Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Third of America, Down the Drain

Dan Peek, one of the trio who made up George Martin's second-most successful production effort, dead at the tender age of 60. Peek formed America with Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley in Britain in the late 1960s; all three had fathers who were in the Air Force and stationed in London. They were signed to the British label Kinney in 1971 - Peek, who shares a birthday with me, was 20, and the other two were just 19 - at the behest of Ian Samwell, who was best known over there as Cliff Richard's guitarist. Samwell produced their debut album, 1971's America, which didn't do a whole lot in Britain.

Before it could be released in the U.S., though, Bunnell had come up with a tune he called "Desert Song" (the three members composed independently of one another). The band eventually retitled it "A Horse With No Name," and stuck it on the later pressings of the debut album. "Horse" shot up the charts and landed at Number One on March 25, 1972, displacing its soundalike Neil Young with his "Heart of Gold."

After the first album finally became a hit, America relocated to Los Angeles and hired Hal Blaine to play drums - good idea - on their second LP, Homecoming, which came out in November 1972. It spawned the big hit "Ventura Highway" as well as the first Top Forty single written by Dan Peek, "Don't Cross the River." But the closest thing to hit on the third record was the unfortunate "Muskrat Love," so the band decamped again, this time back to England. There they worked with George Martin, who hadn't done anything of note since the Beatles' 1970 album Abbey Road, with the exception of Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die." "He's such a hot arranger," Peek said at the time, "thinking about all the stuff that he's done." Right.

The resulting album, Holiday, was a huge hit, with the first single, "Tin Man," going to Number Four, and the follow-up, Peek's "Lonely People," went to Number Five, as well as Number One on the Adult Contemporary charts. It would be the biggest hit ever written by Dan Peek. (Some sources say his wife, Catherine, collaborated on it.) The Martin-produced follow-up, Hearts, contained America's second and last Number One hit, Beckley's "Sister Golden Hair," which provided the title for a blog I used to write. Plus "Daisy Jane," which I like a lot as well.

America was ready to issue a greatest-hits album at that point, 1976's History, with a cover designed by Phil Hartman - yes, that Phil Hartman. It was a good time to release a hits package, because the next two records, Hideaway and Harbor, didn't have a whole lot of chart action in them.

At that point, Dan Peek decided to leave the band and pursue a career in Christian music. He was pretty successful at this, putting four singles into the Christian Contemporary Music Top Ten. I wonder about the efficacy of this, though, since by putting out Christian-branded music, he was limiting his audience to people already predisposed to such things. If Peek had continued with America and put Christian messages into their music, he would have reached a much broader and more heathen crowd. Oh, well: It was his life, and I don't have the right to tell him what to do.

I've seen reports that Peek lived in the Cayman Islands in the 1990s, which would suggest that Christian music pays better than I would assume. At some point, he came back to the U.S. and settled in Farmington, Missouri, which is where his family had lived before his dad was transferred to England in the late 1960s. It was there that Dan Peek died, last Sunday, at the age of 60.

Bunnell and Beckley carried on as America, never forgetting their bandmate and friend. "We still do 'Lonely People' and 'Don't Cross the River' every night on stage," Bunnell said. "We'll always acknowledge Dan's contribution, and those years that we were together as America were really special times."

This is for all the lonely people, thinking that life has passed them by - you never know until you try:

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Every Number One Song With a Parenthetical in Its Title (From 1955 to 1975)

"(Wallflower)," by Georgia Gibbs, 1955

"(We're Gonna)," by Bill Haley and His Comets, 1955

"(Dog Ziggity Boom)," by Perry Como, 1956

"(Let Me Be Your)," by Elvis Presley, 1957

"(in His Hands)," by Laurie London, 1958

"(Volare)," by Domenico Modugno, 1958

"(My Love)," by Bobby Vinton, 1962

"(I Can't Get No)," by the Rolling Stones, 1965

"(To Everything There Is a Season)," by the Byrds, 1965

"(You're My)," by the Righteous Brothers, 1966

"(With Glasses)," by John Fred and His Playboy Band, 1968

"(Sittin' On)," by Otis Redding, 1968

"(The Flesh Failures)," by the Fifth Dimension, 1969

"(Exordium & Terminus)," by Zager and Evans, 1969

"(Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)," by Sly & the Family Stone, 1970

"(Not to Come)," by Three Dog Night, 1970

"(They Long to Be)," by the Carpenters, 1970

"(Running Away With Me)," by the Temptations, 1971

"(Naturally)," by Gilbert O'Sullivan, 1972

"(You're a Fine Girl)," by Looking Glass, 1972

"(Give Me Peace on Earth)," by George Harrison, 1973

"(Part I)," by Eddie Kendricks, 1973

"(The Sound of Philadelphia)," by MFSB, 1974

"(You're)," by Paul Anka, 1974

"(Hey Won't You Play)," by B.J. Thomas, 1975

"(Like I Love You)," Tony Orlando and Dawn, 1975

"(I Like It)," by KC and the Sunshine Band, 1975

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Twilight Zone: My Five Faves

I have finally finished watching every single episode of the original Twilight Zone, and I have to say, it wasn't really much of a burden. All I had to do was, for the first half of this year, watch nothing else on television except the Zone - aside from, of course, sports. In retrospect, I wish I hadn't watched them in rough chronological order, since the fifth and last season was the weakest, but what the heck.

What made it easier was the fact that The Twilight Zone was a really good show. It wasn't just a bunch of spooky stories or weird tales; at their best, they always added an extra fillip of reality or drama that lent the shows real texture. I've picked out my five favorite episodes (which isn't quite the same thing as the ones I think are the best shows) (and interestingly enough, two of these are from that feeble fifth season), all of which demonstrate that in one way or another:

1. "The Hitch-Hiker": Doomed actress Inger Stevens (she ended up overdosing on barbiturates in 1970) stars as a woman driving alone cross-country who is haunted by a strange, silent man that she repeatedly sees trying to hitch a ride from her. Stevens is so freaked out by this that at one point she picks up a young Navy man and offers to sleep with him if only he’ll keep riding with her. No, really, she does, despite the fact that we’re in January 1960, and this aired on prime-time TV.

2. "A Stop at Willoughby": This is the one where the executive, Gart Williams, keeps falling asleep on his train home and being transported to a magical town about 80 years in the past. What’s unsettling is the way his business life is portrayed: His boss keeps yelling at him that “This is a Push! Push! Push! business,” which sends Gart back to his office to pop some Valium. At home in Connecticut, when Gart talks about giving up his hectic life for something quieter, his wife calmly informs him that she married him with expectations of his professional and monetary success, and has no intention of settling for anything less. At the very end of the episode, we see that the only escape from this modernist conundrum is the sweet relief of death.

3. "The Invaders": Agnes Moorehead delivers an astonishing wordless performance as an isolated farm wife terrorized by tiny invaders from outer space. In my favorite Twilight Zone performance ever, Moorehead is positively feral as she takes on the little critters, who at one point shoot some sort of ray at her, raising welts just below her collarbone. When she pulls the neckline of her dress down to see them, that’s about as sexy as the Zone ever gets. (Actually, the sexiest episode is the one where Lois Nettleton spends most of the running time hanging around in a slip and sweating bullets. Aside from that, there is no sex at all in that episode.)

4. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet": Everyone remembers William Shatner facing off against the gremlin on the wing of the plane, but what makes it so delicious is the setup: Shat is just returning from a six-month stay at a sanitarium after a nervous breakdown, and the last thing he needs to do is tell people that the Snuggle Fabric Softener Bear has been rescued from a muddy ditch and set loose on the plane’s engines. Special bonus reminder of the pre-9/11 world: Shatner pulls the gun from a holster of a snoozing passenger. Plus, you know, Shatner is kind of a genius.

5. "Living Doll": Telly Savalas gets terrorized by a Talky Tina doll (voiced by Rocket J. Squirrel himself, June Foray) and tries to exact his revenge. What makes this one so juicy is the nature of the jerry-built family: Savalas has recently married his new wife and taken in her daughter, and he doesn’t seem too crazy about either of them, although the wife pledges that she’ll do anything to make him happy. He acts like he wants to take his Players Club Gold Card and head to Vegas, if not for this doll that keeps threatening his life. For what it's worth, the little girl doesn't really take to Telly, either. Those uncomfortable dynamics make this much more than just a scary story; it’s a family tragedy.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Roll Me Over, Romeo

In the Electric Light Orchestra's cover of "Roll Over, Beethoven" (which I cannot, in good conscience, recommend), Jeff Lynne pretty clearly pronounces the titular name as BAIT-hoven. Chuck Berry, as well as every other American I can think of, says it "BAY-toven." The distinction is subtle but very clear once you start listening for it.

Is this just a difference between British and American English? How would the Germans - say, the Scorpions or Falco - pronounce it? Anyone know?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Just One More Thing

"I'm Lt. Columbo," he says near the beginning of "Etude in Black" to famous conductor Alex Benedict. "I'm a big fan of yours. A really big fan." What makes this line totally delicious is that it was delivered to the great John Cassavetes, playing Alex Benedict. Peter Falk was a friend and colleague to Cassavetes, but as much as that, he was a longtime fan. "Every Cassavetes film is always about the same thing," Falk once said. "Somebody said, 'Man is God in ruins,' and John saw the ruins with a clarity that you and I could not tolerate." I don't know what that means, but it sure sounds positive.

When "Etude in Black" was made, in 1972, Falk and Cassavetes had acted in an Italian crime picture together, 1969's Machine Gun McCain, which is apparently where they met. Then the two starred in Cassavetes' 1970 film Husbands. So the Columbo episode was early on in their partnership; afterward, Falk appeared in Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence and Big Trouble, and the two starred in Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, which is supposed to be awesome, if Mark Lerner is to be believed.

Although Cassavetes is best remembered these days as a director, he was a fairly busy actor as well, getting an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for The Dirty Dozen and playing Mia Farrow's husband in Rosemary's Baby. As I understand it, he took acting roles until he had enough money to finance one of his own pictures, then went and made his movies. He's great in the Columbo episode, and shows that he always had very underrated hair.

The question I have about that Columbo episode is: Did Cassavetes direct it? The credited director was Nicholas Colasanto - yes, the old Coach himself. Colasanto was an in-demand TV director at the time, helming episodes of Starsky and Hutch and Bonanza as well as the Columbo with Johnny Cash. But IMDB describes Colasanto's work on "Etude in Black" as "credit only," and claims that not just Cassavetes but Falk as well were the uncredited directors.

Does anyone know what's going on here? I'd really like to know.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Who's Bad?

I promise, we'll have actual content on here again at some point, but in the meantime.... here's Sammy Davis Jr. singing Michael Jackson's "Bad." Unfortunately, I couldn't find the footage of him covering U2's "Bad."