Wednesday, June 24, 2015

TMFW 94 - Love, Love Me Klaatu

Klaatu was a Canadian prog rock band in the 1970s.  Being a prog rock band in the 1970s, they were a little out there.  You kind of had to be, I think.  
For its first record, the group, which was named for a character in the sci-fi cult classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, decided that they would put nothing on the album that identified them as anything other than Klaatu.  There were no pictures of the band and no listing of its members, there was no bio or personalized liner notes, and the authorship and performance of all songs was attributed only to "Klaatu."  In addition, the group did no promotional appearances and did not tour in support of the album.  Through the magic of YouTube, you can listen the whole record here.  It's pretty good for what it is (which, remember, is 1970s Canadian prog rock, so dial down your expectations accordingly).
Klaatu's debut did okay, but not great, in the U.S.  Released by Capitol Records in September, 1976, it had mostly run its course by the end of that year.  But in February, 1977, the album got some surprising new life.  Steve Smith, a rock journalist for the Providence (R.I.) Journal, listened to the album and noted some Beatlesque sounds (especially on the song "Sub-Rosa Subway.")  Intrigued by the mystery of the album credits, he did some tortured detective work and came up with a theory: Klaatu was actually The Beatles themselves in disguise.  
Smith wrote a column titled "Could Klaatu be Beatles?  Mystery is a Magical Mystery Tour" in which he laid out his reasoning: (a) a couple songs sounded kind of Beatle-y, (b) Capitol Records was the Beatles' US label for most of their career, (c) Capitol feigned ignorance about the band's identity, (d) Ringo Starr's 1974 album Goodnight Vienna features him dressed as Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still, and (e) (go with me on this one) one of the band's songs called "Bodsworth Ruggleby" was misspelled as "Bodsworth Rubbleby" on the record cover, and "bods," "worth" and "by" "rubble" can be put together to suggest that the band got their value from rocks, and the Beatles started off being known as The Quarrymen.  Smith's column ended by leaving four possibilities: either the group was The Beatles, or it was a couple of Beatles, or they were backed by The Beatles, or they were simply "a completely unknown but ingenious and talented band."  
From there, the rumors took off.  The story was written up in newspapers around the country, and made both Rolling Stone and Billboard magazines. Remember that after The Beatles breakup there was intense interest in a reunion - as noted in TMFW 44, pay-per-view pioneer Bill Sargent offered the Beatles $50 million to play one show.  And remember that conspiracy-minded fan theories about The Beatles were already a well-established pastime for rock journalists and DJs and teenagers - Paul died and was replaced by a look-a-like in 1967 and the group left clues everywhere.  Klaatu's record found renewed interest, and Capitol Records encouraged the speculation by writing vaguely-worded press releases and referring to the group only in the collective. Most of the clues were pretty tenuous (or outright stupid), but for those who wanted to believe it didn't really matter.  Maybe this was the realization of the dream.
Dee Long, one of the three real life members of the band, has an excellent and comprehensive website where he has collected scans of the press coverage that the group got back in those days. One of my favorites is a story in the British music magazine NME, written shortly after the rumors started, titled "Deaf idiot journalist starts Beatle rumour."  The copy is similarly toned, calling the rumor "the latest idiotic burble to flourish in the Land of the Credulous" and dismissing the Providence Journal article as "hypothetical drivel" and a "bug-eyed account."
Ultimately, the rumor was short-lived.  A radio station in Washington, D.C. thought to visit the Copyright Office to check on the registration for Klaatu songs.  Those listed the band's real members, and game was up.  Klaatu made four more records in the late '70s and early '80s, but they are now known overwhelmingly not for their music but for their loose, brief connection to the Fab Four.
BONUS FACT:  The "Paul is dead" theory has adherents still to this day.  Just look at the facial structure, man.  It's undeniable.
BONUS FACT 2:  The lead song on Klaatu's first record is called "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day)."  The song was inspired by a real event.  According to the band's website, "In March 1953 an organization known as the 'International Flying Saucer Bureau' sent a bulletin to all its members urging them to participate in an experiment termed 'World Contact Day' whereby, at a predetermined date and time, they would attempt to collectively send out a telepathic message to visitors from outer space. The message began with the words...'Calling occupants of interplanetary craft!'"
The story checks out, and in fact World Contact Day is still a thing.  From that first link, the idea is that "if both telepathy and alien life [are] real, a large number of people focusing on an identical piece of text may be able to transmit the message through space."  Mark your calendar for next March 15 so that you can get in on the alien transmission.  
BONUS FACT 3:  When the Klaatu rumor first started, the guitarist for The Carpenters checked out their record.  He brought "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" to the group, and within just a few months The Carpenters recorded and released a cover, along with a bizarre-but-wonderful video.  Amazingly, the song made the top-40 in the US, hit the top 10 in Canada and the UK, and reached #1 in Ireland.  The '70s were a weird time for music.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

TMFW 93 - Just a City Boy, Born and Raised in Canada

Today's post comes to you from (sort-of TMFW 72 subject) Boston.  But it's about a band from the Bay Area and a song featuring a city in Michigan.  We've got all the time zones covered.
In 1981, Journey had a #9 hit with their rock anthem "Don't Stop Believin'."  Since then, it has been a staple of classic rock radio, and in the last 10 years or so it has had a renaissance of sorts.  The song was a centerpiece of the first episode of Glee and the last episode of The Sopranos, and is a popular choice for singing competitions like American Idol and The X Factor.  In fact, though it never reached the top 40 in the UK during its initial release in 1981, its popularity from TV and film usage saw it enter the charts in both 2009 and 2010 in the UK, and it stayed in the top 10 for nearly two months.  It reached number 2 in Canada around the same time, and has sold over 4 million copies as a digital download (the most of any "pre-digital" track.)
To an exhausting degree, the song is a popular stadium anthem, too.  In baseball alone it has been a rallying song for the 2005 Chicago White Sox, the 2008-09 Los Angeles Dodgers, and the 2010 and 2014 San Francisco Giants.  It was the pump up song between the 3rd and 4th quarters for the 2014 Mississippi State University football team, and is played often (and belted out by the crowd) during Detroit Red Wings games.  
That last one makes sense, as the opening lines of the song introduce its characters: "just a small town girl / living in a lonely world," and "just a city boy / born and raised in South Detroit."  Detroiters are no doubt proud to be namechecked so prominently in the song, and that must be especially true for people who were "born and raised in South Detroit."  
Except that there are none.  
If you look at a map of Detroit, you will see that downtown is on the northern bank of the Detroit River, a short waterway between Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.  Across the river - directly south of downtown Detroit - is Windsor, Ontario, in Canada.  There is no place called "South Detroit" to speak of.  The only real candidates for that name - cities and suburbs southwest of Detroit - are referred to as "downriver."
This geographical and lyrical quirk has long amused (or maybe bemused) Detroiters, and in 2012 New York magazine's Vulture blog reached out to Journey frontman and "Don't Stop Believin'" songwriter Steve Perry to understand his odd choice.  Perry explained that he was inspired to write the song during a tour stop in Detroit, when one sleepless night he stared down from his hotel room and saw people periodically emerging from the darkness into the light of the streetlamps.  That inspired in him the phrase 'streetlight people,' and he went from there.  
As for "South Detroit"?  Well, it just sounded the coolest.  Perry told Vulture “I ran the phonetics of east, west, and north, but nothing sounded as good or emotionally true to me as South Detroit.”  Maps be damned, that became the line.  
So the next time you are singing along with Journey, know that the "city boy" in question probably loves maple syrup and Tim Hortons, occasionally punctuates his sentences with "eh," listens to Rush, and has the Queen's face on his money. 
BONUS FACT:  There is in fact a "South Detroit" in the United States; it is one of the 44 townships in Brown County, South Dakota, in the northeast part of the state.  But with only 35,460 people in the whole county, and a population density of 21 people/square mile, a kid born and raised there would hardly qualify as a "city boy."
BONUS FACT 2:  The full version of the Glee cast singing "Don't Stop Believin'" was released as a digital single in 2009.  It has since been certified platinum, and reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 (compared to #9 for the original) and #2 on the UK Singles Chart (compared to #6 for the original).  That's nuts.  
BONUS FACT 3:  (Everybody knows this, I think, but...) Randy Jackson - he of "yo dog" American Idol judge fame - was a session musician for Journey from 1986 to 1987.  He played bass on most of their double-platinum record Raised on Radio.
BONUS FACT 4:  Jackson also played on The Divinyls self-titled record, including the top-5 hit "I Touch Myself."  If you ever find yourself singing that song during a drunken karaoke session, take a moment to appreciate his bass line.  
BONUS FACT 5:  As part of The Onion A.V. Club's excellent "Undercover" series, Clem Snide did a sparse cover of Journey's love ballad "Faithfully."  I rather enjoy it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

TMFW 92 - Simon and Garfunkel, Reunited by a Remix

Simon and Garfunkel were one of the biggest acts of the 1960s.  Their last record of that decade (released in January 1970, so close enough) - Bridge Over Troubled Water - was the highest selling record of 1970.  It was on the US charts for 85 weeks and the UK charts for 285 (!!!) weeks.  It reached #1 in 11 countries, and included as singles "The Boxer," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and "Cecilia."  It sold 8 million copies in the US, and was briefly the best-selling album of all time.  It's still in the top 50 all time. 

More broadly, each of Simon & Garfunkel's 5 studio records are certified platinum, and 4 of the 5 are multi-platinum.  "Mrs. Robinson" was the first rock song to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year.  Their 1981 concert in Central Park was for a crowd of 500,000 people, which was then the biggest of all time.  They are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Paul Simon is in there as a solo artist too.  They've had an impressive career, to say the least. 

But it almost didn't happen.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were old friends, since they were in grammar school together in Queens, New York.  They started playing together as "Tom & Jerry," and at the age of 15 they had a national hit with "Hey Schoolgirl."  Supported by a $200 payola payment to legendary DJ Alan "Moondog" Freed, the record sold 100,000 copies and got them a trip on American Bandstand.  Pretty good for a couple of teenagers.  But subsequent Tom & Jerry records failed to make any impact, and after high school the two went their separate ways.  

After Simon graduated college (Garfunkel was a senior at Columbia), the two reunited and were signed by Columbia Records.  They recorded their first record, called Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., over the course of only 3 days in March 1964, and released it in October, 1964.

One would think that their timing was excellent - TMFW 48 subjects Peter, Paul, & Mary had huge success in 1963 with "Puff, The Magic Dragon" and TMFW 65 subject Bob Dylan had just a year earlier released The Freewheeling Bob Dylan.  Folk seemed like the Next Big Thing.  But then in February 1964, the next Next Big Thing landed in New York City, by way of Liverpool.  The Beatles took over popular music, and ushered in the "British Invasion."  By the end of that year, The Beatles accounted for 18 weeks at #1 on the charts, and fellow British groups Peter & Gordon, Manfred Mann, and the Animals rode the wave for 6 more.

Against that backdrop, when Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. came out it landed with a thud.  The record sold only 3,000 copies at initial release, and the duo's first single was mocked by their peers.  The legendary folk singer Dave Van Ronk recalled in his memoir: "'Sounds of Silence' actually became a running joke: for a while there, it was only necessary to start singing 'Hello darkness, my old friend...' and everybody would crack up."

After failing so prominently, Simon & Garfunkel seemed to accept that success as a duo wasn't in their future, and they broke up (again).  Simon moved to England to pursue a solo career, and Garfunkel went back to Columbia to pursue a graduate degree in math.

And it almost certainly would have ended there if it weren't for a producer at Columbia Records named Tom Wilson.  Wilson had big success in 1965 as the producer of Bob Dylan's song "Like a Rolling Stone," which, with rock instrumentation behind it, was an early "folk rock" hit.  In the summer of 1965, he was looking for the next one.  Wilson heard from a DJ friend in Boston that Simon & Garfunkel's song "The Sounds of Silence" (they changed the name to the singular later) had started to draw some modest airplay.  Wilson had produced the original version of the song, which was sparse and quiet with just an acoustic guitar and vocals, and he heard commercial potential.  So he took the record and, totally unbeknownst to Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel, brought in several of the musicians that had worked on "Like a Rolling Stone."  On June 15, 1965 - 50 years ago next week - they added rock instrumentation and turned the song from a quiet lament to a folk rock anthem.  Then, still without the involvement of Simon or Garfunkel, Columbia released the dressed-up song as a single and sent it to radio stations around the country. 

Paul Simon first learned about the release when he picked up a copy of Billboard magazine in England and saw his song - the song from the album that had flopped so hard that it broke up the band - at number 86.  He got a copy of the record in the mail a few days later, and was allegedly "horrified" by what Wilson had done to it.  But less than four months after the re-release, "The Sounds of Silence" reached #1 and sold enough copies to merit a gold record. 

With a sudden hit song, Simon returned from England and re-teamed with Garfunkel (again) to capitalize.  The duo quickly recorded a second album - scrounged for time, to fill the record they re-recorded five songs that Simon had released as a solo artist in England just 7 months earlier.  The second record was titled Sounds of Silence.  It was a hit, and Simon & Garfunkel were on their way to a Hall of Fame career. 

So there's your TMFW for today: Simon & Garfunkel's first record flopped so hard that it broke up the band.  And their career was saved by a producer who fundamentally altered their song and released it without their knowledge or permission.


BONUS FACT 1:  Paul Simon insisted that, for Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., the group would use their real names.  It was the first time they had done so.  Up to that point, they'd performed variously as (1) Tom & Jerry (Garfunkel was Tom Graph and Simon was Jerry Landis), (2) True Taylor (Simon, as a solo release during the Tom & Jerry days, which supremely pissed off Art Garfunkel), (3) Artie Garr (Garfunkel, after Tom & Jerry broke up), (4) Paul Kane (Simon, after Tom & Jerry broke up), and (5) Kane & Garr (when they first got back together and leading up to their Columbia deal).

BONUS FACT 2:  "The Boxer" features ferocious and now iconic snare drum strikes in its refrain.  To get the desired sound, the session drummer Hal Blaine set up his kit right next to an open elevator shaft at Columbia's studio.  When it came time for his part, he bashed the drum as hard as he could.  He recalled: "in that hallway, right next to this open elevator shaft, it sounded like a cannon shot!  Which was just the kind of sound we were after."

BONUS FACT 3:  Though they were friends since the age of 12, Simon and Garfunkel frequently and famously fought over the course of their careers. One notable instance of tension was Simon & Garfunkel's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1990.  At that time, the two had not been on good terms since at least 1986.  After being introduced by James Taylor, the duo took the stage for a speech.  Garfunkel lead off, and as his closing remark he took the high road, thanking Simon for their partnership and saying "and I want to thank most of all the person who's most enriched my life by putting these great songs through friend Paul, here."  He then embraced Simon and turned over the mic.  Simon seized the opportunity and started his speech by noting "well, Arthur and I agree about almost nothing,'s true I have enriched his life quite a bit, now that I think about it."  He went on awkwardly from there (you can watch the whole thing at the link right above), with Paul alternately reminiscing warmly and taking little shots at his partner.  He ended his speech by saying "So, uh, how could I be happier than to be inducted into the Hall of Fame with my oldest pal, and we can join those other happy couples Ike & Tina Turner, the Everly Brothers, Mick & Keith, Paul and...all of the other Beatles, and uh, maybe they'll have a separate wing for all of us, you know?  [It will] probably be completed in time for the Eagles to be in.  Thank you very much."  Pretty crummy, Paul Simon.   

BONUS FACT 4:  For good measure, here's The Lemonheads' cover of "Mrs. Robinson," which was recorded for the 25th anniversary of The Graduate and was tacked on to later releases of The Lemonheads' magnum opus It's a Shame About Ray.  I loved it as a younger man, and I love it still.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

TMFW 91 - The Boss and Courteney Cox inspire a famous dance

Now this is a story all about how...a Bruce Springsteen video was an unlikely inspiration for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  
Let's start in the early 80s, with a young kid named Alfonso Ribeiro.  Ribeiro was a great dancer, and at age 13 he had a starring role on Broadway in the musical The Tap Dance Kid (here's his performance at the 1984 Tony Awards; he appears at about 2:08).  That same year, he appeared in a commercial for Pepsi, where he danced with Michael Jackson.  Shortly thereafter, he played Ricky Schroeder's best friend in Silver Spoons, and they found a way for him to dance there, too.  Ribeiro was a sufficiently famous dancer that he hawked a "breakin' and poppin'" book that promised to teach suburban kids everywhere how to breakdance.  (No joke: I remember very distinctly writing down that 1-800 number on a notecard when I was a kid in the hopes that I could convince my parents to shell out the $19.99 for the book.  It came with a free breakdancing mat!  If they had, I probably would be an entertainment legend by now rather than writing weekly blog posts that nobody reads.)
So anyway, by the mid-80s Ribeiro was famous for being a great dancer.  It is sort of ironic, then, that the dance that has made him iconic is one that is prototypically nerdy.  
Most TMFW readers know that Ribeiro starred as Carlton Banks on the 90s TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  Carlton was the foil for Will Smith; he was a whitebread, nerdy, uptight rule-follower that contrasted nicely with Smith's street-smart, cool, laid-back rebel.  And his goofiness was often a vehicle for "look at that nerd" comedy bits.  The most famous of those came in the middle of season 3.  Carlton comes down the stairs at his house and pops in Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual."  After confirming that he is all alone, he enthusiastically lip-syncs and dances along, to be caught of course by Will.  It is a funny sequence, and one that resonated with the audience.  Carlton danced several more times during the show, and in the series finale Carlton and Will even do the dance together.  
Since the original run of the show, The Fresh Prince played in syndication for many years on WGN, TBS, and Nick at Nite, which solidified "The Carlton Dance" as a pop culture reference.  The initial video I linked above - which is one of many instances of the dance on YouTube - has over 12 million views.
That brings us back to today's True Music Fact: the inspiration for "The Carlton Dance."  Ribeiro has said many times in interviews that the dance is a combination of Eddie Murphy's "white people dance" from Raw (NSFW, language) and....Courteney Cox.  Cox was 19 years old and unknown when she appeared in Bruce Springsteen's video for "Dancin' in the Dark."  At the end of the video (you can cut right to it here), Springsteen pulls her from the crowd and awkwardly dances out the rest of the song with her.  Apparently that made an impression on young Ribeiro - who at that time, you will remember, was dancing on Broadway and starring in commercials with Michael Jackson - and it turned into his namesake move.  
Ribeiro has had a decent career since The Fresh Prince, and last fall he won the 19th (!!!) iteration of Dancing With the Stars.  His week 4 performance reprised The Carlton Dance, to the delight of the audience and straight 10s from the judges.  And my mother thought it was great.
BONUS FACT - Uncle Phil's law firm in The Fresh Prince was Firth, Wynn, and Myers.  Quincy Jones named them that in a not-so-subtle play on the band Earth, Wind & Fire.
BONUS FACT 2 - Though he had already had big hits by the time he starred in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air - He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper was triple platinum and "Parents Just Don't Understand" won a Grammy award -  the young Will Smith was a profligate spender and poor financial manager.  By the time that the show started, he owed the IRS almost $3 million in back taxes.  The federal government garnished Smith's earnings for the first 3 seasons of the show to get their money.  
BONUS FACT 3 - This is only barely related, but I love this John Mulaney bit about Tom Jones on the jukebox at a diner (NSFW, a little bit of language).
BIBLIOGRAPHY/FURTHER READING - The idea for today's story, and many of the bonus facts, came from this "Today I Found Out" entry from February.  And if you just can't get enough Fresh Prince of Bel-Air trivia, this list of 24 is pretty good.