Friday, August 29, 2008

The Man-Child of Motown Meets Middle Age

For all the hoo-ha over Madonna's turning fifty a couple of weeks ago - even OPC felt compelled to mark the occasion - there has been remarkably little discussion over the fact that Michael Jackson turns 50 today. It's hard to imagine Michael at 50, isn't it? He's older than the guy who just accepted the Democratic presidential nomination.

It's also kind of funny how Madonna and Michael, although almost exactly the same age, sort of took turns being the most popular pop star in America. Michael burst onto the scene in 1969, when he and his brothers started a string of four straight Number One singles, and he was one of the biggest stars in the world through Thriller in 1982. Madonna didn't even release her first album until 1983, when Jackson was just passing his peak.

Of course, that's not entirely fair: 1987's Bad was a big hit for Michael. Even though it was a clear step down from the world-dominating Thriller, Bad did spawn five Number One singles of its own.

Then there's 1995's HIStory, one of the biggest slaps in the face that an artist has ever laid on his fans. In case you've forgotten, it was a double album, one disc of which was greatest hits, the other of which was new material. If you were a big Michael Jackson fan, you already had all the hits, but if you wanted the new stuff, you had to buy them all over again. Thanks for nothing, Michael. But happy birthday anyway.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hot Schweitzer

One of the big stars to emerge at the Democratic National Convention last night was bolo-wearing Montana governor Brian Schweitzer. As usual, OPC was all over this phenomenon a long time ago. Back in 2005, I persuaded Rolling Stone to commission a piece by me for the Hot Issue with Schweitzer cast as the Hot Politician. Also as usual, my perspicacity was not fully appreciated: A little thing named Katrina came along, and Sean Penn went down to New Orleans, and long story short, there wasn't room for my Schweitzer story.

Rolling Stone readers' loss is your gain, however. Here, in its entirety, is the coverage of the Hot Politician of 2005, Brian Schweitzer:

“Let me tell you why I can change the world,” Brian Schweitzer is saying from Beulah, North Dakota, home of the only plant in the U.S. making clean gas out of coal. “Montana alone has enough coal to use this process and produce all the fuels that we need for this country for the next forty years. Then the sheiks, the crooks, the dictators and the rats, they can drown in their own damn oil.”

It’s that kind of energy and forward thinking, combined with the fact that he’s a progressive in a traditionally red state, that has catapulted the man who’s been in the Montana governor’s mansion for less than a year to national attention. John Kerry dropped by Helena for a visit in August. “He speaks the truth, and he gets things done," says Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean. “I hope he’s got a future in the Democratic party nationwide, although he doesn’t seem like he wants to leave Montana.”

Schweitzer, 55, who grew up on a farm in central Montana and still wears bolo ties, scoffs at the idea that he could be a presidential contender in 2008. “I got the best doggone job in America,” he says. “And I can still fish the best trout streams in America anytime I want to.” After getting his degree in international (!) agronomy from Montana State, Schweitzer decamped for Asia, South America and eventually Saudi Arabia as an irrigation consultant. Schweitzer returned to ranching in Montana in 1986, then decided to enter politics. “It graveled me when I would see folks that I considered not particularly bright people representing the interests of the people,” he says.

A near-miss run for Senate in 2000 led to his triumph as governor in 2004, as Bush was carrying the state by almost 20 points. Schweitzer credits his victory to ads that combined his liberal ideas with his Montana nature. “They’d see me sitting on a horse or even carrying a hunting rifle, talking about something other than riding a horse,” he says. “For those who weren’t listening, they looked at me and said, ‘There’s a Montana guy.’ For those that were listening, they could understand what my plans were.”

So when he took office, Schweitzer was able to bulldoze his progressive agenda through: a child health insurance program, a renewable energy standard, a targeted tax credit for small businesses to provide health insurance, a scholarship program. The only attack dizzied Republicans have been able to raise against Schweitzer is a pseudo-scandal over who paid for his inaugural ball. “They also don’t like it that I wear jeans to work and bring my dog,” he says.

Schweitzer has also taken on bigger foes. Earlier this year, he asked the Department of Defense to not deplete his National Guard services when it came to Montana’s forest-fire season in July and August. “Homeland security in Montana means fires,” Schweitzer says. “Our Guard has twelve Blackhawk helicopters; eleven of them were in Iraq.” Despite Schweitzer’s entreaty, or maybe because of it, only two other states in the nation now have more of their Guardsmen deployed overseas than Montana.

That didn’t turn Schweitzer against Bush’s Iraqi adventure, however; he was opposed from the beginning. “How are you going to turn around 2000 years of cultural history by sending in the military?” he says. “And in Iraq, he was one of the dictators that we had a thumb on. He couldn’t move a truck from McDonald’s to change oil without us knowing it. So it didn’t make sense to me, and it’s not making much sense now.”

Still, he has resisted calls to move his act to a national stage. The last Democratic president was also the governor of a small, conservative state, but Schweitzer says his situation is different. “It’s a lot easier to leave Arkansas,” he says, “than it is to leave Montana.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I'm Gonna Add Some Bottom

I heard Foreigner's "Feels Like the First Time" on the radio the other day, and for some reason I focused on the bassline. It just went bomp, bomp, bomp, stuck on the same note, banging out 4/4 time. It added nothing to the song, except for maybe a tonality to the bass drum. I guess there were a few points where the bassist - Ed Gagliardi was his name - played some different notes, but for the most part it was as monotonous as it could be.

(The song was followed on the oldies station I was listening to by the Rolling Stones' "Mother's Little Helper, with a bassline that gave the song a lot of energy and texture. All it took was a little bit of melody and a willingness to vary the rhythm. It's unfair to compare any other band to the Stones, but hey, maybe those guys in Foreigner should have been listening to them a little more carefully.)

My music library is seriously short on late-1970s arena rock, by design I might add, but as I recall that style of bass playing was very popular back then. Maybe it made sense in a stadium full of kids bobbing their heads to it as they held up their lighters. One other song I noticed the same bassline on was "Eye of the Tiger," which came out in 1982, five years after "Feels Like the First Time," so the basses were stagnant for at least half a decade.

As for Foreigner, Gagliardi was replaced by Rick Wills before Head Games in 1979, so at least they tried to do something about the problem.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Birthday Wishes

Declan McManus, was born fifty-four years ago today. Now better known as Elvis Costello, he was apparently made in 1954 for 1984.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chopped Liver

Back in 1989, Bob Dylan made a surprise appearance on the Chabad telethon, an annual Los Angeles event to raise money for the Lubavitcher movement. (The religious niceties of the Lubavitchers escape me, so my apologies in advance if I'm misrepresenting it.) This performance was much-discussed back in the 1990s, when there was really no outlet to see it; I saw it for the first time the other day, thanks to the wonders of YouTube.

Dylan appeared with Peter Himmelman, who, the host failed to note, was Dylan's son-in-law (and still is, near as I can tell), and Harry Dean Stanton. (I don't think Stanton's even Jewish.) Himmelman sings, Stanton plays harmonica, and Dylan tootles around on flute and recorder. The song they do, rather disappointingly, is not "Please Mrs. Henry":

This year's Chabad telethon is on September 18. You won't want to miss it.

Friday, August 22, 2008

One-Hit Wonder Week: "I've Never Been to Me," by Charlene

Charlene D'Angelo was born in 1950 in Hollywood, California, and was married at age 16, with a child soon to follow. She never gave up on her dream of a singing career, though, and got her big break when a demo she had cut called "Sweet Sad Clown" found its way into the hands of Motown's Berry Gordy. This is less surprising than it might sound, since Motown had moved its operations to Los Angeles in 1972; the label signed Charlene Duncan, as she was then known, in 1973, and released her single "All That Love Went to Waste" in January 1974. It flopped.

She didn't release another single until 1977's "It Ain't Easy Coming Down," which was credited to just Charlene. It appeared on an album called Charlene, which was credited to Charlene Duncan. Someone at Motown was asleep at the switch. At any rate, both the album and the single flopped. Charlene released one more album for Motown, Songs of Love, which was the same as Charlene except that one song, "I've Never Been to Me," had its spoken-word bridge edited out of it. Motown also released that song as a single, and finally Charlene had her first little bit of chart success; "I've Never Been to Me" went all the way to Number 97 on Billboard's Hot 100.

To hear Charlene tell it later, "I've Never Been to Me" was always a very special song to her. It was written by Ron Miller, who had co-written a bunch of Stevie Wonder's early hits: "A Place in the Sun," "For Once in My Life," "Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday," plus "Touch Me in the Morning" for Diana Ross. “Those lyrics – ‘Hey lady, you lady, cursing at your life, you’re a discontented mother and a regimented wife’ – they hit me hard," Charlene said in 2007. "I was a battered wife, I’d married at 16, had a child to my first husband, and Ron Miller’s song just spoke to me. I didn’t even know him but I just cried and cried. He actually stopped the tape to give me space to cry. It was such a beautiful song.”

But it wasn't enough to provide Charlene with a career. She released one more single on Motown in 1980, then quit the business and moved to England with her new husband.

Then, in 1982, a Tampa DJ named Scott Shannon started playing "I've Never Been to Me." This time, it hit a nerve. Motown rereleased the single, and it became a huge worldwide hit, going to Number One in Britain. Here in America, it hit the Top Forty in March of 1982 and peaked at Number Three. (Despite sounding vaguely countryish, the song only went to Number 60 on the country charts.) "Now I was living in England at the time, working in a candy store doing cleaning, selling sweets and cigarettes and everything," said Charlene, "and I got a call from my mom saying that somebody at Motown was looking for me, and then I got a call at 2 am from Jay Lasker at Motown telling me my song was on the charts! I thought at first it was a bad joke!”

There has been an awful lot of controversy and misconception over this song, stemming from the on-again off-again spoken-word bridge and the line "I've been to crying for unborn children that might have made me complete." It has been alleged that the bridge was cut out to remove that line, which some think refers to abortion, but it's in the sung lyrics, not the bridge. Near as I can tell, "unborn children" has been in every version of "I've Never Been to Me." The spoken-word part, which was in the version Scott Shannon made into a hit, is totally hot, and goes like this:

Hey, you know what paradise is?
It's a lie, a fantasy we create about people and places as we'd like them to be
But you know what truth is?
It's that little baby you're holding, it's that man you fought with this morning
The same one you're going to make love with tonight
That's truth, that's love......

Motown rushed out an album called I've Never Been to Me, then followed that up with "Used to Be," a duet with Stevie Wonder that also served as the title track to her next album. It made it up to Number 46 on the charts. Charlene's next album, Hit and Run Lover, fared even worse.

Lately, she's been reduced to releasing a dance-mix version of "I've Never Been to Me," but at least she hasn't had to go back to the sweet shop. Scott Shannon, meanwhile, has been a popular Top Forty DJ in New York City for a couple of decades now, and apparently is now the announcer on the Sean Hannity show. I wouldn't know.

"I've Never Been to Me" has lived on in countless lists of the worst songs of all time; for me, the problem with the song is that it's utterly unconvincing. Who doesn't want to be undressed by kings and see some things that a woman ain't supposed to see? Hey, lady, I've been to me, and it's no paradise.

It's kind of a letdown to finish this week without a video sitting here, but Charlene resists embedding so you'll have to go here to see her.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Magic," by Pilot

The Bay City Rollers came across to most Americans as sort of a Scottish version of Menudo, but they were a real working band for a long time before their American success. (Their name comes from the alleged gambit of, in hopes of finding an American-sounding handle, throwing a dart at the map of the U.S.A. and landing on Bay City, Michigan. I hope they realized - with my apologies to our Michigander readers - that no American actually has ever heard of Bay City, and most of them, as I did, probably thought Bay City was a place in Scotland.)

The early Rollers were managed by a chap named Tam Paton, who wanted the boys to dress up in tartan and tam o'shanters and all that, making you wonder why they went to all the trouble of choosing an American name. Guitarist David Paton was having none of that, so he left the Rollers just as they signed their first record deal in 1969. (David and Tam don't appear to have been brothers, although I can't find anything to confirm that.) Organist Billy Lyall left the same band in 1971, and went on to become an engineer at Craighill Studios in Edinburgh.

Paton and Lyall bumped into each other, supposedly at the Edinburgh library, and decided to start writing songs together. After a year of this, with a hundred songs under their belt, they recruited drummer Stuart Tosh and went into the studio to lay down some tracks. They took the first letter of each of their last names, PLT, and called themselves Pilot, and secured themselves a deal.

Their label, EMI, assigned producer Alan Parsons to the project, coming off his engineering work on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Session guitarist Ian Bairnson also worked on the record, and was eventually asked to join the band, with Paton switching to bass. The first single, "Just a Smile," came out in June 1974, and went nowhere. The finished album, given the ungainly title Pilot (From the Album of the Same Name), came out in October 1974, a couple of weeks after the second single, "Magic."

"Magic" was a hit in Britain, going to Number Eleven in the fall of '74. The follow-up, "January," was even bigger, going all the way to Number One in January of '75. When they went back into the studio in March to cut their second album, Second Flight, again with Alan Parsons, they still hadn't made an impact in America.

It's not clear to me when "Magic" was released in America, but it moved into the Top Forty on May 10, 1975, and would eventually peak at Number Five while Pilot was on a European tour. Pilot wanted to be a respected rock band, but they found themselves in the same sheer-pop place as the Bay City Rollers. "We were reluctant pop stars and I was a very reluctant frontman - I'm very happy playing bass somewhere," Paton said later. "Fronting the band and having all the responsibility was just a bit too much for me really."

Lyall wasn't too crazy about it either. He hated touring and left the band before their third album. Shortly thereafter, Alan Parsons began recording Tales of Mystery and Imagination, the debut album from the Alan Parsons Project, and enlisted the remaining Pilot trio to play on it.

Pilot put out another album, another dud; drummer Tosh left, and the remaining pair put out an album called, lamely, Two's a Crowd. They were really bad at naming albums. When that one stiffed, too, Pilot called it quits. Paton went on to play with Elton John, Rick Wakeman, and a bunch of Scottish acts, as well as with the Alan Parsons Project. Tosh spent some time in 10cc. Lyall died of AIDS in 1989. Paton and Bairnson reunited in 2002 to make Pilot again, and are still sort of at it.

If any of them ever said anything about "Magic," I can't find it. It's too bad, because it's purt near a perfect pop song, and I'd love to hear how it came together. At least we can still hear the song:

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Cars," by Gary Numan

Back in 1977, as punk was breaking across England, a musician named Gary Webb put together a group called the Tubeway Army, and by the following year, the band had landed a deal with Beggars Banquet, a record label that had no affiliation with the Rolling Stones. Webb changed his name to Valerian, and changed his bassist and drummer's names to Scarlett and Rael, and they released a couple of singles in 1978 that bombed.

Webb/Valerian soon came across a Minimoog synthesizer and used it to put together the band's first full-length album, also called Tubeway Army. He also changed his name one more time, to Gary Numan. The album was more successful, selling out in its limited run. They followed that up with Replicas, a record directly inspired by science fiction and the work of Philip K. Dick that featured an unsmiling Numan on the cover. It went to Number One in the U.K., propelled by the Number One single "Are 'Friends' Electric?" (It hit Number 85 here in the U.S.)

Numan wrote and sang every song on Replicas, and played every instrument except bass and drums. So by the time Tubeway Army was ready to release its next album, it was credited instead to Gary Numan, even though the personnel hadn't changed. This one was called The Pleasure Principle, and again featured an unsmiling Numan on the cover. The onetime punk band now put out an album with no guitars at all. All the songs had one-word titles.

The first single from the record was "Cars," which was supposedly inspired by an incident in Numan's life. "I was in traffic in London once and had a problem with some people in front," he said later. "They tried to beat me up and get me out of the car. I locked the doors and eventually drove up on the pavement and got away from them. It's kind of to do with that. It explains how you can feel safe inside a car in the modern world, which is probably why you get things like road rage. When you're in it, you're whole mentality is different, in a car. It's like your own little personal empire with four wheels on it." I question the opening part of that - shouldn't they try to get you out of the car first, then beat you up afterward? - but whatever.

As striking as the song was, with its insistent synthesizers and crashing drums (and, incongruously, lots of tambourine), the video really helped make "Cars" a hit, with Numan's grim, emotionless visage. I remember hearing Casey Kasem talk about how Numan had read a SF story about a future where people had no emotions, and based his persona on that. That's probably somewhat true, given Numan's devotion to Philip K. Dick, but I also later heard Numan admit that he was really shy (he was still only 21 when Pleasure Principle came out), and found it hard to enjoy himself and smile in his videos.

There may also be a medical reason for this. "Just recently I actually found out that I'd got a mild form of Asperger's Syndrome which basically means I have trouble interacting with people," Numan said in 2001. "For years, I couldn't understand why people thought I was arrogant, but now it all makes a bit more sense."

"Cars" was released in the U.K. in August 1979, and landed at the Number One spot by September. In the U.S., "Cars" motored into the Top Forty the last week of March 1980, eventually pulling in at Number Nine on the charts. Contrary to his somber image, Numan had turned into a bit of a party boy, being expansive in interviews with the press and driving recklessly around London in a white Corvette that Beggars Banquet gave him. Yes, of all people, wrote a song supposedly about Numan, called "White Car"; its lyrics, in their entirety, are: "I see a man in a white car/Move like a ghost on the skyline/Take all your dreams/And you throw them away/Man in a white car."

The followup to "Cars" was a song called "Complex," which went to Number Six in Great Britain but didn't make the Hot 100 in America. Numan's follow-up to The Pleasure Principle, Telekon, was his third straight Number One album in the U.K. It didn't do much in the States, where the single "I Die: You Die" stalled at Number 92 on the charts. It would be Numan's last entry in Billboard's Hot 100.

The "Cars" video predates MTV, but it seems like everyone has seen it anyway, on USA's Nightflight or something. "I thought it was excellent," Numan said later of music video. "I thought it was the future of everything." Here's the future as it looked in 1980:

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Steal My Sunshine" by Len

Back in 1975, a Nashville-born woman named Andrea True with a background in what Casey Kasem called "blue movies" went to Jamaica to make a commercial promoting the real estate industry on the island. While she was there, she felt like making a record, and a record producer she knew named Gregg Diamond gave her a song to cut. Andrea True (that was apparently her real name) wrote lyrics for it, and the result was a song called "More, More, More."

Andrea, who was already 32 at the time, had never recorded before, but "More, More, More" became a huge hit, under the band name the Andrea True Connection. The song went all the way to Number Four in the spring of 1976, a peppy disco hit distinguished by its poor singing and late piano break - not even a middle eight, just a little vamp Diamond threw in at the end.

Fast-forward about twenty years, to a brother and sister act from Toronto calling itself Len and heavily influenced by, of all people, Human League. Although their first two EPs were more punky, Marc and Sharon "Shar" Costanzo added three new quasi-members to the band for their first LP, 1999's You Can't Stop the Bum Rush, for more of a hip-hop sound. (By that point, Marc had also done a brief stint as the guitarist in Sum 41.) For "Steal My Sunshine," Marc Costanzo raspily rap-sung over the Andrea True sample, trading verses with his sweet-voiced sister Sharon. They didn't realize how buoyant it sounded, though, nearly leaving it off the LP: "Two days before the album went out," Marc said later, "we were like, 'Ah, let's put that one on.'"

Good thing they did. Even before the record was officially released, director Doug Liman, making his sophomore follow-up to Swingers, decided to use the song in his film Go, a Katie Holmes starrer that came out in the spring of 1999. Although that couldn't have hurt the song's popularity, I don't know how much it helped, either, because "Steal My Sunshine" didn't crash the Top Forty until September.

It would eventually go to Number Nine in the U.S., peaking just before the end of the century. In Len's native Canada, of course, it went to Number One.

And that was it for Len. They almost released a follow-up album in 2002, called We Be Who We Be, going so far as to send out advance copies and get written up in Rolling Stone, but the record was never actually released, for reasons that remain obscure to me. Finally, in 2005, Len's second full-length LP, a new record called The Diary of the Madmen, came out only in Canada (featuring a song called "We Be Who We Be"). Apparently there have been some drug problems. Although Len is still officially a going concern, Marc Costanzo is now a senior creative consultant at EMI Music Publishing Canada, no doubt looking for the next Glass Tiger.

"Some people think we suck, some people think we're a mistake, and that's OK," Sharon said in 1999. "We get to travel, we get to play in front of lots of people, it's great. I might wind up broke and selling vacuum cleaners in the end, but at least I'll get some frequent flyer miles out of this." Shar Costanzo turns 40 next month.

It's funny how much more information I was able to find out about "Telstar," which is 46 years old, than I was about this song recorded ten years ago. Still, it's terrific. I can't embed it, but you can see it here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Telstar," by the Tornados

Joe Meek was a pop-music producer with one Top Ten U.K. hit under his belt, "Angela Jones" by a singer named Michael Cox, when he opened up his own recording studio, RGM Sound, a three-story flat over a leather-goods store in Islington, London. He almost immediately had a Nmber One hit in Britain, "Johnny Remember Me" by John Leyton, which never charted here in the U.S., but its ghostly echo and unearthly female vocals helped make Meek's reputation as the most exciting pop producer in England.

Meek's backing band was a group called the Tornados (in the U.S., this got translated as Tornadoes), who played on all the RMG songs much as the Funk Brothers did in Motown. Meek would also occasionally have them rip out an instrumental, and after AT&T launched the Telstar satellite (the first satellite to transmit phone communications) in July 1962, Meek wrote a song inspired by this, complete with rocket sounds and space-age keyboards. Meek played no instruments himself and never learned to read and write music, but he sang the melody into a recorder, added a drum track, and sent this to the Tornados at their summer-long gig in Great Yarmouth in northern England, leaving the band itself to work out the chords.

The song, also called "Telstar," was released on August 17, 1962, prominently featuring the clavioline, which was kind of halfway between an organ and a synthesizer. The solo on Del Shannon's "Runaway," from the year before, was played on a clavioline. On "Telstar," it provided a real Tomorrowland kind of feel, accentuated by special effects such as the rocket-launching sound in the opening, which was in reality the sound of a toilet flushing played backward. It got leaked to the press (I assume by Joe Meek himself) that he had actually transmitted the song to the Telstar satellite and back, and that was the real source of all the weird sounds.

I should pause here and note that Joe Meek was totally nuts. He was gay, which was not only difficult in early-60s England but illegal, and Meek was arrested at least once on a morals charge. He was, not surprisingly, paranoid, accusing his rival Decca Records of placing microphones in his wallpaper a la Gene Hackman in The Conversation. He would put tape recorders in graveyards, hoping to capture voices from the great beyond, and claimed Buddy Holly spoke to him in his dreams.

But he sure could make records. The technology of the day meant the Tornados had to play the song live in the studio, straight through. They showed up at RGM on a Monday morning in the summer of 1962 and played "Telstar" and its B-side, "Jungle Fever," over and over till 3:30 in the afternoon, when they had to drive back up to Great Yarmouth. Meek was left alone to do some primitive overdubbing to finish the track.

"Telstar" was released in England on August 17, 1962, and was a huge smash. It went to Number One on October 6 and stayed there for five weeks, becoming the biggest-selling British single of 1962. Here in the U.S., "Telstar" launched into the Top Forty on November 17th and cruised to Number One on December 22nd, staying there for three weeks, and thus becoming the last Number One hit of 1962, the first Number One hit of 1963 (it would be followed in the top spot by Steve Lawrence's "Go Away Little Girl"), and the first Number One hit in America for a British group.

That was the only U.S. hit for the Tornados, although they placed a handful of other singles on the British charts. Meek worked with a whole flotilla of British artists in the Sixties, although the only other song he produced that made a dent on the U.S. charts was "Have I the Right?," which went to Number Five for the Honeycombs in late 1964. Shortly thereafter, even Meek's U.K. hits stopped coming, and he fell into financial problems, in part because a French composer named Jean Ledrut accused Meek of plagiarizing "Telstar" from a song he write for the French film Austerlitz, which kept Meek from collecting royalties on his biggest hit. The suit was finally decided in Meek's favor in 1968.

But by then it was too late. On February 3, 1967, eight years to the day after Buddy Holly's plane went down, Meek swiped a shotgun from Tornados bassist Heinz Burt, shot his landlady, then took his own life.

"Telstar" lived on, in cover versions by dozens of artists, including none other than Duke Ellington. The Tornados broke up in 1965, except for a few fitful partial reunions. The band Muse, now best known for their hit "Starlight," is led by Matthew Bellamy, the son of the Tornados' rhythm guitarist, George Bellamy. But they've never topped "Telstar":


Elvis Presley, you know, died on Madonna's nineteenth birthday, which means he left us thirty-one years ago yesterday. Although there's a notion (not entirely untrue) that Elvis was a bloated, pathetic mess by the time he checked out, it's worth pointing out that he was still making hits. At the moment he died, "Way Down" was at Number Thirty-One on the Billboard pop charts.

OPC's Coverage of the Olympics

As dominant as Michael Phelps has been (and no, NBC, as a matter of fact, he can't describe how this moment feels, so you may as well stop asking him), the most impresssive thing we've seen has been Usain Bolt more or less stopping for a sandwich three-quarters of the way through his hundred-meter run and still not only winning by a figurative mile but setting a world record.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Birthday Wishes

Intermittently interesting international pop star Madonna hits the Big 5-0 today. Madonna has always seemed more focused on things other than her music - her image, her videos, her gaze - and I, by contrast, am really only concerned about songs. So I'll grant you that "Crazy for You" is the greatest sock-hop closer ever made, and she looks great in the video for "Ray of Light," but for the most part, I'd rather listen to Erasure.

Remember when she was Rosie O'Donnell's best friend, for those two weeks when Rosie O'Donnell was actually cool? That's the kind of thing that drives me bananas about Madonna, the sense that her entire life is structured according to what she thinks will benefit her public perception.

Of greater interest today is that Edith and Lukas, twin children of friend of OPC and valued commenter Mark Lerner, also celebrate a birthday today. If my math is correct, Edith and Lukas are 14. Their dad seems incapable of updating his own blog on anything but the most cursory basis, but here's some of their music.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sign on the Cross

Aside from the scintilliating Cate Blanchett and the fantastic music (and despite the fact that heavy hitters like Stephen Malkmus and Sonic Youth cover some of the songs, no one sounds better than Dylan himself, who sings roughly half the material), maybe the best thing in I'm Not There is David Cross' brief appearance as Allen Ginsberg. Aside from a glimpse of a silent Woody Guthrie in his hospital bed, I believe Ginsberg is the only real figure portrayed in the movie. David Cross is such a definitive casting choice for the role - kind of like Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager - that you wonder if they decided to include the real Ginsberg just because they thought Cross would be so good playing him.

Cross has always been a deft, committed actor, even on the otherwise snarky Mr. Show. Here he is in Fuzz: The Musical, raising the lyrical plaint "Y'all are brutalizing me." While Bob Odenkirk is hilarious as the director, Cross goes further and creates a real, three-dimensional character, which of course makes the whole thing even funnier (some language may be NSFW):

Be True to Your School

According the September Harper's Index, eight of the original twelve members of Sha Na Na hold advanced academic degrees. Henry Gross, of "Shannon" fame, was a founding member, but was one of the uneducated ones.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Stars Come Out

There once was a Dutch gentleman named Jaap Eggermont who played drums in a band called the Golden Earrings, soon to change their name to Golden Earring and purvey a little "Radar Love." In July 1970, Eggermont left the band to become a producer, and near as I can tell, he produced a hit in Holland with "Spooky's Day Off" by the Swingin' Soul Machine, but the Wikipedia page is translated from the Dutch with something less than Borgesian precision. What it actually says is: "Jaap Eggermont has now shifted his interest and focuses on producing. Behind the buttons he immediately scored a direct hit with the strong Spooky's Day Off, The Swinging Soul Machine."

(What it says about his drumming is even better: "Eggermont rolls with the convenience of full drumsolo Iron Butterfly's 'In a Gadda Da Vida', including errors, but there is nobody to wait.")

In 1979 Eggermont came across a bootleg single that spliced together pieces of real hits, songs by the Beatles and the Spinners, "Funky Town" and "Video Killed the Radio Star." It was titled (apparently by the same person who did that Wikipedia translation) "Let's Do It in the '80s Great Hits." The guy who had assembled that record thought Eggermont could produce a more legitimate version, and the Dutch label Redbullet agreed. In fact, one of Redbullet's acts, Shocking Blue, had its song "Venus" on the bootleg, which wasn't so groovy, but they also figured it would be great to put that same song on the new, legit record.

Eggermont got together a bunch of Dutch Beatle soundalikes and eventually came up with a 16-inch single running 14 minutes long. (It was released in the Netherlands the day after John Lennon was murdered, which probably didn't hurt sales any.) An American label, Radio Records, chopped up the medley, keeping the "Venus" opener and, for some reason, the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" in front of all the Beatles' songs and released a proper four-minute single. Although most people called the record "Stars on 45," the official title was "Intro Venus/Sugar Sugar/No Reply/I'll Be Back/Drive My Car/Do You Want to Know a Secret/We Can Work It Out/I Should Have Known Better/You're Going to Lose That Girl/Stars on 45." It's not only the longest song title to hit Number One on the Billboard charts, which it did on June 20, 1981, it's the longest title ever to reach the Hot 100.

With the success of that record, soon came "Stars On 45/Good Day Sunshine/My Sweet Lord/Here Comes The Sun/While My Guitar Gently Weeps/Taxman/ A Hard Day's Night/Things We Said Today/If I Fell/You Can't Do That/Please Please Me/From Me to You/I Want to Hold Your Hand/Stars On 45," which was the last four minutes of the original 16-inch. It peaked at No. 67, which should have been the end of the Stars On craze, but Eggermont was not done.

There was an album called Stars on Long Play (Side One of which I think was simply the American release of the original Dutch 16-inch, and Side Two being a bunch of other old Dutch medleys), then a series of Stars On singles paying tribute to Abba, Motown, the Rolling Stones (titled "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World") and Stevie Wonder. The Stars on Stevie record was the only one to crash the American Top 40, reaching Number 28 in the spring of '82.

After tributes to the Andrews Sisters and Sinatra ("Stars on Frankie"), the Stars On concept finally petered out in 1987. I don't think anyone misses it.

Sandy Allen, 1955-2008

Sandy Allen, at seven foot seven and a quarter inches the tallest woman in the world, dead at the age of 53. Allen died at a nursing home in Shelbyville, Indiana. Springfield, once again, loses out.

I suspect that 53 is a pretty good age for someone of such outsize proportions. Robert Wadlow made it only to 22.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

He's Right Here

If you haven't seen I'm Not There, which is quite good, and even more interesting and discussion-worthy than it is good, the central figure and force of it is Cate Blanchett as the 1965-66 Dylan Gone Electric and beset with restless leg syndrome. As with some of the other material, director Todd Haynes treats the infamous Newport Jazz gig a bit hamfistedly - Cate and her band literally come out and machine-gun the audience - but Cate's performance never wavers. She could have been the whole movie.

The key to her characterization, and to the Dylan of the period, is Nat Hentoff's Playboy interview from January 1966, with Dylan at his fastest and funniest. That interview is online, and comes highly recommended by me (and I plan to use Taco Pronto as a pseudonym as soon as possible), although I make no claims as to the propriety of any possible copyright violation.

Here's Dylan describing that Newport scene:

I was kind of stunned. But I can't put anybody down for coming and booing: after all, they paid to get in. They could have been maybe a little quieter and not so persistent, though. There were a lot of old people there, too; lots of whole families had driven down from Vermont, lots of nurses and their parents, and well, like they just came to hear some relaxing hoedowns, you know, maybe an Indian polka or two. And just when everything's going all right, here I come on, and the whole place turns into a beer factory.

I dunno, Bob; a beer factory sounds kind of fun. Plus, you won't want to miss this exchange:

PLAYBOY: Do you think Lincoln wore his hair long to keep his head warm?

DYLAN: Actually, I think it was for medical reasons, which are none of my business.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Curse of Billy Bob

From the Web site Defamer, hot on the heels of the death of Bernie Mac, comes word of a possible curse involving Billy Bob Thornton. And no, it's not just limited to his strong of ex-wives, who I'm sure feel quite cursed.

Mac of course costarred with Thornton in the classic holiday romp Bad Santa, the first film in Thornton's Bad trilogy, to be followed by Bad News Bears and the upcoming Huey Lewis biopic Bad Is Bad, and then died at the age of 50. Other Billy Bob victims:

* John Ritter, costar of Sling Blade, dead at the age of 54

* J.T. Walsh, costar of Sling Blade, dead at the age of 54

* Jim "Hey, Vern!" Varney, costar of Daddy and Them, dead at the age of 50

* Heath Ledger, costar of Monster's Ball, dead at the age of 28

* Morgan Freeman, costar of Levity, at death's door following a car crash

* Shia LaBeouf, costar of Eagle Eye, in danger of losing a finger after a car crash

* Patrick Swayze, costar of Waking Up in Reno, struggling with cancer

I don't know who will be the next to fall, but I pray to God it's not Scarlett Johansson.

Saturday Night Videos

On Saturday I stopped in at my local Blockbuster Video to rent a movie to watch. I was firstly interested in Superbad, from the Judd Apatow comedy factory, but I didn't see it on either the new-releases shelves nor the comedy shelves, so I went with Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, which I'd been meaning to watch for a while anyway.

The DVD of I'm Not There was emblazoned with a roofline label reading "Blockbuster Exclusive." (There's also another label, in the Blockbuster colors, noting "Exclusive Bonus Footage: Director Q&A/The Making of I'm Not There." I don't know whether this is exclusive to the Blockbuster release or not, but since there is apparently no other source for this DVD unless I want to go out and buy it, it doesn't really matter.)

I got to wondering, then: Why wasn't Superbad on the shelves? Neither was Apatow's Knocked Up, for what that's worth, although I can't find any evidence that either of those films have some sort of exclusive arrangement with Netflix. Is there some sort of war of exclusivity going on between the major video-rental outlets? Or maybe our local Blockbuster outlet is just squeamish.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Isaac Hayes, 1942-2008

Isaac Hayes, possessor of one of the great nicknames in modern music, one we shamefully neglected on our recent list of such, has finally copped out at the age of 65. The Black Moses first came to fame co-writing songs like "Soul Man" and "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" for Sam and Dave before embarking on his own solo career. His "Theme From Shaft" spent two weeks at Number One and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Hayes' twelfth and final child was born to his fourth wife two years ago.


Could someone explain to us here at OPC why the admission of a past extramarital affair by a politician who currently holds no elective office and is seeking no elective office should become front-page news? John Edwards is in roughly the same position as Rudolph Giuliani. Would the admission of an extramarital affair by Giuliani be news at all? The question answers itself, doesn't it?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Bernie Mac, 1957-2008

Bernard McCullough, original king of comedy and star of the Ocean's Two-Digit Number movies and his own Bernie Mac Show, dead at the age of 50. This really makes me sad, because Bernie Mac was one of the first celebrities I ever interviewed, and he was wonderful (as was his TV series). It was just over the phone, but he performed for me, imitating his uncles getting mad at the young Bernie with such ferocity that I thought Bernie had gotten furious with me.

Bernie sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at game six of the Cubs-Marlins playoff in 2003, the infamous Bartman game. The Cubs were up 2-0 at the time, needing only to win that game to go to the World Series, so Mac sang "Root, root, root for the champions," rather than the traditional "Root, root, root for the Cubbies." The presumptive champs did go out and score another run in the bottom of the seventh, but then coughed up eight in the eighth. Some fans blamed Mac for getting ahead of himself with his singing, but I don't know how you could blame him more than you could the Cubs.

For his part, Bernie, a born-and-bred South Sider, later admitted he always hated the Cubs. "We couldn’t afford the Cubs," he said. "Cubs was way northside. Cubs was the elite. The White Sox was the hood. When you went to the White Sox and came out, your car was broken in. And they left a note, 'Sorry.' It was the Sox. When they had Carlos May, Luis Aparicio, Wilbur Wood, and all those guys. And that was my first. I had my baseball glove and we [were] up there on the roof. I went with my grandfather, my brother, my cousin, my uncle and my other cousin. My uncle was a preacher and he did a lot of community work and he got some tickets. You didn’t care about where you sat at that time. We were all the way up here looking at the players like [far away]. And I had my glove like something was getting ready to come up there. I say, 'I’m gonna catch it, I’m gonna catch it. Whatever it is, I’m gonna catch it.'"

I hope you caught it, Bernie.

Friday, August 8, 2008

We're Summarily Rejected

Friend of OPC MJN sends along the following bit of creative editing from yesterday's Chicago Tribune, quoting chef Graham Elliot Bowles, describing his restaurant Graham Elliot:

"I think, 'Let's just be a fun restaurant with great food.' Noise isn't always a bad thing. My plates are from IKEA, and they're $2.99. You've got some [restaurant raters] that will include you only if you use high-quality silverware, fancy tablecloths—they've got checklists. Well, [I summarily reject] that. I'm not spending $95 on a plate so some critic will put me in his book."

Further Notes and Comment

Another new OPC commenter, tony s, has another non-singing credited artist for us to chew over:

Herb Alpert does qualify. He got to #5 in April 1987 with "Diamonds," which was sung by Janet Jackson and Linda Keith. Most people thought it was a Janet Jackson song.

I vividly remember "Diamonds," and knew it was a Herb Alpert song, so I should have caught that one. More from tony s:

Also, in May, 1972 an Aussie group named Python Lee Jackson got to #56 with "In a Broken Dream," where they hired Rod Stewart for just that session to sing lead. Don't bother digging it up for that, though; it's an awful song.

I wonder how much it costs to hire Rod Stewart for a session.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Some People Call Me Maurice

Listening to "Jet Airliner" on the car radio this afternoon, I realized that I have no idea what Steve Miller looks like. This is highly unusual for someone who was one of the biggest music stars of the 1970s - Miller and his eponymous band had three Number Ones, two other Top Ten hits, and three other Top Forty hits between 1973 and 1982. Yet I have a stronger mental image of Randy Van Warmer than I do of Steve Miller.

The only one of his albums from his most fecund period to feature his picture on the cover was Fly Like an Eagle, and he's throwing his head on that one, with hair covering half his face, so it's hard to get a handle on what he looks like. And maybe that's Steve on the cover of The Joker, but who knows.

The only video of his I recall seeing was a late one for "Living in the U.S.A.," which was just anonymous scenes shot around an amusement park. I never saw the Steve Miller Band on The Midnight Special, or Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, or Saturday Night Live, or anything like that. I don't know why.

The biggest problem is that Miller has a lumpy, proletarian facelessness to him - he's from Milwaukee, after all. Now that I've found a photo of him, I realize I have seen him before, but I'm sure I forgot what he looks like five minutes later. Here he is:

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Not Appearing on This Record

I thought of two more hitmakers in which the credited artists did not actually contribute to the music on their hit records: The Archies and Gorillaz. I don't know if those count.


Hey, remember Lou Bega, the guy from "Mambo No. 5"? You probably thought his first name was Louis or Luis or Luigi or something, never thinking that it was actually David. And his last name? Lubega. Get it?

According to Wikipedia, the British call a rum and Coke with lime a Lou Bega. I have no idea why.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Notes and Comment

I have been asked to bring greater attention to comments on threads that seem to be burned out, and in that spirit, I wish to reproduce here a comment on this thread from a new OPC commenter, sdstein7:

"Just Once", sung by James Ingram, was credited to Quincy Jones.

I don't have my official Billboard books with me, so I can't verify the chart position to see if "Just Once" made the Top Forty, but it was huge, of course, back in 1980, and James Ingram went on to a successful solo career, so much so that it never occurred to me that "Just Once" wouldn't have been released under his own name. But apparently it wasn't, and neither was "One Hundred Ways," another massive quiet-storm hit. They were both from the album The Dude, credited solely to Quincy Jones.

So score one, or one and a half, for sdstein7, but as if that's not enough, he or she goes on to write:

And a slightly different twist:

The 1969 instrumental hit "The Horse" was actually the backing track to the "A" side of the record, entitled "Love is All Right". The singer on "Love is All Right", Cliff Nobles, is credited for "The Horse", although he does not perform on the track.

That's awesome, and so clearly in the wheelhouse of OPC that you'd think sdstein7 had been reading this blog for decades. The only other Top Forty hit in that category - singles in which the credited performer doesn't even appear on the record - I can think of is "He's a Rebel," credited to the Crystals but cut by Darlene Love and the Blossoms because Phil Spector couldn't get the real Crystals back in the studio fast enough to suit him. Ike Turner didn't appear on Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep-Mountain High," but of course that famously didn't make the Top Forty.

Tales of Yankee Power

Speaking of baseball fans, Bob Dylan is a big follower of the game: One of his first Theme Time Radio Hours was on baseball, he's done a couple of tours of minor league parks, and in his latest Rolling Stone interview, he had nice things to say about Ozzie Guillen and, horrifyingly enough, Derek Jeter.

Dylan left Minnesota, where he'd lived his entire life, in the winter between the 1960 and 1961 seasons, just before the Twins relocated from Washington to open the 1961 season in Bloomington. In 1961, the Yankees were the only team in New York City, Dylan's new hometown.

Do you think he formed an allegiance with his old hometown team, which with he never actually crossed paths, or with the evil overlords in his new home city? It pains me to say that I fear the latter.

Image borrowed from the Berkeley Place blog.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Skip Caray, 1939-2008

Harry Christopher Caray Jr., best known for broadcasting untold numbers of Atlanta Braves games during their awful Rick Mahler years on cable-TV pioneer WTBS from Atlanta, dead at the age of 68. Most unlike his father, the gregarious, back-slapping Harry Christopher Caray Sr., Skip was very dry-witted and laconic. A single at-bat from Kevin Bass could lead to an entire inning full of fishing puns: "Bass casts a grounder out toward short, and Ramirez reels it in...."

In 1979, Skip famously informed the audience sitting through another dreary Braves loss: "You have our permission to turn off the TV and go to bed now ... as long as you promise to patronize our sponsors."

Skip Caray described Braves games from 1976 to 2007, when WTBS, inexplicably to this reporter, decided to pull the Braves' telecasts off the superstation for good. Isn't there a tremendous need for more programming now? Does anyone really want to watch one more rerun of "Everybody Loves Raymond"? Maybe they just knew that Skip's run was at an end.