Wednesday, October 29, 2014

TMFW 60 - Soviet Music You Can Hear On Your Bones

In post-war Russia in the mid 20th century, the leaders of the Soviet Union sought to control the population's access to western music.  Such music was seen as an instrument of capitalist propaganda and a threat to the state, and was banned.  But the soviet people were keenly interested in jazz (and, later, rock and roll), and ironically the market found a way to make supply approach demand.
Because vinyl was too expensive, and in any event could not be commercially produced without detection, the black market record producers had to seek out a cheaper and more steady supply of raw material.  They found it in used x-ray plates from hospitals - which were virtually free because the alternative disposal means was the garbage.  The market was born for roentgenizdat (one of the rare times I can link to in a TMFW!), which is a portmanteau of "roentgen," meaning x-rays and "'izdatel'stvo," meaning publisher.   
Like samizdat copies of underground literary works, roentgenizdat (or "bone records") were  made by hand.  After cutting the film into a circular shape with scissors, the creators used modified phonograph equipment to reproduce the source material on the x-ray film.  This Wikipedia-esque post from NYU's Department of Media, Culture, and Communication and this detailed blog entry from Kevin Kelly tell the story well: the records were of very crude sound quality and sold for 1 or 2 rubles each - about the cost of a small bottle of vodka and easily affordable to most Russians.  They would last for a few months and then would become too worn to play.  Bone records started with music from the 30s and 40s like George Gershwin, and migrated in the 1950s to early pop and rock artists like Tennessee Ernie Ford, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly.  
By the late 1950s, the market for bone records was allegedly in the millions of copies, and the state stepped in to disrupt it.  They flooded the market with false copies and cracked down on the largest traders with jail time and public shaming.  In the late 50s and early 60s, the Komsomol (the youth organization of the communist party) lead music patrols where they sought out illegal western music and ratted out offenders.
If you want to hear and see some bone records, this Russian livejournal entry (Google's translation here) has a number of cool pictures and mp3s, including recordings of Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" imprinted on a close-up of a heart and W.C. Handy's "St. Louie Blues" on a skull.  The blog writer recalls seeing some of the records as a younger man, saying "I vaguely remember my bewilderment [at] the piety with which they were stored - wrapped in a soft flannel and a newspaper on top. Although, maybe it was [a reflection] of their eternal disguise - in the event of a search." 
As reel-to-reel and cassette recording became more available in Russia starting in the early 1970s, albums were dubbed in endless chains and traded between friends.  It was peer-to-peer in the truest sense, and bone records became unnecessary and obsolete.   
If you still haven't purchased my Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice gift, here is a good selection of roentgenizdat available for purchase. What once was disposable media sold for pocket money is now a collectors item worth $100+.  
BONUS FACT:  Another great story of "Russian ingenuity meets youth rock-and-roll culture meets Soviet censorship" is this one of homemade electric guitars made with pickups from the receivers of Soviet payphones.  In a certainly-exaggerated-but-I-choose-to-believe-anyway claim, the article states that "[b]y the late Sixties, it was impossible to find a working public phone in all of Moscow. Every receiver was vandalized, harvested for parts that were necessary to build a primitive guitar pickup." 
BONUS FACT 2:  The Leningrad band Aquarium was one of the most famous underground Soviet rock bands of the '70s and '80s. In an overview of the group - written for western audiences - from 1986, the author explains that the band does not officially exist in the Soviet Union.  They had never been played on state radio, they were not permitted to play at official concert halls, and each of their seven records to that date had been unofficially released via dubbed cassettes shared from person to person.  The lead singer of Aquarium was a night watchman; his bandmates included a weed cutter for the railroad, a furnace stoker, and a roadside watermelon salesperson. You can hear one of their their early 1980s songs here; the crude sound quality comes through and almost adds something to the track.  One can imagine how exhilarating it must have felt to listen to. 
BONUS FACT 3:  After glasnost softened Soviet censorship, Aquarium was finally signed to a state music label in 1987 and released an official record.  It was a watershed moment in the USSR.
BONUS FACT 4:  One of the most robust reproducers of western music was the cooperative "Golden Dog" out of Leningrad, Russia (see that link for a 1963 Spokane, WA newspaper report of their bust by a "Russian vice squad.")  That name was chosen in tribute to Nipper, RCA Victor's famous dog logo
BONUS FACT 5:  I can't read W.C. Handy's name without getting "Walking in Memphis" stuck in my head. 
VERY IMPORTANT UPDATE/CORRECTION:  In the first Bonus Fact of last week's TMFW, when listing each of the cities namechecked in Huey Lewis & The News' "The Heart of Rock and Roll," I omitted New York (where you can do a half-a-million things, all at a quarter to three) and Los Angeles (with its neon lights and the pretty pretty girls, all dressed so scantily).  TMFW regrets the error. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

TMFW 59 - Huey Lewis, Soundtrack Giant

This past weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Huey Lewis & The News, who I assume took a break from selling out arenas to come to the performing arts center at a small college near me.  (It was a middle-aged concert, to be sure: if you look at that link, the show was scheduled from 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. on a Sunday night.  Our skeptical babysitter assumed that it must have been a misprint, but by 7:55 the last encore was complete, the house lights were on, and hybrids and Subarus alike were carefully merging into the well-behaved traffic around the theater.)

Before getting into this week's TMFW, please allow a short appreciation of Mr. Lewis and The News. I have been a fan since Sports came out in 1983, and after 30 years they are still bringing it.  It was a terrific show.  If you haven't thought about the band for a while, dust off some of their stuff and give it a listen.  Here's a few to get you started: "The Heart of Rock and Roll," "If This Is It," "I Want a New Drug," "Stuck With You," "Perfect World," "Jacob's Ladder," and "Couple Days Off." 

Today's TMFW is a combination of a few shorter stories about the band's involvement in movie soundtracks.  Most people know well that the band had its biggest hit (and their first number 1) with "The Power of Love," a song on the Back to the Future soundtrack. That soundtrack also included "Back in Time," which featured direct references to the movie's plot.  But the music of Huey Lewis & The News also contributes memorably to three other famous movies.

First, the band is (maybe) featured (indirectly) in Ghostbusters.  When Ray Parker, Jr.'s song "Ghostbusters" came out in 1984, many people noticed a distinct similarity to the riff from "I Want a New Drug," which had come out earlier that year. (Here's a good mashup showing just how close the two songs are).  The band noticed, too, and sued for copyright infringement.  The case settled out of court in 1985. 

In 2004, an oral history of Ghostbusters in Premiere magazine included the revelation that the famous montage in the movie (starting around 1:00 in that clip) was originally set by director Ivan Reitman to "I Want a New Drug."  Reitman said "[w]e kept looking for a song for the montage in the middle of the movie. I was a big Huey Lewis fan, and I put in 'I Want a New Drug' as a temp score for screenings.  And it seemed to be a perfect tempo, and we cut the montage to that tempo."  One sentence later, Reitman strains credulity and says that Ray Parker Jr.'s track "was a totally original song, original lyrics, original everything."  Not so much.

Second, the supremely creepy Christian-Bale-as-serial-killer film American Psycho memorably features "Hip to Be Square" in one of the murder scenes.  The question "Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?" (that link probably NSFW) has sounded sinister ever since.

Finally, the 2008 film Pineapple Express was a loving tribute to 1980s action movies and "buddy films." Seth Rogen, who produced the movie with Judd Apatow, had the idea to commission an '80s-style "theme song" for the movie.  Because he was inspired particularly by "Back in Time," Rogen asked Huey Lewis to write it. According to the director of the film, they told Lewis that they "wanted a theme song that told the plot of the movie and said the title a lot."  Lewis agreed to do the song, which leads off the film's soundtrack and is aptly named "Pineapple Express."   Here is the band doing the song on Jimmy Kimmel Live; it's a good gag and a pretty good song.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to return some videotapes.

BONUS FACT 1:  My buddy Jinx recently visited Tulsa, Oklahoma, which completed his list of visits to cities namechecked in "Heart of Rock and Roll" - D.C., San Antonio, the Liberty Town (Philly), Boston, Baton Rouge, Tulsa, Austin, Oklahoma City, Seattle, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Detroit.  For that feat, he has both my congratulations and respect.

BONUS FACT 2:  Everybody knows this one, but a Huey Lewis trivia entry would be incomplete without reference to his "too darn loud" cameo in Back to the Future.

BONUS FACT 3:  Last year, Huey Lewis paid tribute to the American Psycho scene by reenacting it with "Weird" Al Yankovic.

BONUS FACT 4:  The movie American Psycho was based on the book by Bret Easton Ellis, who you will recall from TMFW 53 named his first novel after an Elvis Costello record.
BONUS FACT 5:  For those with a prurient interest in rock and roll bands and their, um, "members": Huey Lewis is commonly regarded as a particularly "gifted" singer.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

TMFW 58 - Dan Rather's Attacker Inspires a Top-25 Hit

On October 4, 1986, Dan Rather (the then-longtime CBS News anchor) was accosted on his way home from a friend's house in New York City.  The attacker was well-dressed in a suit, and he greeted Rather by asking "Kenneth, what is the frequency?"  When Rather answered "you've got the wrong guy," the attacker punched him in the face and asked again.  Hearing no answer, he then punched Rather a second time, knocked him to the ground, and kicked him several times in the back, all the while insistently repeating "Kenneth, what is the frequency?"  The attack by that point had spilled from the street to the lobby of an apartment building.  Though Rather had money on him, he was not robbed: the attacker took off when the superintendent of the building came around to help.  
Two days after the incident, the New York Times reported on the story, calling it "bizarre" and noting that the police were "mystified."  The article speculated that it might have been a case of mistaken identity, as Mr. Rather was named "Dan" rather than "Kenneth." It also reported that Rather's on-air return was uncertain; he was scheduled to fly to Iceland to cover talks between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, but CBS wasn't sure that he'd be ready.  (Google teaches us that he ultimately made the trip, and that the talks ended in "great disappointment."
Following the attack, the bad guy was never caught, no motivation was ever determined, and the incident slowly faded into obscurity.  But (as most of you have long figured out by now), the persistent question "Kenneth, what's the frequency" inspired the band R.E.M. to write and record the song "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", which was the lead track and first single from its 20-years-old-last-month album Monster.  The song was a hit for R.E.M.: it peaked at 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was the first ever song to debut at number 1 on the Modern Rock chart.  
For his part, Dan Rather was pretty chill about his attacker's refrain becoming the basis of a pop song: he even joined R.E.M. on stage at Madison Square Garden during a soundcheck performance of the song.  The event, which was predictably awkward but charming, was broadcast on David Letterman's show the next night.
BONUS FACT 1:  More than 10 years after the incident, the identity of Rather's attacker was determined to be a man named William Tager.  The mystery was solved after Tager was convicted of murdering a technician for NBC News outside of the set of the Today show in 1994.  Tager admitted to the attack on Rather and said that he had carried out both that attack and the murder because he was convinced that television stations were monitoring him and sending signals to his brain.  In that context, his desperate demand to know the frequency is a pretty sad detail.  
BONUS FACT 2: In addition to the song's namesake inspiration, there is another famous pop culture reference in "What's the Frequency Kenneth?".  In the second verse, Michael Stipe sings "Richard said 'withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.'"  The "Richard" that Stipe is referring to is Richard Linklater, the famous movie director who made the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, and most recently Boyhood.  In a scene from Linklater's cult movie Slacker, one of the characters offers an "Oblique Strategies" card to a passerby.  The card reads "withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy."
BONUS FACT 3:  As it turns out, the "Oblique Strategies" cards in Bonus Fact 2 have a fascinating backstory: the cards were invented by Brian Eno and the artist Peter Schmidt as a way to "help artists...break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking."  Each card contained a different phrase, and they were printed in a very limited, hand-numbered-and-signed production.  Original sets are now highly-prized collectables.  According to the linked source, Eno used Oblique Strategies cards to help both Coldplay and David Bowie record albums.     
BONUS FACT 4:  In the song, Stipe imagines that the phrase "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" is the attacker's "Benzedrine."  Benzedrine is an amphetamine that was sold starting in the 1930s, and its efficacy as a stimulant made it one of the first recreational drugs in the US.  It has a long history in pop culture and arts; having appeared in Kerouac's On the Road, in Ginsberg's Howl, in Burroughs' novel Junky, and in several different James Bond novels including Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and Moonraker. 
BONUS FACT 5:  Speaking of Allen Ginsberg and Howl, the first lines of that poem make up the opening lyrics of TMFW-favorite They Might Be Giants' song "I Should Be Allowed to Think," from the sincerely-underrated album John Henry.  
BONUS FACT 6:  The brightly decorated suit that Mike Mills wears in the "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" video (linked above, but here it is again) was first owned by Gram Parsons.
BONUS FACT 7:  The guitar that Peter Buck is playing in the first part of the "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" video (linked above and above, but here it is again) was owned by Kurt Cobain.  It is a Fender "Jag-Stang" guitar, which was designed by Cobain to be a hybrid of the existing Fender models the Jaguar and the Mustang.  The Jag-Stang in the video was one of the prototypes that Fender made specifically at Cobain's request.  It was a gift from Courtney Love to Buck after Cobain's death.  At 0:30 of the video, Buck is seen playing it upside down, which was necessary because Cobain was left-handed.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

TMFW 57 - The French Elvis

(Today's TMFW comes to you for Paris, France, where I am for a quick bit of business.  So today's TMFW is bonus fact free (boo), but it deals with a fun bit of French music trivia.)

Considering the worldwide market for pop music, and the fact that the industry is now 50+ years old, the list of 100 million album sellers is surprisingly short: there's less than 60 acts who claim that feat.  And the list of acts that are non-native English-speaking performers make up only three out of that group. 

The first two of those three are likely known to TMFW readers (or at least their parents): they are ABBA ("Dancing Queen," "Fernando," giant Broadway musical based on their songs), and Julio Iglesias ("To All the Girls I've Loved Before," father of Enrique Iglesias, and maybe father-in-law of Anna Kournikova).  The third is the subject of today's post: Mr. Johnny Hallyday of France.  You are excused if you have never heard of Mr. Hallyday: he's never had a single song chart in the US in his 50+ year career. 

Monsieur Hallyday was born in 1943 as Jean-Philippe Smet, in Paris, and started his career in 1960.  From the outset, he was unabashedly an American rock-and-roll act, but singing in French and to Francophone audiences. To be honest, the only things I knew about Hallyday before today were (1) that it makes young French people embarrassed when you bring him up, and (2) those same people admitted to knowing much of his catalog (and could usually pull up an impressive list of tracks on their iPod). But reading about him for this TMFW, he's had an impressive run, including the following:

*  The Jimi Hendrix Experience opened for Hallyday in 1966
*  He worked with Mick Jones of Foreigner as a producer, with Peter Frampton as a songwriter, and with Jimmy Page (!) as a session musician
*  In 2000, he played in front of an estimated 500,000 people at the Eiffel Tower
*  In 1997 he was conferred knighthood in France and became a chevalier in the French L├ęgion d'honneur.
He's had 18 platinum records and has toured extensively (over 175 "completed tours" according to Wikipedia) for over 40 years.
If you'd like to understand what all the fuss is about, try these two songs (though they probably won't help too much): "Je te promets" ("I promise," a top-5 song from 1987) and "Un jour viendra" ("The day will come," a top-10 in France and Belgium from 1999).

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

TMFW 56 - The Rock Superstar Named After a Hearing Aid Store

Paul Hewson was born in Dublin in 1960, and grew up in a suburb north of the City.  As a young teenager, Hewson was a part of a "surrealist street gang" called "Lypton Village," which also included his friends Derek "Guggi" Rowen and Gavin Friday.

As the story goes, the members of Lypton Village were keen on giving one another nicknames.  For example, Hewson's name was mutated to "Houseman," but it didn't stick.  One evening, the group was hanging out in Dublin near a hearing aid store called Bonavox - specifically, the one near the intersection of O'Connell and Earl Streets in the city center (map here)(Street View here) - and Gavin Friday suggested that Hewson should be called "Bono Vox," which in Latin means "good voice."  After initial hesitation, Hewson embraced the name. 

In 1976, at age 16, Hewson answered a school bulletin board posting from drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. that sought to form a rock band.  Adam Clayton and David Evans answered the same ad, and on September 25, 1976, the band got together for the first time in Mullen's kitchen.  First named "The Larry Mullen Band," they changed their name to "Feedback," then "The Hype," and then finally they settled on "U2."  David Evans became "The Edge," and Hewson became "Bono Vox," and then (of course), just Bono.  The rest - 13 studio albums, 150 million records sold, and 22 Grammy awards - is history.

For its part, Bonavox is still around, with 22 locations around Ireland.


BONUS FACT:  108 years after his birth in Dublin, in 1990 the city placed a life-sized statute of James Joyce at the corner of O'Connell and North Earl Streets.  Perhaps in 2068, Bono will get his own.  In the meantime, if you are ever in Palm Springs, California, stop by the statute of Sonny "I Got You Babe" Bono.

BONUS FACT 2:  Bono was close to his mother, and lost her at the age of 14.  She died of a brain aneurysm that she suffered while attending her own father's funeral.

BONUS FACT 3:  During a U2 tour stop in Nashville in 2011, Adam Bevell was in the audience.  Bevell is legally blind, and his brother-in-law made him a sign that said "Blind Guitar Player / Bring Me Up!"  To his surprise, Bono took him up on it, and Bevell played "All I Want is You" with the band.  That's pretty cool.  Afterward, Bono let him keep the guitar, which is pretty cool too.  Adam tells his story in this video and this interview

BONUS FACT 4:  (TMFW is a feel-good service, so it feels impertinent to include this, but...) Despite Bono's frequent activism about corporate greed and the need for wealthy countries to help poor ones, his band's publishing company moved from Ireland to the Netherlands shortly after Ireland enacted a cap on tax-free earnings for artists.  The move cut the taxes on the band's publishing revenue in half.  Bono defended the move, saying "at the heart of the Irish economy has always been the philosophy of tax competitiveness," and "if you engage in that policy then some people are going to go out, and some people are coming in." But it's hard to reconcile the apparent hypocrisy

BONUS FACT 5:  U2 is the most overrated band in the history of Earth.