Monday, February 28, 2011

Take It, Slim

One rock & roll trope that has fallen by the wayside in recent years is the lead singer verbally throwing it to his lead guitarist in advance of the requisite guitar solo. This is probably in large part because hardly anything is recorded live in the studio anymore, but also because the gold standard has already been achieved in this field, way back in 1974 on Rick Derringer's version of "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo," in which he preceded the guitar solo by saying, "Yeah, did somebody say keep on rocking?" Lawdy mama, I believe someone did!

That will certainly never be topped, although we're also quite partial to Ringo Starr, throwing it to George Harrison on the Beatles' "Honey Don't": "Rock on, George, one time for me" - and then following it up, before the next break, with "Rock on, George, for Ringo one time." That was the lofty hurdle Rick Derringer had to clear, but clear it he did.

I'm also partial to the purity Bob Dylan brings to "The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)," the version on his Greatest Hits Volume Two: "Well, that GIT-tar now!" Any other nominees?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Debris Slide Covers the Oscars

Of all this year's nominees for Best Picture that I've seen, the best is clearly The Social Network. It's also the only one I've seen, but that's neither here nor there. Aaron Sorkin is supposedly the odds-on favorite for Best Adapted Screenplay, but I gotta say, the script wasn't all that great, and Aaron Sorkin is the most overrated screenwriter on the planet.

He's very witty and entertaining; his lines can snap with authority and humor. He's obviously a very bright guy. The problem is that he makes every person talk in exactly the same style, using the same sort of pronunciamentos. He cannot modulate his word choices to reflect the way that different people speak; he cannot use language to denote character. And because he's trying to write the snappiest banter he can think of, it comes out sounding like no human being has ever sounded. The typical Aaron Sorkin scene goes like this:

CHARACTER: Witty declarative statement.

OTHER CHARACTER: Unconnected witty declarative statement.

CHARACTER: Question prompted by nothing in particular?

OTHER CHARACTER: Very witty declarative statement.

It's no coincidence that his projects, like this one set at Harvard or "The West Wing," invariably take place among the best and the brightest. It's impossible to imagine Aaron Sorkin writing for a character who isn't as smart as Aaron Sorkin.

Am I complaining too much? The dialogue is crisp and often laugh-out-loud funny and, thankfully, a lot of it is taken directly from the depositions that occupy much of the film's running time; in those scenes, you can hear people actually communicating with one another. Plus, Jesse Eisenberg deserves some sort of statuette for wrestling a real, well-defined character out of this screenplay. In fact, Sorkin's brilliant but isolated language seems a good fit for the Asperger's-ish Mark Zuckerberg.

One other note: I assumed that Sean Parker, the character played by Justin Timberlake, had to have his name changed for some sort of legal reason, since everybody knows the founder of Napster was really named Shawn Fanning. It turns out that there is a Sean Parker who was involved in Napster and later Facebook; it's a different guy. But in the scene where Parker is introduced, he mentioned that he founded Napster, and the Stanford-panty-wearing girl he's with immediately recognizes him as Sean Parker. Nobody would do that. She would have thought he was Shawn Fanning. I wonder if Aaron Sorkin knows who Shawn Fanning is.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Truth About Stevie

I've been reading and mostly enjoying Mark Ribowsky's Signed, Sealed and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder, but I'm beginning to wonder about the author's veracity. Last night I came across this passage, concerning the record that gave the book its title, and which contains a whole lotta wrong:

He produced it in classic Motown style, embellished right off the bat by the coiled rhythm of the sitar. While this was not a new feel in rock since the Beatles had Ravi Shankar play it in their late 1960s "Maharishi" period, and the instrument had also been used in the Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby" and B.J. Thomas's "Hooked on a Feeling," it was surely a new application for soul.

* The Beatles first used the sitar on "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," which was recorded in October 1965, which no one would confuse for the late 1960s.

* The sitar on that record was not played by Ravi Shankar but rather by one G. Harrison.

* The Beatles' "Maharishi" period arguably starts in February 1968, when the Fab Four decamped for Rishikesh. It certainly starts no earlier than August 1967, when they went up to Wales to hear the Maharishi speak for the first time (they were up there when they got the news that Brian Epstein had died). This would have not only been after "Norwegian Wood," but after Harrison's India-palooza "Within You, Without You" had been cut and released on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely album.

* I'm not 100 percent sure about this, but I don't think Ravi Shankar ever played on a Beatles record. There are uncredited Indian musicians on "Within You, Without You," "Love You To," and "The Inner Light," but I have to believe that Shankar would have been well-known enough to get a mention in any of these credits had he actually played on them.

* We've discussed the Box Tops and B.J. Thomas records at great length on this site; they both employ an electric sitar, which has quite a different sound from the original sitar. Until very recently, I had no idea that those songs had any variety of sitar at all, although it's possible that I'm just dense. The instrument on "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" sounds to my ears like a classic acoustic sitar.

That's an awful lot to get wrong in a single sentence, isn't it? You might think, well, the book's about Stevie Wonder, so the Beatles aren't really Ribowsky's area of expertise - but if you're going to be writing about any pop music of the 1960s, dontcha hafta always know what the Beatles are up to?

I did say I was mostly enjoying the book: There's a lot of good stuff in there, although I now wonder how much of it is true. For instance, in the original studio version of "Fingertips," Stevie didn't play the harmonica at all - just the bongos. (It never even occurred to me that there was an original studio version of "Fingertips.") Also, Stevie's mother gets off the quote of the decade when a girl calls her up, claiming to be pregnant with Stevie's baby: "Honey, if it comes out black, blind and playing the harmonica, then I'll believe you."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Name Them All to Win Free Tickets to See Christopher Cross

This is undoubtedly the coolest thing on the Internet right now: Five seconds' (more or less) worth of every No. 1 song on the Billboard charts, from 1955 to 1992. It helps to have a list of the Number Ones by your side, so you can figure out which one is the Browns' "The Three Bells," which spent four weeks at Number One in August and September of 1959 and which I'm sure I'd never heard before. That's less necessary, of course, once the Beatles take over.

Thanks to Jim Bartlett for pointing this out.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Wonder Bred

Stevie Wonder's mother was born Lula Mae Wright in the poignantly named town of Hurtsboro, Alabama. When the aunt and uncle who raised her passed away, she learned that her biological father was a man named Noble Hardaway, and she adopted his last name. Stevie's father was named Calvin Judkins; Stevie's older brother was named Calvin Judkins Jr.

When Stevie was born, on May 13, 1950, his birth certificate gave his name as "Steveland Morris." Near as I can tell, no one has ever really explained how he got the last name of "Morris."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Beatles Note for the Day

In April 1977, wimp-rock band Ambrosia took an orchestrated cover of "Magical Mystery Tour" into the Top Forty.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Is it me, or is this place lousy with Arabs lately? What's the 911 on that? ... Those scruffy tearaways Uday and Qusay are still full of their shenanigans. I mean, how do you murder someone who's already in Hell? Now I've seen everything! ... Saw R. Sargent Shriver upon his arrival the other day, and the look of surprise on his face was just priceless. Hey, Sarge! They probably thought you'd want to be with your Kennedys! By the way, your Peace Corps: overrated ... Bumped in to Rock Hudson at Il Fuoco as Rock was complaining to Swifty Lazar about his image. Get her! ... Was it racist for me to say "lousy with Arabs" back there? Who cares? What are they going to do, send me to sub-Hell? ... Never thought I'd say this, but Perpetually Burning Jack Kennedy and Perpetually Drowning Teddy Kennedy still have terrific heads of hair. Jack, where do you even keep a comb on that charred, yet horrifically alert, corpse? ... Why is my computer beeping again?...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Some Are Mathematicians

A timely tweet from friend of Debris Slide Andy Greene reminds us that not only is Slow Train Coming a terrific album, easily the best of Dylan's three Christian records- which may not sound like it's saying much, but we're fond of all three - but it was very popular at the time. Street Legal, released in June 1978, had only gone gold and peaked at Number Eleven on the Billboard album charts, but Slow Train, which came out in August 1979, went platinum and climbed all the way to Number Three. It would be Dylan's last Top Five album until "Love and Theft" made it to Number Five in 2001; since then, in a time of greatly reduced album sales, both Modern Times and Together Through Life have peaked at Number One.

"Gotta Serve Somebody," Slow Train's first single, was also a big hit, relatively speaking, going to Number Twenty-Four on the Hot 100. With the marginal exception of "We Are the World," "Gotta Serve" will almost certainly be Dylan's last-ever Top Forty hit. The closest he's come since then is... come on, go ahead and guess.

For the record, Dylan never had a Number One album in the Sixties, but he had three in the Seventies: Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks and Desire. Planet Waves? Really?

Anyway, the closest Dylan has come to the Top Forty since 1978 was in 1984, when "Sweetheart Like You" went to Number Fifty-Five. But you knew that. Didn't you?

Friday, February 4, 2011

There Were Giants in Those Days, and Oilers Too

I'll be traveling on Sunday, so I'll get to see the second half of the Super Bowl, at most. But I still have plenty of NFL action to distract myself with, thanks to the magic of YouTube. Lately I have been trolling for professional football games from the 1970s, of which there are a surprising number, contained in ten-minute chunks, as per YouTube style.

I grew up watching the NFL in the 1970s, so these games are as much a cultural referent for me as they are a sporting match. In addition to the odd Super Bowl, there are some seemingly random games, uploaded from old videotapes. I'd much rather watch the long-forgotten mid-season games. I know the score of all the Super Bowls, so none of those games would provide much of a surprise, but when I see a Giants/Bills clash from 1975, well, who knows what's gonna happen there?

My personal preference is for the broadcasts that are entirely intact, commercials and promos included, which makes for a much stronger cultural moment. In addition to seeing what was new from Ford in 1974, you occasionally get to see things like Teri Garr - as late as 1977 or so, although I've lost track of which game this was in - starring in a Schlitz ad, playing a barmaid who challenges an unseen, unheard presence who dares to take away her clientele's gusto.

Here are some games to get you started:

1970 Giants vs. Eagles
: From the first season of Monday Night Football, a game at Philadelphia's frozen Franklin Field. If you believe the legend, this is the game in which Howard Cosell got so drunk he threw up on Dandy Don's boots at halftime, then took a cab back home to New York during the second half. Cosell talks sparingly in the first half, then is indeed absent after halftime, but Meredith mentions near the telecast's end that Howard had been fighting the flu, and wishes him well, a kindhearted gesture for a man with someone else's vomit on his shoes. Keith Jackson, by the way, was the play-by-play man, with Frank Gifford not coming aboard till 1971.

Near the end of the game, with time winding down, there are repeated shots of the Franklin Field official game clock, which was the old-fashioned analog kind, with circular numbers and hands. The digital clock, it seems, had yet to come to Philadelphia, although artificial turf had. Man had walked on the moon, yet the NFL was still counting down the seconds with a second hand.

1970 NFC Championship, Cowboys vs. 49ers: A completely intact game, commercials and all. Watch for the young Teri Garr, the young Sam Waterston, and the not-so-young Vic Tayback. The downside is, if you think about it for a minute or so, you'll figure out who wins before the game even starts.

1977 Rams vs. Browns: The improbable team of Vin Scully and NFL legend/car smasher Jim Brown handles the announcing chores for this miserable, snowy game at old Cleveland Stadium. Brown opines that his old team is doing a poor job of tackling because it's cold out, and it hurts to hit people hard.

1978 Dolphins vs. Oilers
: Bum Phillips' mama always told him not to wear his hat indoors, so he is bare-headed, letting his crew cut fly free, for this game at the Astrodome. Another Monday nighter, it's dominated by Bob Griese, now without his great running game and forced to put the ball into the air to the tune of 300-plus yards, and the rookie sensation Earl Campbell of the Oilers.

Nowadays, if you take your helmet off on the field, it's a 15-yard penalty. But Griese had just started wearing these huge dork glasses, which apparently didn't fit under his helmet all that well. He takes his helmet off on the field, I swear, after every third play.

1980 Cardinals vs. Colts: Just a crappy game between two going-nowhere teams, in front of a few thousand bored fans at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. Announcer Dick Stockton is terrible, too. Thankfully, less than half the broadcast survives, mostly just the Cardinals' drives, although you do get to see Phyllis George's halftime interview at the rural Maryland home of Bert Jones.

The Cardinals do look gorgeous, though, in those rich red jerseys and solid white helmets, with no center stripe or adornment aside from a little bird head. I always loved those helmets. And Cardinal receiver Pat Tilley - the second-most-famous Cardinal in history whose name starts with "Pat Till" - makes an incredibly sweet, one-handed, backhand touchdown catch.

Big thanks to Wisconsin JB for pointing out that 1970 NFC Championship game to me, and getting this whole thing rolling