Wednesday, November 27, 2013

TMFW 12 - Closing Time for Billy Sverkerson

The first verse of the Minneapolis band Semisonic's unavoidable hit song Closing Time features the memorable line "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here." The song was inspired by the experiences that Semisonic's lead singer Dan Wilson had getting kicked out of the 400 Bar in the West Bank of Minneapolis.  In this long appreciation from MPR of the now-defunct bar, where Bonnie Raitt hung out and The Jayhawks played in their nascent days, Wilson describes it this way: "when I was writing ‘Closing Time,’ I was definitely in my mind picturing—you know when it says ‘Open all the doors and let you out into the world’? I was definitely imagining leaving the 400 Bar, you know, to that intersection, to those streets late at night."
The line "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" was a sort of end-of-shift catchphrase of Billy Sverkerson, who was a bartender and longtime manager at the 400 Bar.  On Sunday morning, Sverkerson died of cancer.  He was 60 years old.  As you can see in the link, he was a well-loved part of the rich Minneapolis local music scene.  Since news of his passing spread, several musicians - including Ike Reilly and The Hold Steady's Craig Finn - have tweeted their affection and condolences.
May we all make such a contribution to our little worlds.
BONUS FACT:  Semisonic's drummer Jacob Slichter is a Harvard graduate, and is now a faculty member in the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.  Shortly after Semisonic's demise, he wrote a book about the band's rocket to stardom (and short trajectory back to Earth).  I read it when it first came out and it's really good.  He also wrote this fun piece for the New York Times about what it's like to attend the Grammy Awards, and this NYT opinion piece about radio pay-for-play.
BONUS FACT 2:  After his time in Semisonic, Dan Wilson continued in the music industry and has had big success as a solo performer, producer, and songwriter.  He contributed six songs to the Dixie Chicks' record Taking the Long Way, including co-writing the Grammy-winning "Not Ready to Make Nice," and he co-wrote, co-produced, and played the piano on Adele's Grammy-winning "Someone Like You," one of three songs he contributed to her album 21.  Not too shabby.
BONUS FACT 3:  There are probably versions of the 400 Bar - an unimposing, dingy bar that somehow felt just right and where the best acts came through - in most big cities around the country.  For me (and many St. Louisans) it was the late, great Mississippi Nights, where Beatle Bob danced and where I saw some of my favorite bands - including They Might Be Giants, Matthew Sweet, Material Issue, and Freedy Johnston - in my younger days.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

TMFW 11 - The Girl(s) in the Video(s)

Tom Petty's "Free Fallin''" video came out when I was 12 years old, and the skateboarding girl in the video made quite an, um, impression on me.  (She was right there with DJ Tanner and Clarissa Darling.)  But we all must grow up.  I had not given any recent thought to my onetime crush until last month, when, indoctrinating my children with peak-years Tom Petty, we watched the videos for "Free Fallin'" and for "Don't Come Around Here No More."
Because I am the kind of person who writes True Music Facts each week, I wondered what became of the women in both videos.  In example number 5,824 of "Why the Internet is the Best Invention Ever," Google served up my answer instantly.  Marc Tyler Nobleman, who blogs at Noblemania, started a series this summer where he finds, and interviews, "The Girl in the Video" for many MTV classics.  He asks about the filming of the videos, the semi-celebrity status afterwards, and what they are doing now.  
The series is great, and includes both the "Free Fallin'" woman (Devon Jenkin, who is now a "fitness specialist" in Colorado) and Alice from "Don't Come Around Here No More." (Louise "Wish" Foley, who now does IT stuff).  You can find the whole list at the link above; while some of the interviews are better than others - Wish Foley's is really charming and full of cool rock-n-roll stories, for example - each of them is a fun read.
Bonus Fact:  (You probably knew this one, but...) Two Tom Petty videos from the '90s feature A-List celebrities: "Mary Jane's Last Dance," with Kim Basinger, and "Into the Great Wide Open," with Johnny Depp.  ("Mary Jane's Last Dance" is my favorite Tom Petty song, and one of my all-time favorites.)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

TMFW 10 - Kookaburra Sits in the Jury Box

In 2007 (or maybe 2008, sources differ here), the Australian music game show Spicks and Specks asked its contestants to name the popular children's song that can be heard inside the all-time great 1981 Aussie anthem "Down Under" by Men at Work.  None of the contestants identified the correct answer - "Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree."  (As a flavor - or flavour, I guess - of the show, here's Colin Hay of Men at Work on the show in 2008.  He performs "Down Under" at the end.)
"Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree" was written in the 1920s by Marion Sinclair, an Australian music teacher who worked with the "Girls Guides," a Girl Scout-ish group in Australia.  In 1934, Sinclair entered the song in a contest to benefit the Girls Guides, and the publishing revenue from the sheet music was used to help build Britannia Park, a campground for Girls Guides that is still around. "Kookaburra" is a quintessentially Australian song, and has been sung for 75+ years around campfires, in school choirs, and on playgrounds.  (You probably are singing it in your head right now.)  
Sinclair died in 1988, and so the song is still well within copyright protected status - under Australian copyright law, copyright in a song lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years (before 2006, plus 50).  While most people assumed that the Girls Guides owned the copyright to the song - the story of the 1934 contest is apparently quite well-known in Australia - it was in fact held by Larrikin Records, home to such great artists as the Rank Strangers bluegrass band (second record only!) and the Flying Emus' debut record.
Following the broadcast of Spicks and Specks, Larrikin saw dollar signs.  It filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement, contending that part of the flute melody on the song - improvised by the late Greg Ham - was ripped off.  Here is an NPR story that ran contemporaneous with the filing of the lawsuit.  Larrikin sought between 40 and 60 percent of all royalties on the song, from day 1 of its release.
The offending part was recorded in 1981 and is all of two bars - TWO BARS!! - but the test for infringement looks at the proportion of the original song that is used, and "Kookaburra" is only a four bar song.   After deciding the issue of copyright ownership in Larrikin's favor, the Court in Australia amazingly found that the band was liable for infringement.  The band appealed, but the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision and the high court declined to hear the matter.  Here's a great write-up from an Australian law firm that gives a succinct overview of the case and its finding.  
The silver lining for Men at Work - if it may be called that - is that the court awarded modest damages to Larrikin.  Instead of the 40-60% from day one sought by the plaintiff, the court found that damages were recoverable only from 6 years prior to the suit and forward (so, for 2002 onward), and found that 5% was a fair number.  The 5% was determined based on the wholly-hypothetical licensing arrangement that the Court thought the parties would have entered into if they had talked in 1981.  
BONUS FACT: Despite its age and ubiquity, the song "Happy Birthday to You" is still under copyright protection, having been registered in 1935.  The song is now owned by Warner/Chappell Music (part of the big giant Time Warner conglomerate), and allegedly accounts for $2 million in licensing fees each year.  But earlier this summer, a crop of class action lawsuits - with lead plaintiffs who are filmmakers who were shaken down for a licensing fee for use of the song in their work - were filed in federal courts in New York and San Francisco, claiming that the copyright is invalid.  The outcome of that case is as of yet unknown.
BONUS FACT 2:  Just for good measure, here are the videos for Men at Work's Who Can it Be Now?Overkill, and Be Good Johnny.  They really had a great run.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

TMFW 9 - The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Best Video

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have a broad diversity of quality music videos - see, for example, the hyper green-screened "Higher Ground," the black-and-white desert classic "Give it Away," the "bands fooling around in the studio" "Suck My Kiss," the shirtless-Anthony-Kiedis-running-in-slow-motion "Under the Bridge," the prismatic "Breaking the Girl," the video game-inspired "Californication," the genre-hopping "Dani California," and even the Coneheads-soundtrack hit "Soul To Squeeze" (a super-underrated song).  Though they reached peak fame in the mid-'90s, one of their more recent videos ranks among their best.   
Stadium Arcadium's track "Tell Me Baby" touches on the theme of young people coming out to LA with dreams of stardom.  The song starts "They come from every state to find / Some dreams were meant to be declined / Tell the man what did you have in mind / What have you come to do?"  In that spirit, the music video's directors - who have an impressive resume that includes Extreme's "More Than Words" video and the film Little Miss Sunshine (trailer) - decided to make an "audition video" for the song.  
The video for "Tell Me Baby" starts with several unknown performers who are seeking their fame in LA.  They stand in a small room and talk about their journey and their goals (some seemingly in the past but some ahead of them).  Then - intercut with scenes of the band playing - they turn for the camera to show their various profile angles and perform along with a recording of the song, giving the best show they can.  The video is already entertaining when they introduce the twist: as each person is playing, the Chili Peppers come in behind them and join the performance.  The reactions of the performers - as they realize they are in a music video and that they are jamming with the Red Hot Chili Peppers - are fantastic.  It's the simplest concept, but Flea called it their best video.  I agree. 
For more on the video, there is a two-part "behind the scenes" video here and here.  The first part focuses more on the band, while the second features longer reactions from the participants.
BONUS FACT:  Another great pure fun video is Len's "Steal My Sunshine."  As part of their record deal, Len's frontman Marc Costanzo demanded the ability to direct the band's videos.  For "Steal My Sunshine," he took the $100,000 budget and spent it to fly a bunch of the band's buddies from Canada to Daytona Beach, Florida.  There, they hung around on the beach and drank beers and rode scooters and acted stupid, all in the name of art.  The fun comes through brilliantly.
BONUS FACT 2:  On the subject of "creative uses for a video budget," the pop-punk band Blink-182 made "blowing the record label's video budget on frivolous things" into a video itself.  Their video for "The Rock Show" opens with them showing a check from the label for $500,000, and they spend the rest of the song driving around in a van and wasting it - including handing out wads of money to various strangers, throwing a flurry of cash off of a roof, buying (then immediately releasing) doves from a pet shop, buying a car and then paying a work crew to drop it from a crane to smash it, paying people to shave their heads, etc.