Wednesday, May 28, 2014

TMFW 38 - Kenny G Drives Away the Customers

In TMFW 12, I wrote a note about the passing of Billy Sverkerson, whose catchphrase "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" inspired the Semisonic hit "Closing Time."  Since that song came out, it has no doubt been played, night after night, at last call in bars around the world to signal the end of the evening.
Well, probably not in China though.  They already have a song for that.
A few weeks ago, the New York Times had a terrific story about the ubiquity in China of Kenny G's 1989 song "Going Home."  Headlined "China Says Goodbye in the Key of G: Kenny G," the Times story notes that "Going Home" "is piped into shopping malls, schools, train stations and fitness centers as a signal to the public that it is time, indeed, to go home."  How the song became the de facto closing time anthem is apparently a mystery - when one shopowner who has used it for over 10 years was asked why, she responded "isn't it just played everywhere?" 
The story notes a number of anecdotes about the Pavlovian response that the song has created in Chinese society: the gym manager who could not identify the song or the artist but remarked "all I know is when they play this song, it's quitting time," the student who noted "this is what they put on when they're kicking us out of the school library," and the financier who said "whenever I hear [the song], I finish things faster." 
The story features some quotes from Kenny G, who is flattered and who says that while in China he has heard "Going Home" everywhere from Tiananmen Square to "a restroom in the middle of nowhere."  G (can you just call him "G"? What's the protocol there?) wryly noted that when he tours China he saves "Going Home" for the end of his set list so as to avoid a mass exodus.  (A less-kind true music fact writer would suggest that any one of Kenny G's songs might induce that response from him.)
BONUS FACT:  Kenny G - perhaps best known to younger generations as a frequent "South Park" punchline - has sold over 50 million records.  That puts him comfortably in the group of the 100 top-selling artists of all time.  And to think that he basically did it playing the same exact song over and over and over.
BONUS FACT 2:  In 2007, Kenny G's family faced some local controversy when two kids threw a PowerBar energy bar (or maybe a Hershey's kiss) from the property of G's home in Malibu.  The energy bar got some velocity - the home is 50 feet up from the beach - and hit a nine-year-old girl in the head.  She started bleeding and required multiple stitches.  The girl's family was none too happy, and contemporaneous news reports suggest that "detectives are trying to sort out what happened - and who is to blame."  But the story seems to have disappeared after initial reports, so apparently the aftermath was smooth (jazz).

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

TMFW 37 - Spuds MacKenzie('s Entourage) Inspired a #1 Hit

In the book of "weird things about the '80s," there would surely be a chapter marveling that a female dog disguised its gender to play a beer-loving, ostensibly non-canine fraternity member, and became a spokes-animal of worldwide celebrity.  I speak of course of Spuds MacKenzie, Bud Light's "Original Party Animal." 
Spuds first appeared in a Super Bowl ad in 1987, and was almost instantly a hit.  He (she? it?) went on to appear in a bevy of spots over the next 2 years.  Spuds did ads themed for the Olympics (winter and winter again, and summer and summer again), and generally was depicted as the life of the party and an irresistible object of ladies' affection.  In that second winter spot, for example, he plays goalie for the USA hockey team and is so good and attractive that he wins over a soviet woman from the dark side.   
Spuds lived in a mansion and travelled in style - in a Cadillac with steer horns, on a skateboard at the beach, and in a personalized yellow submarine and yacht  (in that one, he dances closely behind a blond woman in a conga line, as she breathlessly declares that 'Spuds gives motion to the ocean').  Spuds interviewed with Dick Clark, and "gave back to the community" by doing work for Jerry Lewis's MDA telethon, both times to wild applause.  Spuds merchandise was ubiquitous in bars and in promotional giveaways, to the point that, at the time of this writing, eBay features over 1,000 results for Spuds gear.
This excellent Mentral Floss writeup, which inspired today's post, features a number of quotes from Bill Solberg, who worked at the PR agency that ran the Spuds campaign and traveled with Spuds as his spokesperson.  The brilliance of the campaign was that Anheuser Busch never acknowledged that Spuds MacKenzie was a dog at all.  In fact, they insisted that he was NOT a dog.  As shown in the two interview clips above, the gag is carefully respected, especially in the Dick Clark clip.  He is called "Mr. MacKenzie," it is said (in a tongue-in-cheek refutation to the then-understood truth that Spuds was actually a female) that he is a "full out macho guy," and there's horror at the question by Clark whether Spuds understands that he is just a dog.  Clark is admonished for using the "d-word," and his handlers insist "He's not a dog! He's a party animal.  Number one!"  The crowd reacts with enthusiastic cheering.  It's all bizarre and amazing.
So where's the music fact here?  Well, it is born from Spuds's entourage, a group of models that were referred to as the "Spudettes."  The Spudettes made appearances with MacKenzie, for the jointly obvious reasons that a dog in costume can't do much for itself and that models and beer advertising have long been natural partners.  The Spudettes were very popular themselves, and each one of them fit the conventional model profile of tall and (very) skinny. 
The popularity of the Spudettes annoyed Amylia Dorsey-Rivas, a multiethnic woman who worked in modeling promotion in Seattle but who booked few jobs herself because of her callipygian body type.  Dorsey-Rivas' boyfriend at the time - a Seattle rapper born Anthony Ray - agreed with her, and felt like the Spudettes' standard of beauty was unfair to ethnic women who had more diverse body types.  So Ray - who went by the stage name Sir Mix-a-Lot - decided to record a song about it. 
Of course, that song was "Baby Got Back," which was released on Sir Mix-a-Lot's 1992 album Mack Daddy.  The song - an unabashed appreciation of shapely behinds that features the classic opening "I like big butts and I cannot lie" and the equally-classic line "my anaconda don't want none unless you got buns, hun" - reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1992 and stayed there for 5 weeks.  It was the number 2 song overall in 1992, and it propelled Mack Daddy to a platinum certification.
"Baby Got Back" and its iconic video, which was briefly 'banned' by MTV, are now sufficiently classic that they were featured in an "oral history" last year on New York magazine's  It's a fun read.  And for more Mix-a-Lot goodness, this Onion A.V. Club interview spanning his broader career is very good.
BONUS FACT:  In an era and a city that were so closely associated with grunge, "Baby Got Back" has the surprising distinction of being the only number 1 song that came out of Seattle in the 1990s.  Neither Pearl Jam, nor Nirvana, nor Soundgarden ever reached the top; the closest they came was (strangely enough) Pearl Jam's cover of  "Last Kiss" in 1999.  That song reached number 2. 
The "number 1 song out of Seattle" distinction of "Baby Got Back" was preceded by Heart's "Alone" in 1987 and succeeded only last year by Macklemore's "Thrift Shop."  (NOTE: that last video is not safe for work.)
BONUS FACT 2:  As noted in the oral history link above, the famous "Oh. my. god, Becky. Look. at her. butt." intro to "Baby Got Back" was voiced by Amylia Dorsey-Rivas herself.  It was one of many voices that she did, and is a pretty convincing impression of a "suburban white girl."

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

TMFW 36 - The Saxophone Jam That Raised a Batting Average 20 Points

The Oakland A's - the same team that inspired Moneyball - play across the bay from the San Francisco Giants.  The Giants play in AT&T Park, a young baseball-only stadium that is famous for its picturesque views and for home run balls splashing into McCovey Cove.  The A's play in the Oakland Coliseum - a 48-year old monstrosity of a football stadium that is most recently famous for flooding the home dugout with sewage.  The Giants have the sixth-highest payroll in the major leagues, at almost $148 million for 2014.  The A's have the fourth-lowest, just more than half of the Giants' at nearly $75 million.  The Giants are at the very top in attendance - selling out all of its games so far in 2014.  The A's are in the bottom third - playing for less than half as many fans and selling less than 60% of its tickets.
Remarkably, though, the Giants and the A's currently share the same record of 25-15, and both sit at the top of their divisions.  And, having been to both stadia for a game, I'll take the A's and their fans any day.  Those fans that do turn out to the Coliseum are passionate and loyal, and their team is passionate right back.  Recent teams have been very easy to cheer for - see these goofy commercials for some fun examples.  
This week's entry into "the A's are fun" comes via Josh Reddick, a 27-year-old right fielder.  After Sunday's 0-4 performance at the plate, Reddick was hitting .214 for the season, which is dangerously close to the Mendoza line.  Clearly needing to change things up, Reddick decided to start with his walk-up music. 
(Slight detour for those unfamiliar with "walk-up music" - this is a song that a player chooses to come over the loudspeakers as he steps to the plate to bat.  Songs are also used for famous pitchers when they come in.  Walk up music is usually something that is meant to pump up a player or intimidate the other side.  For example, Mark McGwire used Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" during his heyday and the Yankees played Metallica's "Enter Sandman" when their closer Mariano Rivera entered.  A famous cinematic example is Ricky Vaughn entering to "Wild Thing" in Major LeagueThis list of the current most popular walk-up songs is replete with rap and hard rock songs, so hopefully you get the point.) 
Okay, we're back.  So what did Reddick choose for his new music?  Some Motley Crue?  A cut from the Rocky soundtrack?  Jay-Z?  Not so much.  Reddick went with the classic saxophone riff from George Michael's "Careless Whisper."  This video from the broadcast shows the crowd, the team, and the announcers clearly enjoying the choice.  And it has worked: in the two games he's used it thus far, the smooth saxophone of "Careless Whisper" has inspired Reddick to go 4-for-8, with 4 runs, 3 RBIs, a home run, and a triple.  His average has climbed almost 20 points, from .214 to a more respectable .233.  I guess the A's just had to have Faith in the power or George Michael. 
BONUS FACT:  The resurgence of the "Careless Whisper" sax riff is no doubt due to the "Sexy Sax Man" Sergio Flores, who is featured in a wonderfully silly video - with over 23 million views on YouTube - where he plays it over and over at various public places.  (As you might guess, the bit is typically well-received by the audience but frowned upon by the authorities.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

TMFW 35 - One Eyed, One Horned, Flying [ahh-AHHHHHHH!]

If you have ever seen any one of the original Star Wars trilogy, or any of the Star Wars prequels, or any of the Indiana Jones movies, or either of the last two Lord of the Rings movies, or Reservoir Dogs, or Beauty and the Best, or Aladdin, or Toy Story, or Wet Hot American Summer, or any of the other 100+ movies on this list, you have heard the famous "Wilhelm Scream."  (If you haven't seen ANY of those movies, please let me know and I will unsubscribe you from this list as I do not wish to associate with you any more.)  

The "Wilhelm Scream" was a stock sound effect from the Warner Brothers library.  It was first used in the 1951 film Distant Drums, when a man was eaten by an alligator while crossing through water, and it got its name when it was used in the 1953 film The Charge at Feather River (three times!), including once when a character named Private Wilhelm takes an arrow to the leg.  After that, the scream found its way into a number of 1950s westerns.  

But the scream found its immortality when the sound designer Ben Burtt worked on the first Star Wars film. Burtt had apparently noticed the Wilhelm Scream in a number of old Warner Brother movies and was taken by it.  So he slipped it into Star Wars - when a stormtrooper is shot and falls off a ledge - and started dropping it into each other movie that he did.  (In that respect, he was no unlike John Landis, whose "See you next Wednesday" was featured in TMFW 6.)  Other sound editors noticed the gag and joined in the fun, and the rest is history.  The scream has appeared in over 200 films, and thanks to the wonder of YouTube you can enjoy over 12 silly minutes of it.  The effect is so over-the-top that it's hard to believe it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb every time it is used.  (Maybe now it will for you!)

So where is the music fact here?  Well, Burtt got to wondering whose voice stars in 200+ movies via the Wilhelm Scream.  So he started to research the matter and took a trip to Warner Brothers.  There, he found a paper file on the movie Distant Drums that included a list of voice actors who were to record sounds in post production.  After some more work, he zeroed in on the actor Sheb Wooley.  Wooley was an actor in a number of western movies, including High Noon, and also in western television series including The Lone Ranger and The Range Rider.  He is almost certainly the voice behind the Wilhelm Scream.  

So where is the music fact here?  Well, Sheb Wooley is famous outside of westerns for a number 1 hit that he had in 1958 - "The Purple People Eater."  The song, which Wooley allegedly wrote in an hour, became a #1 hit within two weeks of its release, and sold over 3 million copies.  It became the piece of pop culture that Wooley was most associated with.

Wooley died in 2003 at the age of 82.  His obituary highlights his acting and, of course, "The Purple People Eater," but it does not mention that he created one of the most iconic sounds in cinema history.   
So now you know the True Music Fact of how the singer of one of the most famous novelty songs in history was also the creator of one of the most famous sounds in movie history.


BONUS FACT 1:  "The Purple People Eater" has had a strange legacy - it spawned an '80s movie of the same name, it became the nickname of a famous football defense of the '60s and '70s, and it inspired a board game. Not bad for an hour's work.

BONUS FACT 2:  The lyrics of "The Purple People Eater" make no sense, as they suggest that the monster is not a people eater who is purple, but rather something that eats purple people.  If he were the latter, Earth is not a good place for him to visit, as there are no purple people here.