Friday, April 30, 2010

Younger Than Yesterday

To follow up briefly on yesterday's post, I wanted to point out how young Tommy James was relative to his peers - I think of Tommy as a late-60s artist, but he is actually younger than many of the titans of the Seventies. To wit:

David Bowie is older than Tommy James.

Elton John is older than Tommy James.

Eric Clapton is older than Tommy James.

Neil Young is older than Tommy James.

Rod Stewart is older than Tommy James.

Debbie Harry is older than Tommy James.

Steve Miller is older than Tommy James.

John Denver is (was) older than Tommy James.

Al Green is older than Tommy James.

Barry Manilow is older than Tommy James.

Linda Ronstadt is older than Tommy James.

So there's still time for the kid to make something out of himself.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Ages of Tommy James

Happy birthday to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame snubbee Tommy James, who turns 63 today. That's right, this man who was on the charts consistently starting in the mid-1960s isn't even retirement age yet. Here are some crucial points in the Shondellography:

When he was twelve, Tommy James, born Thomas Jackson, formed his first band, the Tornadoes, who would later change their name to the Shondells.

At sixteen, Tommy recorded his version of "Hanky Panky" at a radio station in Niles, Michigan, which was released on the tiny Snap label.

When he was eighteen, a Pittsburgh DJ somehow came across a copy of "Hanky Panky" and made it into a local hit.

When Tommy was nineteen, "Hanky Panky" went to Number One nationwide. He also wrote and recorded the big hit "Say I Am," and cut the classic "I Think We're Alone Now," which was in the Top Five when Tommy turned twenty.

When Tommy was twenty, he wrote and recorded "Mony Mony."

When Tommy was twenty-one, he spent three months on the road with Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign, then made the amazing Crimson and Clover LP (with not just the title track but "Crystal Blue Persuasion" as well). Hubert Humphrey wrote the liner notes. No, I am not kidding.

At the age of twenty-two, Tommy made the somewhat less amazing LP Cellophane Symphony, featuring the brand-new Moog synthesizer. Tommy got his synth from the great Yankee lefthander Whitey Ford. You think I am kidding, but I'm not.

When he was twenty-three, Tommy collapsed at a concert, apparently drug-induced, then woke up and broke up the Shondells. He also wrote and produced "Tighter, Tighter" for the group Alive and Kicking.

At twenty-four, Tommy had his only real solo hit, "Draggin' the Line."

Actually, when Tommy was thirty-two, he hit Number One on the Adult Contemporary charts with "Three Times in Love." That remains his only achievement of any real significance since he turned twenty-five. At the same time, most people don't do much of anything till they turn twenty-five - or much of anything after they turn twenty-five, either.

Friday, April 23, 2010

My Unified Theory of 'Saturday Night Live' Movies

I have a charticle out in the May issue of Maxim magazine on the illustrious history of films made from Saturday Night Live sketches. One thing I didn't get around to discussing in that piece was that it is very easy to tell whether an SNL movie will be any good or not. It's a simple question: Does the movie take place in and around Chicago? If so, it will be worth watching. If not, well, consider that It's Pat! took place a continent away, in Los Angeles.

Everyone's favorite SNL movie is either The Blues Brothers - set in the Chicagoland area, from Joliet up to the Wisconsin border - or Wayne's World, set in Aurora, which is fairly described as an exurb. Wayne's World 2 was not so much a sequel as a remake of Wayne's World, and it's also set in Aurora.

Then there's Stuart Saves His Family, in which Stuart Smalley lives in Chicago but has to commute back to Minnesota to help his alcoholic father and brother, enabling mother, and overeating sister. Believe it or not, it's the most serious of these movies - Stuart stages an intervention for his dad near the end of the film, seemingly setting up a happy ending, but it doesn't take, and his father continues being an alcoholic butthead. Harsh.

Finally, The Ladies' Man is slight but essentially goodhearted and funny. I don't expect you to believe me, but there it is. It takes place entirely in Chicago. You could argue that none of these movies is exactly McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and you'd be right, but they will all keep you entertained if you stumble across them on TBS late one night.

On the other side of the ledger, we have:

* The Coneheads, set in Paramus, New Jersey, and the planet Remulak. The Coneheads got tiresome by the end of their five-minute sketches; you won't want to spend 90 minutes with them. Plus, not funny.

* It's Pat!, set in Los Angeles. It's Pat! isn't quite as bad as its reputation, basically because of Dave Foley, who as Pat's love interest Chris matches him/her androgyne for androgyne. The costume designer who had to dress Chris neutrally through the whole movie - coming up with design after design that never gave his/her gender away - deserved an Oscar nomination. But whiny, needy, self-centered Pat is just so unpleasant to be around.

* Superstar: The Mary Katherine Gallagher Story, set in someplace called Besame Heights, which seemed to me to be somewhere in Molly Shannon's native Ohio. No one ever thought this would be any good, did they?

* A Night at the Roxbury, set in Los Angeles. If you didn't know better, you might think it was a drama, because it goes for long stretches where you won't even know what they intended to be funny. A bad drama.

* Blues Brothers 2000 smartly starts out in Chicago, then quickly meanders away for a cross-country trip to Louisiana. No movie ever had less reason to exist.

There's a new SNL movie coming out, Macgruber, with Will Forte. I don't know where it's set, but if I were you , I'd find out.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Richmond University

As a boy growing up just outside London, David Bowie became a big fan of football - real football, Bears vs. Packers football, not that British association football. He claimed to listen to the American game on shortwave radio from our military bases in Germany. Ever the canny marketer, Bowie was able to get his football fandom well-known enough that a local paper published a story titled "Limey Kid Loves Yank Football."

Bowie would later tell people that his one discolored eye was the result of an injury from playing American football. (It was actually from a fistfight with a friend over a girl.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

No Beatles for Sale

The other day, I mentioned in passing that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a 1967 album from the British band the Beatles, didn't spawn any singles. What I didn't realize until today was that their album The Beatles, popularly known as the White Album, had no singles issued from it as well.

The weird thing is, "Hey Jude" was recorded on July 31, 1968, smack-dab in the middle of the White Album sessions, which extended from May 30 to October 14 of that year. "Hey Jude" was released as a single on August 26, and would go on to be the biggest Beatles single ever: It sold 8 million copies and stayed at Number One for nine weeks in the fall of 1968. It was the first release on the Apple label, which may be why the Beatles wanted to put it out as a special, standalone single, but it was apparently never intended to appear on the White Album.

John Lennon did want to put "Revolution 1" out as a single in the summer of '68, but the other Beatles felt it was too slow, which occasioned the recording of what we now know as "Revolution," which surfaced as the B-side to "Hey Jude." (The other guys were right.) The Beatles came out on November 22, 1968, and I'm sure radio paid some sort of attention to it, but I don't know exactly what. "Everybody says we must do this and that but our thing is just rocking," said Lennon at the time of the album's release. "You know, the usual gig. That's what this new record is about. Definitely rocking."

The Beatles were back in the studio by January of 1969, for the abortive Get Back sessions, and indeed "Get Back" would be their next single, released on April 11, 1969. Sometimes you hear about George Harrison whining that he never got the A-side of a Beatles single until "Something," but that's obviously a little wind-aided; if there had been any singles taken from the White Album, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" would have been an obvious choice, along with "Back in the U.S.S.R." and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." "Wild Honey Pie," not so much.

Now it's true that not just many but most of the Beatles singles derived from non-album tracks (or at least pre-album tracks), but it's also true that singles were taken from Help! ("Help!" b/w "I'm Down"), Rubber Soul ("Nowhere Man" b/w "What Goes On"), Revolver ("Yellow Submarine" b/w "Eleanor Rigby"), Abbey Road ("Come Together"/"Something"), and Let It Be ("The Long and Winding Road" b/w "For You Blue"), among others. But not the White Album.

You know something else that was cool about the White Album? When it came out on cassette tape, they didn't use the blank white cover with the embossed name on it. The cover of the cassette version looked like this:

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Who Are You?

Who wrote the book of love?
Who put the bomp in the bomp shoo bomp shoo bomp?
Who will save your soul?
Who's that girl?
Who'll stop the rain?
Who'll be the next in line?
Who's sorry now?
Who's crying now?
Who can it be now?
Who knows how long I've loved you?
Who's zoomin' who?
Who's trippin' down the streets of the city, smilin' at everybody she sees?
Who's makin' love with my woman while I was out makin' love?
Who loves you, pretty mama?
Who's the black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks?
Who let the dogs out?
Who do you really think that you are?

First, I'd Like To Thank All the Little People...

Even if there seems to have been what Elvis might have called too much monkey business in the awarding of this year's Pulitzer to Next to Normal (have to admit, haven't seen it), how did this gem get past the committee?

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Annotated "Creeque Alley"

John and Michie were gettin' kind of itchy
Just to leave the folk music behind

John Phillips was in a folk trio called the Journeymen (also featuring Scott "San Francisco" Mckenzie) when he met and married Michelle Gilliam, on New Year's Eve, 1962. John was 27 and newly divorced, Michelle was 18.

Zal and Denny workin' for a penny
Tryin' to get a fish on the line.

Zal Yanovsky and Denny Doherty sang together in a folk group called the Halifax Three. They were Canadian.

In a coffee house Sebastian sat,
And after every number they'd pass the hat.

John Sebastian, the godson of Vivian "Ethel Mertz" Vance, played harmonica in a group called the Even Dozen Jug Band with such luminaries as Maria Muldaur and David Grisman.

McGuinn and McGuire just a-gettin' higher in L.A.,
You know where that's at.

Jim McGuinn played guitar and sang in Bobby Darin's backup band. Barry McGuire was the lead singer of the New Christy Minstrels. Los Angeles - L.A. for short - is the largest city in California.

And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

Ellen Naomi Cohen changed her name to Cass Elliot, dropped out of high school and moved from the D.C. area to New York City, where she landed a part in "The Music Man" on Broadway. She then moved back to Washington around 1962 and joined a folksinging trio, first called the Trimuvirate, then the Big Three. She was quite fat.

Zally said, "Denny, you know there aren't many
Who can sing a song the way that you do; let's go south."
Denny said, "Zally, golly, don't you think that I wish
I could play guitar like you."

Yanovsky and Doherty had met Cass Elliot when they were in the Halifax Three, and they eventually joined her in the suddenly misnamed Big Three.

Zal, Denny, and Sebastian sat (at the Night Owl)
And after every number they'd pass the hat.

The Night Owl Cafe was a folk club in Greenwich Village. Zal, Denny and Sebastian were never in a band together, near as I can tell, so this might just refer to them sitting in the audience there, although both the Mugwumps (see below) and the Lovin' Spoonful (also see below) performed there.

McGuinn and McGuire still a-gettin higher in L.A.,
You know where that's at.

The rest of the characters in this song were still scuffling along in the early 1960s, but McGuire's New Christy Minstrels had had three Top Thirty hits by the summer of '64.

And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

Really, she was obese.

When Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore
But she changed her mind one day.
Standin' on the turnpike, thumb out to hitchhike,
"Take me to New York right away."

Cass attended American University in Washington, D.C. for a short time. American doesn't rhyme with anything, though.

When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps;

Cass was famously in love with Denny Doherty, pretty much from the first time they met. She even proposed to him at one point, but he turned her down.

Called John and Zal and that was the Mugwumps.

Elliot, Yanovsky and Doherty (but not Sebastian!) formed the Mugwumps in 1964, along with a guy named Jim Hendricks, who went on to write the Johnny Rivers hit "Summer Rain." (In that song, Rivers sings "And the jukebox kept on playing 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,'" but that album famously spawned no singles. Were there jukeboxes that could play LPs?) Hendricks was married to Cass, but it was a marriage of convenience just to keep him from getting drafted.

McGuinn and McGuire couldn't get no higher
But that's what they were aimin' at.
And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

Like, 300 pounds.

Mugwumps, high jumps, low slumps, big bumps---
Don't you work as hard as you play.
Make up, break up, everything is shake up;
Guess it had to be that way.
Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful;

Backed by a drummer and bassist, Sebastian and Yanovsky released their first single as the Lovin' Spoonful, "Do You Believe in Magic," in August 1965. It made the Top Ten.

Michelle, John, and Denny gettin' very tuneful.

Michelle got tuneful with both of them; the story is that eventually, John and Denny moved in together so they could keep an eye on each other. In the 1970s, she would graduate to the likes of Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty.

McGuinn and McGuire just a-catchin' fire in L.A.,
You know where that's at.

Jim McGuinn formed a group called the JetSet, which released its first single in October 1964 and immediately changed its name to the Byrds. McGuinn changed his first name to Roger in 1967.

Barry McGuire had known various characters in this song since 1962, and he had the nascent Mamas and Papas sing backup for him on one of his albums. While they were in the studio, they also sang "California Dreamin'" for producer Lou Adler.

And everybody's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

The Spoonful, the Byrds and Barry McGuire's solo career - "Eve of Destruction" went to Number One in September 1965 - all happened before the Mamas and Papas were able to release an album.

Broke, busted, disgusted, agents can't be trusted,
And Michie wants to go to the sea.

As the group was first formed, they all decamped for a vacation in the Virgin Islands. What exactly they were vacationing from is not clear to me.

Cass can't make it; she says we'll have to fake it---
We knew she'd come eventually.

The other three had gone to the Virgin Islands without Cass, who wanted to join the group - among other reasons, she was in love with Denny - but John resisted admitting her. He would tell people that her range wasn't strong enough, but in reality, she was just fat (see above), and bad for their image. John eventually relented, and they made up a story about Cass hitting her head on a pipe in the Virgin Islands, which miraculously gave her voice three extra high notes, thus allowing her entrance into the group.

Greasin' on American Express cards;

They were broke while they were in the Virgin Islands, but they did have American Express cards, which they maxed out. When those began to get rejected, they sent Michelle to the craps table in a slinky red dress, and she emerged with enough money to buy first-class plane tickets to New York.

Tents low rent, but keeping out the heat's hard.
Duffy's good vibrations and our imaginations
Can't go on indefinitely.

Duffy's was a club the band hung out at on Creeque Alley in the Virgin Islands.

And California dreamin' is becomin' a reality...

Phillips had written "California Dreamin'" back in 1963, and Barry McGuire recorded it with the Mamas and the Papas in 1965. The Mamas and the Papas used the same backing track to record their own version later that year, and released it as their second single (after "Go Where You Wanna Go," which stiffed) in November 1965. It would eventually go to Number Four in early 1966.

if it hadn’t been for Sex Pistols and the whole punk movement, there wouldn’t have been bands like Spandau Ballet

Buddhist goddess Myant Myant Aye reflects on the legacy of Malcolm McLaren.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Housekeeping Note

It has been brought to my attention that some people have been unable to post comments on this here blog. I have now rectified the problem, and any of you should feel free to comment away.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sister Disco

This past Sunday's New York Times Book Review contained a review of a book called Hot Stuff, a sociological examination of disco, and the chosen reviewer, one James Gavin, makes the all-too-common error of marginalizing the very music he comes to praise. I'm not a huge fan of disco, but at its best it was pretty good - like Blink-182-style punk-pop two decades later, melody was surprisingly well-honored in the genre, and melody is what I first listen for in a song - and the subject is surely ripe for cultural exploration.

The problem is, Gavin appears to know nothing about pop music. He seems to think that the only thing that makes music substantive is socially conscious lyrics, lamenting that Labelle was one of the few disco acts for whom "substance crept in." This right after a brief discussion of Chic, which is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and whose members were quickly snapped up by white icons like David Bowie and Madonna and Robert Palmer to lend some disco propulsion to their works. Not so coincidentally, Chic's anthem "Le Freak" also celebrated the outsiderness endemic to many of disco's fans. Gavin didn't notice, though.

But he wants to revel in the music's outsider status, complaining that "Rock radio boycotted it, and 'Disco Sucks' T-shirts were a common sight." He doesn't seem to notice that disco ruled the radio for a long time: The first five Number One singles of 1978 were "How Deep Is Your Love," "Stayin' Alive," "(Love Is) Thicker Than Water," "Night Fever" and "If I Can't Have You." (OK, I left out the awful "Baby Come Back," which everyone wants to forget.) Other Number Ones that year included "Shadow Dancing," "Miss You," "Boogie Oogie Oogie," Donna Summer's "MacArthur Park," and "Le Freak." So who cares whether K-Rock played "Dim All the Lights"? Rock radio never plays Frank Sinatra or Porter Wagoner either, but you don't hear me whining about it.

Gavin's notions of the relationship between gay culture and disco are bizarre as well. He writes of the Village People, "The members played it safe by staying coyly evasive about their sexuality." I was in elementary school in Tennessee at this point, and even I knew the Village People were supposed to be gay. If that Indian was playing it safe, I'd hate to see him going out on a limb.

Actually, Gavin is probably not so much ignorant of these things as he is trying to tell a story that ever existed. Disco started as outsider music, but it was hugely popular for a while, then - like most pop genres from doo-wop to grunge - its popularity faded. And some of the songs in the disco genre are quite good, and even substantive.

That apparently wasn't enough for Mr. Gavin, who needed to create an alternate history. The book under review, though, appears to be much better than the review. Let's hope it's at least more honest.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Tranmission Points (An Occasional Look At the Anxiety - or Lack Thereof - of Influence)

Was David Bowie Racist?

"Five Years," which my friend Ken Kurson once described as the kickoff song to one of the most important albums of our time (on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Worth magazine), has probably become my favorite track on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, but I still get pulled up short by one of the lines:

A girl my age went off her head
Hit some tiny children
If the black hadn't of pulled her off
I think she would have killed them

I guess people really talked like that, but it's jarring to hear a person defined solely by skin color - the child-saving hero doesn't even get the dignity of a gender. The color is the noun.

So that's in 1972. Then, in 1975, Bowie let loose with this:

Sit on your hands on a bus of survivors
Blushing at all the Afro-Sheeners

So now they've graduated from being identified by their skin color to being identified by their hair-care products. I suppose that's progress.

I assume Nile Rodgers slapped some sense into Bowie around the time he was producing Let's Dance, toward the end of 1982. Since 1992, he's been married - apparently happily - to Somali supermodel Iman. (She had previously been married to onetime Seattle SuperSonics star Spencer Haywood.)

That's why I was careful to title this post in the past tense. I love Bowie's music, and I hate to make accusations about people, but those lyrics really punch me in the face every time I hear them.

Transmission Points (An Occasional Look at the Anxiety - or Lack Thereof - of Influence)