal Music. There is quite a bit of sound variation due to the different sources from which the messages were pulled. According to the notes, some of the discs were sourced from the flexi-discs, and I'd wager that these include 1963, 1966, and 1969. While the crackling is shockingly mild on the 1963 record, the others sound considerably rougher. 1965 sounds like it was pulled from a cassette. The others sound much cleaner, which means that the most significant piece of music in the set, “Christmastime (Is Here Again)”, sounds nice. However, there are some distortions that likely result from the lo-fi way the original recordings were made, and be sure to take note that the 1964 record revolves at 45 RPMs rather than 33 1/3 or risk hearing the Fabs either sound like some sort of Satanic Santa.

The package is suitably lush. Each record comes in a shrink-wrapped picture sleeve with the original artwork (which became increasingly psychedelic as the sixties progress). The lot of them is encased in a gift box that’s only missing the paper and bow. There’s also a slim but nice booklet with a short introductory essay by Kevin Howlett, repros of each fan club newsletter shipped with each disc from 1963 through 1967, additional photos, and a note about the creation of each record. Gear!

As a nifty stocking stuffing bonus, UMe is also issuing Giles Martin’s recent 50th Anniversary stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a picture disc depicting the original cover on Side A and the custom Sgt. Pepper’s bass drum head on Side B. Picture discs have a reputation for crackly, dull sound, and while this pressing surely isn’t as crisp and vibrant as the CDs in the box set released last spring, and the bass is still overbearing, it still delivers generally good sound.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: 'Bang! The Bert Burns Story: Official Soundtrack'

Producer/composer Bert Bern’s role in the Rock & Roll conversation tends to be limited to discussions of Van Morrison and Neil Diamond’s early career, but there’s a lot more to his legacy than “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Cherry, Cherry”. Berns wrote or co-wrote such timeless tunes as Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, Them’s “Here Comes the Night”, Freddie Scott’s “Am I Grooving You”, and Erma Franklin/ Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”. He also produced such major records as The Jarmels’ “A Little Bit of Soap”, The Isley Brothers’ The Exciters’ “Tell Him”, “Twist and Shout”, The Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy”, and The McCoy’s “Hang on Sloopy”. That there is one impressive track record, my friends.

A new documentary called Bang! The Bert Burns Story apparently sets the record straight by telling Burns’s story, while its soundtrack is a stunning sustained blast of why that story is worth telling. There is not one bum track on this 20-track double LP. There isn’t even one track that deserves anything less than a sincere “Wow!” Relative obscurities such as two tracks by The Pussycats (making their long-playing debut), Morrison’s funky “Chick-A-Boom”, Lorraine Ellison’s gospel-like “Heart Be Still”, Bobby Harris’s “Mr. Success”, and Kenny Hamber’s “Show Me Your Monkey” join most of the classics mentioned above. The absence of any of Diamond’s early sides for Berns’s Bang Records seems a somewhat glaring oversight, but that does nothing to change the fact that Bang! The Bert Burns Story: Official Soundtrack is a knock out pop and soul compilation.

Review: 'Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series' DVD

Twin Peaks is my favorite piece of pop culture, so I anticipated its return as a “Limited Event Series” on Showtime fervently. At the same time I was surprised that an artist of David Lynch’s caliber wanted to get in on a sequel-series trend that included the likes of Fuller House. While Lynch obsessively revisits motifs and even structures of his previous works, this would be the first time he’d revisit a specific work. Of course, if he was to revisit a work, Twin Peaks would be the one to revisit both because of a painful cliffhanger that even the feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me refused to resolve and because Twin Peaks is Lynch’s most popular production. I’d wager that part of the reason it is so popular is that Lynch’s experimentalism was watered down by Network desires and the fact that he shared duties with a slew of less experimental writers and directors. Had he made, say, Eraserhead: The Series!, it probably would not have endured as the Twin Peaks we knew and loved has.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: 'The Complete Monterey Pop Festival' Blu-ray

Capturing Rock & Roll at a more experimental phase than The T.A.M.I. Show did, but not as self-indulgent and drab as Woodstock, or as depressing as Gimme Shelter, D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop is the greatest multi-artist concert film. With a wide selection of some of the era’s most thrilling artists to include in his feature, Pennebaker created a nice sampler of all that made 1967 Rock’s most dazzling year. There’s a whole lot of soul (Otis), raga (17 minutes of Ravi Shankar flooring the crowd), jazz (Hugh Masekela), blues (Janis, Canned Heat), pacific pop (Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas & The Papas) proto-punk (The Who), and of course, psychedelic Rock (The Animals, Country Joe, the Airplane, Hendrix and his Experience). The performances are as electric as they are eclectic, and Pennbaker’s shadowy cinematography creates nearly as much mood as the vibrant music.
In 2002, The Criterion Collection put together a triple-disc package called The Complete Monterey Pop Festival that built an already monumental film to skyscraper proportions. The set included the original film, as well as complete performances from Otis Redding and The Jimi Hendrix Experience and the feature-length Outtakes Performances. This is just as essential as Pennebaker’s 1968 film, recovering additional performances from The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & The Holding Company, The Mamas & The Papas, and Country Joe & The Fish, as well as footage of some major artists who didn’t make the cut of the original picture, such as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Laura Nyro (whose spellbinding rendition of “Poverty Train” dispels rumors that she fumbled the gig), The Association (who provide a charmingly mainstream moment amidst all the heavy underground activity), and others. In addition to the three major supplements were a plethora of commentaries, interviews, trailers, and booklet essays.
In 2009, Criterion upgraded the 2002 DVD for Blu-ray without offering anything beyond the 2002 supplements. For the festival’s 50th Anniversary, Criterion has given the video a 4K buffing and added several extra features, such as new onscreen interviews with Pennebaker (who discusses the filming and the acts) and festival producer Lou Adler (who discusses a 50th Anniversary festival staged on the site of the 1967 one, the original film’s lack of explicit politics, and other matters) and a general new essay about the film by Michael Chaiken (however, text by Pennebaker and Jann Wenner from the 2002 edition have been lost in translation). Much more historically significant are some extra outtake performances from The Steve Miller Band, Moby Grape, and The Grateful Dead. 

Criterion’s new 4K restoration of Monterey Pop delivers splendid colors and appropriately crunchy grain. Some shots are a bit soft, but that is likely a consequence of the lo-fi conditions under which Pennebaker and his crew made the movie (we often see them working the focus in the middle of a shot). Jimi Plays Monterey, Shake! Otis at Monterey, and The Outtakes Performances are presented in the same 1080p transfers used for the 2009 Blu-ray release, but the Hendrix and Otis mini-movies have been newly restored according to the back-cover copy

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: 'Hendrix: The Illustrated Story'

Jimi Hendrix is the nearly unanimously acknowledged master of the electric guitar and one of the key Rock & Roll artists in general, so volumes have naturally been written on his life, work, and artistry. For casual fans who don’t have to patience to sift through all that stuff and want to get an eye-load of the man in all his wizard finery, a book such as Gillian G. Gaar’s Hendrix: The Illustrated Story gets the job done.

There’s not much depth to plumb in 200 pages, and the reliance on previously published sources means that new revelations are absent, but that’s not really the point of a book like this. Gaar delivers the essentials of Hendrix’s story, gratefully not pretending that the hideous moments in it didn’t exist (his relationship with an underage prostitute; his battery of a woman in his entourage; etc.), and buffers the text with lots of fabulous photos. Yet for such a short biography, there’s too much day-to-day data about the places he toured and the TV shows on which he appeared. Also, the writing lacks pizzazz considering her flamboyant subject matter. Gaar is at her liveliest when discussing Hendrix’s music in a supplemental essay on Are You Experienced?, but she leaves additional LP surveys to guest writers. In her discussion of Electric Ladyland, Jaan Uhelszki does a much flashier job of reflecting Hendrix’s vividness and made me wish that the rest of the book were as punchy. Gaars narrative is most compulsively readable when events are dramatic enough to carry the story, as it is when she discusses Hendrix’s tumultuous final days.

Of course, a lot of readers will check out Hendrix: The Illustrated Story less for the story and more for the illustrations, and groovy shots of Hendrix getting his hair done while perusing MAD or dolled up as a psychedelic Santa are major selling points. The faux velvet black light poster-style cover is a gas too.
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