Wednesday, December 31, 2014

TMFW 69 - Bob and Doug 'Take Off' up the Charts

[Happy New Year to everyone!] 
Last week's TMF Thursday featured a Bonus Fact with a link to Bob and Doug McKenzie performing an over-the-top-stereotypical Canadian version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  I am a fan of stupid comedy in general, and of the McKenzie brothers in particular, and thought that their origin story would make a good TMFW in its own right.
But first, because of the M in TMFW, let's get some music facts (as they say in Canada) "covered off."  Bob and Doug were a pop culture phenomenon in the early 80s, hitting their crescendo in 1983 with the release of the classic movie Strange Brew. The film was a (very) loose adaptation of Hamlet (if you can believe that - they've even written papers about it) in which the McKenzie brothers contrive to place a mouse in a beer bottle so that they can complain to the beer store and get some free two-fours.   But before Strange Brew, the McKenzie Brothers had a comedy record called The Great White North.  Released in 1981, the record featured comedy skits and songs, including the aforementioned "Twelve Days of Christmas" and a track in the "hit single section of [the] album" featuring Geddy Lee from Rush called "Take Off."  The Great White North was a hit in the US, spending 12 weeks on the album charts and reaching number 8.  It was an even bigger hit in Canada, where it was triple-platinum and made #1 for six weeks.  
OK, there were your music facts.  Back to Bob and Doug's origin story.  The McKenzie Brothers sketches started on SCTV, which itself grew out of The Second City improv club.  The Second City started in Chicago in 1959, and in 1972 it opened a club in Toronto.  In time, the Toronto location amassed a talented group of performers in its main troupe that included John Candy, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, and Dave Thomas.  In 1976, that group - along with Catherine O'Hara and Andrea Martin - made the first cast of SCTV.  The show was able to find a production and distribution arrangement in part because of "Canadian content" regulations, which require that television broadcasters in Canada must air a certain percentage of "cultural and creative content that is Canadian in nature."  For the first two seasons, the show was recorded in Toronto for a small regional network.  
By season 3, Rick Moranis had joined the cast and the CBC network picked up the show for national broadcast.  Production moved to Edmonton, and the show started syndication in sporadic places in the U.S.  Here's where it gets interesting: due to less commercials in Canada, the Canadian version of SCTV was two minutes longer than the syndicated version.  To satisfy their duties under the content regulations, the CBC required those two extra minutes of the show to be specifically Canadian material.  
At the time of the CBC's request, Dave Thomas was the head writer of SCTV.  He and his colleagues bristled at the idea that a show recorded in Canada, with a Canadian cast and Canadian writers, somehow created content that was not "Canadian" for the purposes of broadcast regulations.  So as a shot at the network they came up with the most stereotypical, offensive caricature of Canadians that they could - dimwitted guys in parkas and toques, sitting in front of a map of Canada drinking beer, calling each other hosers and saying "eh" over and over again - and made that their submission to the CBC.  As Thomas recalls, the skits were very loose: "the rest of the cast would go home after a hard shooting day and Rick and I would stay an extra hour and just shoot some Bob & Doug McKenzie. They were all exactly two minutes long so we'd have the floor director count us in and we just improvised. If we shot 10 and two were good, that was a pretty good shooting ratio compared to the rest of the show to get four minutes of programming in one hour."
The rest, of course, is history.  Canadian audiences loved Bob and Doug; they quickly were the favorite and most-anticipated bit of each episode.  When the show started including "The Great White North" skits on the American syndicated broadcasts, they were similarly well-received.  By time SCTV ended, Bob and Doug had made over 40 skits together, in addition to their hit record and cult movie.  Not bad for an idea that started as a middle finger to network suits.  
BONUS FACT:  Though Rush has enjoyed great success in North America - 40 million records sold, 24 gold and 14 platinum albums - they have amazingly had only four (!!!) top-20 singles in Canada, and none on the US Hot 100.  Geddy Lee's only top-20 hit on the Hot 100 was for "Take Off," which hit number 16 in March 1982.  Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
(OBSCURE, THROWAWAY) BONUS FACT 2:  If you have ever wondered about the voice of Geddy Lee, and how it got so high, and wondered "if he speaks like an ordinary guy," my fact-checkin[g] cous[in] knows him, and he does.
BONUS FACT 3:  After his time on SCTV, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas's castmate Joe Flaherty was brilliantly cast as the dad to Sam and Lindsay Weir on the excellent 1999 TV show Freaks and Geeks.  Mr. Weir's principal job seemed to be telling his kids about various cautionary tales in the hopes of steering them straight.
CORRECTION:  Last week's Bonus Facts included a bit about my friend Ross's dad.  I reported that he played flanker at the University of New Brunswick, when in fact he played for the Thunderbirds of the University of British Columbia.  TMFW regrets the error.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

TMFW 68 - Pro Football's Lost (and Found) Holiday Records

[NOTE - DISASTER!  The holiday week has me all messed up and I only realized just now that today is Thursday!  So let's call this a Special Holiday Edition of True Music Facts Wednesday, brought to you totally-not-accidentally on a Thursday.]

[NOTE 2 - Merry Christmas to those readers who celebrate it!]

Last week, TMFW-favorite had a long feature about now-forgotten NFL-themed holiday records.  You can read the whole story at the link - and if you have 15 minutes, you should; it's a lovely read - but the principal details are pretty straightforward to recount.

In 1970, an ad-man named Mike Tatich was making his living producing cheesy, quick- and cheap-to-make "[Celebrity] Sings the Hits" records, which were advertised on TV and sold by mail.  He got the idea that he could make sports-themed records - with a built in geographic audience for each one - and approached the NFL.  Because in those days the League was less established and the players' contracts were less rich, and because the AFL-NFL merger was just becoming official and the league was looking for PR help wherever it could get it, the NFL and the player's association agreed to take part.  According to the article, Tatich paid a grand total of $0 to the NFL for their approval and assistance; under the deal, only a portion of the profits would go to the players' association.

There was to be one album per NFL team, so when the deal was made Tatich suddenly had 26 records to make (this was pre-Buccaneers, Seahawks, Panthers, Jaguars, Ravens, and Texans).  Tatich and his partners went to Yugoslavia, where they avoided the cost of the American musicians' union and had the backing music recorded on the cheap.  (I'm sure the NFL players union would have loved knowing that.)  The music was identical for each record - 8 "classics" including "Frosty and Snowman" and "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth," and 1 original song called "A Tropical Winter." Then, with the instrumental tracks in hand, they booked time at recording studios around the country and went to every single NFL training camp to convince players to come sing after their days' workouts were through.  Tatich lured them with promises of beer and pizza, and amazingly enough it worked.  All 26 teams sent players, and all 26 records were recorded before the regular season kicked off. 

Though he had no record company or distribution network to speak of, Tatich thought he was sitting on a sure-fire hit and decided that he would self-release the records.  Printing them on the label "Manlius Records," a made-up imprint that apparently never released anything but 26 NFL-themed holiday records in 1970, he promoted the album with media appearances and even got a chorus of NFL players on The Ed Sullivan Show.  But - again, because he had no record company or distribution network to speak of - the records found only a (very, very) limited audience, and most ended up in a storage warehouse.  The bulk of the records were ultimately sold to scrappers for the value of the vinyl. 

Despite their rarity, it seems that the records did leave a legacy.  The author of the article linked above speaks eloquently about the Raiders' version, which tradition required to be played on repeat as his family decorated the tree each year: 


"I think that I [insisted on traditions like that] because a small family like the one I described above, my family, is also a fractured one. Maybe some part of me understood that Christmas isn't quite the same for families that don't have fathers, uncles, grandparents, and cousins all gathering around the tree at Nana's house. I think I obsessed over all those dumb traditions—the Raiders' album chief among them—because it was the clearest way for the four of us to remind ourselves that, yes, this is a family that doesn't make much sense, but it's still a family. Haven't you noticed all of these traditions? We are still here."


Similarly, in this blog post from 2008 about the Cowboys' version, there are comments from a Packers fan who says "The Packers version was a Christmas music staple & tradition in my household when I was a little boy growing up in Wisconsin during the Vince Lombardi Packers era...I still covet & play my copy of this LP each Christmas when my kids decorate our Christmas tree."  Here's a fellow who discovered the Chiefs' version at garage sale, and eBay has you covered for the Rams ($20) or the Colts ($60).

It's amazing to think that there was a time when (a) the NFL would license their team names and lean on their players to make carbon-copy holiday records, all for free, and (b) you could build a chorus of willing pro football players to give up a night at training camp and sing "All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth" with just the promise of free beer and pizza.  Those were the good old days.


BONUS FACT THAT IS ALMOST AS LONG AS THE MAIN FACT:  What drew me to today's TMFW (other than that it was easy, and fun, and Christmas related) is that it was not the only "lost and found pro football record from the 70s" story that I am aware of.  There's an even stranger one from our friends up north.

In 2009, a musician named Henry Adam Svec announced that, during his work for the National Archives of Canada, he had discovered a set of recordings made by Canadian Football League players in the 1970s. Because the recordings were "rough" and "deteriorating," Svec did not try to restore the original recordings but instead worked with a composer to recreate and intrepret the songs with additional instrumentation and "contemporary orchestrations."

Unfortunately, the method of recording the music in the 70s prevented Svec from sharing much about the songs.  As he explained on a website devoted to archiving and celebrating the music and in lectures that he gave about the project, the recording sessions were lead by a mysterious Canadian folklorist named Staunton R. Livingston.  Livingston's "folklore method involved not writing anything down.  He didn't write down the author, the performer, location"  This is because, according to Svec, "he didn't think it mattered; he thought music belonged to everyone and so [identifying information] would actually violate the songs that he was trying to share."  Livingston initiated the sessions in 1972 and unfortunately died in Quebec in 1977, so he is no help for the reconstruction of historical details. 

Without the names of the players or even the song titles themselves, Svec was left to interpret much of what he found.  He called the project "The CFL Sessions"   The track list for the resulting record reads like a too-good-to-be-true picture of life in a modest Canadian professional sports league in the 1970s:  songs like "Song Written Upon Getting Cut by the Argos," "Linebacker Passing Through," "'E' for Endzone," and "Life is Like Canadian Football."  That last one is my favorite; lots of wisdom there.  At the lecture linked above, Svec presents at a symposium at the University of Western Ontario about the process of discovering the recordings and plays the song he calls "On Discipline."  As the first lines make clear, the song is written by a CFL player who is abstaining from sex because he fears it will inhibit his play: "You're so pretty and you're so young / I'll mess around with it but I can't cum / I need my legs, I need my energy / If that's superstitious, well then superstition is a part of me."

If the story about a trove of CFL-inspired songs written and recorded (and then forgotten) in the 1970s - and rediscovered 30+ years later by a budding musician who gave them the attention and reworking that they deserved - seemed too good to be true, it turns out that it was.  Svec had fully invented the backstory to give himself a theme to work around for a record.  As someone who had chosen to believe the tale, I was disappointed when I learned the truth.  But the record is still fun to listen to; when I do, I like to imagine those CFL guys getting their feelings onto tape all those years ago. 
BONUS FACT 2:  If we are talking about The Great White North and it is Christmas, I hope you will indulge a link to Bob and Doug McKenzie's classic rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  I love that song; the line "good day, and welcome to day 12" gets me every time.
BONUS FACT 3:  The dad of early TMFW reader and former TMFW neighbor Ross played Canadian Football at the University of New Brunswick, where he was (maybe) a flanker or a fullback.  After college, he had a tryout with the mighty BC Lions of the CFL (6-time winner of the Grey Cup), but sadly his knees did not cooperate.  
BONUS FACT 4:  I am not sure whether Ross inherited any of those football skills from his dad, but he makes some of the finest ribs you've ever tasted and he's the best turkey carver I have ever met.  So that's something.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

TMFW 67 - Ice Cube's Good Day

[Note: today's TMFW deals with an Ice Cube rap song from the early 90s, and as such uses some crude language and themes.  If you are of delicate sensibilities, you might choose to sit this one out.]
Before he was the star of heartwarming movies like "Barbershop" and "Are We There Yet?", before he hung out with Elmo on Sesame Street, and before he was engaged in a battle over "who's colder" with a bottle of beer, Ice Cube was an influential hip hop artist.  A principal contributor to the commercialization of "gangsta rap," Cube (do we call him "Cube"?  Didn't we have this same issue with Kenny G in TMFW 38?) wrote the lyrics to Eazy-E's song "Boyz-n-the-Hood" (audio NSFW) and wrote most of the lyrics on N.W.A.'s breakout record Straight Outta Compton.  After royalty disputes - what's more gangsta than that? - Cube left N.W.A. and started a solo career.

Ice Cube released his third solo album, The Predator, in 1992.  The record went double platinum, lead by the single "It Was a Good Day" The song tells the story of, well, a good day for Cube.  The lyrics detail everything that happened:

Cube woke up to a day with no smog in LA, ate breakfast cooked by his mother, and then headed out in his convertible.  He "got a beep" from a woman named Kim, who told him that she "can fuck all night," then joined some friends at a park for basketball, where he "freak[ed them] like MJ."  He drove home, unmolested by the police, and then headed to his friend Short Dog's house and watched "Yo! MTV Raps."  At Short Dog's they played craps and dominoes. Cube performed well at these games, as he notes that he "picked up the cash flow."  He left Short Dog's and picked up a woman who he had been pursuing for some time.  He supplied beer and she supplied marijuana, and that night the LA Lakers beat the Seattle SuperSonics in basketball.  Cube and his lady friend had relations, to the point that his efforts put the young lady to sleep.  He woke her up to bring her home, and she complimented his physical prowess by calling him "top gun."  After dropping his friend off at her home, he went to a Fatburger drive through at 2 a.m.  Though he was "drunk as hell" he did not throw up.  Cube also notes that he saw the Goodyear Blimp, that nobody he knew was murdered, and that there were no police helicopters flying that night.  Finally, he notes that he did not have to use his AK gun, and concludes that the day "was like one of those fly dreams" and was a good day.

"It Was a Good Day" was released February 23, 1993.  It reached #1 on the Billboard rap chart and #7 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, and is now seen as a classic. 

All of that is a nice backstory, but what makes it a TMFW entry is that, in January 2012, a blogger/comedian named Donovan Strain announced that he had calculated the precise date that Ice Cube had a good day.  Using the clues left in the song - "Yo! MTV Raps" was on, the Lakers beat the Sonics, it was a clear day with no smog, Ice Cube had a pager so they were at that time commercially available, he saw the Goodyear Blimp, he got a Fatburger at 2 a.m., etc. - Strain systematically narrowed down the options and landed on January 20, 1992.  He therefore dubbed January 20 "National Good Day Day."

Predictably, the internet reacted with glee.  A clearly amused Ice Cube played it cool when asked about it, saying only "nice try." But others fact-checked the claim, and with one exception - was it November 30, 1988 instead? - January 20 has become the agreed date.  In fact, this year Ice Cube celebrated National Good Day Day by helping to raise $25,000 for a south central LA charity and watching as the Goodyear Blimp took to the sky and flashed "Ice Cube Says Today Was a Good Day" in lights.  Goodyear even invited Donovan Strain along to the festivities.  He gladly went, and had a good day.

BONUS FACT: The "Kim" who pages Ice Cube in the song - the one who "can fuck all night" - is Kimberly Woodruff.  She and Ice Cube have 4 kids together, who are between the ages of 13 and 25.  They have been married for 22 years. 

BONUS FACT 2:  This is only tangentially related, but I enjoy this picture of someone's creative, friendly graffiti at a soda fountain.

BONUS FACT 3:  The late 90s and early 2000s saw a wave of "ironic" covers of rap songs by white artists.  The most famous is perhaps The Gourds' cover of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice," but apropos of today's fact Dynamite Hack does a solid cover of NWA's "Boyz-n-the-Hood" (audio NSFW on both of those).   I am not sure how to feel about the cultural-appropriation-as-a-
gag nature of the songs, but they are fun to listen to and they sound good.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

TMFW 66 - Why Tommy Plays Pinball

The Who's Tommy was a groundbreaking record, and is a favorite of mine.  A self-described "rock opera," the album tells the story of a boy who endures a series of traumatic experiences - from watching the murder of his father, to torture at the hands of his cousin, to sexual abuse from his uncle (that song is so creepy that I almost always have to skip it).  The trauma turns him inward, to the point that he effectively becomes non-responsive to the outside world.
But right in the middle of the record, it is revealed that Tommy - despite at that point in the narrative being "deaf, dumb, and blind" - is an excellent pinball player.  "Pinball Wizard" is a terrific rock song, but even for a weird story like Tommy it is an incongruous addition. 
The reason "Pinball Wizard" feels out of place is that it is. Pete Townshend, who was the principal architect of Tommy, wrote it in waves between September 1968 and March 1969.  In the midst of recording, Townshend played a rough assembly of the unfinished record for an influential rock critic named Nik Cohn.  Cohn was only 22, but he wrote record reviews both for London's The Observer and for the New York Times.  He was also "an avowed pinball maniac."
Cohn was not a fan of the record he heard.  "It's a bit po-faced, all this spiritualism," Townshend recalls him saying. "You need something to make it more fun."  Townshend took the advice to heart and, to coax a good review, he gave a wink to Cohn's love of pinball by making Tommy a master at the game.  Then, as he describes it, he "wrote all the other pinball references into the story sideways."
The rest is history.  Tommy was certified gold in the US just three months after its release in May 1969, and is now double platinum.  It has been made into a film and adapted for opera performance and for Broadway.  It has sold over 20 million copies worldwide and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (for records with "historical, artistic, and significant value") in 1998. 
Now, of course, "Pinball Wizard" is the most famous part of Tommy, and it's hard to imagine the record without it.  So here's a toast to Townshend's shameless pandering.  
BONUS FACT: The, Spanish tennis player Tommy Robredo - ranked 17 in the world - is named after Tommy.  Per his bio on the ATP's website, his dad was a big fan of The Who and gave him the name in tribute to the band.  It paid off: in 2007 Robredo and his dad got to meet the band at a show in London.
BONUS FACT 2:  A few years ago, a YouTube user uploaded isolated tracks of each member of The Who doing their part of a live version of "Pinball Wizard."  They are not for everyone - my wife asked "what is that?! It's AWFUL" as I wrote this - but I love them.  I am partial to Keith Moon's drum part (starts at 0:49) and John Entwistle's bass line (starts at 0:36).  
BONUS FACT 3:  Being a rock journalist in the late '60s, Nik Cohn reviewed some of the most famous records of all time.  In his take on Abbey Road for the New York Times, Cohn rightly praises the medley on the back half of the record, but says that "the rest of this album is unmitigated disaster" and that "[t]he badness ranges from mere gentle tedium to cringing embarrassment."  He dismisses George Harrison's contributions to the record (those would be "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something") in two words - "mediocrity incarnate."  Wow.  
BONUS FACT 4:  My high school band did a mean rendition of "Pinball Wizard."

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

TMFW 65 - Tangled Up in Swedish Academic Journals

Stupid old Real Work is interfering with my True Music Facts writing, so today's entry is short.  But it's charming, I think.

In 1997, Professors John Jundberg (or maybe Lundberg, as he is credited in the paper) and Eddie Weitzberg published a scientific paper in Nature Medicine titled "Nitric oxide and inflammation: The answer is blowing in the wind."  Jundberg and Weitzberg were colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.  The abstract of the paper promises a discussion of a "novel, minimally invasive technique" for the "detection of mucosal inflammation." 

Because this is True Music Facts Wednesday and not True Mucosal Inflammation Detection Technique Facts Wednesday, we will focus on the latter part of the paper's title.  I should expect that TMFW readers recognize that "the answer is blowing in the wind" is from the Bob Dylan song "Blowin' in the Wind," from the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

After inserting that first Dylan lyric into their journal article, the Swedish scientists decided to keep up the effort.  In 2010, they published "The biological role of nitrate and nitrite: the times they are a-changin'" in the official journal of the Nitric Oxide Society.  That one of course references the song of the same name.

The pair of professors learned recently that two other of their colleagues - from the same institute in Stockholm - had published an article in 2003 titled "Blood on the tracks: a simple twist of fate?"  That paper questions whether "non-neural cells can generate neurons in mice and humans," and more importantly it features both a Dylan album name AND a Dylan song in the title.  So they decided to make a contest of it.  The four have wagered that whoever can rack up the most Dylan references in scholarly papers before retirement will earn a free lunch.

(It will no doubt feature lingonberries.)


BONUS FACT:  As described in the last link above, a new book from May of this year titled The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob discusses a number of works from which Dylan has allegedly "appropriated" (or if you are feeling less charitable, plagiarized) material.  Dylan's inspiration covers everything "from American classics and travel guides, fiction and nonfiction about the Civil War, science fiction, crime novels, both Thomas Wolfe and Tom Wolfe, Hemingway, books on photography, songwriting, Irish music, soul music and a book about the art of the sideshow banner." 

Dylan has previously responded to plagiarism accusers: in a 2012 Rolling Stone interview, he offered the subtle opinion that "wussies and pussies complain about that stuff" and that "all those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell."