Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Phil Collins Backlash

So Phil Collins has been big in the "news" the past few weeks. Rolling Stone Magazine wrote that the former Genesis drummer and mega-selling solo artist would be coming out of retirement. He was planning both a new album and a world tour. Fans rejoiced and awaited further developments in anticipation. Internet trolls likewise rejoiced, sharpening their fangs and letting loose with snarky comments of varying degrees of intelligence.

Immediately, professional and armchair critics alike were writing opinion pieces condemning Collins and his intention to return to the spotlight. Some anti-fans began online petitions, including one on petitioning the United Nations, to put a stop to his comeback plans.

Expectedly, many fans of Phil Collins and Genesis reacted with outrage. Comments on Genesis fan sites regarding the petitions frequently consisted of basic name calling ("Philthy rats" was kind of a cute one), and your standard "get a life" and "don't feed the trolls" comments. To an outside observer, it was probably considerably more hubbub than such a childish joke warranted, but then again, I understand that nobody likes to hear the old "your favorite band sucks" thing.

Eventually, as each new news website published a story on the petitions, and more people got pissed off, and more people made childish comments, the joke kind of snowballed beyond its own merit. Whether in response to the anger from irate fans, or simply incredulous that things got as far as they did, the creator of the petition ended the campaign, noting that it was "low brow satire, a farcical jest... shared with some friends" that got out of control.

The whole time from Phil's initial announcement to the petition being taken down was a little more than a week.

Even as a fan of Phil Collins and Genesis, it was hard for me not to be amused by all of this. (I may add that almost immediately after the Rolling Store article came out, a statement on a Genesis fan website, supposedly from Phil Collins' management, stated that, in spite of Phil's enthusiastic statements, there were no concrete future plans in regards to touring and recording. If true, that would, of course, make the whole point moot.) At the same time, I understand that Phil Collins fans feel that they are constantly on the defensive. Phil has been a favorite target of critical and public scorn for years. It may not be as easy for fans to look at this whole situation philosophically, no pun intended.

Indeed, there was nothing funny about the petition itself. The only funny thing was that the drama it provoked was so out of proportion to the effort that went into making it. The mission statement was simplistic and trite, and frankly, making fun of Phil is just so passé. Hardcore fans were offended by the sentiment; I was offended that this childish gesture was supposed to pass as satire.

The petition was too easy. Too easy to make, and too easy to sign. Do you think that it would have gained nearly as much traction it were an actual letter writing campaign? Something that actually involved standing up? No, the whole thing was an exercise in casual snideness (although it is the "exercise" equivalent of watching a yoga video while sitting on the couch eating Pringles).

I don't blame the guy who made it. It was good for a cheap laugh at first, and for all I know, he was being honest when he asserted that it was a private joke that got out of control. Frankly, I agree with him in wondering how it was decided to be newsworthy. There were very few signatures when articles about it started appearing, and when the petition was shut down, it had less than four thousand, a pretty insignificant amount considering that Phil Collins has sold hundreds of millions of albums.

Phil's drumming prowess has never been in question.
Photo by Armando Gallo
As for the bloggers and newspaper columnists who have also weighed in on the issue... Well, as someone who frequently writes on the subject of popular (and un-popular) music and musicians, I cannot be too upset at people who write pieces that are critical of artists that I enjoy or with whom I feel a kinship (you may say that using the word kinship is a bit extreme, but I would argue intense fandom is considerably more than mere enjoyment and aesthetic opinion, which is largely why these arguments get so heated). I cannot even blame them for pieces in which they apparently attack with vicious glee. I, myself, have occasionally found it fun to rail against my "favorite aversions" (to use the term I believe to be coined by legendary rock writer Lester Bangs). I couldn't, and wouldn't even dream of telling these guys to "get a life" and "stop trash talking artists that many people enjoy." Writers write, critics critique, and that's how it is. That said, we should be allowed to expect sensible arguments and a certain level of wit. A good amount of the criticism of Phil Collins of late has all sounded the same: "My parents played 'Sussudio' over and over in the back of the mini-van when I was a kid, so I hate Phil Collins, even though I heard he used to be a good drummer, but he is responsible for all the evil of the 1980s and he must be thwarted."

Satire should never be lazy and given the fact that Phil Collins was basically recognized to be an easy target thirty years ago, I personally believe that if you want to go after him now, you should at least come up with something new rather than regurgitate arguments that were made in 1987. (Again, I have gone after easy targets myself in the past, but I like to think that when I do so, I still always try to take careful aim.) Though I disagreed with it, one of the more entertaining pieces I read, appearing in the New York Post, implicitly made the argument that letting up on Phil Collins would risk us turning into our parents, and warned its readers that: "Nostalgia is not to be trusted. Nothing is as good as you remember it -- but sometimes it can be a hell of a lot worse."

In response, I will make the argument that the Phil Collins hate is its own kind of indulgence in nostalgia. Let's face it, this backlash is completely unnecessary. There is absolutely no way in this day and age that Phil will be as huge a presence on the music scene as he was thirty years ago. His music will not be as inescapable. If you want to hear his new music (should he actually make it), you may have to actually look for it rather than wait for it to be crammed down your throat. But I understand that people still get a laugh out of ripping on Phil. It was a favorite past time of the 80s. His announcement that he was coming out of retirement was almost like going to a friend's house and finding that he has a working Atari 2600: You get to play your favorite childhood games again. However, those games will never be as good as they were when we were kids. Likewise, the Phil Collins loathing game is even older and more worn out than his music is criticized for being.

Personally, I believe that a lot of Phil's music is better than many remember it being. But don't worry, nobody's going to make you listen.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Happy Birthday, Uncle Shelby!

Born on September 25th, 1930, Shel Silverstein would have turned 85 today. The brilliant and irreverent author, illustrator, and songwriter died in 1999, and though a lot of people I know grew up with his work, particularly his children's books such as The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends, I think that many, particularly in my age group, are not aware of the breadth of his body of work, how influential he was, and just how "not for kids" he could be.

For the most part, I, too, was blind to this when I was younger. When I was a kid, my favorite books were his books of children's poetry (though I would argue that the surreal, humorous, and whimsical pieces would appeal to all ages). Some of my fondest memories of that time of my life were of my parents and brother and I reading aloud, trading lines from poems such as "Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too" and "The Meehoo with an Exactlywat." It is not an exaggeration to say that worldview was shaped by his sense of the fantastical and the absurd (the cynicism came later). My sick sense of humor largely came from the fact that parents didn't know that Uncle Shelby's ABZs, a parody of a reading primer, was not supposed to be read by kids. Pieces like "G is for Gigolo" and "K is for Kidnapper " ("Tell the nice kidnapper that your daddy has lots of money. Then maybe he will you ride in his car") gave me my first inkling that not all of Uncle Shelby's work was meant for "tender young minds."

When I was in college I discovered his adult oriented works. This included cartoons and poems that he did for Playboy Magazine from the late 1950s right up until his death. I found out that he was also a playwright and through the staging of his theatrical works he became close friends with David Mamet, with whom he co-wrote the screenplay to the underrated mob comedy, Things Change. Furthermore, they shared a double bill in an evening entitled Oh, Hell!, pairing Mamet's Bobby Gould in Hell with a stage adaptation of Shel's crass epic poem The Devil and Billy Markham (originally published in Playboy in 1979 [click for text]).

And while he was doing all of this, he managed to sustain a career as a prolific and idiosyncratic songwriter.  

See there are two kinds of Shel Silverstein fans: Those who are amazed to find he was a brilliant and off-kilter songwriter whose works had been performed by dozens of musicians (most notably by his friend, Johnny Cash), and those who are amazed that anyone didn't know that. I'm not ashamed to admit that I was in the first category for years.

I'm not sure at what point I found out that Shel had written Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue." I was amazed that I didn't know all along. I mean, it's so obvious when you think about it. After that, I started noticing his names in the songwriting credits on albums by Emmylou Harris and Marianne Faithful.

Also, hearing his own albums, I was shocked by the sheer uniqueness of his own voice, which, from breath to breath would change from a blustery blues man's howl, to the menace of a psychotic sideshow hawker, to a taunting bratty child. It was a good thing that artists were able to take his work and bring their own unique voices to it, because Shel's own voice was singular, inimitable, and inexplicable.

To help bring his work more into the mainstream, he collaborated with Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, the white trash hippie Bacchanalian band for whom he wrote the majority of their early material, and who backed him on his own early 70s albums (and whose lead vocalist, Dennis Locorriere, would later be the performer of the Billy Markham piece in the Lincoln Center staging of Oh, Hell!). They were perfectly at ease singing his most heartfelt country ballads while enthusiastically diving deep into the most crass and lascivious material that Silverstein had to offer.

Most notably, Shel wrote "The Cover of Rolling Stone" for them... and it got them (not him) on the cover of that hallowed magazine.

Shel Silverstein died right at the end of my senior year of college. Fittingly, my mother broke the news to me. I still think that Rolling Stone should have put his picture on the cover as a tribute, if not for writing "Cover of Rolling Stone," how about for "A Boy Named Sue," or "25 Minutes to Go," or "The Ballad of Lucy Jordon?" I guess the editors of Rolling Stone were too busy at the time trying to figure out how they could turn their once venerable magazine into a glorified Entertainment Weekly.

In any case, Happy birthday, Uncle Shelby. And thank you for creating a body of work so vast and diverse that I am still able to discover new things over three decades after I first opened up Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Eleventh House Reunited

Larry Coryell and The Eleventh House at the Blue Note 7/17/15

"This music still feels relevant," Larry Coryell, legendary Jazz guitarist and "Godfather of Fusion," said to the packed house at The Blue Note Friday night, "and if it feels good, then it is good."

Coryell and his old band, The Eleventh House, reunited for a string of dates at the New York club last week. Known for their high-energy blend of Jazz, Rock, and Funk, the band had gone through a number of personnel changes during its mid 70s heyday, and the line-up that took to the stage represented various eras with Coryell being joined by original members drummer Alphonse Mouzon and Randy Brecker on trumpet, along with long-time member John Lee on bass and Larry's son Julian, who has participated in several Eleventh House reunions in the last decade, on second guitar and guitar synthesizer.

Their performance consisted almost completely of material from their 1974 debut album, Introducing the Eleventh House with Larry Coryell (ironically, all of the promotional materials featured the cover image from their second album, Level One, from which virtually no material was played), focusing mostly on compositions by Coryell and Mouzon. However, it was clear from the beginning that the band was not merely attempting to recreate the old sound. They didn't want to pretend they were young. They didn't want to pretend that nearly 40 years hadn't past. They certainly didn't want to pretend that they had not spent that time growing as musicians.

These were wiser musicians. Since his time in the original band, Randy Brecker went from being one of the young upstarts bringing soul and rock sounds into jazz trumpet playing (and vice-versa, as a founding member of Blood Sweat and Tears and ubiquitous session man) to his present status as one of the undisputed greats, a living legend noted for his ability to cross genres while remaining rooted in Bebop. His solos built from simple, sparse lines and melodies into powerful, angular statements.

John Lee, who had joined the band just prior to their 1975 album, Level One, added both funk and melodicism with his bass playing. Not content to merely sit in the groove, he frequently locked with the guitarists, exchanging phrases.  

Larry himself played solos that were tasty and effective, pulling out a few of his famous fiery and blisteringly fast lines now and again for punctuation (and maybe to show any doubters that he still could), but was more often playing expressively, focusing on melodic invention, more about the notes he played than how fast he could play them. Throughout, his joy at playing with this group of old friends was palpable, and freely gave them space to work.

Larry's son Julian, the only member not from any of the seventies incarnations of the band, had his hands full filling the place of original member, keyboardist Mike Mandel. Mandel, who, aside from Larry, was the only consistent member of the Eleventh House in the seventies, had not only provided a solid rhythmic bedrock with his electric piano, but also flowing melodies and sonic experimentation with his use of analog synthesizers. Consequently, Julian spent a lot of the show busy with the role of filling that space with the use of using guitar triggered synths.  Outside of that, he also played some tasty leads, including an elegant solo during "The Funky Waltz" which began with some beautiful, atmospheric playing, eloquently conversing with the bassist, and then building to a frenzy which seemed to surprise even his father, who proudly, and somewhat comically, started to fan him down with a towel.

In many ways, the strongest link to their old sound was in Alphonse Mouzon's drumming. Providing the power and relentlessness that originally drew me to their old recordings (particularly live recordings from that time, as the band's true energy was never quite captured in the studio), he sounded as funky and aggressive as he did decades ago, propelling the group while rhythmically reinventing pieces. Also, as in the past, he added that extra bit of hipness and flamboyance with unapologetic virtuosity.

The Friday and Saturday evening shows were advertised that a special guest would be joining the band. Though some hopefulls wondered if it might be another Fusion guitar god like John McLaughlin, there was more reasonable speculation that Mike Mandel, who sat out the last Eleventh House reunion two years ago due to illness, might be making an appearance. That belief was reinforced by the Nord keyboard sitting behind Randy that went un-played for most of the show.

Indeed, Mandel did take the stage three-quarters of the way though the set, and was met with enthusiastic applause. As the band began playing his composition, "Joy Ride," the reunion felt a little more complete. Though Mandel was relegated to an electric piano patch on the keyboard as opposed to his old electronic arsenal, and seemed to lack the dexterity of his younger years, his presence was warmly welcomed by band members and audience alike. It was nice seeing Larry showcase Mandel, who had been such a pivotal collaborator for years even before the Eleventh House band formed.

Concluding their show, the band kicked in with their old, swinging anthem, "The Eleventh House Blues" with all of the guys getting their last licks in and clearly just having fun playing with each other. The music felt fresh and classic at the same time, and the whole evening had a wonderful feeling of camaraderie, having shared the experience of working together at a special time when pushing musical boundaries was the order of the day. Seeing Larry's unbounded delight at working with these guys again made the music feel that much better.

Photos by Kika Cori

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Sweet Home Alabama

When Lynyrd Skynyrd Tried to Ditch the Rebel Flag

Skynyrd's Rickey Medlocke, Johnny Van Zant, and Gary Rossington
So for the past week, in the wake of the horrific shootings in South Carolina, the argument over the flying of the confederate or rebel flag has raged on, obviously in lieu of more productive discussions about guns or violence. However, in spite of the fact that I believe that there are bigger issues to address, I do think that it is a positive thing to address the fact that for over a century, African-Americans (largely) in the south have had to contend with a symbol of their oppression shoved in their face every day by their neighbors, and even be forced to see it flying on government buildings.

Though I hardly believe that it will solve the problem of deep seated racism in America, to see the rebel flag removed from government buildings would be a nice symbolic victory. Also, though the rebel flag has its defenders, I don't think that they have a lobbying organization with the power of the National Rifle Association, so it's a more realistic goal. Just in the last week, we have seen many unexpected people come out in support of taking the flag down from state Capitol buildings (though, again, it's probably easier for the likes of Mitt Romney to come out as anti-rebel flag than anti-gun), and even seen it removed from the Capitol grounds in Alabama.

Still, this will probably not have a huge effect on people who wish to fly the flag on their own property. In fact, it has already been seen that some wish to deny the racist aspects of the rebel flag, and see this movement as an assault on their culture and their rights. (Surprise, surprise, most of these people are white.)

You may remember when the classic southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd stated in 2012 that they would be no longer be using the rebel flag in their concerts. Their fans had a shit fit.

When promoting their latest album Last of a Dyin' Breed, band members Johnny Van Zant , Gary Rossington, and Rickey Medlocke said in a CNN interview that they had stopped using the flag because of the racial connotations. "We didn't want to be associated with that particular thing," lead singer Johnny Van Zant said. It was an admirable step forward, albeit of a bit late one, for a band whose members and fan base largely consist of self-proclaimed rednecks. It should be noted, however, that they still remained ignorant of the fact that the flag's racist meanings are inherent, believing that the negative connotations are somehow something new. Guitarist (and sole remaining founding member) Gary Rossington asserted that "through the years, you know, people like the KKK and skinheads and people have kind of kidnapped the Dixie or rebel flag from the southern tradition and the heritage of the soldiers. That's what it was about. And they kind made it look bad in certain ways." One could say that he's kind of full of shit and that he is deluded in thinking that the flag did not represent racial oppression from the very beginning, but on the other hand, at least it's clear that Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn't want to be associated with the KKK. That's a step, right?

Don't get me wrong. I think that Lynyrd Skynyrd is a fine band. Sure, those who know me will remember how, in that past, I've referred to them as a "second rate Allman Brothers,"  and I do stand by that, but being a second rate Allman Brothers is better than being a first rate Grand Funk Railroad (if that makes any sense). With their powerful three guitar line-up they were a force to be reckoned with. At their best, they were powerful, hard-rocking, and lyrical at the same time, bombastic, yet unpretentious.  Though they didn't flaunt the influence of black artists, it was clear that their sound was a marriage of all the sounds of the south, from country, to blues and soul. I do not have a single bad thing to say about the original Skynyrd (which disbanded in 1977 after the plane crash which took the lives of guitarist Steve Gaines, and leader and front-man Ronnie Van Zant among others).

Sure, many of their fans were rednecks. Sure the band flew the confederate flag at their concerts. I'm not going to defend the use of a symbol that is so clearly associated with racism and slavery, but I will posit that there was a time when it was easier to be blissfully ignorant of that association. Even the Allman Brothers, who, unlike Skynyrd, tacitly acknowledged the influence of black artists and proudly had a multi-ethnic line-up, occasionally used the confederate flag in promotional materials.

Thus, I will not begrudge Lynyrd Skynyrd's for their use of the confederate flag during the 70s (I'm sure it's easier for me as a white dude), but I will be fiercely critical of anyone who continues to fly that flag now that its true meaning is clearly known and emphasized. It is amazing to me that there are people who still maintain that it is a symbol of southern pride and nothing more, declaring that it is not racist in the slightest in spite of the fact that it is a symbol of an insurrectionist movement originally based on preserving the right to own human beings.

Well, these people exist, and a lot of them are Skynyrd fans.

The outcry that erupted among the band's fan base in 2012 was swift and vicious (as swift and vicious as internet trolling gets, I suppose). It was so bizarre to see how many Skynyrd fans were so vocal in the defense of the flag and their anger at the band for abandoning it. They took it really personally, and vented in their messages. A beautiful example comes from some dude calling himself celtwarrior who wrote "skynyrd scalawags: now there is a catchy name. Love that Yankee money don't you Rossington and crew." (It should be noted that were a number of fans who applauded the band's decision, and also noted that the original band was considerably more left-leaning.)

It takes a special kind of asshole to defend an indefensible symbol. It also takes a special kind of asshole to try to tell artists what they should do. And so it saddened me to see the group bow to the wishes of this bunch of highly specialized assholes and declare that they would continue to use the flag as a backdrop at their concerts.

Soon after the announcement and the backlash, Gary Rossington wrote on the band's website: "Myself, the past and present members (that are from the South), are all extremely proud of our heritage and being from the South. We know what the Dixie flag represents and its heritage; the Civil War was fought over states rights."

Way to take a stand guys.

A less seditious makeover
To their credit, looking at the Lynyrd Skynyrd website today, the confederate flag was hardly to be found. I didn't see it in any stage photos. Looking hard, I found that they still sell some guitar picks that have the rebel flag in their design, but most of the website made prominent use of the American flag instead. Perhaps they ultimately did what happened at the Alabama Capitol building and should be done all over: Take it down when no one's looking and unceremoniously let the symbol disappear.

A little disclaimer here. I am aware that not all Skynyrd fans are idiotic reactionaries. At the same time, I don't feel bad making fun, particularly after reading comments fans left on the CNN website ("'Sweet Home Massachusetts' has kind of a nice ring to it") made me realize that to a number of these people, an association with my home state is the worst insult ever.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Young(ish) Person's Guide to Stan Freberg

Stan Freberg  1926-2015
So, Stan Freberg died a couple of months ago, and I was really sad about that. I had been a fan of his since I was 17 and was introduced to his playfully satirical brand of comedy via his classic 1961 album, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 1: The Early Years. Though I was aware that he was not very popular with many people my age (to say nothing of the younger generation), I still thought that his death would be bigger news. Even though he hasn't been a household name for probably a few decades now, I thought that there would be a bigger recognition of his works and cultural contributions and a greater outpouring of appreciation from people who had loved his work and who had been influenced by him. Indeed, there were some wonderful tributes to him, including a wonderful piece in the New York Times, but generally when I would mentioned his passing in conversation, people would usually look at me quizzically. Generally, people older than I would remark that they thought he had died long ago, while people my age had no idea who he was.

Stan (right), with Daws Butler and June Foray
Over the years I had managed to turn a handful of my friends onto his work by way of a few recordings that I had accumulated in the mid-90s including a collection of the early episodes of his eponymous (and short-lived) radio show. They were not easy to find then in the days before Amazon and eBay, when you actually had to look for stuff in stores or catalogs. Upon hearing of Stan's death, I decided to try to find the second (and final) set of episodes of The Stan Freberg Show (it only lasted 15 episodes, largely because, in spite of the fact that they had long sponsored Jack Benny when he was in that time slot, he would not allow the tobacco companies to be sponsors; He was as principled as he was funny). It was hardly any easier than it had been 20 years ago.

What I discovered in looking for the collection confirmed my beliefs about Stan Freberg's popularity in the present age: While generally warmly, but vaguely, remembered by many a boomer, he really is largely a cult figure. Beloved by people who avidly listen to Dr. Demento's radio show and still collect old novelty records, his fans today are hugely enthusiastic and relatively few. He is seemingly not popular enough to ensure that his recordings are kept in print, but beloved enough that old copies become collector's items and fetch handsome prices. That can make the search a bit of a pain in the ass, and expensive, to boot.

(As a side note, I ended up buying it on eBay on cassette from someone in Nevada [we'll call her"Dotty"] whose eBay listings looked less like a vintage record shop than a small town garage sale. Upon receiving it, after ripping through the layers of plastic, cardboard and bubble-tape and finally getting to the package itself, I found that, peculiarly, it was nicely gift-wrapped in tasteful floral paper. This was definitely a first for my eBay purchases. So either Dotty was re-gifting, or she really just believes in spreading a little sunshine.)

Again, I totally understand why most people my age don't know Stan Freberg's work. As one of the last great radio artists and among the early pioneers of television (particularly in advertising), his influence is still considerable, even if not recognized by the next generation. Many younger people are simply unaware that Stan was one of giants on whose shoulders everyone would stand thereafter. I think that he would get more props from my generation (I'm actually not that young, as technically I fit in with Gen X and, well, as for the millennials, they're a lost cause) if they knew just how much he had done, and how much his work influenced some of our childhood and contemporary favorites. Thus, below I have tried to come up with a few examples of the many things that Stan was a part of, as well as things that illustrate the ripple effect that he had in his decades of unrelenting creativity.

Time for Beany

Stan and Cecil
While created by legendary animator (and co-creator of Bugs Bunny) Bob Clampett, It was Stan's voice and puppeteering (alongside the man who would become a long-time collaborator, voice-artist legend, Daws Butler, well known for creating the voices of Yogi Bear and Elroy Jetson among many others) on that low-budget kid's TV show that so brilliantly balanced whimsy and sly adult humor so as to become popular with children and twisted grown-ups alike. So enthusiastic was its fan-base that it was reported that, in order not to miss a single episode, Albert Einstein abruptly left a meeting of Nobel Prize winners declaring: "Excuse me gentlemen, it's time for Beany." ("I hope that's true," Frank Zappa said in an interview in which he stated that his affinity for Einstein was based on his hair and their mutual love of the show.) As a side note, when revived as the animated cartoon Beany and Cecil in the 60s, one young fan named Angus Young (later, of course, to become the driving force behind the band AC/DC) was inspired by the business card of the character Dishonest John, which read: "Dirty deeds done dirt cheap. Special rates for Sundays and holidays." A rock classic was born.

Looney Tunes

"A whooooole lotta lumps!"
If you didn't know that Stan Freberg provided a number of voices for Looney Tunes, there's a good reason for that. While the genius of Mel Blanc cannot be overstated, contrary to what is commonly accepted, he was not the only voice artist to work on Warner Brothers cartoons. For years, several performers provided voices for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons and were uncredited. (Does the name Arthur Q Bryant ring a bell? Well, he was the voice of Elmer Fudd.) In fact, for years, even Mel's name was absent from the opening title cards until one day he asked for a raise and received screen credit instead. While Freberg did voices for a number of characters including Pete Puma and Chester the Terrier, he only received a credit on the stand-alone short "Three Little Bops," a jazz retelling of the Three Little Pigs (the soundtrack of which featured west coast jazz legends Shorty Rogers and Barney Kessel). Incidentally, another talented voice actor who frequently did uncredited work on Warner Brothers cartoons was the great June Foray, notably as Granny (Tweety's owner) and Witch Hazel, and would later create the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel. She would also collaborate with Stan Freberg on his radio show and numerous albums and commercials spanning several decades.

"John!... Marsha!"

It was one of those things that I kept hearing throughout the years, knowing it was a reference to something, but never knew where it originated. I first heard that passionate call and response in a Looney Tunes cartoon when I was a kid (it was one featuring Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil). Obviously, at that time, I did not get that it was a reference to  Stan's popular novelty record of 1951. "John and Marsha" parodied soap operas of the day by having the titular characters acting out a strange, semi-erotic, mood-swinging  psycho-drama while saying nothing except each other's names. It definitely is a product of its time, and it would probably be corny if it wasn't so bizarre (I think that can be said for much of Freberg's humor). Television viewers a generation later would be similarly confounded by the reference when the scene was reenacted on Mad Men by Elizabeth Moss and her co-worker. As Freberg would ultimately become a pioneer of television advertising, being the first to truly inject satire and absurdism into commercials, the tribute was quite appropriate.

Which leads us to..

Encyclopedia Britannica

Remember that irritating little geek in those Encyclopedia Britannica commercials? The one who had a report due on space? Well, that was Donavan Freberg, Stan's young son helping his dad out on one of his commercials. Given Freberg's genius in crafting bizarre commercials laced with satire, irony, and absurd humor, I wouldn't be surprised if that annoying little pipsqueak was actually intentionally grating. Probably not, though. While those commercials did play with and poke fun at many standard advertising hallmarks ("And I supposed you're going to throw one of those 800 numbers up on the screen") it was hardly Freberg's most memorable work, coming towards the tail end of a career in which he created  television spots that would make the product memorable in the eyes of the viewers, even as it sometimes denigrated the clients  themselves ("Zagnut by any other name... would probably be a good thing."). In the era when TV commercials were still common for record albums, the ad for Herb Alperts' Fandango, complete with a giant exploding taco, is self-referential, psychedelic Madison Avenue at its best and worst, and demands to be seen. I wish I had been in the room when the pitched that one to the famous trumpeter.

The Weird Al Show

I think more people my age like "Weird Al" Yankovic than would probably admit it. As for myself, I can only say that his early videos for "Eat It" and "I Lost on Jeopardy" came out not too long after I had made the transition from Sesame Street to MTV  and had an indelible impact on me, just as Freberg had had an indelible impact on him (his first exposure to his work was when someone in his middle school played "John and Marsha" over the P.A. system in the middle of the day). He would later cast Stan in his short-lived (even shorter-lived than Stan's show, in fact) The Weird Al Show. Of the experience, Yankovic would later write in Variety Magazine: "As long as I live, I’ll never forget what an enormous thrill it was for me to wake up every morning knowing that I’d be working alongside my hero, the great Mr. Freberg."

The Simpsons

Okay, this is more an example of the ripple effect, because, no, as far as I know, Stan Freberg was never on the Simpsons. However, the brand of humor and the voice stylings of the show would not be the same without him. Matt Groening acknowledged him as an early influence via records in his father's collection (probably including albums compiled from skits on his radio show), leading the young future cartoonist to record his own "Matt Groening Shows" on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. In addition, multi-character voice artist Harry Shearer, who recently announced his resignation from the show (Say it ain't so, Harry!), was an admirer and collaborator, performing on Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 2: The Middle Years, and hosted a tribute to the man and his work only a few months ago. And though it's a bit of a stretch, it also can be noted that Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson and others, was mentored by Stan's longtime collaborator, Daws Butler.

Star Wars

Okay, now I'm really stretching it... No, Stan was not in Star Wars either, but his absence did end up making quite a difference. Originally, George Lucas' idea of the C-3PO character was that he would be sort of callow and slimy, and intended him to have a voice like a slick car salesman. It was reported that when Stan Freberg auditioned to be the voice of C-3PO and heard the raw, on-set vocals of actor Anthony Daniels that he was intended to dub over, he suggested to Lucas that Daniel’s own voice was decent and better fit the character. Thus, he deprived himself of a lucrative gig, and also became  indirectly responsible for the C-3PO character as we all know and love, and are sometimes irritated by.

Basically, I hope that I have illustrated that, even if you never heard of him, almost everybody who creates the things that you love, loved and admired Stan Freberg. As a huge fan myself, I feel like I am good company.

That's about all I have to say. For the newly initiated who are interesting in checking out more stuff, I would recommend starting with the album that started it all for me, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 1: The Early Years. I was introduced to this album during a summer theatre program between my junior and senior year in high school. I got to study comedic acting with the highly versatile David Ogden Stiers. A somewhat eccentric, but very generous man (at least during the brief time I knew him), outside of class, he invited groups of us to a couple of sessions to sit and listen to what he considered to be quintessential radio and album comedy. We sat and listened to that album start to finish. Turning American history on its head, it largely pre-figured "Mr. Peabody's Improbable History" from Rocky and Bullwinkle (in fact, many of voice actors from the album went on to form the cast of that cartoon show). The humor was irreverent, as full of bizarre aural trickery and humor as the more pointed, but, playful satire. Though, like the best  old radio shows, it used the lack of visuals as a way to create even more bizarre spectacles in the imagination, it was structured more like a Broadway musical, with the tightly constructed skits linking together simple, but hummable tunes with some of the wittiest (and sometimes most questionable) lyrics on this side of Tom Lehrer. In short, I was hooked. A couple of years later, when the long awaited Vol. 2: The Middle Years came out (a mere 35 years after the original), I was pleased to find David Ogden Stiers in the cast. Sadly, the projected Volume 3, was never made.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Cruising at the Blue Oyster

Exploring the Impact of Police Academy on Long Island City Radio

Walker doing his best imitation of the Turin Shroud.
Being a long-time resident of Long Island City and a denizen of Dominie's Hoek (for outsiders, it's a bar in LIC where only the finest degenerates congregate), I recently started listening to Walker's show on LIC Radio. Those who listen to the show and know (the mononymous) Walker in person, know that what they hear is very much the real Walker. Sure, the show is Long Island City focused, but only to the extent that he uses air-time to bust the chops of his neighborhood cronies, and occasionally snidely delivers something resembling local news. Mostly, it's just Walker being Walker: Playing a few tunes, riffing in an exaggerated radio banter voice (again, he sounds like this in real life) that both indulges in the tacky morning show style lowbrow humor while snarkily satirizing it at the same time. All the while, he relies heavily on a bank of sound effects, partly to enhance that morning drive-time jockey effect, but mostly it's just for his own amusement.

So I felt Walker's pain when I heard that he had lost access to one of his favorite sound-bites: a sample of the opening notes of the song "El Bimbo," as heard in the Police Academy movies. Most people don't even know the name of the song, but  because of its association with the gay leather bar in those movies, it's usually referred to as "The Blue Oyster." Also because of that association, Walker playfully and relentlessly (and with impish political incorrectness) uses it a way to poke fun at his friends.

I took it upon myself to get this sample back into Walker's arsenal. After all, I do have the DVD of Police Academy. I bought it around ten years ago at a time when there was an interest in making sequels and re-boots of 1980s "snobs vs. slobs" farces. The interest was apparently brief, as both Police Academy 8 and the proposed Revenge of the Nerds reboot were cancelled sometime around 2006. For some reason, I remember being upset by this at the time. These movies, while hardly quality films, were quite a big part of my childhood. While on the surface, they were mostly just cheap laughs and gratuitous nudity (not that there's anything wrong with that), the message behind most of these movies is that the weirdos, the un-cool, the misfits can prevail. For a dork in the eighties, that was one hell of a message.

So on one hand, I loved the movies because they spoke to me as an outcast, but on the other hand, it was simply an example of a style of movies that became ubiquitous during my youth. I mean, if you went a multiplex or had cable TV in the 80s, there was no escape from this particular brand of entertainment.

Bear with me for a second and I will explain exactly how, for a time in the eighties, almost every comedy was a variation on Police Academy.

Ted McGinley knows how to wear a sweater.
The term “Snobs vs. the Slobs” can be attributed to the ad campaign for Caddyshack, an early, but certainly not the first, film to use these simplistic archetypes as vehicles for sexual and scatological humor. While neither epithet sounds particularly appealing, inevitably we are supposed to side with the “slobs,” who somehow represent a counterculture (or maybe an anti-culture), despite the fact that they, while often free-spirited, tended to be apolitical. Their sworn enemy, “the snobs,” obviously represent the status quo. They are “the man” that we are to “stick it to.” Again, specific political ideals are eschewed; instead they represent a basic elitism. In these movies, it usually coming from inherited wealth, visually illustrated by a tendency to wear a sweater draped over one's shoulders with the sleeves tied together forming a make-shift ascot. While a class war is insinuated, in the movies, they rarely are more than bullies or party spoilers. Keeping the archetypes as simple and stereotypical as possible is hugely important because character development requires time that could be better spent on a tasteless gag, often involving a horse.

Even though it was the promotional materials for Caddyshack that first employed the term, it was arguably Animal House that was, if not the first, certainly the most celebrated early example of the genre. Using college life as its locale and its vehicle, the film elegantly and voluminously heaped on the gross-out humor without ever being overshadowed by the plot. The characters were painted in broad strokes of black and white. In fact, the movie appears to be quite deliberately and self-consciously apolitical, taking place in 1962, a time before the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam made college hi-jinx considerably less quaint.

Caddyshack added the element of sports, giving the story a built in curve, climaxing with a final competition. This became standard for so many subsequent movies of this type. Underdog literally beats the high and mighty at their own game. Think Rocky with fart jokes (or Rocky II, because yes, I know that Rocky lost the first bout). It ended up spawning a plethora of B-movies involving misfits, tits, and some type of ski race or white water rafting.

Police Academy, on the other hand, borrowed most heavily from the third major example of the genre: Stripes. The classic Bill Murray/Harold Ramis movie took the “snobs vs. slobs” genre into a militant, institutionalized setting, giving the lovable slob the opportunity to buck the system initially, but ultimately to excel within the institution in spite of, or because of, his or her anti-social tendencies.

One could say that Animal House, Caddyshack, and Stripes, created the blueprint for virtually all films that were on after ten o’clock on any pay cable station in the mid-1980s (with the occasional regurgitation of Cannonball Run thrown in for good measure every now and then), Police Academy obviously included. And it goes without saying that none of these second generation movies were in any way as good as the initial triumvirate.

Steve Guttenberg does not approve of this article.
Police Academy does stand apart from this riff-raff, however. Seriously, how many of these cheesy 80s movies spawned six, count them, six sequels? Even Revenge of the Nerds only spawned three, and two of them were made for TV. Also, we can’t forget how the series helped to kick-start the careers of luminaries such as Kim Cattrall and… David Spade… uh, Bobcat Goldthwait, and uh… well, I guess that’s about… no wait, how could I forget Michael “I could sure used some work right about now” Winslow? You know, the guy who made all the mouth sounds? The guy who cracked up everybody back in 1984, but looking back, doesn’t really do much in the movie? Okay, you know what? I can make fun all I want, but the fact that the movie spawned six sequels (and almost a seventh), two TV series (one animated, one live-action) and a theme park show is pretty amazing when one considers that the actual level of quality is such where one might hear oneself say: "Man, those movies started to go downhill when Steve Guttenberg left."

Yes, the movies were crap. But they were my crap. The first Police Academy movie was probably the first R-rated movie I ever saw in a movie theatre. Sure it was crass, politically unenlightened, homophobic, exploitative, and just plain moronic, but... well, there were a lot of tits, and a guy got his head stuck up a horses ass, and there was that guy who made funny noises, and did I mention the tits? (Not Kim Cattrall's though, who was clothed the whole time, the film's biggest flaw.)

Does this make me sound immature? Hey, I was seven years old when I saw this movie (yes, my parents took me when I was seven). This was the days of giggling at Dad’s Playboys, kissing the pages and getting a miniature version of an erection that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with yet. And yet, immature as I was, watching Police Academy made me feel more adult, because the grown men in that movie were as sexually insipid as I was. Ogling and clumsily chasing Kim Katrall's luxurious thighs (her words, not mine), or Leslie Easterbrook’s ample nay-nays, all the while showing no more experience or sophistication that I had as a kid in elementary school. It was as if these guys were just overactive kids in men’s bodies. Trying to go all the way before midnight strikes, their cop car turns back into a pumpkin, and they turn back into the seven year olds that they really are, running back to their friends to tell them how they got to grope a boob.

So, yeah, that's why I happened to have Police Academy on DVD.

Where was I ? Oh yeah, Check out Walker's show on LIC Radio. Weekdays at 3:00pm.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Zappa Road Tapes: Helsinki 73

A Retrospective Album Review with Minimal Commentary on Online Commerce

So I just bought Frank Zappa’s archival release Road Tapes, Venue #2: Finlandia Hall, Helsinki Finland, and if you like Zappa, you probably should too. It features the short-lived Over-Nite Sensation line-up of the Mothers, including at that time the great George Duke on keys, as well as jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, exploring more expansive instrumental territory than the album that they had just completed. By turns jazzy and discordant, with Zappa’s trademark “humanly impossible” compositions, it is a wonderful document of one of the most celebrated of the line-ups of The Mothers.

The Road Tapes series, of which there are presently only two, is relatively new, focusing on “guerilla” concert tapes, recorded on more primitive equipment, usually on tour stops outside of major metropolises where sophisticated multi-track tape machines would be more readily available. Sold almost exclusively through Barfko-Swill, the official online Zappa store, the Venue #2 set actually came out towards the end of 2013. I am almost ashamed to have gotten it only now, but I had my reasons…

See, for years Zappaheads have been irked by Barfko-Swill, due to what they thought were inflated prices (indeed, years ago, the RykoDisc re-masters of the Zappa catalog were sold on the site for almost 50% more than most retail stores, but since the rights to the music have reverted back to the Zappa Family Trust, the prices on the site have been much more reasonable) and inclusion of products of questionable value, hodgepodges of poor quality rehearsal tapes and outtakes. Also, to this day, Barfko-Swill has the annoying tendency to list new releases while giving very little information about the content. For example, the only information provided regarding One Shot Deal, a release from several years ago, is that it “[m]akes its own sauce” and is a “[s]hocking  summer surprise for no reason at all!” Frankly, a track listing would be more helpful. When all too often, retrospective releases can seem like a cash-grab, it’s things like this that really drive that point home. It seems like the Zappa Family Trust thinks that we should just buy anything that they deign to sell us.

I feel like I am in a comfortable position to say this. As a youth, I spent several years accumulating the complete Zappa catalog, and with over 60 releases during his lifetime, Zappa has the honor of being the musician to whom I have given the most money. I must say, I kind of resent this treatment. I may be a fanatic, but I’m not a chump.

On the other hand, as the Zappa Family Trust is so fervently dedicated to the protection of Zappa’s works and legacy, it means that many of these recordings have been carefully and lovingly restored. Also, unlike bands like the Grateful Dead, many of these recordings have not been available as bootlegs or widely traded tapes. Some of these archival releases have indeed filled in some long existing gaps. For example, the 2007 release Wazoo marked the first time that any live recordings of Zappa’s 20 piece “Hot Rats/Grand Wazoo” big band were made commercially available, and the quality of the release almost made it worth the 35 year wait.

Thus I had high hopes for this new Road Tapes release, and certain expectations of quality. As you have probably gleaned from the opening sentence of this post, I was not disappointed.

Hardcore Zappa fans have probably heard live recordings of this line-up before. Recorded on August 23rd and 24th of 1973 in Helsinki, this set was recorded days after the performance captured on the classic bootleg, Piquantique, recorded in Stockholm. Road Tapes, Venue #2, features many of the same pieces, with many more besides, and with obviously hugely improved sonic quality. Like that classic bootleg, it also shows the bridge between the instrumental albums Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, and the celebrated live album Roxy and Elsewhere.

In comparison to the recordings made later at the Roxy in Los Angeles, The Road Tapes sound comparatively subdued, attributable partly to the mix, but also to the fact of personnel changes in the interim, which included gaining an additional drummer and losing a violinist before they took the stage at the Roxy in December. This is not to say that the Road Tapes do not have moments of intense power. In fact, it could be said that the set is much more dynamic. While Roxy and Elsewhere surely illustrated both the band’s finely honed chops and their stage antics, the Helsinki Road Tapes showed the band in a more jazzy mode, demonstrating a more delicate virtuosity, stretching out on mostly instrumental pieces showcasing some of the most elegant aspects of Zappa’s composition and the interplay of one of his finest bands. The older pieces included are arranged in ways that suit this incarnation of the band, and are huge departures from the original versions. In addition, many of the newer pieces would receive extensive reworking before being official released. Some pieces would never sounds better, earlier or later.

Zappa, 1974. Photo by Jerry Aronson
Particularly of note is "RNDZL." In my opinion, no official recorded release of "RNDZL" ever perfectly captured that piece (although the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 2 version, recorded a year later, also in Helsinki, came close). While the Road Tapes version does not contain the melodic section that Zappa added after the departure of violinist Jean-Luc Ponty later in the year (a section which I always thought disrupted the pace of the piece), the propulsiveness, provided by the percussion section of drummer Ralph Humphrey and vibraphonist Ruth Underwood, and the marvelous soloing of Zappa, Ponty, and Duke, may make this the definitive official recording. While some pieces like the "Village of the Sun"/"Echidna’s Arf (of You)"/"Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing" suite pale in comparison with the aggressive and tight recording on Roxy and Elsewhere, the incredible versions of "Dupree’s Paradise" and "Farther O’Blivion" make me wonder why this tape was sat on for so long.

Road Tapes, Venue #2 is truly this is one of those archival releases that will thrill not only hardcore Zappaheads, but also people who may not be on that train yet, but have adventurous tastes and still unapologetically listen to music in the early 70s jazz-fusion milieu (okay, that’s a pretty specific group of people). It’s a great release from a time when Zappa finally had that group of musicians, made up of crack session musicians and future jazz legends, that could realize the kind of music that he wanted to compose, and bring a beautiful human element to it. So I highly recommend going to the Barfko-Swill website and getting a copy. Believe it or not, it’s cheaper there than on Amazon. I checked.