Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Drums: iTunes Festival: London 2010

Originally published by PopMatters on August 6, 2010

The Drums, like so many American indie acts before them, are infinitely more popular in the UK than in America. That’s not to say, for example, that they’re not capable of selling out mid-sized venues in max-size college towns across this country. But as they sound not entirely unlike Haircut 100 and look not entirely unlike Orange Juice, it makes sense that they’d strike gold across the pond.

This release, then, sees the Drums performing in their foppish holy land, before an iTunes Festival crowd in London who are at least thrilled to know someone in Brooklyn once bought a Joy Division album. Even when they had barely released any material at all, the Drums were still caught up in Britain’s unyielding hype machine, one which has in the past tried to sell the world on everyone from Menswe@r to S*M*A*S*H. Though it’s no fault of the band itself, it is through this lens one is forced to consider the Drums. 

One certainly can’t accuse the Drums of lacking energy. Jonathan Pierce’s vocals are a suitable mix of Ian McCulloch bravado and the charming limitations of early Bono range. The music is often deceptively slight, easy to dismiss as a buried track from the soundtrack to a second-tier, mid-career John Hughes flick. But then you realize you’re tapping your toes to songs like “Book of Stories”, and you feel like you ought to be ashamed, even though you actually aren’t at all.

Curse the Drums, if you will, for reintroducing a whistled refrain far too soon after we’d finally buried the monstrous “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn and John from our collective consciousness. Also praise them, though, not just for making the cheap ploy work in “Let’s Go Surfing”, but for not making you want to strangle whoever programmed the loop on which it sits far too comfortably on this live recording.

Where the Drums’ iTunes Festival recording ultimately stumbles is where their studio recordings also come up short: Before long, it’s all a bit samey. It’s like finding a fancy box of chocolates only to find they’re pretty much the same damn piece over and over again, only maybe instead of almonds, it’s suddenly peanuts or cashews or almonds in slightly smaller bits. That’s something of a shame, as one of the band’s best unheralded songs, “Forever and Ever Amen”, closes out the set in grand fashion. It’s good, but maybe not good enough to make it or any of its brethren stand out all that much.

It’s too early to dismiss the Drums, especially as a live concern; even on an audio recording, it’s clear the band and their fans are having an absolute blast. But it’s also much too early to assume they’re in it for the long haul. See them while you can, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself unable to focus all the way through.

6 out of 10

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Los Campesinos!: All's Well That Ends EP

Originally published by PopMatters on July 30, 2010

With the departure of original drummer Ollie Campesinos! under hazy circumstances, it’s tempting to believe this four song EP is something of a goodbye. The music is low key, a comparative solemn whisper when held up against the band’s previous output. It’s called All’s Well That Ends, which can’t help.

A recent blog post by the band indicates otherwise, of course. These four re-worked tracks from their recent album, Romance Is Boring are merely a pause while Los Campesinos! considers its next move.

No one could ever accuse Los Campesinos! of sitting still. The prolific band released a pair of albums in a single year, another one year later and maybe ten thousand EPs, singles and random tracks which if nothing else show the merits of collectively focused ADD. And they’re all pretty good, especially if fey indie pop delivered wryly is your thing.

On paper it seems an odd notion. Los Campesinos! so often feels as though they’re fueled by amphetamines chased down with double espressos, so it’s difficult to imagine what might happen when the buzz wears off. All’s Well That Ends is what happens, a brief but alluring collection which shows there’s more to the band’s appeal than pure, unbridled energy.

As a frontman, Gareth Campesinos! has always come off like a snotty parochial schoolboy, a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together from the most irritating pieces of all the kids from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Only he makes it work.

Keeping that image in mind on the EP’s opening track, “Romance is Boring (Princess Version)”, Gareth’s voice is nearly a whisper, as though heard from just outside a fourth floor bedroom as he plots some sadistic scheme. Midway through the number, though, and the whole thing nearly comes undone. The band, acoustic and stripped down, don’t know what to do with themselves. It’s as though they tossed the version off without considering what might happen when it all gets crazy.

Much more successful is “Letters From Me to Charlotte (RSVP)”, which lends itself well to the contemplative pace, the soft harmonies offsetting the harsh verses, the fiddle. “Straight in at 101/It’s Never Enough” works as well, pretty much for the same reasons, plus its awkward heavy petting and frustrated inner monologue may actually work even better than in its electrified album version.

“(All’s Well That Ends) In Medias Res” proves a more than worthy finish, with piano joining the fiddle and harmonies. Where Los Campesinos!’ warmth ordinarily comes from mania, here it’s based in sincerity. It’s a lovely surprise, one which gently erases the EP’s early misstep and brings it all together.

7 out of 10

The Post-Punk Pendulum or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Labels

Originally published by PopMatters on March 3, 2010

I hate labels.

I’m not one of those elitist music nerds who believes music shouldn’t be diluted into genres, because I’ve actually found that to be helpful. No, I hate labels because I’m absolutely terrible at figuring them out. Otherwise, I actually kind of love labels.

Witness, for example, a genre called post-punk. If the name is meant to be taken at face value, it’s reasonable to assume it’s the music that followed in the demise of the mid-‘70s punk movement. But there has to be more to it than that, obviously, because there was an awful lot of music released after 1978, and I’m almost positive “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb is something altogether different than Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It”, which is one of the identified genre’s most identifiable tracks.
But there’s much more to it than a seamless blend of punk posturing in discotheques, as Simon Reynolds tried terribly hard to illustrate in his obsessively detailed but sometimes frustrating book, Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984. So many bands, and so many of them doing so many different things. Are the Buzzcocks really a post-punk band? Are Talking Heads or Joy Division? Is Television, who probably had more in common with the artistic pretense of Wire than with some of their Bowery brethren, a punk band, post-punk or some other genre altogether? And what of the whole Two-Tone movement? Is that ska, or is there room under the post-punk umbrella for the Specials and Madness as well?

Clearly none of this really matters, especially if you’re like me and you prefer to take bands on a case-by-case basis. I can’t say definitively I like post-punk music, because there are bands I love who might meet the specifications, and there are also bands I don’t.

Where labeling music comes in handy is in drawing comparisons, especially in the digital age when it’s far simpler to discover whether you’re really going to enjoy something before actually spending your money on it. Artists frequently stream entire albums in advance of their official drop date, and even after it’s out, one can always sample bits and pieces on file-sharing services like iTunes. And, let’s face it, there’s a whole lot of grey area stuff happening out there, too. Music leaks like the bathroom sink in two consecutive Manhattan apartments a friend of mine has lived in.

Which is why I think it’s okay when someone tells me that if I like those first two Public Image Ltd. albums, the Pop Group’s debut might be right up my alley. In this case it actually wasn’t, at least not most of it, which I found shrill and unapproachable.

There are two great things that can come out of genre labels. The first is the revival, which in recent post-punk memory brought forth rather excellent initial salvos by Franz Ferdinand and the Futureheads. Bloc Party’s early stuff wasn’t too bad either, come to think of it.

And while Wayne Coyne expressed his disdain for the whole retro post-punk thing a few years ago, it’s possible it’s still actually happening, what with the precision rhythms and angular guitars of Foals or Fool’s Gold. And maybe Vampire Weekend are also part of that scene, even though it’s also lot of blue-eyed Afrobeat happening. And don’t get me started on how much I love the Afrobeat label.

Which actually brings me to the second thing I love about labels. There are so many musical avenues to stroll down, and for a rabid muso geek like myself, it’s too easy to fawn over a few artists and miss the bigger picture. Which is how I was a Gang of Four fan from my early teen years, but Josef K escaped me altogether until a few years ago when my buddy Carl said, “Hey, you like this that and the other? Well, dig this, friend!”

At the time, I devoured the two tracks he’d directed me to—“Radio Drill Time” and especially “Sorry For Laughing” (which I’d heard covered by Propaganda years earlier without even realizing it)—and moved on to something else. And then I recently found myself looking at the sharp haircuts and sleek style of the Drums, and that led me back for some weird reason to Josef K, and I finally realized I needed to hear a bit more. And so I downloaded their excellent compilation, Entomology, and found myself hearing music that was 30 years old with fresh ears. And if there’s anything that seems to connect post-punk more than any other quality, it’s that it makes me want to dance. And I absolutely hate dancing.

I’m using post-punk as a single example, but that phenomenon happens to me all the time. I’d seen the remastered West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band CD’s in San Francisco’s Amoeba Records for years, but it wasn’t until a few months ago I finally got around to listening. And it blew my mind, which is kinda gross but also a lot of fun.

And I guess that’s why I’m okay with labeling music. It may mess things up for people who don’t take the time to figure shit out, but I’m too enthusiastic about music for that. I love being pulled in different directions by music, even if it’s all meant to mean the same thing.

Neil Innes on Tour - A Legend That Will Last a Lunchtime

Originally published by PopMatters on April 29, 2010

You may know Neil Innes’ name, or perhaps some of the seemingly endless list of classic music, film and television pies he’s had his talented fingers in over the decades. But he’s by no means a celebrity, and that’s perfectly alright with him.

“There’s no hysteria, there’s no Innes-mania out there,” said Innes. “And that’s good, because I can’t stand all that. I’m not really a show business creature. I want it all. I love playing with all the toys, I love filming, I love playing with musicians, but the fame thing I just can’t hack at all.”

Innes was speaking prior to his Tuesday night one-man show at B.B. King in the heart of Times Square, nearly at the midway point of a tour which sees him mixing favorites from his work with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Monty Python and the Rutles with new material that shows he’s still got the innate knack for a clever turn of phrase and melody. The performance thrilled a crowd which included Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová of Swell Season, with the former in stitches and the latter bobbing her head while wearing an Innes t-shirt throughout.

Innes is in no danger of losing his steam, both because he claims to be attacking his career with vim, vigor and vitality, and also as his work sees him picking up new fans every single day. My daughter, who recently fell in love with the Rutles and subsequently added various Innes-associated songs to her iPod, made me swear to tell the man who brought Ron Nasty to life she said hello. And even Innes’ own family is on board.

“My grandchildren quite approve of what I do,” he said. “I have immature themes like blowing raspberries, you know.”

For the duration of our interview, Innes was generous both with his time and memories, starting the story, fittingly, where the music all began.

“It was kind of thrust upon me at the age of seven,” he said. “I expressed an interest in the piano, and they got me some piano lessons. I lived in Germany, because my father was in the army after the war. I had a German piano teacher who was the most gentle-voiced German you’ll ever meet. He wasn’t brutal at all.”

Innes’ musical education took a comparatively complex turn early on, as you young boy was asked to do something that would soon become de rigueur. 

“The day came when I had to do something different with my left hand than my right hand, and at the age of seven I held myself up to my most pompous height and declared it was impossible,” Innes recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, Neil, I think if you’ll observe what I’m doing now, you will see that it is not impossible.’ And he did something different with his left hand than his right hand, and I knew that I was wrong. The challenge was down.

Innes continued playing music, though in his early teens realized he was on a course of learning that wasn’t likely to ever end, which as with so many who’ve stumbled their way into rock & roll, led to the guitar.

“I suddenly said, ‘Who am I working for?’ Every time I’d finish a piece, they’d give me a harder one,” he said. “I rebelled and taught myself the guitar and fiddled around with that.”

Innes attended Goldsmith’s School of Art in the mid-’60s, a fortuitous choice which would ultimately determine the course of both his professional and personal life. He met his wife, Yvonne, there, and the couple recently celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary. And Innes also met the fellow musicians with whom he’d share his first heady taste of musical success: The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (changed from the Bonzo Dog Dada Band, eventually becoming the Bonzo Dog Band, and affectionately referred to in this interview by Innes as simply, the Bonzos.)

The Bonzos, who also included Vivian Stanshall, Rodney “Rhino” Desborough Slater, Roger Ruskin Spear and “Legs” Larry Smith, were something of an anomaly in London, mixing avant garde and traditional jazz, wry humor, music hall and rock & roll. Somehow, they managed to tap into something special, first among their fellow art students, and then to an exponentially increasing fan base which grew to include some of the music’s most legendary names. But first, the relatively humble beginnings…

“We used to play at the college every Tuesday night just for fun, and then we realized we could probably play at a pub and get some money by passing the hat around,” Innes said. “And it became immensely successful, which it shouldn’t have done, because musically it was a terrible racket. It must have been good drinking music.”

The clear joy in chaos the Bonzos felt on stage was just a small part of what was happening all across the city at the time.

“Swinging London,” Innes recalled. “It was a great time to be young. And I think we actually kind of knew that at the time. Everybody was off on a similar confident vibe. We’d just been through a World War, and it was possible to do something about it, to cheer you parents up, who hadn’t had any kind of counseling. They’d gone through hell. I don’t think we were as cool as some of the later generations were to their parents, because they kind of half understood what they’d gone through. Just growing your hair and playing Beat music was enough of a thing to shock them. You know, we didn’t want to shock them too much. It was a good time. Economically it was good. My generation only missed National Service by a year or two. So we were at college or leaving college, and it wasn’t a question of finding a job; any job will do. Just how lucky can you get as a generation?”

It was during a long stretch of short stays in everywhere from small towns to big cities across the country that the Bonzos first found themselves on the radar of the Beatles, who would eventually cast them to perform in the Magical Mystery Tour film.

“The Bonzos were on the road, and we kept bumping into a group called the Scaffold, who weren’t really musical as such, they were more a revue and poetry group,” Innes said. “It was Roger McGough, who is a well known poet in the UK, anyway. One of the members was Mike McCartney, going out as Mike McGear, and he was Paul’s brother. When Magical Mystery Tour came up, the Beatles already used to come and see us because we were sort of the darlings of the hit parade. All the people who wanted to muck about, but couldn’t. Most musicians have a great sense of humor, and so they’d crack up and come see the Bonzos. When Mike suggested to Paul, ‘Get that daft band in there,’ he thought it was a good idea. We couldn’t go on the bus, because we were too busy, so we just did one day’s filming in the strip club, and we did ‘Death Cab for Cutie’ from the Gorilla album.”

Innes’ show on Tuesday was filled with similar memories from across the span of his career, including an earlier Bonzos moment when the band was recording their debut at Abbey Road. Innes wandered down the long, narrow hallway which separated the studios and heard the Beatles recording the distinct piano line from George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You,” one of three the guitarist wrote for 1966’ Revolver.

“Oh, right,” Innes remembered thinking. “They record here, too.”

Later, when the Bonzos and Beatles’ paths crossed, there was a sense of respect and camaraderie between the two.

“They’d all heard the album, and were very excited about it,” Innes said. “We felt, you know, like contemporaries. Of course they were the magic Beatles, but they weren’t at all snobby with it. They were funny guys.”

Around that time, the Bonzos’ path also crossed with another group, one which would again help shape Innes’ career direction.

“While the Bonzos were still the Bonzos, we were asked to do a children’s television show called Do Not Adjust Your Set with Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and also Terry Gilliam in the second series,” Innes said. “That program was a kind of dress rehearsal for Monty Python in so many ways. And Terry Gilliam kind of replaced the anarchy of the Bonzos, and they learned that they didn’t have to finish a sketch, they could go into something else. It was all part of playing with the toys of show business and trying to deconstruct television.”

While Gilliam’s animation replaced the Bonzos’ spirit of anarchy, the music was still a missing piece of the Python puzzle. As Monty Python’s Flying Circus began taking shape in the late ‘60s, Idle asked Innes to be a part of the process. Soon, Innes was joining Monty Python on tour, giving him an eventual sense of familiarity.

“They were all in each other’s pockets, and the fearful arguing that went on in the Pythons was just as bad as the Bonzos,” Innes said. “Part of the reason the Bonzos broke up was people stopped arguing. I was sitting on a train being quite shocked as they were verbally lashing at one another. John (Cleese) saw my furrowed brow and came to my rescue. He said, ‘Neil, don’t worry. This is what we wall stick.’ And that was the game. I realized they were a similar outfit to the Bonzos; everybody knew the sum of the total was greater than the individual. The chemistry was such that it was pushing and pulling it out of everyone’s control, but was somehow much better than any of us could do individually. I was kind of the agony aunt. Quite an important job, really.”

Later, Innes and Idle continued their collaboration with Rutland Weekend Television, a comedy show built around a fictitious TV station.

“Rutland is the smallest county in England, so the idea was, if they had a television station, it wouldn’t have much money, and all the programs would be cheap and nasty,” Innes laughed. “And this is the only reason BBC 2 agreed to the program, because it was an opportunity to make cheap television jokes. At the end of the first series, I overheard an executive saying to another one, ‘Do you know the whole series costs less than one Lulu show?’”

While Rutland Weekend Television stuck around for two British-standard short seasons in 1975 and 1976, a brief musical number eventually became one of Innes’ most popular projects: The Rutles.

“It was only ever a one-off thing as far as we were concerned,” Innes said.  “The idea of parodying A Hard Day’s Night, I came to Eric with it. I said ‘This is cheap, black and white, speed it up, four guys in a field, wigs, running around.’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s great. I’ve got this idea for a documentary maker who’s so dull the camera runs away from him.’ We put the two together, and basically that’s the whole plot. It was just one of those things that just happened.”

When Idle was booked to host Saturday Night Live in 1976, he brought the Rutles clip from Rutland Weekend Television’s run. It proved successful enough that Innes appeared with Idle a year later, performing “Cheese and Onions.” The show was a smash.

“The timing was right,” Innes said. “The joke was happening over here (in the U.S.) that somebody was offering the Beatles $20 million each to get together. And Lorne Michaels and Saturday Night Live were running with this gag by getting George Harrison on the show and saying, ‘Look, here’s $3,000, George,’ which was the going rate for four musicians on live television at that time of night. And George would be saying, ‘All of this for me?’ and Lorne would snatch it back and say, ‘No, no, you’ve got to share it.’ So they said Eric could host the show, because he said he could get the Beatles back together for $300, and then they made up this thing about it being a bad phone line, and he hadn’t got the Beatles, he’d got the Rutles. And they showed the clip from the BBC Television thing, and the mailbag was just ridiculous. Lorne had no choice but to go down and say, ‘Can we have the money to make the whole story?’ And they said yes.”

Innes still marvels at how quickly The Rutles film came together, especially as it quickly became clear that his role was even more important than simply reprising his role as Ron Nasty, the group’s John Lennon-based character.

“You couldn’t pitch a program like that these days,” Innes said. “I was in New York, and I’d done Saturday Night Live with Eric. And when Lorne had gotten a budget, I was aware of everyone looking at me. And they said, ‘Do you think you can write 20 more Rutles songs by next Thursday?’ and I said, ‘I’ll try.’”

Innes spent three months putting together songs which would cover the vastly changing musical styles the Beatles - and by proxy the Rutles – realized over just a handful of years. The eventual recordings included an updated version of “I Must Be In Love,” the song which featured in the original BBC Rutles clip.

“I’d managed it by not listening to any Beatles songs, but by just remembering where I was when certain signature Beatle moments happened, like ‘All You Need is Love’ or ‘Penny Lane.’ I’d think, ‘Where was I, what was I doing, what was life like?’ And once I’d written the songs for guitar or piano, if they sounded alright with just the voice, the lyrics, the melody and the chords, if you could carry it with one instrument, then I knew we could do anything in the production.”

Though Idle didn’t actually perform any of the music as McCartney-lampooning Dirk McQuickly, the other Rutles in the film were involved in the music-making process. Rikki Fataar (Stig O’Hara) and John Halsey (Barry Wom) were joined on record by fellow musician Ollie Halsall (who briefly appeared in the film as Leppo, the fifth Rutle). The sessions were intense, intimate and thoroughly enjoyable.

“We lived in a house for weeks, just us and a guy called Alistair who had two-track recorders,” Innes said. “We rehearsed and recorded, and it happened to be Wimbledon week, so we’d watch a bit of tennis, then go back and rehearse and record. And by the time we came out, we felt like a band, and we went straight in the studio. The whole album took 10 days to do, including orchestration and mixing.”

Harrison appeared in the film, which predated This is Spinal Tap in the mock rock doc genre by six years, as an interviewer speaking to Eric Manchester, as played by Palin. Also appearing alongside members of the Saturday Night Live cast were Mick Jagger and Paul Simon as themselves, and Ron Wood as a member of a motorcycle gang. 

Innes continued recording music in the decades following The Rutles, as well as branching out into children’s television as both a host and voiceover artist. He carried on touring, both on his own and with various reunions of his past musical endeavors proved successful as well, and his life and career were honored in the documentary, The Seventh Python.

Which brings us to the present, with Innes performing career-spanning solo shows on his A People’s Guide to World Domination tour like the one in New York City this week; despite his aversion to fame, Innes is clearly comfortable on stage, whether rolling through a medley of Rutles tunes or airing new material, he’s absolutely in his element.

“I’m actually really enjoying this one man show at the moment,” he said. “Something’s happened earlier this year, and I’ve got all my publishing back. And I didn’t realize what a dark cloud it had over me. But for 10 years, I’ve been deliberately keeping my profile down just to get out of this robber baron situation. Now I feel like doing things again. I’m going to be doing things on the website, podcasting. And I’ve got a new album (Innes Own World), which is part radio, which I’m making, doing all the voices and bits, sending up the 24 hour news. I call it ‘emotional engineering.’ It’s got adverts for nonexistent products. It’s a satire of the world we live in, really.”

“I’m on a high at the moment, rolling along and enjoying it a lot.”

Innes’ grandchildren would be pleased to know that the aforementioned blowing of raspberries went down an absolute storm at B.B. King’s, as did their grandfather’s entire set. Innes peppered his set with anecdotes, jokes and song after song of impossibly catchy tunes. Whether you’re a devotee or a marginal fan, seeing Innes is more than worth the effort.

Brian Wilson: Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin

Originally published by PopMatters on August 18, 2010

In the more than a decade since Wilson’s career rose majestically from the ashes of a deep catatonic funk, he’s been helped along in his journey by various musicians whose clear reverence for the sounds of the good old days has been matched pound for pound by their ability to reproduce it. Unlike many of his contemporaries working the retro circuit, Wilson didn’t try to perfect what was already so perfect. The deceptively complex arrangements, the obsessively wrought sounds, the gloriously soaring harmonies all pretty much sounded as they did the first time they were heard from on high.

There are two distinct sides to the coin. On the one hand, Wilson’s revisiting his old aesthetic reminds us of why we love him so dearly, why we can forgive the abomination of that cover of “Wipeout” with the Fat Boys, even if we can’t exactly forget. But there’s also a dark side to the equation, and unfortunately it’s in Wilson’s own voice. Much has been made of his limited range over the past decade-plus, with speculation about the rigors of advanced age, too many years of not taking care of himself or some mental block he wasn’t able to shake loose or submerge with the others.

One October night in 1999, Wilson performed at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles in front of a capacity, largely partisan crowd. Despite the celebratory vibe pulsing through the hall, it was clear something was amiss. This was early in Wilson’s return to the stage, an uncomfortable enough ordeal for him even in the earliest days of the Beach Boys. But there he was, sat on a stool behind a single keyboard he appeared to mash at with his hands in rhythm rather than play. And even with the voices of the other musicians, it was clear Wilson’s own voice had changed, withdrawn in clarity and depth. It felt blasphemous to criticize, even internally. It felt dirty.

But suddenly, in the least likely place of all, Wilson absolutely killed. If Pet Sounds is Wilson’s greatest achievement as a composer, then “Caroline, No” might be his high point as a vocalist. Though it appeared on Pet Sounds, “Caroline, No” featured Wilson’s voice alone, and was in fact released as a single under his name. And right in the middle of a shaky Wiltern performance came “Caroline, No”, and it was astounding in its simplicity and scope. And Wilson nailed it, which is maybe symbolic of a lot of things.

It’s impossible to count Brian Wilson down. If nothing else, that “Caroline, No” moment proved he’s still got magic in him somewhere, and if you’re lucky, it might come out. Or, maybe it won’t.

Critics of Wilson’s recent work claim he’s treated with kid gloves, that he’s allowed leeway into pure schmaltz and underwhelming utilization of former genius than other artists of his generation, that all the praise for the 2004 completion of 1967’s aborted SMiLE album should have been sent by telegram nearly 40 years into the past. This may all be the gospel truth, but sometimes that doesn’t really matter, especially live when the fans go absolutely nuts for the faithful renditions of those hoary chestnuts cut in the ‘60s.

On record, though, it’s harder to feel a responsibility to be generous. Safe in the privacy of your own headphones, no one can see what you’re grimacing about. Conversely, no one can figure out what’s got you grinning like a loon.

Even on paper, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin seems like sort of an odd proposal, especially when the former Beach Boy keeps giving the long-deceased composer so many shout-outs in the press. Sure, bringing up Phil Spector’s name these days might not elicit the same sort of reverence it once held. And maybe the three covers of Wilson’s other fave raves, the Beatles, on Beach Boys’ Party in 1965 was more than enough to whet that particular whistle.

The weirdest thing I’ve ever heard was the a cappella version of “Rhapsody in Blue” which opens Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin. Even before Woody Allen’s iconic use of the song in his 1979 film Manhattan, “Rhapsody in Blue” was a New York anthem. Brian Wilson not only has the sheer audacity to take it to the beach, but to open and close his album with it! It was the weirdest thing I’d ever heard for maybe two seconds, because all of a sudden it made sense. The use of the song was indeed audacious, not because it relocates an ode to New York 3,000 miles from Times Square, but because it quite rightly restores the song to America. Gershwin was grander even than the world’s grandest city, and Wilson proved it in a version which lasts a little more than a minute.

“The Like in I Love You” starts off promising enough, though it’s clear the unfinished Gershwin tune billed as collaboration bears far more in common with Wilson’s soft latter day touch. “Summertime” is where the worry begins to set in. The arrangement is terrific, a sultry spy theme somehow perfect for the tune. Sadly, Wilson’s voice, front and center, no longer has the elasticity or subtlety to pull it off. It’s a miss when it really felt like it should have been a hit. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is a better fit, with Wilson’s vocal lead more seamlessly intertwined with the music, both on its own and within the harmonies.

“I Loves You Porgy” and the goofy instrumental version of “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” charm, and “S’Wonderful” is light and airy in the tradition of the Free Design, working right up to and including the flute solo.

“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is a glorious call/response romp through mid-‘60s Beach Boys territory, while “Love Is Here to Stay” is as lush as lushness gets. On the other hand, “I Got Rhythm” sounds like a karaoke mash-up of “Help Me, Rhonda” recorded in the ‘80s. “Somebody to Watch Over Me” is corny, but also with enough of that clip-clop percussion that made “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”

Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin isn’t quite the triumph one would have hoped, with a few awkward missteps and some vocal performances that don’t honor the past as much as they make it seem like an awfully long time ago. But there’s enough happening here to make the project more than worthwhile. It’s clear Wilson really does adore Gershwin, and his stated fondness for “Rhapsody in Blue” over the years (plus an early production credit on a cover of “Summertime” by Sharon Marie) is more than just hot air. And even if his voice isn’t as strong as it used to be, so what? Wilson is still a spectacular arranger of music. Furthermore, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin is one of the few albums released this year or any other in recent memory that might go down well with three different generations on a lengthy car trip.

6 out of 10

Klaxons: Surfing the Void

Originally published by PopMatters on August 27, 2010

Right there in the first paragraph of producer Ross Robinson’s Wikipedia page is a terrifying nickname, one which follows a rather dire list of career highlights: “The Godfather of Nu Metal.” But for Klaxons, a band who never seemed entirely comfortable with being tagged as “New Rave” themselves, the idea of looking beyond labels must have held considerable appeal. Record labels have long been vilified for stifling artistic freedom in pursuit of the almighty dollar, and in the past decade the corporate structure has taken further hits for the perception that its been dragging its collective heels into the digital age. For fans of Klaxons, Polydor’s rumored rejection of the band’s “experimental” submission on their sophomore album was tantamount to treason. Without having heard the material that apparently wasn’t up to snuff, I daresay the label might have been right on the money.

Surfing the Void isn’t exactly a carbon copy of the first Klaxons album, Myths of the Near Future, but for those who loved the debut, with its airy vocals, soaring melodies and insistent rhythms, the band’s sophomore effort should be most welcome. Surfing the Void boasts 10 tracks of terrific tunes cut from what must now be considered the official Klaxons formula: At its essence, it’s dance music played on traditional rock ‘n’ roll instruments. Furthermore, it proves that whole New Rave thing was sort of a sham all along; Klaxons were always an indie concern with the basic notion that indie kids just need to shake their asses. It’s a concept shared by the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party, but with a far more circuitous means of arriving on the dancefloor.

Given the band first began discussing its recording six months after the release of their debut, it’s not surprising that Surfing the Void roams much of the same territory as its predecessor. That Klaxons went through the alleged sonic explorations, the fits and starts and aborted sessions with Tony Visconti and James Ford, the thematic departures promised in interviews if not in music and still came back around to their comfort zone would be a tragedy if it didn’t sound as though they were having such a good time.

The stories of Surfing the Void and that of Brooklyn band MGMT’s sophomore album, Congratulations share enough similarities that it’s not unreasonable to discuss the pair together. Both bands made their mark on major labels in 2007, laboring over a second album eventually released in 2010. Both bands ran into label interference, though MGMT added the twist of being talked out of simply giving their album away for free. While MGMT wound up veering into deep psych-pop waters, Klaxons stayed the course. Neither made the wrong decision, even if the latter was rumored to have been assisted by representatives of their record label.

If there was ever any question that the new material would sound like the work of a completely different artist, lead single “Echoes” sets the record straight. It sounds so familiar it might have you checking your well-worn copy of Myths of the Near Future to see if you didn’t already hear it three years ago. But if it’s familiar, by golly if it isn’t also an absolute arms-aloft stormer with the sort of sing-along chorus Klaxons seem incapable of not producing.

“Valley of the Calm Trees” is perhaps as close as Klaxons will ever get to the measured reliability of a Giorgio Moroder tune, but it’s a satisfyingly grimy approach, with far more emotional resonance (and filthy guitar noises) than its forefather. Other synth-laden songs follow a similar tact, sounding as though once futuristic technology has been rescued rusty from the refuse of a lost age. “Venusia” lends this scenario further apocalyptic credibility with Jamie Reynolds’ raunchy bass and some fanatically tribal drums. The sound of actual klaxons heralds the beginning of the chaotic “Extra Astronomical,” while “Future Memories” takes “So I Can See” by Madchester also-rans the High to a decidedly less understated place. As a closer, it’s hard to imagine a song more perfectly suited than “Cypherspeed,” in which seemingly every instrument ever created was played all at once, creating an exhilarating cacophony directed by breathless vocals.

Robinson might have seemed a curious choice for producer, though the partnership works well. Most of Surfing the Void combines the band’s dance-punk aesthetic, but delivered upon thick slabs of rawk production. Outcasts from a pair of long-departed genres working in concert never made so much sense, especially in the mix. Klaxons’ studio efforts have always sounded less polished and processed and more organic and live than some of their contemporaries, and that’s one of their greatest strengths. As on Myths of the Near Future, Klaxons have created an album in Surfing the Void that should work as well in a live setting as it does coming through speakers or headphones.

8 out of 10

Bon Ambition

Originally published in the New York Press on November 7, 2007

There has never been a band more unfairly forced to prove itself than Duran Duran. Despite existing in one form or another since 1978, each of the group’s albums since its fourth have been called a “comeback” by the media. The stately manors the band has scattered across the globe might as well be stacked in a huge pile at the far end of Turning Point, because that’s where they’ve actually been living for all these years. But the guys are set to return once again with their latest release, Red Carpet Massacre, which includes a run of 10 shows over two weeks at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre beginning November 1.

The people who were irked by Duran Duran’s brazen coke-snorting, sport-fucking lifestyle back in the ’80s have never really been given a chance to gloat over its demise. Sure, there were tours during the lean years when the band played theme parks and when its albums didn’t even get worldwide releases. But through it all, Duran Duran—in name, if not exactly spirit—kept right on rolling.

And they still have it going on, the bastards. When daredevil singer Simon Le Bon married model Yasmin Parvaneh in the ’80s, pundits rolled their eyes and smugly said it wouldn’t last. Well, they’re still together, they’re still beautiful and they still seem appallingly happy.

The most sensible way to consider the career of Duran Duran is to break each milestone down into distinct chapters. Most recently, in the spring of 2001, the band’s career took an unexpected turn when rumors began to circulate of a reunion of the original five members. In July 2003, the Fab Five hit Japan for their first shows together in 18 years.

In 2006, the reunion chapter officially drew to a close. After recording an album’s worth of material, provisionally called Reportage, Duran Duran and Andy Taylor abruptly parted company.The band scrapped Reportage and began a completely new album.

To say Red Carpet Massacre is a turning point for Duran Duran now is a wild understatement. Their first album for Epic, 2004’s Astronaut, was a modest commercial success at best. After decades of a slow, methodical approach to recording, most of Massacre was finished within a year. And depending on whom you ask, working with Justin Timberlake, Timbaland and Nate “Danja” Hills on their new album is either a stroke of genius or a complete disaster. If Massacre is a flop, what happens next? Despite the obstacles in their way, however, Duran Duran’s new album isn’t a flop. Well, not an artistic one, anyway. 

The album opens with “The Valley,” a tune with an unmistakably Timbaland-crafted beat that eventually turns out to be more Hot Chip than hip-hop. “Box Full O’ Honey” and “She’s Too Much” are sentimental and gorgeous and guaranteed to get the lighters and cell phones aloft in the crowd.

Sure, there are a few duds, though they’re mostly lyrical in nature, and perhaps unlike past efforts which recently earned Le Bon the No. 26 spot on Blender magazine’s “40 Worst Lyricists in Rock” list, they’re the exception rather than the norm. Nowhere is this disparity better illustrated than on “Skin Divers,” where the album’s worst line (the one about the “hoi polloi”) is immediately followed by its best. “Zoom In” is nearly sunk by essentially serving as an advertisement for the band’s still unfulfilled promises of a utopian Duran Duran paradise on internet-based virtual world Second Life. “Last Man Standing,” Red Carpet Massacre’s closing salvo, has a much tougher time. The melody works, but the lyrics are like listening to self-help guru Anthony Robbins re-write A Fistful of Dollars.

But those are minor gaffes in an otherwise excellent release. The roaring “Dirty Great Monster” features a sax solo that peels paint, “Nite Runner” is pure sex and “Tricked Out” is an instrumental that’s sort of like the Horrors as led by Esquivel or Danny Elfman.

Past albums—like the house-laden Big Thing—have seen Duran Duran hit upon a theme just as it’s slipping through the doorway, and while working with Timbaland and Timberlake may have become de rigueur as of late, everything here sounds fresh.

But will it work live? It’s a question Duran Duran must be pondering even now as they prepare to introduce Massacre with their run the Barrymore this week. The shows are being billed as an event (with tickets priced accordingly), not unlike the Beastie Boys’ recent instrumental shows, with fans being asked to dress up and walk a red carpet. But if all the pomp is for a celebration or memorial is still to be seen.

A Thing or Two About Cool

Originally published in the New York Press on June 21, 2006

Carl Mello is something of a dandy. As senior buyer for Boston's legendary Newbury Comics, Mello's career depends on his ability to track trends in music and style. And while Mello's personal taste might not be reflected by popular culture, it's clear he feels music and style go hand in gloriously gloved hand. For Carl Mello, it's important for the music to look as good as it sounds: from The Temptations to Duran Duran, Roxy Music to Sparks. For him, the shiny jewel in the shinier crown is Martin Fry and ABC. 
“Any group that isn't afraid to be Sinatra one minute and Hanna-Barbera the next can teach all of us a thing or two about cool,” said Mello, no doubt mulling over just which ascot he plans on sporting to ABC's show at the Canal Room this week. 

Mello is by no means alone. Though they haven't troubled the U.S. charts since “When Smokey Sings” hit No. 5 in 1987, fans like Mello have recently packed houses for singer Martin Fry's reconstituted ABC, touring America for the second time in less than a year. 

“I love them, really,” says Fry of the keepers of the fancy faith. “After 20 years, fans give you the reason to do it. It's a great privilege to get on stage and sing 'Be Near Me,' or 'When Smokey Sings' or 'All of My Heart,' and I never want to disappoint anyone.”

The three tunes Fry references are only part of the story. ABC had five Top 40 hits in the United States in the '80s, along with a cache of other fantastic songs that, thanks largely to Fry's caramel croon, are a timeless hybrid of Roxy Music and classic soul. If the notion that ABC is an '80s band doesn't exactly rankle, it's clear the lanky louche isn't thrilled to be lumped in with the synth-and-skinny-ties set. 

“There's a lot of artists out there from that age, and it kind of makes me shudder,” said Fry. “There's definitely '80s cliches, but I don't feel like Kenny Loggins doing 'Footloose' or anything like that...But that's a great song!”

Though ABC had a brief flirtation with portraying themselves as cartoons (way before Gorillaz, incidentally), they're mostly remembered as the garish sophisticates on the cover of Lexicon of Love, their 1982 debut. To this day, Fry continues to look like the lost link between Motown and Saville Row, every bit as sophisticated as the soulful tunes he sings. “I've actually got a mate now that works off Saville Row, so he kind of sets me up with some suits every now and again,” said Fry. “I guess I've always had a very cosmopolitan look.”

Fry, along with original drummer David Palmer, has put together a band that remains faithful to the original tunes, while giving new songs from ABC's forthcoming album—their first in nearly a decade—enough punch to keep the Canal Room crowd's juices flowing. “We've been playing three tracks off it in the live set, and that's been going down a storm,” said Fry. 

This is music to Mello's ears.

Black-Eyed Soul

Originally published in the New York Press on May 16, 2006

The second time I saw the Charlatans, I drank in the street, made out with two different girls, and handed singer Tim Burgess a string of beads, which he wore throughout the show. Next time around, I was a little bit older, though certainly no wiser, and I made out with my date before passing out in the street from drinking too much. Though she had to force me into a cab, help my roommate drag me up a flight of stairs and find her own way home through the dark of night, she wanted to go out again. As much as I'd like to think it was my boyish good looks or my stellar taste in music that made the poor dear long for more, I've come to realize it must have been the awesome healing power of the Charlatans.

Their story is legendary. Despite often being lumped in with early '90s Madchester bands like fellow countrymen the Stone Roses or Happy Mondays, the Charlatans outlived them all. Perhaps because of their continued existence, music nerds like me are forced to look upon the band's ever growing body of work as opposed to that one shining moment before they brilliantly flamed out. In the face of death, embezzlement, nervous breakdowns and a thousand other tragedies that would have killed lesser bands, the Charlatans have hit the mark more often than not, continually reinventing themselves. 

Over eight prior releases, the Charlatans have dabbled with Dylan, dripped sleaze like the Stones and merged the soul of Curtis Mayfield with the disco of the Bee Gees. On the just released reggae-inflected Simpatico, the Clash's sprawling three-record Sandinista is the jumping off point, though the Charlatans have managed to condense that vibe into a single cohesive album. “Well, it's my favorite Clash record,” Burgess admits freely. “I love the variety of it. It's kind of like a carnival.”

The Clash are definitely there—witness Burgess' “Magnificent Seven”-style vocals on the equally funky “NYC (There's No Need to Stop)”—but uncharacteristically dark lyrics tread more personal than political ground. “Some of the lyrics are quite harsh for the Charlatans,” explains Burgess. “Though not by Social Distortion's standards.”

Perhaps the greatest comparison between the Charlatans and the Clash has been in the former's mix from the very beginning: It would be fair to say that bassist Martin Blunt and drummer Jon Brookes are rock 'n' roll's most underrated rhythm section.

According to Burgess, along with deceased keyboard player Rob Collins, Blunt and Brookes have always aspired to greatness. “I guess they wanted to be like the white Booker T & the MG's” he says with a laugh. “They wanted to sound like Stax Records.”

That undeniable beat first made its mark with the band's third album—1994's Up to Our Hips, Simpatico's closest relative in the Charlatans' back catalog. In tunes like “Jesus Hairdo” and “Can't Get Out of Bed,” (both of which have recently found their way back into the band's live set), the bass and drums are insistently soulful, but never intrusive. 

“Blackened Blue Eyes,” the Charlatans' anthemic lead single from their new album, doesn't sound at all like the Clash. What it does sound like is four-plus minutes of everything that makes the band so essential after all these years: Burgess' breathy vocals and that fabulous rhythm section that includes the keyboards of Tony Rogers and a stabbing guitar line from Mark Collins, the Keith Richards to Burgess' Mick Jagger. 

When performing live, the Charlatans are in an enviable position. Unlike most bands with nearly two decades under their belt, there isn't a mad dash for the bathroom when a new song gets aired, a testament to their staying power as an evolving force. “Even with the Stones, you want to hear the older stuff” says a clearly flattered Burgess. “I think our audience is genuinely interested in what we do now. We do a lot of thinking on our feet, and people like to see what we'll do next.”

“Even though we enjoy what we do, we try and better it every time,” adds Burgess. “We're still searching for that perfect note.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Crooked Beat: The Clash in New York City

Originally published by PopMatters on March 12, 2010

It’s wet and cold and miserable in New York City, with spring still struggling to gain a foothold. Somehow, it will be summer soon, even if it doesn’t really feel like it yet. Summer in the city, the air is thick and hot, settling on the skin like a lysergide blanket, trapping every speck of dust and grime. Gnats fly in for a sniff and stick there as though caught in a spider’s web. Walk through a cloud of cigarette smoke, and it stays with you on every inch of skin it touches. Even without the scorching sunlight underground, it’s somehow worse on subway platforms, heavy and dark with the air standing still against the body, the only respite a blast of deceptively cool wind announcing a train about to hurtle past. It’s like standing inside someone’s mouth.

This is where I feel the Clash the most. In the rhythms of wheels on tracks, the pounding of one’s own heartbeat as it tries to sift through a million stimuli a second in the city streets. They’re in the storefronts with radios still unable to pick up much more than tinny broadcasts transmitted from Mars. They’re in the feet hitting the pavement, the sirens that jerk and spasm, and the bloodcurdling screams punctuated by more silence than one could ever believe possible. This is the Clash. At least to me, it is.
The Clash dubbed their official documentary Westway to the World in celebration of their journey from concrete to coliseum, but the title was only half right, as “The World to the Westway” could easily describe the band’s ease in appropriating alien musical styles.

While their eponymous debut has been hailed as an atom bomb of amphetamine-fueled punk, a cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” halfway through its second side served as more of a manifesto than even “White Riot” or “Garageland”.

Though not released until after sophomore album Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the US version of the debut upped the ante with the inclusion of the “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” single which fused Jamaican flavors with the tale of Joe Strummer’s disappointment at the show biz professionalism seen at a reggae show he’d recently attended, as well as other feelings on a wide range of topics affecting then-contemporary Britain. For what basically amounts to a cranky pre-blog entry, it’s pretty damned thrilling.

If Give ‘Em Enough Rope’s anthemic ambitions didn’t exactly represent a step forward for the Clash, their third album, London Calling, proved the band was more than a punk one-trick pony. A sprawling masterpiece that hit upon numerous styles with dignity and respect, London Calling was so forward thinking it was then and has since been hailed in the press as one of the greatest albums of the ‘80s despite actually dropping in December 1979.

London Calling provided the first palpable link between New York City and the Clash, though I certainly didn’t know it at the time. The album’s cover shot of Paul Simonon laying waste to his bass guitar was photographed by Pennie Smith at the Palladium on 21 September 1979. I would turn ten less than two weeks later, and would shortly thereafter find my way to the Clash.

Turning their backs on the perceived punk ethos of less is more, the Clash’s late-1980 album Sandinista! was a bloated three-record set that saw the band tackling everything from gospel to soul, reggae and dub to art-rock collages. “The Magnificent Seven” and its subsequent “This Is Radio Clash” single saw the group’s love of hip-hop come to the fore. Some considered Sandinista!—much of which was recorded in Manhattan—an embarrassment of excess, though I see it as an embarrassment of riches. In conversation with the New York Press, Charlatans singer Tim Burgess likened the experience of listening to his favorite Clash album with strolling through a London carnival, each new radio he passed delivering some exotic delight.

Combat Rock was the last gasp for the Clash in their classic lineup, a commercial success that coupled radio hits with oddball spasms like the Simonon-sung “Red Angel Dragnet” and “Ghetto Defendant”, featuring spoken passages by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

Maybe the Clash were sell-outs or opportunists, which is basically what Sniffin’ Glue editor Mark Perry famously said when the band signed to CBS in 1977. Perhaps the greatest means by which any instigator can enact change is by funneling their fury through the airwaves. That’s certainly how the band reached me, a dumb city kid open to music of all cultures.

It began with “The Magnificent Seven”, its bass line (reportedly not played by Simonon) running up and down my spine. I was already hooked on early hip-hop and was an admittedly late convert to the joys of punk. The miraculous and effortless sound the Clash wrangled from these two seemingly disparate genres I already adored instantly hooked me.

Their personalities were perfect. Strummer was at the very least complex, some fascinating combination of confidence man and freedom fighter in a body wrapped so tight before each show it exploded in a cataclysm of glory and truth. Mick Jones was the band’s rock star, looking and often behaving like the love-child of Keith Richards and Patti Smith, and providing the group with its most furious riffs. Simonon was cool as hell, and it was through his own Brixton-based childhood that reggae became such a part of what made the Clash so different from their contemporaries. Topper Headon wasn’t just one of punk’s great drummers, but was a dynamo proficient in finding his own rhythm in every single style the rest of the band threw at him.

New York was never the Clash’s official headquarters, but in many ways the pair were more intertwined than bands with an allegedly rightful claim to the city. It’s there in their sonic composition, whether in crunching riffs or insistent rhythms. It’s there in the grit and grime of Strummer’s lyrics, and a voice that wavers between primal howl and weary solitude. It’s in the rags to riches excess of Jones, the melting-pot soul of Simonon’s bass and the street beats of Headon. It took them from the Palladium to Bond’s, from Electric Lady Studios to Shea Stadium.

London was in their bones, and Kingston their blood. But New York was their town, and it always would be.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Beatles: A Generational Divide

Originally published by PopMatters on September 13, 2010

The DVD begins rather worryingly with generic cod-Beatle music, like that episode of Gilligan’s Island with the Mosquitoes. It’s a world in black and white, one in which the kids are about to go way overboard festooning their brittle limbs with a kaleidoscope of color. This is a moment in history, in part because the Beatles were riding the crest of that particular wave.

The timing of this new two-disc DVD set, The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Beatles, is perfect, especially if you’re a fan of Mad Men. Never mind the commercials, which don’t just seem quaint when viewed through a contemporary lens, but might also have resulted in Peggy Olsen and the gang receive a withering dressing down by a drunken Don Draper at 11:15 in the morning during a presentation pitch. Mad Men is roughly at this point in history this season, and among the standard bad behavior by its ensemble, there’s also rumblings of a generational shift that swept across the country in the storyline. Why not have a look at it in black & white, then?

This is history, though in truth only two of the four episodes really hold that weight.

The first is the obvious choice, a three-week run beginning in Sullivan’s midtown Manhattan theater on 9 February 1964. If the Beatles hit America like a freight train, this is the context in which they delivered the blow. Sullivan knew he’d have a massive audience, and he knew they were there for the Beatles.

However, while the show opens and (nearly) closes with the Fab Four, there’s a long stretch in-between where the variety staple hedges its bets, refusing to completely sell itself out to the youth market. So it’s fun to imagine legions of teenage girls all across the country writhing on the Oriental rugs on their family’s living room floors to a Paul McCartney-heavy trio of songs suddenly struck furious or bored by the Catskills-ready comedic slight-of-hand when magician Fred Caps takes to the stage.

Though they couldn’t have known it yet, teenyboppers were granted a window into the future during that first show when Davy Jones appeared with the Broadway cast of Oliver! a full two years before making his debut with the Monkees.

Another face destined for pop culture ignominy is also sandwiched between the Beatles numbers on 9 February: that of Frank Gorshin, a comedian and impressionist who would soon go on to play the Riddler in the campy Batman TV series.

The Beatles returned late with two songs – “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – but the show was actually closed by Wells & the Four Fays, an acrobatic act that, while certainly flexible, were the kind of act the British Invasion came to destroy.

Of those three initial appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, the second, on 16 February, is probably the least successful. Taking place in the ballroom of a sprawling Miami Beach hotel, the crowd is dressed to the nines in the kind of oppressive heat people from other parts of the country can’t even begin to imagine happening that time of year. This time around the Beatles really do open and close the show, though try as they do, it’s not a great performance. Microphones bob and weave like a prize fighter, and while John Lennon’s voice is much too high in the mix, McCartney’s is comparatively inaudible.

The other acts this time around are even squarer and out of step, with excruciating comedy routines by Allen & Rossi and Myron Cohen. If the septuagenarians in the crowd get the gags, their appreciation is lost in the corners of the vast hall. Mitzi Gaynor’s song and dance act is not without its charms, but it goes on far too long. Sullivan treats her booking as though he’d pulled off some major coup, and maybe he had. Even with dresses which defy gravity and a sweaty chest that defies the assumption that old time network censors were stodgy asexual drones, Gaynor’s welcome probably wore out before her voice did. At least that’s how it looks as a Beatles fan.

Therein lies the trouble; the set is clearly designed as a Beatles package. The episodes which aired live were clearly built around the Beatles, but Sullivan’s show had a far broader appeal than the teenage demographic. If we’re tuning in to see the Fabs in 2010, we’re perhaps more likely to find the other acts on the show difficult to sink our teeth into than young viewers might have way back when. Or are we? Because as history has repeatedly made a nagging point of telling us about the ‘60s, everything was changing.

Everything was changing, something which Mad Men has done an excellent job this season of pointing out. As much as Jon Hamm’s Don Draper is meant to come off as a bastion of Sinatra cool, his world is crashing down around him. He dismissively throws in a few Beatles records on a shopping list for his children’s Christmas presents, then later proves how square, old and white he is by pulling for Sonny Liston in the rematch against the brash Cassius Clay, who by then had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, a distinction people appeared to go out of their way not to recognize. Ed Sullivan himself makes continued references to the initial Clay-Liston bout, which took place in Florida the day after the Beatles’ third and final February 1964 appearance on the show.

That third performance, which took place back in New York City on 23 February, saw the Beatles perform just three songs, two less than they’d done two weeks earlier and three less than just one week before. Sure, Sullivan goes on and on about how polite they are, but maybe it was just time to wrap things up and make it clear these well-mannered longhairs were not on the fast track to become the show’s house band.

Despite having done pretty much the same exact act for a thousand years, Cab Calloway’s appearance on this episode is terrific. Less so is a performance of “Safety in Numbers” by Gloria Bleezarde, a supposedly funny bit in which society’s over-reliance on everything having a number is put to agonizing song. Bleezarde has half a gallon of eye makeup on and looks about 50, but she plays the bit a little too much like a precocious child for comfort.

Lest anyone think the arrival of the Beatles yielded immediate cultural changes, there’s an excruciating puppet act called Pinky & Perky, hokey Broadway-style performances by Acker Bilk and Gordon & Sheila MacRae and a generationally divisive standup comedy shtick by Dave Barry. While the Beatles were new on our shores, they’d already leveled their own England well before turning up here. Even so, their fellow countrymen Morecambe & Wise perform a dreary comedy routine more likely to register with anyone over 30 (at the time) than the shaky ocean of pink-armed teenagers who’d tuned in for the Beatles.

The Beatles wouldn’t return to the Ed Sullivan Show for more than a year, and by the time they did on 12 September 1965, the shockwaves from their first run were still being felt. The Fabs themselves were shaggier, more comfortable in their own skin and were unapologetically moving forward. Their songs – including “Ticket to Ride”, “I Feel Fine”, “Yesterday” and “Help!” were already far more sophisticated than their earlier material.

As with the earlier episodes, the Beatles’ songs feature numerous crowd shots, invariably containing at least three teenage girls on the verge of emotional collapse and a pair of well-groomed older folks who just don’t get it, maaaaann.

Cilla Black performs a pair of songs on this 1965 episode, including a wonderful take on “Goin’ Out of My Head”. There’s another mostly unfunny Allen & Rossi comedy bit featuring a corny Beatles-style number, and an even more unbearable ball of yuks by Soupy Sales, who performs “The Mouse”, a colossally awful song which at the very least shows that the seating in the theater hasn’t changed all that much since David Letterman began taping his late night CBS show there over a decade ago.

These four shows were actually released on DVD for the first time in 2003, though according to the press materials the audio and video has been cleaned up considerably by Universal Music Group for this package. In a digital age with room-sized high definition television sets it’s might be hard to see how the picture was improved, though archival footage available on the internet ought to set it into perspective.

Also unique to this release are a series of extras, clips in which Sullivan either discusses the Beatles on other episodes of his show, or in one instance briefly and somewhat uncomfortably interviews them during the filming of A Hard Days Night in London.

For an event which not only shaped the course of television history but which also cemented his position as a champion of the youth movement, two of the clips show Sullivan to either not know or not care exactly when it all happened. In a clip from 29 May 1966 Sullivan mentions the Beatles having first performed on his show in 1963 from Miami Beach, a mistake repeated in a clip from 26 November 1967 while reading a telegram from the Beatles.

Fans might be tempted to buy the DVD and just watch the Beatles songs. Fair enough, but it’s worth sitting through every second of every show at least just once to pretend you were there when it really happened, to see what entertainment and advertising were like in a bygone era and to see why a band singing about holding hands hit the country like an A-bomb.

8 out of 10

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Was Richard Ashcroft Right About the Rolling Stones?

Originally published by PopMatters on February 25, 2010

Way back in 1997, the Verve released a single that launched them into the commercial stratosphere. The band were already well known in their native Britain by this time, having released two dynamic albums that mixed their innate gift for sonic exploration with a knack for composing anthemic songs in the rock medium.

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” was the band’s first salvo since reuniting after a two-year hiatus, and it was a good one. But while it was good enough to earn the band a worldwide chart smash (including #2 in the UK, and #12 in the US), the song as released was built upon a sample of a tune by the Rolling Stones, both of which can be heard at the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” Wikipedia page.

Actually, while the song in question was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the sample itself was taken from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version of “The Last Time”, recorded in 1966. The Verve licensed a sample of the song in advance, but had apparently bitten off more than they were allowed to chew. When “Bitter Sweet Symphony” became a hit, the Stones’ lawyers came calling.

Even if you’re against the notion of sampling, it’s hard to stomach the Verve being robbed entirely of songwriting credits for “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. The band’s frontman Richard Ashcroft penned the iconic lyrics, which included at least one minor bit of irony: “You’re a slave to the money, then you die.”

While the incident itself ultimately became an odd footnote in the annals of rock and/or roll, it did produce a memorable quote from Ashcroft that led me to where I am now, about to take an unenviable journey through two spotty decades of the Rolling Stones’ recorded output.

“The best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years.”—Richard Ashcroft

In order to conduct this ultimately meaningless experiment in opinion and sarcasm with a minimum of actual research, it’s important to note a few things…

  • As Ashcroft’s quote came in the thick of the legal furor, we’re left to assume a two-decade survey of the Rolling Stones’ material stretches back to 1977.
  • Also, as trying to figure out when certain songs were actually written by Jagger and Richards seems needlessly complicated if not downright impossible, we’ll go with actual release dates as means of providing a beginning and end.
  • Furthermore, so as to avoid having to listen to anything too recent, the only albums under consideration will have been studio efforts released between 1977-1997. Sadly, my excitement over being spared a litany of cranky re-hashes of old Keef riffs was short-lived, as the formerly prolific Rolling Stones have released just one studio album of new material—2005’s A Bigger Bang—since 1998. The scoundrels!
  • Between 1977 and 1997, the Rolling Stones dropped eight studio albums, beginning with 1978’s Some Girls, a collection already laying waste to Ashcroft’s plucky bravado. While it’s certainly not all killer and no filler, Some Girls boasts numerous hoary chestnuts worth embedding into one’s iPod, including “Miss You”, one of the band’s great singles of any era. It’s also got “Beast of Burden”, a song so good it can’t even be ruined by the memory of the ghastly Jagger-approved Bette Midler version.

“Shattered” is also pretty good stuff, though on Some Girls it’s also one of an alarmingly high quantity of by rote rifftastic tunes that sort of sees the Stones settle back in cruise control. “Lies” and “Respectable” might be the most glaring offenders in this regard, while “Far Away Eyes” is in itself a pastiche, hearkening back to the faux hillbilly shuffle the band first adopted years earlier while recording at Muscle Shoals.

Released two years after Some GirlsEmotional Rescue took the success of the disco-friendly “Miss You” and milked half an album out of it. The title track is a corny gem, as is album opener “Dance, Pt. 1”. But the Stones slipped too easily into lazy habits, with “She Was Hot” an almost identical remake of “Shattered”, and “Summer Romance”, “Let Me Go” and “Where the Boys Go” near-identical remakes of one another.

1981’s Tattoo You has long been heralded as a return to form for the band, and it’s not an unreasonable claim, even for hyperbolic rock scribes and frothy Stones enthusiasts. “Start Me Up” is more than just the five second lick played to signal the kickoff at every single college and pro football game played in the past million years; it’s also an all-too-brief reminder that the Rolling Stones were at the time still capable of churning out a fantastic rock tune when they put their minds to it.

Another indication there was still life in the old guard yet was “Waiting on a Friend”, a sentimental tune that never got close enough to shmaltz to became intolerable, even after watcing Jagger and Richards pretend they both had street cred and could stand one another while pawing at one another in the cloying, low-rent video.

Yes, the Stones-by-numbers up-tempo tracks were still the rage, as on “Neighbors” and “Hang Fire”. At least “Little T&A” (yes, it’s about what you probably think it is) changed up the formula slightly by allowing Richards to croak out the vocals for a change, but when there’s a song like the glorious “Tops” in the mix, all other missteps can be forgiven.

As a whole, 1983’s Undercover may stink, but at least the Stones were still trying. “Undercover of the Night”—like “Miss You” before it—remains one of the Rolling Stones’ best singles, even when compared to some of their more recognized classics. There’s a bite in the lyrics and music that one might not have expected from this band at this point. “Tie You Up (the Pain of Love)” is sort of embarrassing, but it could have been worse; It could have been “She Was Hot”, which is gawdawful, and may well be what Ashcroft was thinking of when he made his grand statement.

Look, give me a little credit for making it this far into my exercise. Be kind when I tell you I just don’t have the stomach to make it through 1986’sDirty Work again, an album as formulaic and flavorless as its dated cover. Let me down gently when I say that I can’t even bother with its eventual follow-up, Steel Wheels, which when it’s good isn’t half bad, but when it’s bad it’s horrendous. Steel Wheels wasn’t always so lousy, was it? But Bridges to Babylon, released in 1997, sure was. And maybe that’s what Ashcroft meant.

The Verve were rightfully feeling put upon by the Rolling Stones, and Ashcroft’s notorious frontman’s syndrome produced an excellent soundbite. But at its core, his claim isn’t nearly as cut and dry as it might have seemed in the heat of the moment. Remove the squabble over songwriting and samples, and “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is a fantastic song, but better than the best of the Rolling Stones between ‘77 and ‘97? Probably not.

Obviously making this particular comparison requires one to ignore the dreck the Stones released during that 20-year stretch, which given the huge family-size Dreck Brand tubs of dreck they cranked out at the time is no small feat. But if what you’re left with is “Miss You” or “Tops” or “Undercover of the Night”, it’s worth at least giving it a shot.