Monday, December 31, 2012

WWWX and the Fucker: An Ode to a Classic Lost Gag Tape


“WWWX gives Gary, Indiana what it fucking deserves.”

If that doesn’t ring a bell, you’re just… well probably just about everybody.

It was a bit from a gag-reel that circulated around radio stations in the early eighties. A lot of tapes like this went around. Some were on-air mishaps captured for posterity. Some were un-aired outtakes from pre-recorded shows that the radio personality had hoped would be destroyed. Many, though, were gag tapes of bogus radio shows or commercials put together for fun by guys in the business. Being able to hear these as a kid was one of the benefits of having a family member in broadcasting.

Held together with scotch tape, it still makes me laugh 30 years later.
Shortly after the legendary Boston radio station WRKO switched from music to a talk radio format, my dad took on a weekend slot hosting a law oriented call-in show. Since his slot was on Saturday afternoons, I often would go to the station with him. One of my favorite childhood memories was being able to run around an empty radio station (most of the staff had the weekends off), playing in unused studios pretending to host my own show Sometimes I would just hanging out in the offices surrounded by photos of RKO luminaries of the day such as David Brudnoy, Jerry Williams and Gene Burns.

Then there were the tapes that dad would bring home. There was the WRKO holiday tape featuring a mock broadcast with the on-air talent poking fun at their own personas with risqué commercials thrown in. One memorable segment featured the cantankerous Jerry Williams hosting a call-in show devoted to romantic advice, telling a listener in an uncharacteristically soothing voice to “drop that jerk and move on… Thanks for calling.” (This bit would have been hysterical to people who remember Jerry Williams) Another standout bit had a film noir-ish narrator telling of a late night encounter and (unprotected) sex with a woman who, as it turned out, was married to a man who was being released from prison that very day. “By then, I’d sobered up enough to get a good look at her,” the narrator tells us before the punch-line reveals the bit to be an advertisement: “Was I having a Maalox moment.”

Other tapes that dad brought home included the notorious “Casey Kasem’s Bad Day,” (that was how it was labeled on my tape, but I have seen it with other titles) a profanity-laced tirade captured during a taping of American Top 40 (before hearing that tape, it never occurred to me that radio shows could be pre-recorded). It’s easy to find now on YouTube, but to hear it back in the 80s, you had to know someone who knew someone.

My favorite, though, was the WWWX tape. The introduction alone made me laugh my ass off when the sonorous “voice-of-God” announcer proclaimed that “WWWX gives Gary, Indiana what it fucking deserves.” After this, the entire bit was the frothing, psychotic disc jockey, known only as “the Fucker,” unleashing torrents of obscenity between songs by the likes of Raspberries, Alice Cooper, and the Stones.

I never did find out the source of that tape. As far as I know, there has never been a WWWX in Gary, Indiana. I think I heard, at some point, that the tape was made as a joke (and obviously unaired) by some guys at a station in nearby Chicago. From there it circulated from radio station to radio station, as these tapes did, being heard by radio guys who would play it for friends, never really going public.

But then, none of these tapes were really meant to be heard by the public. “Casey Kasem’s Bad Day” was the exception to the rule. This probably had to do with the fact that there was more public interest in hearing the beloved radio personality losing his shit than hearing some unknown smart-assed jock ranting and offering promotional giveaways such as a “two gallon can of warm semen that Johnny Dildo left in here a few minutes ago.” (Between these tapes and the George Carlin records he gave me, how could my dad have been surprised that I would have ended up with the filthiest mouth of any kid in the fifth grade?)

Then again, nobody really cares about Casey Kasem anymore either, and his bad day has become as played out as the Jerky Boys. WWWX and the fucker, however, has remained blissfully obscure, too unknown even for cult status. Nothing more than a secret handshake for aging radio guys, an in-joke which is fading from memory as quickly as radio itself is.

But it made me roar as a kid, even when I didn’t know what half of it meant. This type of material has never disappeared. I hardly need to remind anyone that parodies of radio shows, TV shows, and movies are ubiquitous on sites like YouTube, and most people with a computer have the ability to make these, and with decent production values to boot. Give me an hour and I could make something as puerile and nasty as WWWX and have it up on the web. Or course, it would probably get buried in the avalanche of DIY humor and no one would hear it. But back then, grown men (and I do mean “men” as it is mostly overgrown boys who would find this stupid shit funny), who were true professionals, would use state of the art broadcasting and recording equipment to make dick jokes. And then other grown men, also trusted professionals in that field, would play it for their friends and giggle. And that is even funnier to me than the tapes themselves.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Calling Off the Bootleg Hunt


Why Wolfgang's Vault is an Affront to Collectors

It seems that every day I get an email from Wolfgang’s Vault advertising classic live concert recordings that have newly been made available for streaming on their site.  They inform me of newly offered recordings by classic rockers like the Kinks, Bruce Springsteen, and Traffic, adding that they threw in some old jazz, and uploaded shows by a couple of artists who have recently died. It would be easy to refer to these emails as spam, but the volume of material that keeps coming out is impressive. The Vault, which focuses mostly on music of the sixties and seventies and also sells collectibles from these shows and artists, is a treasure trove, one-stop shopping  for nostalgic baby boomers.

Established in 2003 when businessman Bill Sagan bought the archives of the late, legendary impresario  Bill Graham, Wolfgang’s Vault (named for Graham’s childhood nickname when he was growing up in Germany) began as a site for selling the rock memorabilia obtained in the purchase. Finding that much of what was in the vaults were privately made concert recordings, the site began allowing the free streaming of old concerts, making some available for paid download. As recordings became more and more the focal point of the website, Sagan and his organization obtained more collections (such as the tapes from the King Biscuit Flower Hour, the legendary radio concert series), making more and more high quality recordings available.

Years before, most of these recordings have been sold as bootleg albums and CDs and have also circulated freely in trading circles. However, distancing themselves from the “bootleg” stigma, Wolfgang’s Vault has projected an image of respectability. A 2005 article in the Wall Street Journal, portrayed Sagan as equal parts businessman and fanatic, meticulously combing through the catalog of live recordings, obtaining permissions and creating revenue-sharing deals. However, the site and his efforts have not been free of controversy, and he was sued in 2006 by a number of the bands whose material he was streaming on the site.

I have not been able to find details about the subsequent settlements, but I can only speculate that Wolfgang’s Vault ultimately offered more favorable terms to the copyright owners on the songs who ultimately found it best to join Sagan rather than fight him. And who can blame them? In a time when record company earnings had plummeted due to peer-to-peer file sharing, it makes perfect sense to open up new revenue streams based on “previously unavailable” material.

As a music fan who is quite simpatico with the boomers in terms of musical taste, one might think that I would be enthralled every time I receive one of these missives from Wolfgang’s Vault. In fact, I’m just annoyed (and not just because it fills up my inbox).

This is not so say that many of the recordings they have aren’t great. They are. In fact, many recordings featured on that website have been in my collection for years, and they definitely are worth listening to. That’s the thing though: Why should I get excited about the ability to listen in shoddy quality streaming audio to recordings that I already have in better sounding formats?

I am aware that a lot of these are new to more casual music listeners who haven’t spent years hunting down bootleg recordings. I also admit that I probably sound like a jerk for even the vaguest insinuation that only an elite set of hardcore geeks should have access to them, or that the poor sound quality on the website would never be acceptable to people who truly care about music.

I don’t mean to say these things. On the other hand, I don’t mean not to say them either. I don’t mean to sound elitist, and I acknowledge that this sort of pretentiousness is hard to swallow particularly when coming from someone who sits alone in darkened rooms listening to records, but given the amount of time and money that I and so many other have spent obtaining these recordings throughout the years, can you blame me for feeling, at the very least, a little bit ambivalent about these recordings these being made a little too easily available?
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My first boot. A cheap cassette dub of this CD.
I remember buying my first bootleg when I was 17. On an early summer day in Northampton, Massachusetts, I stumbled across a guy selling cassettes out of the back of his car. Not elegantly packaged, there was no cover art except for a handwritten cassette insert (actually, a xeroxed copy) with the most basic information about the recording (who, where, when) and a track listing. Little attention was paid to quality. They were dubbed onto normal bias Maxell UR 90s (as opposed to the high bias XLII-S cassettes that I used myself and were held in high esteem in bootleg trading circles), but they were documents that I would not be able to get a regular record store.

The tape I bought that day was a concert by The Who from Amsterdam in 1969 featuring a (more or less) complete performance of Tommy. I had never heard this before (a complete live performance of Tommy by the original band was not made officially available until the Live at the Isle of Wight album was released a couple of years later.) It was imperfect, to say the least. The sound quality, while a soundboard recording, was not that of an official release, but for the first time, I realized that I was not limited to official releases to satisfy my obsessive collecting urges. Moreover, I liked the idea that these were complete shows, not recordings culled from several dates, then edited and overdubbed in the studio to ensure that the product was consistent with the image and sound that the band wanted to put across. These were what the band sounded like onstage at that time, on that night, warts and all. At the same time, part of the appeal of bootleg collecting was finding something that was rarified, something not available through normal channels.

In college, I bought my first bootleg CD, Tales from the Who, a less than complete but otherwise excellent document of The Who’s concert in Philadelphia on their 1973 Quadrophenia tour. Going to school in Boston, I found several places where I could get my fixes, mostly in places around Harvard Square: Mystery Train, Second Coming Records. Sometimes pickings were slim. At Mystery Train, they just had a little box at the counter in which they kept the bootlegs, and they weren’t cheap either. Still, I made some nice acquisitions during my undergraduate years.

After moving to New York, I used to cruise through shops in the Village like Subterranean, Generation Records, Rockit Scientist Records, and Bleecker Street Records, looking through their bins for a bunch of little holy grails: The complete Beach Boys’ Smile Sessions, rough session tapes of the Traveling Wilburys, outtakes and live material from the short-lived supergroup, Blind Faith. I got used to getting home and finding out that I paid $25 for a stinker, but separating the wheat from the chaff was part of it. It was all about finding the rare gem. I also got used to occasionally seeing the stores almost completely emptied of stock after being raided by the Feds.

I will not lie and try to say that bragging rights were not at least a small part of the joy of acquisition, however, I will defend myself in saying that I never hoarded. I was always willing and eager to make copies for friends, particularly after I got my first CD burner. In fact, turning people onto to recordings that they would otherwise never hear was as much fun for me as was hearing them myself, almost.
Another thing that happened when I got my first burner was that I began trading.

When I started trading, it was still mostly being done by mail, but with contacts being made online. At first I had my list of recordings (along with ratings of quality, and my personal rules of trading) which I would send to prospects via email. Eventually, I had my list hosted online and found that I was being approached by traders who had found items on my list that they coveted.

I found that every trader had different rules, with some being more stringent than others.  Many rules were technical, such as what kind of discs to use (I had a problem with Memorex discs at that time), what kind of mailers to use (fiber cushioned mailers were generally frowned upon since they would explode with lint and dust when opened), and ensuring that files were “lossless” (meaning having ever been encoded to MP3 or any other source that resulted in signal loss after being decompressed).  Mainly, though, at the core of it was being honest with one another and supportive of the artists, being sure not to do any trading of officially released material. Furthermore, we always supported the artists by purchasing their official releases and going to their concerts. When I started trading, it was nice to no longer be dependent on bootleggers for my live music fixes, and to know that I was no longer putting money into the wrong people’s pockets. I would occasionally still buy bootlegs, but was comforted in the knowledge that I was taking the hit for my fellow traders, and I would be able to provide the material to other real fans free of charge. In trading lingo, this would be referred to as a “liberated bootleg.” Perhaps it was an “honor amongst thieves” mentality, but we argued that what we were doing was not unethical (Illegal is a whole other thing) and that we engaged in trading because we were true fans.

Memorex discs did not work with my players.
They would usually end up being used as coasters
Trading was almost as much fun as cruising through dusty record store in the Village or Harvard Square. True, there was less effort put into the search, and looking through someone’s list online provided a less tactile type of thrill, but I was blown away by the sheer amount of material that was available. The thrill of getting a padded envelope filled with 6, 8, or sometimes even 12 discs (almost invariably even numbers , as the CD sleeves were double sided) almost made up for the decrease of the joy of the search. I would spend the next week or so listening through to all of the discs, checking them for glitches, rating the performances, and yes, actually enjoying them. I would create artwork for the jewelcases (spending extra time to make particularly elegant packages for exceptional recordings that I knew I would give to friends), put them on the shelf, and move on, revisiting favorites from time to time.

When I got a high-speed internet connection, I found a number of torrent sites (sites which use Bittorrent software to make downloading faster by having a group of hosts upload and download from one another simultaneously)  from which I could obtain lossless. Most of these sites arose out of the old snail-mail trading communities.

The wealth of material available was staggering, and the ease of downloading made me grab things that I would not have otherwise searched out. In fact, it was not long before I found that I was searching less and less for things. I found myself getting to a place where I would see what was newly uploaded and would grab whatever seemed relatively interesting. I became quickly overwhelmed. It was not long before I found myself compulsively downloading things and not listening to them. The idea of wading through my download folder was too exhausting, with the constant additions making it even more daunting a task.

Still, many of the recordings were still of great quality. Often times a show would be posted on a site, only to have other collectors posting their versions of the same concert but from different recording sources, allowing the best version to emerge at the top. Often a better quality recording would emerge of a show that I had obtained year prior and allow me to listen to it with a fresh set of ears. It was enough to get me back to chipping away at the download folder now and again.

That’s the way it’s gone for the last few years. I do feel like I’ve slacked off a bit. When I think back to a decade ago, I am amazed at the amount of work I used to put into finding and hearing music, combing Greenwich Village record stores that carried bootleg vinyl and CDs, usually paying around 25 dollars for a single disc. Even when I did more trading than buying, it was a time consuming process involving sending CDR copies of recordings by mail, fostering relationships with traders, keeping databases of what I had sent out and what I expected back, how long it took for someone to get back to me, who were good traders and who ended up fucking me in the end. Of course, this was my early twenties. This was still at a time when I was known to camp out on the street for concert tickets. I was young. I had time and money (I am not sure why I don’t seem to have either of those anymore). I was as committed a fan as any an artist could hope for.
I still collect. The only bootlegs I actually buy tend to be old vinyl discs of particular historical value.  But even when downloading them, I try not to let them merely languish on a hard drive like many people I know. I still burn them to CD, and though at some point along the way, I did cease to making jewel case art, I continue to make ornate labels printed on the discs to give to friends. Of course, I do this in spite of the fact that I know that when I give these away, the recipients are generally ripping the discs to iTunes and then burying them at the bottom of a drawer or simply throwing them away. Still, it’s a way for me to keeping up some level of effort and engagement while trying to keep it somewhat tactile.
_________________________

I suppose the existence of something like Wolfgang’s Vault shouldn’t bother me. After all, with the torrent sites, it is almost just as easy to get lossless recordings of shows as it is to stream them on the Vault. Perhaps that’s the problem, that the days of the hunt are largely gone. As someone who used to search for these recordings, sometimes overpay for them, and sometimes cajole hoarding traders for them when they would rather sit on them, I cannot help but feel that they have been devalued. And this is admittedly a difficult feat, considering that many of them have been free for years. However, with a website that provides one-stop shopping, taking away all the work, and instantly delivers sonically inferior versions of these recordings, it not hard to see how the value has gone below merely “free” and is now merely “common.”

I understand that the same can, and will be said about recorded music in general. I am one of those people who have long argued that the shift from records, tapes, and CDs to digital downloads and ultimately streaming audio has had a hugely detrimental effect on music fandom and engagement. Legitimate releases have similarly suffered from that shift to intangible formats of decreased quality, which I believe has led, to a great extent, to less deep engagement with individual works being replaced by more superficial listening to a myriad of recordings (I am not arguing that the in depth listening experience has disappeared, particularly not within the group of people who identify themselves as rabid music fans, but I do assert that that kind of listening experience is not as much the norm as it was when tangible music formats dominated). Sites like Spotify allow listeners to stream official releases with the same ease as one can listen to boots on Wolfgang’s Vault.

The reason that Wolfgang’s Vault bothers me more than sites like Spotify, though, is that in the past the people that collected bootleg recordings were like a little club, a community of enthusiastic music fans. Sure, most of the people in the club were geeky, socially awkward fetishists, but we were also informed and engaged. We were constantly exploring, hunting for that holy grail, that unobtainable gem. We were unified by a view that what we got out of music was related to what we put into it. By streaming them, they take quality away from the recordings, but more, they take away half the fun, the joy of the search, the excitement of finding something rare.

Sure, we are still out there, still trying to find the best version of a given show, still trying to find the show that is still lurking in a private collection or warehouse, but for me there is a hint of bitterness that the most casual fan can stream that Who show from Philly in ’73 that I found in a little box in a dank little basement store on Newbury Street. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that music should be exclusive, but I still feel like someone kicked the clubhouse door open and started flooding the place with people who didn’t pay their dues.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

All This and World War II (Get It?)

Another entry into the “What Could Possibly Go Right?” file.

In 1976, a 20th Century Fox released a film called All This and World War II. A collage of World War II footage owned by Fox, it combined newsreel footage, snippets of the studio’s classic movies from that era, and propaganda films or the age. All of this was set to the songs by the Beatles performed by the London Symphony Orchestra with such luminaries as Leo Sayer, David Essex, Frankie Laine, and the Bee Gees.
Again, this was called All This and World War II. (You know, like as in “…and world war, too.”)

Needless to say, the movie was savaged by critics, met with disgust by the public, and was only in theatres for a matter of weeks. It has never been issued on VHS or DVD. You cannot see it on Netflix. 20th Century Fox does not want you to see this movie.

Ludicrous concept aside, it is not well made. The editing is choppy and the juxtapositions between the images and the songs are more often than not, seemingly haphazard. The whole movie feels like a YouTube video put together by a 14 year old Beatlemaniac as an extra credit project for history class. Still, there is an almost adorable naiveté to the project. It is completely un-ironic , with an apparent lack of awareness that anyone could find this concept to be less than brilliant, much less completely offensive. In fact, the only irony is that someone thought that this was a good idea.

The soundtrack, however, did have some success. It spawned a few hit singles and, according to blurbs on Amazon.com, the CD reissue delighted a small group of zealots who grew up on the album. According to the liner notes of the soundtrack album, All This and World War II began as a dream by Russ Regan, the president of 20th Century Records. This seemingly belies the assertion made by some that the filmmakers had originally intended to use the actual Beatles recordings for the movie, as in retrospect, it seems as though the movie was merely an ad for the soundtrack album.

This one will give your kids Peter Gabriel
nightmares
While the movie is a splendidly, ludicrously misguided mess, one can see how the album on its own could have seemed like a sound business decision. It was, after all, lushly recorded set of familiar and beloved songs performed by some of the biggest artists of the day. The double album was elegantly packaged with a gatefold sleeve with slip case, accompanied by a booklet loaded with lyrics and beautiful (if sometimes off-putting) illustrations. While Frankie Laine (who delivers an oddly earnest version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) and Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons were past their peaks in term of popularity, the presence of Bryan Ferry, Elton John, Jeff Lynne, Peter Gabriel, Rod Stewart, and Peter Gabriel lent some credence to the project. Unfortunately, it never feels like they are any more than guest artists, lending their voices for the day.

In fact, the album is really the work of Lou Reizner, the mastermind behind the orchestral production of The Who’s Tommy in 1972 (which was either a travesty or a work of genius, depending on who you ask).  Once again, he sought to re-imagine rock music on a larger, more heroic scale. Instead, the orchestra weighed down the arrangements, providing bombast without grandeur.

The sad thing is that some of these versions could have been good with better arrangements and recordings. Ike and Tina’s earlier cover of “Come Together” is far superior to Tina’s solo version featured here. Rod Stewart’s version of “Get Back” finds him in fine form, but with a stilted and poorly mixed backing track, it merely makes one wonder how great it would have been if it had been recorded with Faces. Peter Gabriel’s version of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which was apparently his earliest released solo recording, is actually interesting as his vocals textures subtly vary throughout the song, but with an uninspired backing track, it does not soar (an interpretation by Genesis might have been life-changing). Also, one has to wonder when listening to the Bee Gees’ cover of “Golden Slumbers” why some of their trademark harmonies weren’t added to the arrangement. It was another one of many missed opportunities.

Still, searching for quality in a project like this should be aside the point. Even when divorced from the bizarre concept that ostensibly led to its creation, the album was a pretty bad idea. It was not too long after this album came out when people realized that it is probably smart to avoid covering the Beatles (probably right around the time of Robert Stigwood’s film of Sgt. Pepper featuring Peter Frampton, The Bee Gees and Aerosmith). One would have to be pretty audacious to think one could do better that the Fab Four.

Still, anything worth doing is worth doing outrageously. If the references to World War II that made the movie so hilariously appalling were present on the album, it would have survived as a cult curiosity. Sadly, with most of the album merely being bombastic without being absurd, it simply is too much cheese and not enough camp. 

This is not to say that there are not some fantastically bad tracks here that almost save this album. Italian singer-songwriter Richard Cocciante’s cover of “Michelle” devolves so quickly from melodrama to hilarious histrionics that it is almost worth the price of admission. The version of “You Never Give Me Your Money” credited to Wil Malone (who did the arrangements and conducted the orchestra) and Reizner himself, is a wonderful example of why some producers should not try to be performers as well. The vocoder effect used on this track makes this one of the most embarrassingly comical on the whole album.

In the end, the results are bad, but not ludicrous, and as I have said in the past (see Empire Jazz), if you are going to do something so misguided, it must be laughably horrible or inexplicably brilliant. Anything in the middle is a failure. Still, there is plenty to hate here and there are more than a couple of choice cuts to irritate your friends with. And that’s kind of a good thing, I guess.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Cavedogs: College Radio Denizens and Kings of the 99 Cent Bin


A little while back I went into a record store and was looking through the racks of used CDs before I unexpectedly crossed the threshold into the 99 cent bin. One second I was looking through discs of The Who, XTC, Yes, and Zappa, and the next I found myself sifting through a number of cutout albums by bands I had never heard of, CD singles by rightly forgotten 90’s artists, and budget compilation CDs (second rate imitations of packages like Now, That’s What I Call Music). I diligently combed through the discs, reasonably sure that I was not going to find anything of any real quality, until I came across an EP by The Cavedogs, entitled Six Tender Moments.

Their 1991 EP, complete with the cutout scar
The Cavedogs, a Boston-based power-pop (if you must label it) trio consisting of guitarist Todd Spahr, drummer Mark Rivers, and bassist Brian Stevens released the EP in 1991 on Capitol Records after the band had left their first label, Enigma. It was a much more rag-tag affair than their albums, comprised of alternate versions of songs from their first album, non-album cuts, and a couple of covers (including a cheeky version of “What’s New, Pussycat?”). Also, with two of the songs being in-studio performances (one from KCRW at Santa Monica College and another from WERS at Emerson College) this EP just has a made for college radio feeling to it.

It was a serendipitous find. I had recently rediscovered the Cavedogs when listening to my iPod on shuffle and the song “Right on the Nail” came on. I hardly remembered the song, from their first album Joyrides for Shut-Ins, and in that moment, I found myself hearing it again for the first time. The song was cryptic, full of attitude, and with a hypnotic melody colored by a sneering vocal delivery, all propelled by frenetic acoustic strumming and the most solid power-pop drumming since Pete Thomas of the Attractions. It compelled me to check out their albums again.

I had not given them a listen since they first came out when I was thirteen. I was not listening to much current music at that time (I don’t think I was listening to any music by any band that wasn’t named The Who). I only bought Joyrides because The Cavedogs were friends of my step-brother, and I had met Todd and Mark a couple of times when he was visiting home on weekends and would drag his friends along. He also had played me tapes of theirs, one with the handwritten title Seven Songs Destined to Change the World (I cannot find anything in their discography by that name, so was either an off the cuff title scribbled on the cassette or merely a product of my unreliable memory) and a tape replicating a radio broadcast with songs interspersed with comedic commercials (à la The Who Sell Out), one of which featured a peanut-chocolate candy bar called “Kick in the Nuts” and the unintended consequences that would occur when it was asked for. I dug their humor and they wrote good songs.

Joyrides for Shut-Ins didn’t find its way into constant rotation at that time, but it was cool knowing guys, even if really only in passing, who had a record out. Their blurb in the “New Faces” section of Rolling Stone in October of 1990 was the first time that anyone I knew personally appeared in those hallowed pages, and I just thought that was so cool. I also remember Spin Magazine giving favorable reviews to Joyrides and its follow-up, the somewhat harder edged Soul Martini. It seemed to everyone that this band’s intelligent and sardonic version of power-pop was going to be huge.

Sadly, it was not be. I can’t say why it never happened for them, and I don’t suppose it matters. I am not going to try to be Bob Lefsetz and lecture on the nearly impossible task of capturing lightning in a bottle (and then selling it), on whether it was a failure in marketing, or whether it was a matter of timing (it is tempting to blame the grunge movement which occurred at the same time for overshadowing many great bands on the east coast). It’s just sad. Not only for the band, but for other people who might have really liked what they were putting across, something that had the energy of the stuff that was coming from Seattle, but never overshadowed their melodic sense or penchant for harmony.

Listening back to their two albums and the EP, I couldn’t say that they didn’t show their age, but I was pleased to find that they had aged well. Their sound was definitely of the era, but it doesn’t sound as dated as many records from that time. I can think of many people my age who would listen to these albums, particularly tracks like “Right on the Nail,” “Tayter Country,” and “Proud Land” from Joyrides and “Here Comes Rosie,” “Boy in a Plastic Bubble,” and “Sonny Day” from Soul Martini, and feel like they were hearing their favorite songs from their teenage years for the first time. It makes me want to tell everyone to go out and buy these records.

A good place to start
Unfortunately, all of their CDs are out of print and, with the exception of one live track on a compilation of 90s Boston bands, none of their music is even available on iTunes. If you want to find their stuff you have to comb the 99 cent bins (I have found used copies of their albums on Amazon.com, all for 99 cents or less). It’s a depressing prospect. Since I started finding Cavedogs CDs in the bins (and all of their discs that I own were bought there, as even my copy of Joyrides is a replacement of my first copy which my brother stole), I now get curious whenever I find an album in there by a band that I don’t know. After all, many of these albums were recorded for major labels, some A&R guy believed in these acts, somebody put some money behind them. Many great bands never get signed and these bands did. How many masterpieces have been dumped in there? (I’m not trying to argue that being signed to a label indicates artistic merit, but it is something to think about.)

The only good thing about their relegation to the bin is that one can buy their whole catalog for a few bucks, and I think that people should. These guys are really worth (re)discovering. Their music was by turns propulsive and lyrical, intelligent and silly, basic and progressive. They had a brand of humor and cynicism that was distinct (and distinctly Bostonian, which may be one of the reasons I latched onto it), an acute pop sensibility, and a way with a hook. Maybe it would be helpful if they made it easier for potential fans by creating a compilation of the best cuts from their albums and EPs and releasing it as a digital download. They could call it The Kings of the 99 Cent Bin. They have a good sense of humor, they might find that cute. Probably not, though.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

An Ode to Ogre

A pretty good movie


Why Revenge of the Nerds Should Be Shown to All of Your Children and Why Revenge of the Nerds II Is a Piece of Shit


A few years ago, I remember hearing talk about a remake of Revenge of the Nerds. This would've been in 2007 or so, definitely during Bush's second term in office. I remember feeling somewhat relieved that it was aborted. After all, I thought, we needed a remake of Revenge of the Nerds like we needed a remake of Ski School, Police Academy, and Up the Creek.
Looking back, I feel a little differently. Revenge of the Nerds was not the standard “snobs vs. slobs” fare. In many ways, the movie mixed around the archetypes considerably. In this case the slobs, who we are intended to root for, are more diverse. For instance, while the character of Booger (portrayed by the grossly underrated Curtis Armstrong) fit easily with a classic archetype of the slobs as seen in Animal House, the classic original “snobs vs. slobs” movie (though I believe the term was actually coined for the movie Caddyshack), with his combination of gross out habits and hedonistic lifestyle, the rest of the group is far more varied. While the nerds are the core of the group, they are joined by several other types of misfits, outcasts due to lack of social skills, awkwardness, or alternative lifestyles. Also, the Alpha-Betas, the “snobs” in Revenge of the Nerds, are not as square as the politically and socially conservative Omegas in Animal House. The Alpha-Betas are popular, but hardly preppy. In fact, in terms of outrageousness in terms of pranks, drunkenness, and hedonism, they would be considered worthy successors of Animal House's Delta’s. Consequently, whereas most of the “snobs vs. slobs” comedies of the early 80s were hollow imitations of Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds offered something else: an uplifting tale of social misfits, ennobled by their persecution, ultimately winning the day with creativity, ingenuity, and by simply having better ideas, including a more open and noble approach to dealing with interpersonal and group differences... and there are a lot of titties in the movie, too.
That's why I think it was upsetting to think that the remake was scrapped, particularly when it was to come out during Bush's second term. I believe it would've turned all of the talk of the “intellectual elite” on its head. Not to get political, but I believe that there has been a dumbing down of our culture, and even a vilification of intellectualism (For further reading, check out Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason) which came to a head during the Bush years. The nerds were not elitists. They were simply not afraid to be themselves, or to pursue their interests, even if it included (gasp) book learning. The Tri-Lams (Nerds’ protagonists) did not try to force their views on anyone, they merely wanted the freedom to be who they were, and for others to have that same freedom. It is for this reason that I believe that I stands apart from most of the other comedies of that genre during the early 80s.

A piece of shit
It is also for this reason that I believe that Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, was a gross insult. In the original film, the nerds’ acceptance was predicated on empathy. The climax of the film featured Gilbert, (portrayed by Anthony Edwards) delivering an impassion speech in which he declared his pride in his individuality, winning his peers over by appealing to their inner misfits. Whereas the climax of Revenge of the Nerds II was predicated on Lewis (Robert Carradine) lowering himself to the level of brutality of the Alpha-Betas, something that he was loathe to do in the first film. When that film’s villain (Roger, played by Bradley Whitford) asserted that it was an undeniable fact that Lewis and the nerds would always be unpopular and weak, and that there was nothing he could say about it, Lewis responded with his fists. Sure, the audience was brought to its feet with the line: “You’re right Roger. There’s nothing I can say about it… But there’s something I gotta do about it!” and Lewis punching the villain and him falling into a swimming pool, but there was something wrong. Whereas Gilbert had won the crowd over with his dignity and truth to himself, Lewis allowed himself to be common, achieving a hollow victory on someone else’s terms.
Worse still is the fate of Ogre (Donald Gibb). Yes, he is an imperfect creature, but I am offended by his conversion to nerd-dom that ends the second movie. What made the nerds beautiful was their refusal to conform, but when Ogre decided that he no longer wished to be associated with the bullying, homogenizing Alpha-Betas, the Tri-Lams decided to mold him in their image. They force him into ill-fitting clothes, tame his wooly hairdo, and put a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, complete with tape in the middle, on his face as if they were branding him. As they lead him off to drink the Kool-Aid (literally, in this case called the “ceremonial punch”) they call him by his given name, Frederick. When he corrects them, expressing his preference for his adopted moniker, Ogre, he is himself corrected by the nerds, who in unison chant “Frederick.” Clearly, according to the nerds, his change of heart means that he must erase all the vestiges of his old personality.
Whereas the nerds in the first movie wanted nothing more than to be able to be true to themselves and pursue their interests without risk of attack or alienation, by the end of the sequel, they had become their own enemies, narrow-minded bullies who force others to conform. For this reason, Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise is a travesty, a mockery of the values of the original film. Also, being rated PG-13, there were far fewer titties.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

You Are Who?


(Ruminations on The Who’s album, Who Are You, Masquerading as a Bootleg Review)


The other day, I was looking through an old hard drive and stumbled across a bootleg album entitled You Are Who?, one of several packages compiling demos and outtakes from The Who’s 1978 album (and final release with Keith Moon), Who Are You. I had no memory of acquiring it. As near as I could figure out, it has been in my possession, unheard, for probably at least two years. I guess the reason for this is the fact that Who Are You is not my favorite Who album. In fact, I was always of the opinion that it was probably the weakest album that the original configuration of that band ever did. Still, I think I always saw something in that album, certain confessional qualities, a feeling of searching in the songs (at least the Pete Townshend compositions) that redeemed, or at least informed, even the weakest songs, even if it did not necessarily mitigate the album’s ponderousness and overproduction. I guess it was that last element that made me want to hear the songs in a more primitive form, stripped of the intrusive horns, the sappy strings, and the all around dense and muddy production.

In retrospect, it is easy to say that the Who had long since peaked by the time Who Are You was released, with their classic albums, Tommy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia, behind them. However. It was only after this time that Townshend stopped relying on the rock opera format to supply his emotional stand-ins to express his turbulent mental states while remaining safely behind the curtain. (It must be recalled that even the hard-driving Who’s Next consisted of songs from the aborted rock opera, Lifehouse.)

With The Who by Numbers in 1975, the songs became more directly autobiographical. On that album, Pete was beginning to candidly deal with the issues of the trappings of success, complete with allusions to personal issues with substance abuse. Between the time of The Who by Numbers and Who Are You, however, it seemed (perhaps only to Pete) that that success was being threatened. Townshend’s songwriting had matured, but as the band got older, he felt he was losing his connection with the rock audience, particularly the younger members. Whereas the fame of the Who was originally predicated on their articulation of the angst and rage of youth, by the late seventies, they were dinosaurs. The only angst that Townshend was articulated by that time was his own.


Townshend’s preoccupation with feelings of alienation, fears of obsolescence, and doubt of his abilities to write music that could connect with the new audience are what make Who Are You a more coherent album than The Who By Numbers. While some may argue that The Who By Numbers is a superior batch of songs, it does not have the focus that Who Are You has. It virtually functions as a concept album in spite of itself, providing a stark image of Townshend dwelling in his own insecurity, able to write about little else. It is notable that Who Are You is the album that relied most on John Entwistle’s contributions (one third of the album was written by John, which is to say three of the nine songs). I am sure that the most ardent fans of the Ox would be (rightly) offended by the assertion that his songs were included because Pete had nothing better to throw in, but on an album in which writer’s block seems to be a running theme, the heavier reliance on John’s songs seems poignant. (In fact, John’s idiosyncratic songs about a futuristic test tube baby, a cynical misanthrope at the end of his rope, and a john visiting a hooker to allay his fears of inadequacy, fit the tone of the album beautifully.)

This seemingly haphazard unity of theme actually results in a more harrowing expression of rock star alienation than a sprawling theatrical work like Pink Floyd’s The Wall. On that album, Roger Waters created a sprawling work that illustrated the growing distance between himself and his fans, which also served to justify his own piggish behavior in the wake of his band’s success (in interviews, Waters claimed that the work was largely a self-examination after an incident at a Floyd concert in which he spat in a rowdy fan’s face). Who Are You, on the other hand, is more direct and less self serving. Instead of a constructed narrative based on themes of alienation, decrepitude, and self doubt, the songs on the album are the direct fruits of those feelings. The fact that some of the songs are weaker offerings, and others are downright embarrassing, provides a feeling of sincerity, a sort of a “warts and all” effect. We are being spared nothing.

This was not entirely true, as the demos reveal. You Are Who? features several demos of songs with themes about romantic difficulties were left off the final album (some for very good reason). “Never Ask Me,” a song about frustration with an uncommunicative lover, manages to be both overwrought and superficial. On “Love Is Wine,” a rather forgettable track, Pete ponderously applies a metaphor of intoxication and addiction to romance, something he would do far more deftly several years later in the song “A Little Is Enough.” “No Road Romance,” a song about the absence of love from casual road sex, illustrates that being wanted by millions of beautiful women causes “only frustration and overload.” While this song would be more at home on the Who Are You album due to its theme of alienation (in this case from Townshend’s own penis), it is too difficult to empathize with the song’s chief complaint, and it feels quite justifiably left out. On the other hand, “I Like It the Way It Is,” a lovely song that weighs contentment against complacency, simply would not fit on the album due to its delicacy. It seemed more to be tailor made for Townshend’s solo albums. Sadly the song would not see the light of day until the demo would be released on Scoop 3, the third collection in the series of albums on which Townshend would later compile many of his demos himself.

Two of the songs on the disc, “Keep on Working” and “Empty Glass” would end up not on Who Are You, but would instead be featured on Townshend’s next offering, his solo album for which the latter would end up being the title track. The song “Empty Glass” seems to be particularly well suited to Roger Daltrey’s vocal range and style, and its inclusion on this set (as well as another version as a bonus track on the 1996 remastered CD) make one wonder what a full Who recording would have sounded like, and why it was left off.

Daltrey and Townshend in the late 70's.
Mainly, however, the set is illumining for the differences between the demos and their completed versions on the albums. In fact, some of the demos are more palatable due to the fact that they are not weighed down by excessive horn parts or saccharine string sections. However, the main difference is hearing the character of a song as sung by Pete on its demo, and its subsequent interpretation by Roger on the album. By the late seventies, Townshend’s voice had become stronger and more expressive, but still had a more raw quality that was well suited to conveying the ambiguous and complicated thoughts and emotions that had come to be the cornerstone of Townshend’s songwriting. Daltrey’s voice had become stronger as well. As a matter of fact, I would propose that it was the strongest that it ever had been, or would be. Live footage from that time finds Roger having final discovered how to harness and control of his vocals without any loss of expression. His voice had all the richness, depth, and aggression that it always had, but had become a more reliable instrument, with fewer cracks and bum notes. However, even while Daltrey was arguably at his peak, his voice had always been better suited for putting across the melodramatic, operatic narratives, such as Tommy and Quadrophenia. With the new, more personal direction of the songwriting, Townshend was proving to often be his own best interpreter, often much more nuanced, if less powerful.

For example, on Who Are You’s opening track, “New Song,” a confident Daltrey sounds defiant and cynical about the fact that he’s “writing the same old song with a few new lines, and everybody wants to hear it.” Daltrey seems to be looking down his nose at his audience that is too dumb or blind to know the difference. On the demo version, Townshend sounds more anxious, wondering how long he can get away with this cheap trick, all the while feeling sad for himself and his audience. His fear of “plagiarizing something old,” which, in this case, seems to be less about stealing someone else’s melodies or lyrics than it is about stealing old themes and emotions from his younger self, resonates more fully.

Pete’s more vulnerable voice comes close to saving a couple of the albums weaker songs. “Love Is Coming Down on Me” is still intense and somewhat overwrought, but more palatable with Pete singing and using synthesizers in place of a string section. To be sure, the song’s final version is a masterpiece of emotional, theatrical bombast, if you like that sort of thing.

The demo version of “Guitar and Pen” only hints at the corny theatricality that pervades the final recording. However, this song, which sounds like an outtake from a Stephen Sondheim musical, is essentially unsalvageable due to its subject matter: writing about writing. It plays like a scene from a Broadway musical about the Who. It is easy to imagine the scene where a young Pete is sitting on his bed and being serenaded by the future version of himself urging him to express his teenage angst in song. It seems like self congratulatory roadkill that would be a truly insulting offering were it not for the fact that its placement on the Who Are You album gives the song a feeling of self delusion, Townshend outwardly celebrating his genius when he himself doubted it. His writer’s block had gotten so intense that he had nothing else to write about but memories of when he had things to write about.

The demo for “Music Must Change” is less illuminating. In this case, the rawness of Townshend’s vocals reveals little. Instead of expressing a different emotional take on the song, here it is simply one of the many unpolished elements of the recording. Unfortunately, while Roger gave a fine and nuanced reading of the song for the album, even that version has an unfinished feeling to it as well. This was largely due to the lack of a drum track. Whether it was due to an atrophying of Keith Moon’s drumming abilities, or simply a lack of facility in uncommon time signatures (in this case, anything other than 4/4), Keith was unable to play the song. Sadly, the jazz-tinged song only came into its own after Moon died, when it was played live with the unfairly maligned Kenney Jones behind the kit. At that time, it became a highlight of the Who’s live set, whereas it seems like a footnote on the album. In spite of this, the song’s lyrics are central to the album’s theme. The song addresses the need for a new direction in popular music, but Townshend, as a member of what had become the old guard, had to question if he had the ability or credibility to find that direction. Though he is as frustrated that music had become stuck in the mold that he helped to create, he realizes that the music scene was “chewing a bone,” still trying to get milk from the teats of dinosaurs who refuse to die and fossilize. He also acknowledges that “the high has to come from the low,” that the new music will more likely come from the younger generation, not yet spoiled by success.

Pete with Paul Cook and Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols
the night on which the events described in "Who Are You"
transpired.
Listening to the demo for the album’s title song, it is surprising how much of the final track is built around Pete’s demo. While it was nothing new for the Who to use a synthesizer track from Pete’s demos as the basis for a song, it was odd to hear how many other elements carried over as well. The signature backing vocals and the marvelous acoustic guitar solo were both originally found on Pete’s home recording. The rest of the band were then brought in to overdub and polish what seemed to be an already completed arrangement. Once again, the major difference was Daltrey. On this track, his power and defiance were in contrast with Townshend’s seemingly drunken combination of belligerence and self-loathing. However, whereas Townshend’s delivery seems more true to the lyrics, Daltrey’s compelling delivery prevents the song from degenerating into depressed nihilism.

The disc is filled out with some tracks taken from the soundtrack of the film The Kids Are Alright, including a powerful version of “Who Are You.” Unfortunately, as old video tapes of the film had pitch problems, the song sounds sped up here as well. A curious addition is a song called “Peppermint Lump,” credited to an eleven year old girl named “Angie,” which was arranged and produced by Pete, who also played rhythm guitar on the track. The song, which the record label described as “a blatent attempt to corner the preteen and postpunk singles buyers,” is completely out of place here, but as a footnote in Pete Townshend’s career, I guess I’m glad it’s available somewhere.

You Are Who? is surely not essential listening. I would not have not even bothered if I were not a rabid Who fan, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who has less than an insane obsession with the group. However, listening to it was an enlightening experience if only for the fact that it resulted in me listening deeper to the Who Are You album with a more open and critical ear. Hearing the origins of the songs on that album side by side with songs that didn’t make the cut gave me a much more specific emotional context in which to place the finished work. Ultimately, this gave me a much deeper respect for an album which I had largely dismissed for many years. I will not try to argue that Who Are You equals or surpasses the albums of the band’s heyday, but I will say that it does have considerable depth, and that Pete’s forthright treatment of his own uncertainties make it extremely compelling and a rewarding listening experience for people willing to listen with a more sensitive ear. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Love, Hate, and Don Henley

The other day, I bought a copy of Don Henley’s album Building the Perfect Beast. I found a copy of the CD in a junk shop. The booklet was mangled and the jewel case was cracked, but the disc was pretty clean and so I bought it anyway. Later that day, at another junk shop, I bought a copy of the LP. You see, then I would have a copy of the LP to keep on the shelf and the beat up CD to rip to my iPod and then give to a friend when I was done with it.  Normally this would seem like rather strange and obsessive fan behavior. But as I am someone who has been effusive about my hatred of the Eagles and Don Henley, I realize that it is just downright odd.
My hatred for the Eagles is not because I think that they are untalented. Quite the contrary. It is pretty much accepted that these guys were excellent musicians, good singers, and gifted songwriters. Skill, however, is different than art, and it is the fact that they used these skills in such a blatantly commercial way, apparently aiming to make a musical product that would please everyone, which taints their success in my eyes. The mellow, middle-brow pandering that pervades their music even diminishes their occasional success when they actually would create something that was nearly universally pleasing.
Thus, the Eagles created a body of work that spoke to everyone on a superficial level. They speak to a larger group, but not very deeply. I have never met anyone who said that the Eagles were their favorite band, but I have met countless people who rank them as their second or third favorite. They simply do not arouse passion. Indeed, it has been argued that the early 70s were an era in which much of the music, from the Carpenters to James Taylor, deliberately provided a gentler soundscape to counter the turbulence of the times. Still, mellow is one thing, tepid is another.
To be sure, I take no joy from hating the Eagles. Even the backlash against them is tepid. Sure, when you mention the Eagles to people my age (or a bit younger), often you’ll hear the quote from the Big Lebowski: “I’ve had a hard day and I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man!” But they don’t say it with feeling. I’ve never met anyone for whom the Eagles were their most hated band, either.
My feelings about Don Henley are a bit more intense.  I find him to be the most reprehensible member of that outfit. I certainly do not harbor the same disgust for Joe Walsh (latecomer to the group that he was), and his records with the James Gang get frequent spins on my turntable. I don’t even have the same disdain for Glenn Frey, whose influence in the band was perhaps equal to Henley’s. It could be in part because Don Henley has been the most successful and the most visible of the Eagles since their breakup. I think the bigger reason, however, is that he has provided us with the most unflattering caricature of the aging baby boomer rock star in all of its ugliness. His vaguely cynical demeanor, the graying ponytail, and what many consider to be his pretentious but dilettantish dabbling with social and environmental causes, simply rub me the wrong way. (I understand that, in fact, his dedication to these issues is very intense and sincere with his Walden Woods Project representing a huge commitment of time and energy. The successes and unexpected negative consequences of his involvement in these movements have been expounded on more thoroughly by David S. Meyer and Joshua Gamson in their paper, The Challenge of Cultural Elites: Celebrities and Social Movements*. At any rate, this is supposed to be a rant, not intellectual discourse.)  
So why did I buy the album? I bought it for “Boys of Summer.” It’s a damn good song. It is a song that that is moody but driving, fresh but classic, cynical but sentimental. It is a true classic and I love it with every fiber of my being. Consequently, I have conflicted feelings considering how much the song speaks to me and who it is that’s speaking.
Given Henley and the Eagles’ tendency to aim for the middle, the fact that “Boys of Summer” speaks to me should be no big achievement. It speaks to a lot of people. However, as I have already established that this kind of deliberate universality is actually a detriment in my eyes, it is a bit strange, But what is stranger is that the song spoke to me as a boy of seven, when the sentiments of the song were clearly aimed at baby boomers finding their first gray hairs.
Maybe the song just caught me at the right moment. I first knew the song from the bleakly beautiful video on MTV. By the time that video came out, MTV had already been priming me to be neurotic and melancholy (MTV came on when I four, and when other kids my age were making the move from Sesame Street to The Electric Company, instead I went right from Big Bird and Grover to Martha Quinn and Mark Goodman). My favorite videos from the year before were “Overkill” by Men at Work, “Synchronicity II” by the Police, and “Mama” by Genesis, all songs about alienation, desolation and despair. In retrospect, this was odd fodder for a six year old. I’m not sure if I was affected by this or if I was predisposed to be drawn to these things. That’s something to work out with my therapist, I suppose.
Perhaps the song is unique in Henley’s catalog as illustrating an actual unguarded moment, a truly introspective flash of yearning and nostalgia for halcyon days, ruing the loss of love and ideals, all brought to mind by the momentary espying of “a dead-head sticker on a Cadillac.” It is hard for me to ever think of Henley as being unguarded, though. Perhaps  the song resonates for me because,  growing up with MTV, on which the imagery was either plastic and nihilistic, or bleak and disturbed, it was nice to see that there was once a golden moment to back at longingly, even if I couldn’t remember one for myself.
Or maybe it’s just a good song. In spite of my other reservations about Henley, the fact is that he is a talented musician and songsmith who picks his collaborators well (Mike Campbell, Tom Petty’s secret weapon, co-wrote the song and played its haunting guitar parts). In this case he was able to create something with an atmosphere and a mood which could speak to universal emotions without having to rely on shared experiences. I guess I should try to stop analyzing it and just admit the power of the melody and performances were enough to teach a young boy, too young for nostalgia, how to be wistful.

*Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 65, No. 2, May 1995:181-206

Friday, July 6, 2012

Stanley Clarke & George Duke, B.B. King's 6/26/12


The Stanley Clarke / George Duke show on June 26th at B.B. King’s, part of the Blue Note Jazz Festival, was a long awaited reunion of two jazz-funk legends, a sterling example of how an old catalog can be reinvigorated with pure, in the moment playing, and a complete shit show.

I have been a fan of George Duke since first hearing his playing on The Mothers’ Overnite Sensation album and I got turned onto Stanley Clarke in college when I first started listening to Return to Forever. I latched onto their solo works and other collaborations later, and loved the ability that both shared to marry jazz, Latin, R&B and even disco into a funky, kinetic hybrid. Obviously I would have preferred my first time seeing them to be the best example of their current live sets, the best of what they have to offer today, instead of making the best out of a bad situation, trying to play the best possible set while dealing with pervasive sound issues. Well, shit, I guess that’s live music for you.

Clearly, the intended show was a greatest hits show, playing through jazz-funk classics from their solo albums of the 1970s (aside from the R&B hit “Pretty Baby,” they largely eschewed material from the duo’s collaborative albums from the 80s) laying down energetic, stretched out versions of classics like Stanley’s “Silly Putty” and “School Days” and George’s “Brazilian Love Affair” even throwing in a bit of Zappa.  

Often at shows like these, it is inevitable that the mind will jump to unfavorable comparisons with the artists’ former selves, playing with less agility and fire than during their glory years. As George began singing “Brazilian Love Affair,” I could not help but notice that his vocals, an octave down from the falsetto line he sang on the original album, did not cut through the arrangement very well. However, when he began his piano solo, the intense, funky lyricism laid to rest any suspicions of lost chops.

George first whipped out the old Keytar during “Silly Putty,” and though I generally disapprove of emulating guitar lines in that fashion, George’s facility with the instrument made him one of the only people today who can play it without looking like a schmuck (apologies to Donald Fagen).

The sound issues had became evident almost immediately with a clipping sound becoming pervasive by the middle of the first song. When drummer Henry McAdams took an extended solo, it was obvious that the purpose was to fill time and try to isolate the issue in the channels of the other instruments even before the house lights started going up and down and the engineers started roaming the stage.

At this point, their acoustic performance of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” served several major purposes in the scheme of the show. It gave both musicians a platform to show off their chops and pure musicality without the frills of the technology with which both had done such pioneering work. Also, for those members of the audience who wore out the grooves on their copies of School Days and Reach For It in the late seventies, but were unaware of their earlier work with Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz and Chick Corea, it firmly established their presence in the pantheon of jazz musicians and their roots in its tradition. For the sound guys, it provided a chance to change out second keyboardist Bobby Sparks’ main keyboard in hopes of isolating the source of the clipping sound. The chaos happening at the back of the stage, however, did not distract from the intricate but fluid interplay between these two masters.

After this the sound issues seemed to be a bit more under control, if not fixed. The rest of the show featured the duo displaying the best and worst of their talents and excesses. Stanley showed how he could still play funky lines better than most young lions while occasionally being so percussive that the notes would disappear. George displayed both his masterful playing and his mastery of the technology and the ability to give human qualities to electronic instruments. It still sounded strange when he applied pitch bend to the acoustic piano patch on his keyboard. In the end, though, it’s easy to forgive such eccentricities when the moments that lead to a roll of the eyes or quizzically raised eyebrow are so outweighed by the moments that inspire pure awe.

Basically, these guys are just really funkin’ good at what they do (pardon the pun, but I felt it was necessary).

It was uncertain whether they would end the show with one of George’s songs or one of Stanley’s (but the fact that they had already played “School Days”, arguably Stanley’s biggest cut, tipped the scales in George’s favor), and the intro simply confused the issue. Recalling “Space Lady” (the old Cobham/Duke Band piece featuring George accompanying a psychedelic/sci-fi story with odd textures on his keyboards), George began reciting in a low voice: “Many moons ago…”

Unfortunately, the old sound issues gave way to new ones, and the desired effects apparently were not backing him up. He kept repeating the phrase “many moons ago,” each time hoping that things would fall into place before eventually declaring with a laugh: “It was working at sound check.”

They promptly aborted the introduction and jumped right into George’s classic (although with its mix of P-Funk grooves with James Brown clichés, quite derivative) rave-up, “Reach for It.” With this they got the largely post-baby boomer crowd screaming along, if not on its feet.

Hopefully, the late show fared better, with the sound problems proving to be less of a hindrance. However, the band appeared, at least, to take the issues in stride and just play with that mix of tight discipline, loose spontaneity, and plain stinky funk that they are known for. This may not have been their most exemplary show, but I’d rather see this than the best show by a lesser group.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Empire Jazz: What Could Possibly Go Right?


I was quickly flipping through the recent arrivals of used vinyl at Generation Records when I came across a odd little gem that I had never heard of before: Empire Jazz, music from The Empire Strikes Back arranged by the legendary bassist Ron Carter and featuring Bob James on piano, Billy Cobham on drums, and Hubert Laws on flute (among others). I was intrigued. It was a horrible concept with an even worse cover (is Darth Vader drinking cosmos?). How could something made by this group possibly be as bad as it looked like it was going to be?

It was a steal at $5.99. I told everyone I encountered on my way home that I had found the “best-worst jazz album” of all time, and showed them the cover as evidence. What was this thing going to sound like? The presence of Bob James made me think smooth. I was surprised to see that he would not be playing any electric piano.  Billy Cobham made me think that maybe the album might have a bit more energy behind it, though.  The album was released on RSO records, not Ron Carter’s usual label, but, in fact, the label that issued the all the Star Wars soundtracks. Was this album his idea or a commission job or sorts? Would this end up being one of my crazy guilt pleasures or utter shit? Arriving home after midnight, I was irked that I would have to wait until morning to find out, lest I inspire the wrath of my neighbors. They don’t know good music when they hear it.

The next morning, while sipping my coffee, trying to wake up just enough to fully appreciate the album, I checked out Amazon.com. I found that this album was never released on CD, nor is it available as a download. Not a great sign, but hey, a lot of great music is out of print. Besides, some guy thought enough of it to call it a collector’s item and is asking fifty bucks for it. Just think, I got it almost 90% off.

After the second cup of coffee I felt ready.

The album begins with a straight forward outline of classic "Imperial March" arranged for the small horn wind ensemble before breaking down into a series of competent solos and all too brief moments of real swinging. Mock film-noir music meets cocktail jazz.  Hubert Laws does a fine flute solo which almost threatens to take the piece into the stratosphere but is shot down prematurely. Billy Cobham’s subsequent drum solo became evidence of the lifelessness of the recording, with the normally dynamic and fiery player sounding like his kit was set up in a shoe box.  Overall, not a good start.

However, the bossa-nova, lounge take on the "Asteroid Field" has just enough schmaltz dripping off it to bring a smile to my face from the opening notes. As the track goes on, the solos reveal the impeccable musicianship that make this track a bit more than merely an exercise in swankiness. Though the theme, based around the powerful cascading melodies that accompanied the Millennium Falcon’s pursuit by Empirical T.I.E. fighters through (you guessed it) an asteroid field, is one of my favorites in the movie, it is sadly not recognizable or iconic enough to give the track the appropriate kitsch factor. Still, it is the most enjoyable piece on the album.

At this point, looking at the track list, I indeed noticed that the pieces are (aside from the "Imperial March") arrangements of less instantly recognizable bits of scoring. Evidently, Carter was not trying to do a winking, ironic twist on a pop-culture phenomenon. There was not even a take on the epic title theme (perhaps he was only allowed to do music from The Empire Strike Back and not the first movie). Maybe he was simply arranging and repurposing movie music as a vehicle for jazz. Nothing new, I guess. How is it any different from Dave Brubeck’s Dave Digs Disney?

Side 2 begins well enough. "Han and Leia’s Theme" opens with some beautiful and elegant acoustic piano playing by Bob James (a man well known for beautiful and elegant, if not terribly ballsy, playing) before Ron Carter’s bass enters into the conversation. The horns, arranged with just the appropriate amount of dissonance added to arrangement, are used sparingly enough to add color without wearing out their welcome.

"Lando’s Theme", while lovely when played by an orchestra, seems too boring when set up by this jazz ensemble, and fortunately the melody is abandoned immediately in favor of the soloists. Still, it sounds hopeless dated (even more than the rest of the album), sounding like soundtrack music to a 1970’s romantic comedy about neurotic urbanites. Much the same could be said of "Yoda’s Theme", the album’s closer. While the melody is one of the most lyrical and sensitive in the movie, it does nothing here. More cocktail jazz. I suppose that I should have taken the cover as a warning, but I really expected more from an ensemble of this caliber.

Yeah, I suppose this album is justifiably out of print. The problem is clearly not a lack of good musicianship, and the lifeless recording isn’t it either. It’s not even the fact that the album feels like a grab for a quick buck or a joke that the creators weren’t in on. Sure, part of it could be blamed on the fact that 1980 was terrible time for jazz when a neutered version of traditional jazz was emerging in response to the excesses of fusion. However, if all of these things came together perfectly, it could have created an album so spectacularly horrible that it would be an underground classic. Sadly, the actual results are just below mediocre, at least for this crew. Much like my copy of The Best of Marcel Marceau, this is an album I will keep on my shelf to show to friends, but will probably never play it for them. The fact is, the cover aside, the album largely eschews kitsch without making up for it with quality. Though there are a couple enjoyable cuts, they are not likely to end up getting a lot of play. If it was just a little worse, it would have earned a few novelty spins, but hey, I suppose you can’t lose them all.



For the curious, here is a link to "The Asteroid Field" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVnqF_YFDdg