Monday, August 23, 2010

How It Works

On August 22, 2010, I wrote 366 entries for this blog, one for every day on the calendar. So, it's time for me to catch up with my other writings.
I'll also look for ways to make this blog more interactive. In the meantime, just use the archive or the Search function to find whatever day you like. (Archive is more reliable; one of the things I'd like to fix...) As always, comments are appreciated. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

August 22

Why write about Ron Dante on his birthday? Because he sang the biggest song of 1969, but nobody knew his name.
He left his behind birth name, Carmine Granito, when he joined his first band in the early 60's. Eventually, he was working with producer Don Kirschner, songwriting and singing demos.
In 1965, he was the lead singer of a comedy band, The Detergents: they hit the Top 10 with the parody "Leader of the Laundromat" (they got hit with a lawsuit, too; that was settled out of court.) They hit the Hot 100 one more time with "Double-0 Seven" (not a parody, just a comedy song about dating a James Bond fan) before they called it a day:

"Leader of the Laundromat" was written by the team of Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss, who wrote some successful original hits ("Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini", "Catch a Falling Star".) They recruited Dante to sing vocals for a demo(all the vocals: lead, and all harmonies.) The agreement was, if the song was a hit, Dante would record an entire album for them; the song became a Top 10 hit by the end of 1969.

After the success of "Tracy", Dante recorded all the songs for The Cuff-Links' first album in two days (at the boards, up-and-coming music producer Rupert Holmes...)

The reason for all the rush was that one of Dante's singing sessions was becoming the biggest hit of 1969. Don Kirschner, having just washed his hands of The Monkees, was hired to create music for a TV series based on the comic book character Archie Andrews; Kirschner hired Dante to sing vocals for their songs (and "Leader of the Pack" composer Jeff Barry as lead songwriter; small world...) "Sugar Sugar" was the Archies' monster hit, a global sensation that set the bar for cartoon rock for decades.
The Archies would hit the Top 40 four times; here's their other million-selling single, "Jingle Jangle", taken from the Ed Sullivan archives:

(Trivia: which member of the Archies is singing lead on "Jingle Jangle"? Betty? Veronica? It's Ron Dante, falsetto!)

So, Dante recorded hit songs for the Archies and the Cuff-Links in 1969, without having to tour for either of them. Instead, Dante accepted a solo recording contract with Don Kirschner, which excluded any outside work (except, of course, Don Kirschner projects...)

"Let Me Bring You Up", the lead-up single from his 1970 solo album, was written by the "Sugar Sugar" songwriters. Despite this, they couldn't strike lightning twice. By 1972, Dante was the lead singer in another cartoon band...

It wasn't the end of his music career; he made it through the 70's producing some of Barry Manilow's greatest hits ('Copacabana', 'Mandy'), before parlaying into Broadway production (Ain't Misbehavin, Children of a Lesser God). Today, he raises dalmations and tours for the festival crowd; he resumed his solo career in 1999, and released his most recent in 2010.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

August 21

Happy Birthday to Stephen Hillenburg, animator; today, we're going to feature his pre-Spongebob work.
His first college degree was in marine biology; in fact, he taught marine biology for several years before he pursued his second life passion, animation. Before he graduated in 1992, he had two short films making the festival circuit. One of those films, "The Green Beret," also appeared on the "Liquid Television" anthology:

His festival shorts caught the notice of animator Joe Murray, who hired Hillenberg as a writer and director for Rocko's Modern Life, which ran for four seasons on Nickelodeon.
The following clip, from "Jet Scream", is one of Murray's favorite episodes in the series:

After Rocko's Modern Life was done, a colleague encourage Hillenberg to pitch the Spongebob character to Nickelodeon. Since his debut in 1999, Spongebob has become Nickelodeon's most successful series; their most recent contract guarantees a ninth season, and enough episodes to make it the longest running series on the network.

I can't offer much insight on post-Spongebob projects: the Spongebob Squarepants theatrical movie, intended as a series finale, was Hillenberg's farewell as an active creator of Spongebob's adventures. Although he heads United Plankton Pictures (which oversees the Spongebob empire), his most prominent activities appear to be on the academic circuit, speaking about his twin loves: marine biology and animation. So, no telling what he'll do once this Spongebob train runs out of steam...

Apologies if this clip still auto-plays: it's still my favorite Spongebob moment, a typically atypical moment that let me know that, within its all-ages confines, anything could happen...

Friday, August 20, 2010

August 20

Quick, name the year:

That sea of feathered hair was brought to you by the 1985 benefit single "Give a Helping Hand", recorded by Swedish Metal Aid, a collective of Swedish hard rock artists. The song was written by Europe frontman Joey Tempest, who celebrates his birthday today.

His hair's calmed down since those days, but he's still rolling. When hair metal took a backseat to grunge, Europe went on hiatus and Joey got his Richard Marx on. In fact, he released three solo albums, which did well in his native Sweden:

In 2002, around the release of his third solo album, Tempest and the rest of Europe reunited:

Europe - Last Look At Eden

// EUROPE // | MySpace Music Videos

So far, they've released three albums and done several world tours. No sign of them slowing down yet.

No signs of any US dates this year, either, so here's the Europe that American fans know best:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

August 19

John Deacon, bassist of Queen, is considered the Ringo of the band, the quiet, unassuming one that willfully stepped back so the other members could stand in the spotlight. (In fact, that's the exact reason he got the job; the prior bassists the band auditioned were trying too hard to keep up on-stage with Freddie Mercury and Brian May.) But even though he cheerfully accepted the role of The Boring One (and the nickname "Deeks"), Queen would not be the history-making band it was without him.

In the first place, he brought the funk:

"Another One Bites the Dust" is undisputedly Queen's biggest hit, topping nearly every chart it touched. John Deacon wrote the song (inspired by a visit with 70's dance band Chic) and developed the arrangement for the band. Although the rest of Queen was initially cool about the song, an endorsement from Michael Jackson encouraged the band to release it as a single, and it became one of the most irresistable songs ever.

When Queen started, it had a hard rock sound that had extracted the blues influence out of their songs(hence, songs like "Ogre Battle" and "Bohemian Rhapsody.") But all four band members began exploring every musical genre they could, from Tin Pan Alley to opera. The follow-up single to their operatic "Rhapsody" was "You're My Best Friend," which became Deacon's first hit single songwriting credit:

He's written songs for every Queen album since "Sheer Heart Attack"; other songwriting credits to hit the charts include "Back Chat", "I Want to Break
Free", and "One Year of Love".

Pretty much, his music career begins and ends with Queen. John had graduated with honors from Chelsea College with an electronic degree when he joined the band in 1971(another reason Queen chose him; he built and repaired equipment for the band!) After Freddie's death in 1991, John would play some benefit shows and record the remaining songs Freddie had contributed before retiring from music altogether. In the between, he had done studio work with other members' solo projects, but his highest profile solo gig was The Immortals, who recorded one song for a children's movie soundtrack:

No, he put down his sticks and went home to his wife and six kids and songwriting royalties (in 2009, his estimated worth was reported at about £50 million.)

I can't end this post without mentioning his greatest contribution to civilization: his bassline for "Under Pressure". John Deacon playing the opening seven notes to "Under Pressure" are enough to qualify him for the blog. The song resulted from a jam session, an impromptu visit from David Bowie to one of Queen's recording sessions. John credits Bowie with the riff, but Bowie - and the surviving members of Queen - credit John with its creation. Whatever percentage his participation, he helped create an anthem for our civilized world:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

August 18

Let's sing Happy Birthday to Jon 'Bermuda' Schwartz:

Bermuda's been providing percussion since the day they met, and he used Al's accordian case to provide the backbeat for Al's first radio performance of "Another One Rides the Bus":

Nearly 30 years later, he's helped Al emulate the most popular sounds in pop culture on every album and every tour stop but 3. He even webmasters the official Weird Al site, among others...

Here's a rarity: Bermuda performing with another band. Here he is, assisting behind the skins for rockabilly artist Rip Masters:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August 17

Let's talk about Eric Johnson, musician's musician and guitar god. If you're a Guitar Hero player, you know how hard it is to play along with "Cliffs of Dover," his biggest charting hit. The song came from the 1990 album 'Ah Via Musicon', his Grammy-winning platinum record. Here's a performance of the song from the 'Tonight Show':

If you're not convinced of his awesomeness after that performance, you don't have to apologize. Sometimes in this column, we talk about why certain talents aren't superstars. Eric Johnson's downfall is a more pronounced but typical demonstration of why musician's musicians don't become superstars.
Let's put it in context: 1990's "Ah Via Musicon" is a technical masterpiece. In that album, he achieved the ultimate artistic goal of revealing his unique voice within his medium of guitar playing, of establishing his own sound.

When you get beyond the guitar wizardry, you can't ignore the fact that it's a soft rock record. It is so easy to believe that this guy got his big break doing studio sessions for Christopher Cross. Here's another song that Eric Johnson did with ex-Marilyn Manson guitarist John5, just to remind you that Johnson can still rock:

Back to Eric Johnson: Some of the songs on "Musicon" are barely songwriting, just skeletons to let the guitar drift and zoom around the room... that's why people gave up on jazz. It's what they call "guitar wanking", and it sets a divide between the audience and the musician. It's like any athlete or artist flexing their muscles: after a while, the only audience the performer is concerned about is the performer. And while there's something to be said about the purity of the artistic expression, what gives art its resonance is its connection with an audience.
Let me encapsulate the difference: listening to most Eric Johnson songs, at best, makes me want to play guitar like Eric Johnson. But a song like "Cliffs of Dover"... it makes me want to fly like Superman.

I don't know if he's ever going to try to hit the charts again; heck, I can't tell if he'll release another solo album on schedule (every six years.) But Eric Johnson has found great success as the 'musician's musician'. After two successful world tours with G3 (a triple bill with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai), he's doing a Guitar Masters tour in 2011, alongside other guitar masters. That's success aplenty...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

August 16

Today, we're talking about Reginald VelJohnson, veteran actor and go-to guy when you want a friendly cop in your movie or TV show. There's plenty of tough, no-nonsense cops on TV, and they come in two flavors: deadpan (CSI) and trigger-happy (NCIS). As Carl Winslow, Reginald was the happy, not-quite-bumbling (at least, compared to Urkel) policeman that was more than his badge. He was a decent cop with good values (because Family Matters, y'know?...) And the dude could dance...

No wonder his walk-on character from Perfect Strangers became the anchor of a TV series that lasted 215 episodes.

Before he patrolled the streets of the TGIF lineup, he was most famous as the cop on the other end of John McClaine's walkie-talkie in the original Die Hard. He also played a cop in Turner & Hooch (playing neither, just a colleague). Heck, he played a jailer in Ghostbusters.

He doesn't just play cops:

Time Upon a Once from Zach Lipovsky on Vimeo.

That was a short film produced for the reality series for moviemakers, "On the Lot." After ten years 'on the force', he concentrated on the stage, which allowed him more diverse roles, as well as the chance to write and develop his own material. However, he didn't disappear from TV screens, making guest appearences on everything from Crossing Jordan and CSI to Will & Grace. In 2010, he returned to series television, accepting a role on the Disney sitcom I'm in the Band, as a different type of authority figure: a high school principal.

This last clip is to make the point that although the subjects in this Birthday Blog may be unappreciated in a general sense, it doesn't mean that they're not somebody's hero:

August 15

Today, we feature Jim Dale: an actor/songwriter that's a near icon in his native Great Britain, but might seem comparatively invisible in the US. But even if you haven't heard of him, you've probably heard him.
As a singer/songwriter under the guidance of Beatles producer George Martin, he made several trips up the UK charts in the late 50's.

His biggest songwriting success, the theme to 1966's "Georgy Girl", went to #2 in the US for the Seekers; as for himself, he was nominated for an Academy Award.

During the 60's, he appeared in 11 films of the "Carry On..." series, a series of bawdy satirical comedies.
The 70's brought him to the US, most prominently to Broadway (receiving his first of five Tony nominations in 1974, and winning a Best Actor in 1980.) He also played some hissably funny villains in such Disney comedies as Hot Lead Cold Feet and Pete's Dragon

In the last decade, Jim Dale's voice has gained a magical quality for millions of listeners. He is the narrator of all seven US releases of the Harry Potter book series, as well as for the Harry Potter video games. His work for the Harry Potter won him two Grammys, got him an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II, and earned him a spot in the Guiness Book of World Records (for voicing 146 characters for the Deathly Hallows recordings.)
His voice also narrated such fairytale worlds as those "Perfect" Walgreens commercials and the cult TV series Pushing Dasies...

Of all the good things and great actors I associate with that show, I've gotta say that Jim Dale's narration's the best thing about it...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

August 14

Happy Birthday to Mogwai drummer Martin Bulloch. Bulloch and his mates started Mogwai (a cantonese word for "demon" - or a cute and fuzzy monster, depending on what decade you grew up in...) in the 90's, and the band's sound was first placed in the 'shoegazing' section of the record store, back when there was such a thing. These days, they're called 'post-rock' by critics, which does nothing for the imagination. I prefer the term 'cinematic', which is the way I also describe Sigur Ros and Explosions in the Sky: bands that create soundscapes, usually of the slow-blooming variety, that give a feeling over any particular story or chant.
So here's a few Mogwai tracks to choose from:

(This fanvid for "The Sun Smells Too Loud" chops up a music video for The Tommy Seebach Band's "Apache")

Thursday, August 12, 2010

August 13

Philippe Pettit describes himself as a funambulist, but he's mostly known as a daredevil tightrope walker. In fact, there's one particular walk that he did that put him in the history books. That walk was also the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, where he came onstage and made one of my favorite Oscar acceptance moments ever.

But what did he do? Well, I'm going to let someone else tell that story...

These days, he teaches other people to walk tightropes, among other things. The documentary 'Man on Wire' is just one way that he continues to share the story of the 'greatest art crime of the century", whose story has become even more potent as a reminder of a time lost...

August 12

Today's the birthday of the mindbending Del the Funky Homosapien, an undercelebrated artist if ever there was. His rapping demonstrates that hip-hop as an art form has not yet reached its potential (no matter how much radio music sounds like the same old...)
Here's an example which you're familiar with, if you played a lot of Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3:

He got in the game as a lyricist, writing for his cousin's group Da Lench Mob (his cousin, being Ice Cube.) In 1991, even as Dr Dre's "The Chronic" was setting the standard for hip-hop production for the next 20 years, Del's debut album "I Wish My Brother George Was Here" was charting an alternate course for hip-hop. Throughout the 90's, his audience was finding him, even as he was distancing himself from the hip-hop industry that came to be. He would eventually help start an artistic collective, the Hieroglyphs, that would be home for his music.

In 2000, he co-created Deltron 3030, a sci-fi rap opera collaboration with producer Dan the Automator.

The album featured many other artists, including British singer Damon Albarn for one track. Albarn was so inspired by the experience, he invited Del onboard to help shape the sound of his next project, the Gorillaz:

To date, it's still Del's most high-profile gig.

In 2010, he's very much the Internet-friendly independent artist; his latest album is available, among other formats, for free download off his site (for a while, anyway.)
Meanwhile, here's the song I'll be singing all day, an Arsenio Hall performance of a song he did for the Judgement Night with alt-rockers Dinosaur Jr. Here's "Missing Link":

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

August 11

Today, we're lighting candles for Amy Holland, 80's soundtrack siren.
Show business was a family business for Amy (mom was a country singer, dad sang in opera houses;) in 1980, she produced her debut album with her future husband Michael McDonald (yes, the Doobie.) She got her sole Top 40 appearance out of it. But her real big break was when two of her songs ended up on the Scarface soundtrack.

(This song found a second life on the Grand Theft Auto 3 soundtrack, and a third life as a Lil Wayne cover.)

She had one more solo album in 1983, but the rest of the decade was all about movie soundtracks, and not just any spot in the movie:

You see, you need just the right song over the credits, to help preserve that warm feeling inside as you walk out of the theater (totally ignoring the people who do the location coordination, set design, post-production work- but I digress...)
'Teen Wolf', 'St Elmo's Fire', 'Night of the Comet', 'K-9', 'The Lion of Africa': nothing put a button on a movie like an Amy Holland ballad...

[her duet w/ Chris Farren, "Learn to Love Again", kicks in around the 3:20 mark...]

Meanwhile, Amy enjoyed her time as Mrs McDonald, moving the family to Tennessee in the 90's. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, and survived a series of difficult treatments. She's even recorded a new album as Amy Holland-McDonald, 2008's The Journey to Miracle River, which has been well-received. No word on any soundtrack appearances, however.
That's my cue...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

August 10

Today's birthday goes to Jon Farriss, the drummer for the Australian band INXS. The members have been together over 30 years, ever since they were a new wave/ska band called the Farriss Brothers (Jon's brothers, Andrew and Tim, play keyboards and lead guitar, respectively.) A former manager, who almost convinced them to become a Christian band, gave them the INXS name.

Instead, they developed their own rock sound (and their confidence to follow the beat of their own drummer, so to speak) and became one of the biggest music acts of the 80's. In their first 20 years, five of their albums went platinum, and they charted singles in the US 22 times (including "Disappear", which Jon co-wrote with lead singer Michael Hutchence.)

After the death of lead singer Hutchence in 1997, the rest of the band struggled to determine their next step. Over the next few years, the band would perform one-off shows with guest vocalists, then almost found a new singer - who left before they could record an album. Finally in 2004, they took the audacious step of making a worldwide search for their next lead singer, and making it part of a reality TV show. Though met with criticism, the show did produce what they were looking for: their next singer, J D Fortune, a guy as rebellious as the band is. He got the job and toured with the band for the next few years.

What happened after the tour is still under debate. Either JD got sent home after the tour, or he got 'sent home'. [As of 2010, the band and JD have confirmed that he is definitely the lead singer of INXS.] Either way, the next INXS album isn't with JD Fortune; it's a tribute album to Michael Hutchence, with guest singers performing covers from the first 20 years of the band's history. Among the names confirmed are the Killers' Brandon Flowers, Rob Thomas, Nikki Costa, and Ben Harper.
Here's a Ben Harper concert performance, with birthday boy Jon sitting in, of "Never Tear Us Apart":

Monday, August 9, 2010

August 9

Happy Birthday to Amy Stiller, a girl in the family business of making people laugh (Her parents are Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, and Ben's her baby brother.) Her highest-profile gigs have been on TV (including three different characters on 'The King of Queens') but she's appeared in movies with her family as well (my favorite character of hers is the film studies teacher in The Independent.)

Chasing the fame game feels even tougher when it's a family thing, but her response was co-writing and starring in the award-winning short, Amy Stiller's Breast (her aspiring actress character discovers there's an image of the Madonna on her left boob.)

Amy just got married a few years ago. Considering her upbringing, it makes sense that she would have to find someone funny, and someone comfortable with show business. So she married this guy:

No, she's not Mrs. Amy Tentacles. She married voice actor Roger Bumpass; she's Mrs. Bumpass now.

Oh, well... at least, she doesn't have to seduce Spanish furniture movers anymore...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

August 8

Happy Birthday to Chris Foreman, long-time guitarist of Madness and developer of the "Axecam", a mount for a portable camera (okay, a cellphone camera) on the guitar strap, so audiences can get a 'guitar's-eye-view' of the concert.

Good for short doses, but even the best guitarist has other things to think about in concert than cinematography. Still, great to see the nutty boys still at it.
Here's one of the first of the new ones, featuring guest vocalist/punk legend Ian Dury:

And here's something we can all sing-a-long to:

BTW, did you know that "Our House" became a jukebox musical (like Mamma Mia and American Idiot) featuring all Madness songs? It had a 10-month run on the West End, won the Olivier award for Best New Musical; don't know if there's any chance of that show crossing the pond - or anything Madness, for that matter. It's enough to drive a fan... well, y'know...

Saturday, August 7, 2010

August 7

Happy Birthday to veteran actor David Rasche, the That Guy that found, for a moment and a half, the perfect leading role.

He first made his reputation on the Chicago stage; he's particulary received acclaim for his Mamet performances. He also developed his comedic chops in Chicago, assuming John Belushi's spot when Belushi was called up to Saturday Night Live. Perhaps it was the same combination of machismo and buffoonery that made Sledge Hammer such a perfect role.

Sledge Hammer!, a parody of Dirty Harry and NBC's "Hunter" series, lasted two seasons.

"Sledge Hammer" was only one high point of a long TV and movie career. (His longest running series, by five episodes, was the NBC sitcom "Nurses.") He tends to play bunglers or smarmy weasels of the corporate (LA Law, Ugly Betty) or political (West Wing, In the Loop, Burn After Reading.)

But he's so under the radar that he was the most recognizable face in the movie United 93, a movie they wanted to film without any actors that would take the audience out of the story.

Still there are plenty of fans who would recognize him in any role, even if they only see him in one. And they're all going to be in one building!

Friday, August 6, 2010

August 6

I'm writing about Elliot Smith because he reminds me of somebody. Elliot chose the name Elliot growing up because "Steve" sounded like a jock's name and "Steven" sounded too 'bookish' for him. After four years in college, he did odd jobs and collected unemployment, anything to support the music he played with his friends in Heatmiser:

But it's his music on his own that made Elliott Smith renowned - his music, and the melancholy of his own life. Elliott was content playing in the band; he just happened to end up with a solo career, just like he happened to end up an Oscar-nominated songwriter.

Elliott Smith released five albums in his lifetime, so there's a lot of music to discover. But the reason I'm writing about Elliott Smith - the reason he reminds me of somebody- is because he still feels gone too soon, even if he was expecting it.
I knew somebody - barely knew somebody - whose funeral is happening the day after his birthday. I don't have enough stories, good memories, to sustain me, and I can't stand it. I'm even apologizing for not knowing the right Elliott Smith song (if there even was one) to dedicate, and just picking one, because rain is rain. This one kind of feels right, though:

Thursday, August 5, 2010

August 5

I'm shining a light on Adam Yauch today, who you know as MCA of the Beastie Boys. You might think of him as a rapper, or a bass player. But I want to talk about him as a filmmaker.

Beastie Boys - Shadrach (Abstract Impressionist Version)
Uploaded by EMI_Music. - Watch more music videos, in HD!

See, as Nathaniel Hornblower, Adam has also directed some of the Beastie's most memorable videos, as well as their experimental concert film, "Awesome; I... Shot That!" In fact, since 1998, he's been the exclusive videographer for the Beasties.

Beastie Boys - Body Movin'
Uploaded by EMI_Music. - Explore more music videos.
(I apologize; DailyMotion's kinda in your face, but they're record label owned.)

Besides his efforts as Nathaniel Hornblower, he also started Oscilloscope Laboratories, with its own film distribution arm - but it's not just for Beastie Boys movies. Oscilloscope's garnering a reputation as a tastemaker studio, with its collection of critically-embraced documentaries (Dear Zachary, The Garden, A Film Unfinished) and dramas (Wendy and Lucy, The Messenger, Howl...)

Adam was laid low a few years back with a cancer diagnosis, which derailed plans for the Beasties' next tour and album, a two-part release currently called "Hot Sauce Committee". Although I'm satisfied with him making videos and sharing movies he loves with the world, I certainly wouldn't mind hearing more from the Beasties (especially if it convinces the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame...)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

August 4

Sometimes, these blog posts generate themselves:

Good to fit in two birthday wishes, but this post is for Helen Thomas, who has sat in White House press conferences since the Kennedy Adminstration. Plus, she was born in Winchester, Kentucky (down the holler from me), so she gets some hometown love.
Here's a great encapsulation about her career, and its recent (and controversial) ending:

However you interpret her statement, she conceded the insensitivity of her remarks. (But that's kind of common for folks her age; that's why we retire them [See what I did there? Just to be clear, that's an attempt by me to offer humor through a sarcastic ageist statement... unless I'm really prejudiced against old people... or I'm trying to boost blog hits by making incendiary remarks... some of my best friends are old people...]) And because she considers herself a journalist (and not a Fox News correspondent [see what I did there? Just to- never mind.]), she retired.

I don't know if anyone is poised to pick up the torch, regarding her relentless equal-opportunity questioning of every administration of the last 50 years. And her record for crushing press secretaries' souls will likely remain unchallenged for centuries to come. (I think I might be ageist. Forgive me.)
Look at what she did to Stephen Colbert (fast forward to 04:20)

Monday, August 2, 2010

August 3

Today's the birthday of Jimmy Nicol, a rock n' roll drummer that became the Biggest Drummer in the World - for almost two weeks.
Born in London, his professional career began when he was 18, playing in rock and roll bands around the city. In those days, rock and roll was defined by Chuck Berry around the world, Tommy Steele in the UK. Steele's little brother, Colin Hicks, was starting a band as well, and his manager recruited Jimmy for drums.
Colin Hicks and the Cabin Boys had their greatest success in Italy, after filming this performance in the 1959 film, Europe By Night:

But he didn't stick around to tour Italy; he stayed in the London scene, doing session work and playing in bands for guys like Oscar Rabin and Georgie Fame. He even started his own combo, The Shubdubs.

It was a case of tonsilitis that got him his biggest gig ever. Ringo Star collapsed on June 3, 1964, on the eve of the Beatles' world tour. Manager Brian Epstein urged the other Beatles to get a replacement drummer until Ringo could get better and catch up with the rest of the band. Producer George Martin suggested Nicol, who had impressed Martin at previous sessions for other artists (and had, coincidentally, learned and recorded several Beatles songs for the studio band The Koppykats, in one of those 'inspired by' knockoff albums that record labels do.) He was auditioned, got his mop top cut, and played his first concert with the Beatles in Copenhagen, on June 4th.
For the next week, he fit well with the Beatles and kept up as best he could, while the band played the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and Australia...

On June 14, Ringo was ready to return. Jimmy was plucked out of Australia in the middle of the night, and sent back to London with his check and a gold watch, presented in gratitude. He was a Beatle for ten days.
He contributed a footnote to the Beatles songbook, too. During his time as a Beatle, whenever John or Paul would ask how he was dealing with things, he would say he was "getting better", every time. The phrase stuck with Paul, and inspired the song "Getting Better" that would end up on the 'Sgt Pepper' album.

By his own account, he never recovered from his time as a Substitute Beatle. After Australia, the Shubdubs got a boost, but it wasn't enough to get the band's music on the charts. "Humpty Dumpty" wasn't that great a song, to be honest; but the B-side, the Shubdubs' arrangement of "Night Train", was pretty good:

He eventually ended up drumming with the Swedish instrumentalists the Spotnicks for a few years; then, he ended up in Mexico learning samba rhythms and starting a button factory. Eventually, he got out of music altogether.
Today, he's rather reclusive, and hasn't recorded in decades. Meanwhile, his son, Howie Nicol, is in the TV industry, and has become an award-winning sound recordist. He's never released a tell-all book or sold the movie rights (because he respects the Beatles that much), but I'd love to know the full story of this rock and roll Icarus: why he played and what he was working for when it started, what it was like to be a rock star for a week, and how hard was he chasing it after it was gone... Fortunately, he's not a statistic or even a rock music cliche, but I feel there's something to learn from his experience...

There's more to Jimmy than the Beatles, and that's why I'm going to finish up with another song by the Shubdubs, because I love that mod-rock instrumental sound:

Sunday, August 1, 2010

August 2

Today's the birthday of Wes Craven, and if you pay attention to movies, you probably know his name already: as a film director and writer, he's shaped the American horror film for decades, from 1972's The Last House on the Left, to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and the Scream series. Today, we're going to take a look at his excursions beyond the horror genre.

1982's "Swamp Thing" was his comic book movie, his attempt to show that he could handle action films, big stunts, and big-name actors (the film starred Adrienne Barbeau, Louis Jordan, and Ray Wise. The film garnered enough of a cult reputation to inspire a sequel and a popular TV series.

At one point, Craven was signed to direct "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace". Those legendary "creative differences" (with star - and eventual director - Christopher Reeve) got Craven replaced.

How did Wes Craven end up directing the Meryl Streep movie "Music of the Heart"? He demanded it. In fact, he only agreed to direct a third Scream movie if he got to direct "Music". At the time, Madonna was attached to the biopic about a music teacher in New York that was saving the world one violin at a time. Madonna and Craven had "creative differences", but Craven got to stay in his chair this time.

The film would end up nominated for two Oscars. Critics spoke well of Craven's directing, surprised by his understated handling of the film's melodrama.

"Vampire in Brooklyn" should have worked. Craven and Eddie Murphy wanted to work together; Murphy wanted something darker than his typical urban comedies, and Craven knew how to inject humor into his macabre movies. And "Brooklyn" has real-deal horror fx, plus Eddie Murphy in multiple roles; it's got the two great tastes...

...that taste kind of off. Was Murphy trying too hard to be a leading man(is it a coincidence that he got the gothic mullet look, ala Tom Cruise's Lestat one year prior?) or was he leaning too much on his comedic timing? Was Craven trying too hard to make a comedy, or did he just lose control of the film? "Brooklyn" has its fans, but most people call it an Eddie Murphy film...

Finally, we feature Craven's contribution to the motion picture menagerie known as 'Paris Je T'aime'. As befitting the theme, it's a short romantic comedy about love in Paris, and the most supernatural element is Oscar Wilde.

Apparently, this was Craven's concession to his reputation as a horrormeister. (BTW, "Paris Je T'aime" is a warm and fuzzy film, but the chapter before Craven's has a hot and savage vampiress versus Elijah Wood... so everybody's happy!)

August 1

I think I'm heading to a place of closure with only 21 days left to cover. I'm pondering what to do next, and what the future of this blog is. Meanwhile, I'm throwing a short entry in today, due to being out with family for the weekend. Today's birthday spotlight shines on Dean Wareham, who started two indie rock classic bands, Galaxie 500 and Luna. Today, he records with his wife under the name Dean & Britta, with an emphasis on film scores (apparently.)
But here's a Luna song that still haunts me:

Friday, July 30, 2010

July 31

One of the trickiest things to achieve in the music business is a musical identity. It's twice the challenge for a DJ, who plys his trade by, essentially, repurposing other people's sounds. Norman Cook managed that trick, although it certainly took a while - and a lot of aliases.
Born in Brighton, UK, he was putting together block parties in his teens when he helped a friend out of a pinch, replacing the bassist for his friend's band on the eve of their national tour. That's how he became the bassist for the Housemartins.

The Housemartins sounded a lot like the Smiths, but less angsty. That was good enough to get them on the charts a few times before they called it a day in 1988.

After the Housemartins, he returned to the turntables. By 1989, Norman Cook had a top 30 hit, "Blame it on the Bassline." The guest rapper on the track, MC Wildski, joined Cook's next band, Beats International; their number 1 track, "Dub Be Good to Me", was a hit mashup before there was a mashup trend. In 1994, Freak Power was Cook's foray into acid jazz. In 1995, he whipped up a house album under the name "Pizzaman".

All these projects led him to a sound that he began releasing under the name Fatboy Slim. In 1997, he had enough Fatboy Slim songs for a proper album, Better Living Through Chemistry. Fatboy Slim is his most successful alias; see how many of these songs you recognize:

In 2009, he released "I Think We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat," under the name of Brighton Port Authority - essentially, a Fat Boy Slim duets album. Each of the album's tracks features different collaborator, such as Dizzee Rascal, DJ Danger Mouse, and Iggy Pop.

This video features the "Hitchcock cameo moment" that Cook normally fits into every Fat Boy Slim video.

For his latest album, he delivered Fat Boy Slim's first concept album: 'Here Lies Love', featuring David Byrne, tells the story of former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos and her personal assistant. Meanwhile, Fatboy Slim the deejay continues to play for arena-level crowds across the globe...

July 30

Sonu Nigam is the answer to a long-standing question of mine: where do the songs in Bollywood films come from? Nigam is what's known in Bollywood circles as a playback artist, the singer of a movie's song that the actor lip-syncs for the film. Contrary to the experience in Western entertainment, it's expected and respected. Here's an example from one of my favorite Bollywood films:

The scene is from "Om Shanti Om", one of my favorite Bollywood films. And though I had figured out it wasn't movie star Shah Rukh Khan singing (else, I'd have read about his magnificent music career, instead of just his magnificent movie career) I didn't know who in the credits sang the songs. Now I know: it can be a different singer for each song.
Sonu Nigam is a second-generation singer, whose star rose after he began appearing on a popular music talent show in his 20's. He's worked extremely hard to reach his level of popularity in India; he's released albums in over a dozen languages (because India's that big, and I'm still wrapping my head around this.)
Here's the real Sonu Nigam, in a music video for one of his songs:

He's trying to launch his own film career (no idea if he sings all the songs in his films) but he's more recognized for his musical talent.

I'm used to Hollywood standards, taking for granted that the actors singing onscreen are generating their own musical voices (Glee, Moulin Rouge, Across the Universe) even if I know they're not generating the songs on-set. The first Western equivalent that comes to mind is Turturro's "Romance and Cigarettes," and the effect was jarring, too obvious (one of many problems with that film.) I've also seen it work (John Waters' "Crybaby" comes to mind.) It's one more string to the illusion, and it can still achieve the desired effect; one character unleashing the song in their heart for the world to hear...)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

July 29

It's time to wish 'Hyvää syntymäpäivää!' to Finnish cellist Paavo Lötjönen. A Sibelius University graduate, he first picked up the cello at 7 years old. And he might have ended up a cello teacher or symphony member, except for a band he and his friends started in college, called Apocalyptica.
Their first album, "Plays Metallica by Four Cellos", is exactly what it says it is. It's wonderful.

Their second album set the tone of the band's musical evolution: they delivered some more Metallica covers, along with some songs from other metal stalwarts, and four original compositions, allowing the four cellists to exhibit individual identities.
Paavo, for example, tends to provide the backbeat and deeper refrains.

By the way, Paavo's the short haired one, and the member with the most umlaats in his name (and therefore, the most metal one...)

It doesn't seem likely that a band would achieve any longetivety by playing metal music with classical instruments. Heck, starting a band with four people playing the same instrument seems ridiculous enough. But Apocalyptica's a great example of how to build a band right: start with playing your versions of your favorite songs, until they're your best versions, then write songs that show off your best talents - and just rock. Apocalyptica's evolved since their humble beginnings: they became three cellists and a drummer in 2003. They also began collaborating with accomplished vocalists and guitarists from around the world.

That's "I'm Not Jesus", featuring Slipknot's Corey Taylor; it was the lead-off single
of 2007's "Worlds Collide" album, their most successful album to date. Personally, I like the songs as songs, but think the collaboration songs are so traditionally structured that the cellists have to assume traditional rock arrangements (cello as rhythm guitar, as lead, as bass); fine for the radio audience, but not what I listen to Apocalyptica for.

I'm going to finish this post with what I consider Apocalyptica at their best. This track's called "Farewell," from their self-titled fifth album; Paavo said in an interview that the band self-titled it because they felt the album best represented Apocalyptica. This video, BTW, is a fanvid, using clips from the Kurt Wimmer film "Equilibrium":

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

July 28

Today's the birthday of Jon Arbuckle, the owner of the world's most sarcastic cat, Garfield. (Jon happens to share the same birthdate as his creator, cartoonist Jim Davis.) Garfield has now been around for over 30 years, and I'd have to say it's the most influencial comic strip of my generation.
You might like Calvin and Hobbes or the Far Side better, but where are they now? Where are their knockoffs and spinoffs? Where are their cartoons and CGI movies, their mugs and plush toys and fruit snacks? If you have a Meijer near you, you can get Garfield spaghetti rings. Take that, Dilbert!

32 years is a long time to play second banana to an overweight cat, but he continues to grin and bear it. And he's been rewarded for his patience in the comic strip; this year, the perennial bachelor finally has a steady romantic relationship with Dr Liz, the veterinarian.
The accusations about Garfield the comic strip spinning its wheels will persist until the strip's end; I believe, at that point, Garfield's artistic and philosophical merit will be re-evaluated. And it will all hinge on Jon's journey.

(Fun fact: Garfield creator Jim Davis is the uncle of Jonathan Davis, lead singer of Korn! Ginchy!)

A few years ago, some Garfield readers began digitally extracting Garfield the cat out of his own comic strip. "Arbuckle: Garfield through Jon's eyes" is a webcomic where the thoughts balloons are removed from the strips, giving a glimpse of what Jon actually sees and hears in his world. Even more popular has been "Garfield Minus Garfield", where the comic strip becomes Jon soliloquizing, ranting to no one. Efforts like these hint at the madness hidden within the comedy and aphorisms.
Here's what one of those beloved Garfield TV specials look like with the "without" treatment:

Happy Birthday, Jon. You deserve a fruit snack of your own...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

July 27

Here's a birthday wish to Bobbie Gentry, who may be one of the most mysterious entries that I'll write about in this blog. Let me employ a contemporary reference: she's the Lauryn Hill of country music.
First, let's listen to the song that defined her career: the Southern Gothic tune "Ode to Billy Joe".

The mystery of what happened on the Tallahassee Bridge was a phenomenon in 1967; it was #1 on the Pop chart, a top 10 hit on the Adult and R&B charts (but not country!) The album knocked 'Sgt Pepper' off the top spot. The song managed 8 Grammy nominations, of which Bobbie won 3 - including Best New Artist. (If you pay attention to the Grammys, you might know where this is going...)
Her second album, "The Delta Sweete" was a semi-autobiographical concept album, continuing her swampwater songbird sound. It didn't sell as well as the other 3 albums she put out in 1968, mostly covers and duets.

After "Billy Joe", her next composition that achieved some resonance was "Fancy"; the song and album were released in 1970.

The song's become a Reba McEntire standard, and, in its way, a feminist anthem. For Bobbie Gentry, it was her last Grammy nomination, her last hit single.
The album "Fancy" was one of three Bobbie Gentry albums released in 1970. In all, she had recorded nine albums in four years.

The 70's were her cashing in period. There would be no more new songs. She toured Europe, then managed a big payday for a Vegas revue, where she had complete creative control. In the summer of 1974, she had her TV Variety show, the Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour. In 1976, "Ode to Billy Joe" became a feature film starring Robbie Benson and Glynnis O'Connor.

The film promised to answer the long-debated questions of why Billy Joe jumped off the bridge and what the girl knew.
By 1980, she was retired from performing altogether.

My biggest question is, were there any more songs? She certainly had the artistic ambitions; although Kelly Gordon received producer credit for "Billy Joe" and several other albums, Bobbie revealed that she produced most of her songs (and had to list an established producer at the label's insistence.) She resorted to covering pop and country standards to retain some measure of "Billy Joe" success, while the creative follow-ups - songs like "Casket Vignette" and "Apartment 21" - were ignored by the masses.
So, she did retire to enjoy motherhood and her spoils? Was she frustrated or heartbroken with the business? Did she just leave while the leaving was good? She was a mysterious woman from the first; no use expecting answers now...

We'll let her say goodbye with her buddies Bing Crosby and Tiny Tim:

Monday, July 26, 2010

July 26

Another request: Dobie Gray, who led me to a musical movement that wasn't created by the musicians, but by their fans.
In the late-60's UK, the Motown sound was making almost as big a splash over there as the Beatles were in the US. As the sounds of soul music began to evolve, a clear line was drawn between the early soul sound that was influencing the mods and the blue-eyed soul scene, and the soul music that was embracing funk, psychedelia, and the politics of the times. While the new soul music was changing, the mod scene wasn't ready to change with it.
That's where the Northern Soul scene comes in: fans of the early sound began scouring their old record collections for undercelebrated songs to celebrate anew. B-sides that came and went in their original release found a new lease on life.
And that's where we pick up the story of Dobie Gray, whose "Out on the Floor" was on his first full=length album in 1965. The song made the British charts in 1975, and it's considered among the top 10 Northern Soul songs.

That 1965 album was a singles collection, brought on by the success of his first hit single "The In Crowd". A Top 20 hit in the US, the song was also adopted in the Mod scene.

But Dobie would have his own musical evolution in the 60's. In the latter half of the 60's, he joined the cast of the Broadway musical 'Hair'. During that time, he was also the lead singer in the band Pollution, most remembered for being managed by the guy who played Jethro on the 'Beverly Hillbillies'.

In 1972, he moved to Nashville and recorded a solo album on the Decca label, working with Mentor Williams, brother of songwriter Paul Williams. From here on, he would perform songs like the soul ballads and gospel tunes that he preferred. These songs would be categorized as 'country rock'. The album's title track was the Mentor Williams written-and-produced track "Drift Away"

Far and away his biggest hit, "Drift Away" carried him to his record label when Decca was swallowed by MCA. He had several singles bubbling under the charts over the next few albums, but no more breakthroughs, and none at his next home, Capricorn Records. He began increasing his efforts at songwriting, penning tunes for George Jones and John Denver. He toured well, particularly in South Africa; he convinced the apartheid goverment to allow him to play for integrated crowds, which was unheard of at the time.

By the 80's, he was recording again - this time, for the country charts.

But "Drift Away" is still the song Dobie Gray's known for, and it's also a great encore. When he re-recorded it as a duet with Uncle Cracker, "Drift Away" did even better the second time around - finally becoming a number 1 hit (and for half a year!), on the AC charts.
So, let's end this with a reprise, because it's a Monday as I write this, and because we all need this feeling, even if we don't listen to the Beach Boys...

Uncle Kracker - Drift Away
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Saturday, July 24, 2010

July 25

Happy Birthday to the Prince of Darkness, Peter Suschitzky. This second-generation cinematographer (his father was camera operator for the original 'Get Carter') got his nickname for pulling off scenes such as the Luke/Vader duel in 'Empire Strikes Back':

Suschitzky's the first cinematographer I learned to associate with a film, with the help of a hundred shouting fans. His first Hollywood film was the 1975 cult classic "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", and his name in the opening credits has spawned a popular callback. He also shot a good looking film:

(This is a enjoyable shot scene, fourth wall broken and all. I'd intentionally left it off the Tim Curry tribute, but didn't realize I'd get the chance to use it again...)

His "Empire" work put him on the radar of David Cronenberg, who lost his long-time cinematographer to the 80's remake of 'The Blob'. Cronenberg tapped Suschitzky for "Dead Ringers", the beginning of a collaboration that's lasted over 20 years and 8 films. Here's a scene from the underappreciated eXsistenZ (recommended Not Safe For Work... or within an hour of eating...)

Their next team-up, a sequel to Eastern Promises, is scheduled for release in 2011. Besides Cronenberg, Suschitzky's also worked with John Boorman(Where the Heart Is), Tim Burton(Mars Attacks!) and Randall Wallace(The Man in the Iron Mask).

July 24

A Happy Birthday wish to former child star Mara Wilson. In her best roles, she distinguished herself by displaying an intelligence and precociousness that seemed more genuine than her peers; she really put the 'actor' in kid actor.

Born in 1987, she inherited a love of acting from her older brother, and Mara started acting at the age of 4. Two years later, she made her feature film debut, in the psychological thriller Mrs Doubtfire, starring Robin Williams:

'Mrs Doubtfire' was a box office smash, and Mara's star rose. The following Thanksgiving, her name was above the title of her second film, the 1994 remake of 'Miracle on 34th Street.' The following spring, the National Association of Theater Owners presented her with the ShoWest Award for "Young Star of the Year", a testament to her growing audience appeal.

Danny Devito was also impressed with Mara's talent. Devito cast her in what has become her most iconic role: Matilda.

Devito's Matilda brought to life the dread and delights of Dahl's stories like no one else had before or since, and Mara's performance as Matilda Wormwood was central to that.

2000's 'Thomas and the Magic Railroad' is the last movie she did before she concentrated on school and being a normal teenager. In the decade to come, her biggest project was in an Odessa,Texas production of Rogers and Hammerstien's 'Cinderella'.

She graduated from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in 2009. In her senior year, she created a one-woman-show called "Weren't You That Girl...?" It was an autobiographical piece about the child star phase of her life. She managed to avoid the typical post-child star cliches; it'll be interesting to see where the next chapter in her acting career takes her...