Monday, July 14, 2008

Buried Treasure:The Aerovons "Resurrection"

The term "Beatle-esque" has worked its way into the lexicon of popular music to such a degree that it has become it's own adjective. Maybe not yet to found in Webster's, and much more than "Stonse-y" or "Who-like", it evocates a kind of sound that anyone from six to sixty can instantly recognize. 

The legacy and influence of the Beatles to pop music is so deep and wide that it would take a thousand music journalists to write a thousand books just to scratch the surface. When the Beatles hit America with a tidal wave force in 1964, all bets were off in terms of not only what records the kids would be buying, but the sound and style of popular music itself. Almost overnight, the crooners and the pre-packaged teen idols of the late 50's and early 60's became impossibly passe. Artists were expected to write and perform their own material, and while there still remained a large market for gifted songwriters and arrangers like Burt Bachrach and Jimmy Webb who not only stayed behind the scenes, but sometimes eclipsed the notoriety of the singers who performed their work, The Beatles set the trend for groups to forge their own musical identities.

So when a teenaged Tom Hartman from St. Louis heard that guitar chord heard round the world on the Ed Sullivan show, he did what so many other kids did- bought a Rickenbacker guitar, started growing his hair and started a band. Enter the Aerovons. Hartman and his band rose quickly through the ranks of the local bands and by 1967 were one of the hottest acts in the midwest. Armed with a demo tape, and a savvy and aggressive mother/manager, the band raised enough money to travel to London to meet with the head of A&R at EMI, who liking what he heard, signed the Aerovons to a record contract (they could do things like that back then). While in London,  the band did all the things that an anglophile pop group would; shopping on carnaby street, going round to all the clubs and getting a tour of Abbey Road studios where they would be recording their album. While there, they were knocked-out to witness The Beatles recording the White Album, and even getting a chance to talk to Harrison and McCartney in the bargain before heading back to the states. Heady times indeed.

As for the Aerovon's sound, there's no mistaking who the main (if only) influence is on Hartman's writing and singing. Check out "World of You", the song that scored them their recording contract

Yup, there's that term "Beatle-esqe" rearing it's mop-topped head again. It's a great song- I really like the string arrangement, the open sweep of the recording and the melancholy vibe to the whole thing, although I don't think McCartney was quaking in his cuban-heeled boots over it. It also could be heard as a Badfinger pastiche more than the musical magic ususally coming out of Abbey Road studio 2 at the time. The difference between emulation and innovation exemplified. Still, good stuff though. 

Returning to EMI in early 1969, the Aerovons recorded the rest of the album in earnest concurrent with the Beatles in the next room working on their "Abbey Road" album. They must have had an ear to the door, as the Aerovon's "Say Georgia" is a direct rip-off of "Oh! Darling", but who wouldn't do the same? And while the rest of their album didn't quite match up to the promise of "World of You", it has a level of songwriting and performance that is quite high and sounds great still today. The Aerovons were now primed to make their mark in the charts.

Sadly, it was not to be. Upon returning back to St. Louis, half of the band quit, leaving Hartman to scramble to find a new line up, while trying to come up with new material, all of which led to an ulcer. EMI got cold feet, and pulled the plug on releasing the still untitled album, only to put out the "World of You" single, which didn't make much of a dent in the charts anyway.  It seemed that the Aerovons and their "smashing english sound" (as they called it) would forever be shelved until the RPM label finally released the album, aptly titled Resurrection in 2003 where it has since developed a long- deserved following. Come on over, and I'll play it for you.

Friday, June 27, 2008

"Anvil: The story of Anvil"

Saw a great documentary last night that was part of the L.A. Film Festival. "Anvil: The story of Anvil" directed by Sascha Gervasi, is one of the best films about music that I've seen in a long time.

Back in the early 80's Anvil was one of the architects of the speed metal sound. In a great opening montage, we see footage of them playing to a packed festival in Japan intercut with glowing testimonials from some of Metal's elder statesmen. Fame and fortune, however always eluded them, and bands that they paved the way for such as Slayer, Mettallica and Anthrax went on to thrash much more successfully. Why? Inept Producers, Unscrupulous labels, being from Canada or maybe they just suck. Irregardless , Anvil never stopped rocking, playing to a smaller and smaller group of hard-core fans for the next 25 years. 

Today, the two remaining original members are Steve "Lips" Kudlow (who back in the day used to rock a bondage harness onstage while using a dildo as a guitar slide), and drummer Robb Reiner. Friends and bandmates since their teens, these guys toil in musical obscurity playing barely attended gigs while dealing with wives, kids and dead-end jobs. The similarities intentional or not to Spinal Tap are amazing. The fact that they stay at it despite label and fan indifference, a disastrous european tour not to mention being in their 50's, just goes to show how much they love to play, and it's hard not to be touched by their tenacity and passion, however knuckleheaded it may be. Despite the odds, Anvil is given the opportunity to record a new album, and get invited to play another festival in Japan which serves as a nice bookending device. 

Incidentally, the film was shown at the John Anson Ford theatre, and if you ever get the opportunity to see a show there, go! Kind of a mini-Greek theatre nestled in the Cahuenga Pass, it has a nice pastoral intimacy feeling miles from Hollywood. When we got there, the stage was setup with musical gear before the film started, so you knew they'd be playing, but after watching "Anvil" and getting to know these guys, when the lights came up and Lips was playing his flying V axe, you couldn't help but smile and flash your devil sign.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Buried Treasure:Thunderclap Newman

Here's the first in a series of Films, Records, Books or anything else that has for one reason or another never garnered the popular and critical attention that it deserved. Public reaction to art is fickle and mysterious, and when you factor in commercial concerns such as marketing and promotion, the vagaries of fashion and trends, appreciation let alone success for an artists' work becomes the exception rather than the norm. 

Thunderclap Newman never really was a band in the traditional sense. Pete Townshend formed them as a vehicle for the songwriting and singing talents of John "Speedy" Keene, who was a one-time roadie for The Who, and also wrote "Armenia City in the Sky" from the album "The Who Sell Out".  The success of "Tommy" afforded Townshend to indulge in side projects in which he could serve as producer, and in this case he recruited the unlikely pair of 15 year old guitarist Jimmy McCullough and Andy Newman, a portly jazz piano player wearing horn-rimmed glasses whose day job was at the post office. Rounding out the band was Townshend himself on bass under the pseudonym "Bijou Drains".

Recorded in 1969, the first single from the album Hollywood Dream was the anthemic "Something in the Air" which stayed at number one for three weeks and captured the flower-power zeitgeist. It's lovely melody, soaring string arrangement and Newman's barrel-house piano break make it a slice of pure pop heaven. Subsequent singles from the album, however failed to chart and the band dissolved, never to record or perform again.

Here's a promo clip of "Something in the Air"...

If the rest of the album turned out to be sub-standard filler, Thunderclap Newman would have deserved to be relegated to the one-hit wonder category which has since been their legacy . However, the rest of the songs are just as strong, and the record as a whole is excellent. Keene's songwriting is melodic, and his reedy voice has a gentleness that counters nicely even with McCullough's more burning solos. "Hollywood#1", a paean to silent film-era L.A. has an easy shuffle with a Honky-Tonk piano. "Look Around" and "The Old Cornmill" really rock, and "Accidents" is a strange 9 minute song about trainspotters (I think) punctuated by shattering glass sounds.

A few B-sides and alternate mixes added to the CD re-issue make Hollywood Dream one of the best, overlooked records of the late 60's. Anyone with a taste for British Power-Pop should pick this up. Now.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin

The great comedian George Carlin died yesterday. 

I'm not going to bother writing a historical bio of George with birthplaces and dates, accounts of his transformation from a button-down vegas comedian to counter-culture firebrand and free-speech symbol, stories of his arrests for obscenity, battles with drugs etc, etc. These can all be found easily enough and with much more detail on the net. Nor am I going to try to compose an elegy on the social impact that he had on our language and culture and the influence on nearly every comedian that came after him, for there are many who can do that with far more eloquence and depth than I can.

Usually, when someone whom I respect or even revere dies, the eventual mini-flood of emails and phone calls from friends make the rounds, comments and testimonials are written and glasses of wine are lifted and toasts are made. And more often than not, the daily business of life will shortly push the death out of one's mind. Not so with Carlin, I believe.  It isn't just the huge influence that his humor had on me growing up, or how his observations on the absurdities and hypocrisies of modern life, religion and language were always a righteous and hilarious crystallization of the things I had (or hadn't yet) thought, but that he was still going strong up until the end.  Sure, his hair was all white and he moved a little bit slower (a couple of heart attacks will do that), but he was still out there, touring, making his 
HBO specials, his scalpel for dissecting and exposing ourselves as sharp as ever. The closest analogy I can think of is a jazz musician, honing his craft over years and years, trying to distill his art to a more pure essence.

As a kid, I remember hearing his records like Class Clown and AM/FM, and while I was mostly entertained by his funny voices and bits about blue food and dirty words, I also could pick up on his wry commentary on class, religion, race, social institutions and specifically language that coincided with and reinforced my nascent understanding of the world and the people around me. Carlin was the Great Bullshit Detector and was always the paragon of calling all of us out on our stupidities, hypocrisy, what set us apart and what bound us together. Like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, Carlin's genius was making us laugh our asses off while showing us the truth. To me he was a hero, and he'll be missed.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"The Score" Vol.1


Here's an internet radio show I did recently of all soundtrack music. 

Fade In:
The pulsating rhythms and punchy brass of David Shire's title track of "The Taking of Pelham, One Two Three" sets the stage. One of the great, gritty and under-appreciated New York films of the 70's, the music perfectly fits the action and tension of this subway-heist caper. 

Cut to:
The ominous and iconic image of Jack Torrence's VW Bug winding its' way up twisting mountain roads to the haunted Overlook Hotel accompanies Wendy Carlos' music for Stanley Kubrick's horror masterpiece, "The Shining". Her use of creepy Moog synthesizer and ghostly, disembodied voices suggest evil around every curve.

Slow dissolve to:
From "The Conversation"; a classic watergate-era thriller, we have more music from David Shire. His Erik Satie-meets-Bill Evans spare and elegiac piano score perfectly captures the loneliness and alienation of Harry Caul, the haunted and paranoid "bugger" played by Gene Hackman. 

Snap Zoom to:
The maestro, Ennio Morriccione is best known for his work with director Sergio Leone. This has to be one of greatest most recognizable themes; from "For a Few Dollars More", this classic Spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood reprising his role as the man with no name features the superlative guitar and whistling of the improbably-named Alessandro Alessandroni.

Cut To:
Among the greatest of hard-core British gangster films has to be Mike Hodges' "Get Carter". Roy Budd's evocative jazz-tinged opening credit theme featuring a funky fender rhodes perfectly compliments Michael Caine (never better) as Carter, the London hitman taking the train home up to Newcastle to avenge his brother's murder.
Jules Dassin was one of the great American directors on the 40's and 50's, creating classic film noirs such as "Thieves' Highway" and "Brute Force" before emigrating to Europe in the wake of Macarthyism. One of his later works, "Uptight" was essentially a remake of "The Informer" in a late-60's African-American setting. It featured the music of Booker T. and the MG's, the great Memphis soul band from the Stax label playing one of their signature tunes, "Time is Tight".

Slow dissolve to:
From the mean streets of America to the snow-covered fields of Russia, we next have the main title music from David Lean's "Doctor Zhivago". Maurice Jarre's beautiful and romantic score won an Oscar, and "Lara's Theme" became an international sensation. If you get the chance, watch how well the theme plays during the title sequence over a slowly changing series of paintings.

Cut back to:
"Black Caesar" starring Fred Williamson was a 1973 blacksploitation update of "Little Caesar", although Edward G. Robinson didn't have the Godfather of Soul, James Brown singing "Down and out in New York City" like we have here. Too Funky.
What if we to fuse the last two entries into one? How about Russian gangsters in New York? That's exactly what James Gray's "Little Odessa" is about. A very underrated and little seen gem, the director uses Russian choral music like the Rachmaninioff vespers to underscore the hopelessness of the characters and the bleakness of a Coney Island winter. Haunting yet beautiful.

Slow dissolve to:

As if you haven't had enough New York bleakness already, let's up the ante with not only one of the greatest films ever made, but one of the greatest scores from one of the greatest composers. Hyperbole? Not when Bernard Herrmann is in the mix. Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Psycho are only a few of the masterpieces that Herrmann, (known most notably for his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock) penned thru his life. This selection is from his final score, "Taxi Driver". The seething violence in the mind of Travis Bickle  comes thru in the menacing brass and percussion (you can echoes of it from his "Vertigo" score) along with the loneliness  and melancholy in the jazzy sax passages. His last score it indeed was. He passed away on the night of the final mixing session. The master will be missed.

Okay, let's lighten the mood a bit.

Many of the Hal Roach comedy two-reelers from the 1930's were scored by Leroy Shield. And while hardly a household name, If you spend any time from your childhood watching The Little Rascals or Laurel and Hardy, you'll instantly recognize his sunny and swinging big band music. Amazingly, none of his music at the time was released on vinyl. Give credit, then to Amsterdam-based "documentary orchestra" the Beau-Hunks for meticulously recreating Shield's music using vintage-era recording techniques and bringing his music to a new generation of fans. The selection offered up here is from The Little Rascals' "Streamline Susie".

If we could delve into the mind of Humbert Humbert, watching nymphet Delores Haze swinging a hula-hoop around her nubile hips, the accompianing music to his dirty middle-aged thoughts would most certainly be "Lolita Ya-Ya" by the great Nelson Riddle. Best known for his arrangements for such Capitol records luminaries like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee, his soundtrack work was just as memorable.

The sequel for the 1968 film "In the Heat of the Night", was the obviously-titled "They call me Mister Tibbs!", and while being a forgetful cash-in of the original and provocative thriller, it did boast a great early-70's score by Quincy Jones.

Long slow smoke-filled dissolve to...

Director Barbet Schroder's best known films were from the late 60's and early 70's and dealt directly with the hippy-era aesthetic and themes of alienation, personal exploration and  freedom. It didn't hurt that he contracted Pink Floyd to score two of his movies. Here we have "Mudmen" from "La Valley", and while many of the Floyd's tracks on this collection worked sonically and thematically as rough drafts for their "Dark Side if the Moon" album, this selection recalls their earlier, spacier tones.

"Swagger" is the best way I could describe "Frankie Machine" from composer Elmer Bernstein's "The Man with the Golden Arm". One of the best jazz soundtracks of the 1950's, Otto Preminger's study of drug addiction featured arguably Frank Sinatra's finest performance. If you're digging the blustery horns and deep rhythms heard here, try checking out Bernstein's score to "Sweet Smell of Success" as well.

Between the twin R&B masterpieces of "What's Goin' On" and "Let's Get it On",  Marvin Gaye wrote, arranged and performed the soundtrack to 1972's "Trouble Man". Like his contemporaries Curtis Mayfield and Issac Hayes, Gaye utilized blacksploitation material to explore his own musical ideas while exercising more creative control within the Motown system. While most people are familiar with the vocal title track,  "T plays it Cool", with it's slinky rhythm and funky synthesizer is exemplary of most of the compositions.

Finally we have Jerry Goldsmith's brilliant score to Roman Polanski's "Chinatown". Story has it that Goldsmith was given just ten days to do all of the composing, which makes it even more astounding. Melancholy, glamour and romance all come out at once from Uan Rasey's trumpet on "Jake and Evelyn", a love theme for doomed lovers Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

Fade Out.

That's All Folks!!


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Maiden Voyage

If a blog is posted and nobody reads it, does it make a noise?

Well friends, here it is, my first blog. My initial bemusement and trepidation for adding my voice to the internet din was overcome by seeing the great and entertaining pages that my friends had created, and their enthusiasm and encouragement that the blogging waters were fine- so I'm jumping in at the deep end. 

So what's it all about then? What's to differentiate my page from the thousands of blogs, websites, myspace/facebook pages and kitty-cat memorials? And most importantly, how will I turn my humble musings on music, film, books, food, photography and whatever else I fancy into a money-spinning empire? Time will tell, but it's a journey that I hope you'll take with me if only for a little while. I encourage your posts, feedback and suggestions so that your energy and ideas will help my focus to sharpen and expand.

All right, Let's get started...