Wednesday, May 4, 2016

TMFW (not) 139 - Goodnight, and Good Luck

I started True Music Facts Wednesday on a lark on September 4, 2013, when I encountered a fun story about Three Dog Night's name and sent it to my friend Jinx.  (I later incorporated that story in the opening sentence of TMFW 8, which deals with the band name Toad the Wet Sprocket).  

Over the next two-and-a-half years, I wrote 138 entries and tens of thousands of words, and I bothered you with them each Wednesday without interruption.  But today, as I sat down to write volume 139, the process felt more like a hassle than a joy.  I started three different entries from my drafts folder, but couldn't get myself to work them up.  

So rather than force it, I'm taking my writer's block as a sign that it's time to call it (at least for now) on TMFW.  I hope that you found something worthy in all of these electrons; it was an awful lot of fun while it lasted.




BONUS NOTE:  I've still got 75 could-be TMFW draft entries, from one-line notes to half-written stories.  If I start doing this again, I will send along a note to let you know.

BONUS NOTE 2:  For good measure, here's a collection of goodbye songs for you, each by a subject of a prior TMFW:

"I Will Remember You," Sarah McLachlan (TMFW 131 subject.)

"Hello, Goodbye," The Beatles (TMFW 44477894, and 135 subjects.)

"Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road," Elton John (whose producer was the subject of TMFW 33.)

"These are the Times to Remember," Billy Joel (TMFW 124 subject.)

"Closing Time," Semisonic (TMFW 12 subject.)

"Going Home," Kenny G (as TMFW 38 teaches, this is a goodbye song in China.)

"On to the Next One," Jay Z (TMFW 99 subject.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

TMFW 138 - The Judiciary Gets in on the Act (Part 2)

This week's entry is a continuation of last week's theme of judges getting creative with musical opinions.  And unlike the Taylor Swift and Eminem opinions from that entry, today's story is a bit more sneaky.  
The opinion in question is the 1987 decision from the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case United States vs. Abner.  (The lawyerly citation is U.S. v. Abner, 825 F.2d 835 (5th Cir. 1987).)  The case deals with whether a criminal defendant had effective assistance of counsel at trial - pretty dry stuff that has nothing to do with music.  What makes it today's TMFW is that the opinion sneaks in 19 different Talking Heads song and/or album titles
If you Google around about the case, you may get the impression that a judicial clerk wrote the opinion (allegedly to score free tickets to a Talking Heads show) and that judge Reynaldo Garza didn't recognize the myriad song references when he reviewed and signed the opinion.  But in a 1990 interview with Indiana University Law School's The Exordium newsletter (link goes to .txt file), the law clerk who wrote the opinion clarified the story.  
The opinion's author Steve Riggs explained: "When the Fifth Circuit would sit for arguments, we'd be in New Orleans, and the clerks would go out with some of the other judges at dinner. One night, I got to ask Judge [E. Grady] Jolly about a footnote he had dropped which made an uncited reference to Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner.  He got the biggest chuckle out of the fact that I had noticed. He said that he tries to zip up legal writing and encouraged Judge Garza to do the same...[when it came time to write the Abner opinion], I told him what Jolly had done with Faulkner, and asked him if we could do the same thing with popular song titles...The Judge said it was fine as long as the opinion was 'intellectually coherent and makes good sense.' The Judge got a terrible kick out of it."  
As it turns out, the Abner opinion was Riggs' last as a law clerk.  So his musical writing was a once in a lifetime event.   
BONUS FACT:  Like the dinosaur named after Mark Knopfler in TMFW 45, I started this entry last week thinking that my examples were noteworthy for their uniqueness.  But after research I have discovered that music lyrics in legal opinions are common enough that they inspired a law review article analyzing their use.  (Not unlike the scholarly article breaking down Jay-Z's "99 Problems" that was featured in TMFW 99.)
BONUS FACT 2:  On the subject of judicial opinions and burning down the house, I enjoyed this report of a tax decision in Virginia.  A family bought a house that they intended to tear down, but to save themselves the trouble they allowed the local fire department to do a "training exercise" with it that involved burning it to the ground.  The family then wrote off the value of the house as a charitable deduction on their taxes.  The IRS didn't like that and it went to court.  (You will not be surprised that the taxman won.)  
BONUS FACT 3:  The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge Alex Kozinski is famously playful in his opinions, and is an excellent writer.  In 1990, Kozinski wrote the opinion on a case dealing with alleged antitrust violations at a movie theater chain.  He took the opportunity to cram the opinion with over 200 movie titles.  
BONUS FACT 3.5:  Back in the infancy of, the site featured a series called "Slate Diaries," which was a series of entries by noteworthy people.  In 1996 (ANCIENT in internet years), Judge Kozinski did a 10-part diary.  You can read Day 1 here, and the rest by clicking "view all entries" and selecting a day.  I particularly like his Day 8 entry, which gives a little glimpse of daily life as a judge and a good story about he keeps things in perspective.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

TMFW 137 - The Judiciary Gets in on the Act (Part 1)

Last year, the singer Jessie Braham (or maybe Graham; sources differ) sued Taylor Swift, claiming that she had plagiarized his song "Haters Gonna Hate" when writing her blockbuster hit "Shake It Off."  Braham had not much evidence behind him to sustain that allegation, other than that the refrain of his tune featured the lines "haters gonna hate, and players gonna play," while Swift's used "'cause the players gonna play play play play play / and the haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate..."

If you have listened to Braham's song (linked above), you have likely already concluded that other than the weak similarity of sharing two well-known phrases, there is precious little in common between the two songs.  (You may have also concluded that Braham's song is pretty bad.)  Last fall, a federal court agreed and dismissed the suit.  In her opinion (pdf link), federal magistrate judge Gail Standish did an excellent job highlighting both the legal standard for copyright claims and why Braham failed to meet it.  But what makes her dismissal order the topic of today's TMFW is her concluding paragraph.  In it, Judge Standish worked in references to 4 Taylor Swift songs, writing:

"At present, the Court is not saying that Braham can never, ever, ever get his case back in court,” Standish wrote. “But, for now, we have got problems, and the Court is not sure Braham can solve them. As currently drafted, the Complaint has a blank space—one that requires Braham to do more than write his name. And, upon consideration of the Court's explanation . . . Braham may discover that mere pleading Band-Aids will not fix the bullet holes in his case. At least for the moment, Defendants have shaken off this lawsuit."

As you might guess, Judge Standish's playfulness was noted widely by the press (e.g. this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.)  And when you think about, it was pretty fearless of her.  But it paid off beyond her wildest dreams: I bet Judge Standish had the best day reading about it.

I've got a bit more on this theme, but in the interest of being finished for today, and of padding my TMFW drafts folder, let's leave it here for now.  See you next week for the exciting conclusion.


BONUS FACT: Similar to the strange-but-true story in TMFW 131 about Sarah McLachlan being sued by her stalker for inspiring a song, in 2003 Eminem was sued for defamation by the man that bullied him as a younger man and inspired a verse in the song "Brain Damage." 

In awarding summary judgment to Eminem, Michigan state court judge Deborah Servitto wrote a 14-page opinion that lays out the legal and factual details in plain language.  But, like Judge Standish, she had a little bit of fun at the end, including a final footnote that explained her ruling in ten stanzas (36 lines) of "rap." (sample lyrics: "If the language used is anything but pleasin' / It must be highly objectionable to a person of reason," and "It is therefore this Court's ultimate position / That Eminem is entitled to summary disposition.")

Kudos to Judge Servitto for losing herself in the moment and turning out such a goofy, great opinion. 

BONUS FACT 1.5:  It was particularly audacious of Eminem's bully to sue him: the abuse was so bad that in 1982 Eminem's mom sued the school district to stop it, naming specifically the kid who is referred to in Eminem's song and alleging that young Em suffered a cerebral concussion and post-traumatic headaches as a result of the beatings.  Holy cow.  

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

TMFW 136 - 50,000 Unique "Copies" of a Best-Selling Song

In TMFW 24, I wrote the story of Matt Farley, who found a clever way to game Spotify by flooding it with over 15,000 different songs, with the idea that even a few pennies per song would add up across the catalog.  Today's TMFW is the (only vaguely) similar story of George W. Johnson, an early recording star who is estimated to have made 50,000 recordings of one song.  
Johnson worked, quite literally, in the earliest days of recording.  Thomas Edison invented the phonographic cylinder in 1877, but the machine used tinfoil to capture sound, and the delicate grooves in the recordings would be erased after just a few plays.  With that limited functionality, the machine was a curiosity but not much more.  Edison was busy with other things during that time - the electric light bulb was first tested in 1879, and was developed (and litigated) for several years thereafter - and so he left the phonograph alone until the mid-1880s.  When he returned to his device, he figured out a way to make "permanent" recordings using wax instead of tinfoil, and the phonograph became commercially successful. 
By 1889 the machine was sufficiently popular that pre-recorded cylinders were introduced, and the nickname "records" was born.  One year later in 1890, Mssrs. Louis Glass and William S. Arnold patented the "Coin Actuated Attachment for Phonographs," which took a nickel and played a cylinder into headphone-like "listening tubes" that patrons would stick in their ears.  They were the first jukeboxes, and they proved popular in arcades and taverns.  
To keep people interested in phonographs, owners needed a variety of content.  So, just like today, popular performers made records and sold them to the public.  But, very much unlike today, the recording means for wax cylinders was direct.  In other words, to make a decent recording, the artist had to perform a song live.   "Early phonograph recordings were accomplished literally by brute force – all acoustically: The performers would stand before a funnel-shaped horn attached to a phonograph and belt out their tunes.   High volumes of sound were required to force the recording diaphragm (made variously of glass, mica, or copper) to vibrate sufficiently to force the cutting stylus to make a good carving on the blank wax cylinder."  
That means that in the early days of commercial music, all recordings were "masters," in that they were the original cut of an artist's performance.  So if a song was a hit, and people wanted to buy more copies, Edison and his competitors had to make them by re-recording the song, over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.  (During recording sessions, they would cut down on the need for repetition by arraying four devices in a way that each could capture the original performance, but that was the extent of "mass production" of wax cylinders.) 
Enter George W. Johnson (whose story is well told at that link).  Born a slave in Virginia in 1846, Johnson was "lucky" enough to be taken as a baby to be a playmate for a white child of similar age.  This was called being a "body servant," with the slave becoming a sort of butler or valet for the family as he got older.  That position of very relative privilege allowed Johnson to learn how to read and to write, it gave him exposure to music from a young age, and it made him comfortable in interacting with white people (or more to the point, he became facile in making white people comfortable interacting with him.)
After the Civil War, Johnson made his way to New York City, where he became well-known as a street performer.  Johnson was particularly skilled at whistling; "his notes are as perfect, it [was] said, as those of a flute."  And as a practiced street musician, he could sing loudly for most of the day without losing tone or volume in his voice.  
Those two skills turned out to be very valuable for Johnson.  In the nascent days of wax cylinder recording, companies needed performers who could sing the same song, repeatedly, for days on end.  And they needed both volume and pitch that would come through well on recordings.  Johnson's baritone and his whistle were perfect.  In early 1890, Johnson performed two songs for licensees of the North American Phonographic Company.  The first was "The Whistling Coon," an almost unbelievably racist song (lyrics at the link) about a "limpy, happy, chuckleheaded, huckleberry nig" who is happy when he whistles in tune.  The second was "The Laughing Song," a still-racist-but-less-so song that features a chorus of Johnson laughing heartily.  
Both of Johnson's tunes were big hits.  In fact, for the next seven years, Johnson recorded them pretty much continuously.  All told, it is estimated that he made 50,000 recordings of "The Laughing Song," for virtually every phonograph recording company that existed at the time.  The song is thought to be the highest selling record of the 1890s. 
Though he did not earn royalties or songwriting credits, during his period of fame Johnson is said to have earned up to $100 per week, at a time when typical wages were around $500 per year.  Unfortunately, Johnson's success was short-lived.  By 1902, phonograph companies had developed a way to mass-produce copies of cylinders and discs from a master recording.  So once they got a good take from Johnson, they no longer required his services.  
From there, Johnson's story has a sad ending: he had a troubled personal life (including being charged - but ultimately acquitted - of murdering his common-law wife), and struggled with poverty and alcohol abuse.  He died penniless in 1914, and was buried in an unmarked "pauper's grave" in New York City.  
Thankfully, people have since taken note of his remarkable life, and are telling his story.  I hope that, wherever he is, he is laughing.
BONUS FACT:  When writing this entry, I first called the early pay phonographs a "nickelodeon," as that is the world that I know for them.  But today's research taught me that "nickelodeon" does not refer to those machines at all.  Instead, a nickelodeon was a very early form of movie theater that was popular in the 1900s and 1910s, typically a converted storefront that played short films in a loop for a 5 cent admission.  The popularity of nickelodeons (and their reputation as low quality, uncomfortable places) paved the way for the growth of the motion picture industry and the birth of lavish "movie palaces" in the 1920s.
BONUS FACT 1.5:  Nickelodeons got their name from taking "nickel" (duh) and "odeon," the ancient Greek word for theaters with roofs.  (The Odéon is also the name of a famous theater in Paris from the early 1800s, and in the early 20th century the name had become synonymous with fancy performance spaces.  So a "nickel Odéon" was a sort of apt wordplay for a cheap show.)
BONUS FACT 1.75:  So why are old jukeboxes sometimes called nickelodeons?  The misnomer comes from the 1949 song "Music! Music! Music!," which features the line "put another nickel in // in the nickelodeon."  Per that song's Wikipedia entry, "there is no prior record of 'Nickelodeon' being used as a brand or common name for any coin-operated device, and the trademark owner was a chain of silent movie theaters that operated from 1905 to 1915. All uses of 'nickelodeon' to refer to a jukebox appear to trace directly to this song."
BONUS FACT 1.875:  So what did you call the machines that played at taverns and bars in the olden days?  The contemporaneous terms were simply "phonograph," "nickel-in-the-slot machine," "jukebox" (first coined 1939), or orchestrion (for devices that used instruments or pipes to create live music as opposed to recorded music).  The more you know.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

TMFW 135 - 4000 Holes and 1 Mean Letter

Late last year, I was REALLY excited to discover a great piece of music history related to the Beatles' classic song "A Day in the Life." And after a little bit more research, now is the right time to tell the story.

This week last year, the Royal Albert Hall in London tweeted and posted to its website a 1967 letter from the venue to The Beatles' late manager (and Fifth Beatle) Brian Epstein.  As the post explains, the letter "was unearthed whilst clearing an old archive room as part of the Hall’s ongoing steam heating refurbishment project."

The letter is an objection "in the strongest conceivable terms" to The Beatles name-checking the Hall in the final verse of "A Day in the Life":

I read the news today, oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall
I'd love to turn you on

That lyric doesn't make a lot of sense - Blackburn, Lancashire is over 200 miles northwest of London, after all - and the stodgy managers at the Hall were apparently concerned that listeners would draw the wrong conclusions.

Writing for the Hall, its then Chief Executive Ernest O'Follipar complained that "[i]n the lyric that mentions the Albert Hall, the singer (thought to be John Lennon) heavily implies several gross inaccuracies which we consider to be misleading to the general public who may hear the song, and potentially catastrophic to our reputation - one which has taken almost a century to achieve."  The letter went on to object to three specific inaccuracies: (1) that there are four thousand holes in the Royal Albert Hall, (2) that the Royal Albert Hall is located in Blackburn, Lancashire, and (3) that the singer would "love to 'turn on' the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences." 

O'Follipar was particularly concerned about the four thousand holes allegation, noting that "it is likely to deter concertgoers who do not want to fall into a hole," and that "I am also baffled as to where this figure has come from - even if you count the doorways as holes, that would still only make thirty-two."

The letter ends with suggested changes to the lyrics, which promote the Royal Albert Hall's then-upcoming season of shows. In the alternative, the Hall suggested that perhaps Ringo could add backing vocals that "contradict John Lennon's lies," suggesting "Not that there are any holes in the auditorium, John!"

In addition to the letter, the Albert Hall's post includes a response from John Lennon in which he blows off the hall's geographic concerns and pokes fun at them by noting "we won't be saying sorry, because it takes too long to get to Blackburn from our studio at Abbey Road."

Being a Beatles fan and the writer of a weekly music trivia blog, as noted above I was thrilled when I happened upon the letter from the Royal Albert Hall.   Even without 49 years of history and hindsight, it is so silly to think that someone could have taken that lyric so seriously and reacted in that way.  And it was amazing that a no-name like Ernest O'Follipar would go so far as to suggest alternate lyrics to John Lennon.  "What a great entry this will make," I thought.  "I can't believe this wasn't a bigger story when it came out," I thought.  "It's almost too good to be true," I thought.  

Then finally, I saw the date of the Albert Hall's blog post.  April 1.  It turns out the whole thing was an April Fools' joke. And it was a thinly disguised one at that - O'Follipar is an anagram of "April Fool."  

Well done, Royal Albert Hall, and shame on me.


BONUS FACT (A REAL ONE):  So what does that lyric "four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire" mean?  Well, it turns out John Lennon really did "read the news today" when he wrote that song, and he cherry-picked a few stories and molded the verses around them.  One of the newspaper stories was about the abundance of potholes on the streets in Blackburn.  

According to the book The Complete Beatles Songs by Steve Turner (which sits on my coffee table), the story "was picked from the Near and Far column" in the January 17, 1967 edition of the Daily Mail.  As for the reference to the Royal Albert Hall, John was stuck looking for a rhyme to "rather small," and an old schoolmate of his suggested "Albert Hall."  It fit, so it made the grade.

BONUS FACT 2:  "A Day in The Life" features an abrupt musical/lyrical shift in the middle, from John Lennon's dreamy contemplations to Paul McCartney's boppy rundown of his morning (i.e. "woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head...")

If those two parts sound a bit incongruous, it's because they are: to make "A Day in the Life," John stuck one of his unfinished songs together with one of Paul's.  That the two half-conceived songs meshed so beautifully and turned into such a monumental track is Exhibit 792 of The Beatles' genius.

BONUS FACT 3:  On the subject of musical letters, one of my favorite blogs Letters of Note recently had a wonderful (and real) letter from the famous comic book artist Robert Crumb to the Swedish "free jazz" saxophone player Mats Gustafsson.  Apparently, Gustafsson was a great admirer of Crumb's and sent Crumb one of his records in appreciation.

Crumb was not impressed with what he heard, and pulled no punches in a letter back to Gustafsson.  He started the note by saying "I gotta tell you, on the cover of the CD of your sax playing, which is black and has no text on it, I wrote in large block letters, in silver ink, 'Torturing The saxophone—Mats Gustafsson.'"  

Crumb went on from there: "I just totally fail to find anything enjoyable about this, or to see what this has to do with music as I understand it, or what in God´s name is going on in your head that you want to make such noises on a musical instrument. Quite frankly, I was kind of shocked at what a negative, unpleasant experience it was, listening to it. I had to take it off long before it reached the end. I just don´t get it. I don’t understand what it is about."

For his part, Gustafsson seemed quite pleased with the critique from Crumb.  So much so that he named his next record Torturing the Saxophonewith the title in large block letters in silver ink.  I love that.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

TMFW 134 - Roundin' Third, Headed for Home / A Terrible Baseball Team Inspires a Great Band

Yo La Tengo is an indie group from Hoboken, New Jersey.  The co-founders and leaders of the group are Ira Kaplan and his wife Georgia Hubley; as Ms. Hubley's entry on Wikipedia notes, she and Kaplan got together after "finding a common ground in music, and sharing a love of New York Mets baseball."  It is that latter connection that is the subject of today's TMFW.  

In 1962, the Mets were a first-year expansion team.  They had a historically bad season, finishing 60.5 games out and racking up 120 losses.  (To add insult to injury, the NL pennant was taken by the San Francisco Giants, who had left New York just five years before, and the World Series was won by the stupid old Yankees.)  The Mets' centerfielder was future Hall-of-Famer Richie Ashburn, playing in the final year of his career.  Their shortstop was Elio Chacon, a Venezuelan player who spoke very little English.  

As the story goes, the language barrier between Ashburn and Chacon caused a handful of miscues in the field, with both players chasing a fly ball and running into each other instead.  So rightfielder Joe Christopher, who spoke both English and Spanish, had the idea to teach Ashburn a Spanish phrase to call off Chacon.  That phrase, of course, was "Yo la tengo!," which means "I have it!"

Allegedly, the phrase worked precisely as imagined.  Later in the season, a pop-up went to left-centerfield, and Ashburn called to Chacon "yo la tengo!"  Chacon backed off, but right as Ashburn was about the catch the ball leftfielder Frank Thomas mowed him down and the ball dropped in for a hit.  

Thomas, not understanding what had just happened, asked Ashburn "what the hell is a yellow tango?"  And with that, baseball (and indie rock) history was made.

BONUS FACT: Yo La Tengo are famously talented at playing cover songs, and for more than 10 years they have put that skill to use to help raise money for WFMU, the famous New York independent radio station.  During WFMU's annual pledge drive, Yo La Tengo has a marathon session where they hang out in the studio and play requests, like a live-action jukebox.  In 2006, the band put out Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics, a compilation of some of the covers.

BONUS FACT 2:  In an episode of the sitcom Parks and Recreation, the character Leslie Knope organizes a rock concert for the cities of Pawnee and Eagleton, Indiana.  One of the featured acts is "Bobby Knight Ranger," which is a Night Ranger tribute act in which each member dresses as the famous Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight.

Bobby Knight Ranger was played on the show by Yo La Tengo; each band member "got dressed up in red sweaters, khakis, and white wigs, and they played ‘Sister Christian’ in front of a thousand people."  That's a good gag.

BONUS FACT 3:  Most baseball fans know that in the olden days New York had three teams: the American League Yankees and the National League Dodgers and Giants.  Those latter two teams headed to California in the first wave of western relocation (each in 1957), and their departure paved the way for the expansion Mets.  The Mets' colors are a blend of the Dodgers' blue and the Giants' orange: a small but fitting tribute to New York City's baseball past.   (Thanks to TMFW reader and neighbor Clifton for this one.)

BONUS FACT 4:  Yo La Tengo has a thing for quirky sports-related titles: their 11th studio record is called I am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.  That quote came courtesy of New York Knicks forward Kurt Thomas during a 2005 NBA game; Thomas said it to his teammate Stephon Marbury as the two argued on the bench.
BONUS FACT 4.5:  The Wikipedia link above (at the album title's name) suggests that it was NBA player TIM Thomas who threatened Marbury rather than KURT Thomas.  But TMFW went back to contemporary sources to bring you the true facts.  (Both of those players were with the Knicks at the time, so the screw-up is understandable.)

BONUS FACT 4.75:  While we are (sort of) on the subject of great declarative album titles, I would be remiss if I didn't include the debut record from Philadelphia band Marah: Let's Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight.  Marah's song "Freedom Park" (from a different record, but still) is on the TMFW all-time greats list.

BONUS FACT 5:  TMFW fans will surely recall that I teased in TMFW 113 about "TMFW 134 future subjects Yo La Tengo."  I have been saving up baseball stories to go with Opening Day.  And here we are!  It's the best time of the year.

BONUS FACT 5.5/TITLE NOTE: the first part of today's title is a continuation of lyrics from (TMFW 87 subject) John Fogerty's great song "Centerfield."  That song is not related to today's subject except through baseball, but lyrics were previously used in the Opening Day entries of TMFW 29 and TMFW 81 so I thought it appropriate to continue the theme.

BONUS OBSERVATION 5.75:  I can't believe we've been doing TMFW long enough that this is our third Opening Day.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:  Like the story of "Deep in the Heart of Texas" in TMFW 19 and The White Stripes' short(est) concert in TMFW 75, today's inspiration came from Dan Lewis' excellent newsletter Now I Know.  If you like TMFW's weekly entries, you will surely like Now I Know's daily ones.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

TMFW 133 - The Appliance Delivery Guy Who Inspired a #1 Hit

Your humble TMFW writer recently lost his job; our company has a new CEO in Boston and that is incompatible with having a chief lawyer in Chicago.  My last day is this Friday; I am drafting this week's entry from my sad, empty office. The only real thing left for me to do here is finalize the details of my severance.

So with that in mind, and with only a slight stretch necessary to get there, this week's entry is the story of the real-life inspiration behind "Money For Nothing."  (See what I did there?) The song, which reached #1 for 3 weeks in 1985, was the biggest hit for Dire Straits over its Hall of Fame-worthy (but not yet Hall of Fame) career.  It helped drive the album Brothers in Arms to #1 in 18 countries; that record has sold 20 million albums worldwide. 

The "Money for Nothing" video - which at the time was groundbreaking for its use of 3D animation - features a blue collar, hardhat-type guy watching and commenting on music videos that are playing on a wall of TVs behind him.  And it turns out that's pretty much exactly how the song came about.  In an interview with the late British rock journalist Robert Sandall, Knopfler told the story of his inspiration for the track:


Robert Sandall : "Money For Nothing" was reputedly based on an overheard conversation.  

Mark Knopfler: Yeah, I was in New York in one of the big appliance shops. Basically, the layout was quite simple, the kitchen display unit in the front, the table and chairs and drawers and everything were all there in the shop window. Then you go inside and they had rows of microwaves and all the rest of it and at the back there were big walls of TVs all turned to MTV.

It was like a stage set because there was this big Joe Six Pack figure with his checked shirt and he had a barrel of some sort - he had been pulling boxes of something through the back door and he was holding forth to an audience of one or two about the performances on MTV. But the kind of stuff he was saying was so classic that I just managed to eavesdrop for a couple of minutes and then I went and got this piece of paper and started writing down the lines of things he was saying. Lines like, "That ain't working" and all that, and "Maybe get a blister on your finger", made me laugh. He said all that stuff and "What's that, Hawaiian noises?", so in a sense it was just a piece of reporting. But again, it's one of those things when you are aware that the situation has possibilities to create something.


That's a great story, and it's your TMFW for today: Mark Knopfler overheard an appliance deliveryman bloviating about rock stars on MTV, and turned him into the narrator of a #1 song.


BONUS FACT:  Sting famously sings the signature "I want my MTV" background vocals on "Money for Nothing," and though that was his only contribution he is credited as a co-writer of the song. 

I can't believe I never realized this before, but Sting ripped off that melody from himself: "I want my, I want my, I want my MTV" is identical to "don't stand, don't stand so, don't stand so close to me."

BONUS FACT 2:  Mark Knopfler was previously featured in TMFW 45 for inspiring a group of paleontologists (and being rewarded with a dinosaur named after him).

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

TMFW 132 - What a Lucky Kid He Was

When I was 12 years old, I wrote my very first song, called "Rye Bread World."  (If that sounds familiar, I previously referred to the tune in TMFW 40.)  When I put it to music, I used the four chords that I could reliably play on guitar: E minor, G, D, and A.  The song repeats those chords over and over and over and over as it makes its way through three verses about how everything in the world is like rye bread.  (Remember that I was TWELVE.)
With that story in mind, it was with some delight that I discovered a couple of years ago that Greg Lake - he of the famous prog rock trio Emerson Lake & Palmer - wrote his first song the same way.  He too was twelve, and but for an additional minor chord (his is an Em and an Am vs. my Em and A) the idea was the same.  Verse-Chorus-Verse, with a never-changing chord progression.
Whereas "Rye Bread World" is all about how the world is like rye bread, Lake's song was an adolescent fantasy about a dude who lives a super-sweet (but seemingly short) life.  The first verse notes that the guy had "ladies by the score, all dressed in satin and waiting by the door."  The second talked about his Donald-Trump-worthy bedroom furniture, which was a gold-covered mattress adorned with lace and feathers.  In the third, we hear of the man's military prowess: he was so good at "fight[ing] wars" that all of his countrymen sang songs of his honor and his glory.  Finally, in the fourth, tragedy strikes and he dies in battle.  
If you read today's title or you know Emerson Lake & Palmer, you have likely figured out by now that the 12-year-old Greg Lake wrote "Lucky Man," which appeared on ELP's first record and went on to be the band's signature track.  As Lake explained in a 2012 interview, the song was not intended for production: "[There was] no intellectual thought involved in it…it was pure innocence. I mean, there was no thought of it becoming a record. There was no thought of me even becoming a professional musician. It was just for my own personal pleasure.”  
In fact, the song only appeared on ELP's record because the group needed some album filler. From the same interview, Lake noted "[n]ine years later, when it came to making the first ELP album, nobody wanted to [record "Lucky Man."]; it was only because we were short of one track on the record that it ever got made. Keith didn’t even want to play on it. I actually made it on my own, that record is all me except for Carl Palmer doing the drums and the solo right at the end with Keith. I’m all the voices, all the guitars; we just thought it was filler. We never had the faintest idea that it would become a hit record.”
Though "Lucky Man" reached only #48 on the charts, it has become a classic rock radio mainstay and its success helped launch ELP's string of seven gold records and a decade of famously self-indulgent performances in the 1970s.  Not bad for a four-chord, album-filler tune written by a 12-year-old.
BONUS FACT:  Today's entry was inspired by Keith Emerson, whose brilliant one-take Moog solo at the end of "Lucky Man" is that song's pièce de résistance.  I love it so much.  Emerson died last week of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 71.  RIP, Keith.
BONUS FACT 2:  ELP's fourth record was called Brain Salad Surgery, which was borrowed from a lyric in a Dr. John song and which apparently was a slang term for oral sex.
BONUS FACT 2.5:  The album artwork for Brain Salad Surgery was done by the Swiss fantasy artist H.R. Giger.  Giger is most famous for designing the Alien from the movie of the same name, which earned him an Oscar.
At the artist's website, there is the terrific story of how he made the album art.  Apparently, the record was initially to be called Whip Some Skull on Ya, which (theme alert!) was a slang term for oral sex.  When Giger learned this, he came up with a concept evocative of that theme.  But when he met the band and showed his work, Keith Emerson told him for the first time that the record's name would be changed to Brain Salad Surgery.  As Giger recounts, "I was dismayed until he explained to me that this expression, likewise, connoted fellatio."  What a moment of occupational relief that must have been.
BONUS FACT 3:  ELP were a shining example of true '70s stage excess: at its height, their rock spectacle of a tour required 10+ trailers of gear, with 60+ roadies to lug it around.
BONUS CONTENT 4:  Here's solo acoustic Greg Lake, chewing gum and performing the hell out of "Lucky Man" in 1974.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

TMFW 131 - Sarah McLachlan's Stalker Helps (?) Write A Song


Today's TMFW is about the Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan.  If you are like me, you know her for only a few songs that your college girlfriend played a lot in the car - "I Will Remember You," or "Building a Mystery," or "Ice Cream."   So before we get into things, I am compelled to note that (to my surprise) Ms. McLachlan has sold 40 million records.  That's a lot.  Her first six studio albums have all been certified gold or platinum, and the three studio records and one live record she made at the peak of her career are all multi-platinum in both Canada and the U.S.  Respect to Ms. McLachlan.  
Today's fact relates to McLachlan's 1993 song "Possession," which was the lead single on her record Fumbling Towards Ecstasy.  The song sounds (and the video linked above looks) creepy, and when you pay attention to the lyrics it becomes even more so.  The song tells the story of a person obsessed with another, who seems willing to do whatever it takes to be with her. The refrain fantasizes "I would be the one to hold you down, kiss you so hard, I'll take your breath away.  And after, I'd wipe away the tears.  Just close your eyes, dear."  One of the verses ends with the line "'cause nothing stands between us here, and I won't be denied."  Yikes.
Sarah McLachlan had a very personal inspiration for her song about a stalker: when she wrote the track, she had for several years been a victim. 
Though she had more than one, McLachlan's most famous stalker was a fellow Canadian named Uwe Vandrei.  Starting in 1991, Vandrei sent McLachlan "hundreds of letters and e-mails that were alternately impassioned and threatening," and for her own protection McLachlan obtained a restraining order and was forced to hire a bodyguard.  Though she was wisely careful for her safety, McLachlan was said to be "intrigued by the fact that someone could say such things to a complete stranger," and this lead her to write the song from the perspective of the obsessed.
All of that is a pretty good story, but what makes it today's TMFW is what came next: when Fumbling Toward Ecstasy and "Possession" came out, Vandrei thought that he recognized himself (and some of his writing) in McLachlan's song.  So naturally, he did what any wronged lyricist would: he sued McLachlan and her record label for a songwriting credit and $250,000 in royalties.
As it turns out, the "merits" of the case were never heard.  In November 1994, Vandrei committed suicide in the Manitock woods just south of Ottawa.  (At that link, you can see some of Vandrei's writings to McLachlan.)  It was a bizarre end to a bizarre story.
So there's your TMFW for today: Sarah McLachlan wrote a song about a stalker, which caused her own stalker to sue for a songwriting credit.
BONUS FACT:  In 2007, McLachlan appeared in a now-famous commercial for the ASPCA, where her sad music played over footage of sad dogs and she asked for money to help them.  According to the New York Times, the ad was obscenely successful - helping in one year to raise $30 million for an organization with an annual budget of only $50 million.  Since then, McLachlan has poked fun at herself in a Super Bowl commercial for Audi and has said that whenever she sees the ASPCA ad now "I change the channel; I can't take it."
BONUS FACT 2:  McLachlan was the founder of the short-lived-but-very-successful summer concert festival Lilith Fair, which famously focused on women in music.  Part of her inspiration was to stick it to concert promoters and venues that in those days resisted booking acts with women back-to-back for fear that it would not be commercially viable.
BONUS FACT 3:  Despite its blunt lyrics, McLachlan has noted that people often share with her that "Possession" was the song used at their wedding, saying "you wouldn’t believe how many people use that song for their wedding, And I just smile quietly to myself, like ‘oh, that’s nice.'" 
BONUS OBITUARY:  RIP George Martin, a brilliant producer and (one of the principal candidates for) Fifth Beatle.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

TMFW 130 - An Anthem From the Stormy Centuries

We've got three extra boys at our house this week, and life is a little bit overwhelming.  But I am determined to keep my TMFW streak intact.  So we've got an entry today, but it is a straightforward one.  It's the story of Hungary's crazy national anthem.  The song is called "Himnusz," meaning "anthem," and its subtitle was initially "A magyar nép zivataros századaiból," which means "from the stormy centuries of the Hungarian people."  You can hear it here (with lyrics to the first verse).
What makes the song today's TMFW is that, contrary to the idea of a national anthem being a celebration of a country's virtues, Hungary's is basically a recital of all the terrible things that have happened to the country through the ages.  The first verse previews the sorrow, with the lines: "Long torn by ill fate / Bring upon it a time of relief / This nation has suffered for all sins / Of the past and of the future!"
And it only gets worse from there.  The song laments that "for our sins / Anger gathered in Your bosom / And You struck with Your lightning / From Your thundering clouds."  It talks about "the plundering Mongols' arrows," and then "the Turks' slave yoke," and then references how the Ottoman Empire's soldiers sang a victory song "over the corpses of our defeated army."  
Then it tells the story of a lone fugitive who hides from the violence and roams the land, with a "sea of blood beneath his feet, [and an] ocean of flame above."  It references a castle that is "now a heap of stones," with "groans of death, [and] weeping" replacing the sounds of happiness and joy.  And for the big happy ending, the song's last stanzas assure the listener that life is still no better: "freedom does not bloom from the blood of the dead," but instead "tortuous slavery's tears fall from the burning eyes of the orphans."  The song's final plea is for God to "pity...the Hungarians," and to protect it "on the sea of its misery."  Good times, Hungary.  
So this summer, if you are watching the Olympics and a Hungarian takes gold (as they did 8 times in London in 2012, including golds for kayaking and for pommel horse), know that as they stand on the podium and their flag is raised, their victory song is a somber reminder of centuries of their countrymen's misfortune and sorrow.
BONUS FACT:  On the flipside of today's fact, Russia's national anthem is the freaking greatest: here it is with a choir and here it is with an even bigger choir.  
BONUS FACT 2:  Today's entry was indirectly inspired by the death last week of Tony Burton, who played Apollo Creed's trainer Duke (and the first guy to see the potential in Rocky Balboa) in the Rocky movies.  I was the exact right age for the over-the-top montages and over-the-over-the-top jingoism of Rocky IV to make an imprint on me, and I loved Duke's role as trainer/mentor/father to Rocky.  RIP Tony Burton.  
BONUS FACT 2.5:  As a combo of points 1 and 2, here's the Soviet National Anthem from Rocky IV, just before the big Christmas Day fight in Moscow.  It's the best.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

TMFW 129 - An Audio Brand Comes Back From the Dead

Today's TMFW is a departure from our typical entries, but it is technically a true fact about music, and it is Wednesday, so we are going for it.

A few months ago, I was playing music with my friend Greg in his basement.  (Maybe our rise to fame will be the subject of a TMFW some years in the future.)  Our rehearsal space is in his rec room, where all of his 1980s and 90s tech has gone to live.  There's a 19-inch TV that is three feet deep and 200 pounds, a real live working VCR, and an impressive collection of VHS tapes (including a 30+ year-old set of the Star Wars trilogy).  And in the corner, there's a "compact stereo system" 3-disc CD player from Aiwa. 

Aiwa is the subject of today's TMFW.  Their mini bookshelf stereos, with 2 detached speakers, 2 cassette tapes, and 3 compact discs on a spinning carousel on top, were standard-issue in dorm rooms when I was in college.  This appreciation explains it perfectly: "[t]hey may not have focused on the audiophiles, or the high-end gear freaks, but for the average person, their product wasn't garbage either. Think of it as the Honda Accord of stereo systems." A 2001 USA Today review of Aiwa's then-latest system calls it a "steal" at $250.

Once I got over my nostalgia for the good old days, Greg's vintage tech museum of a rec room got me thinking: "whatever became of Aiwa?"  So I got googling and found out.  My first stop was, which is still alive but suggests that the brand itself is dead.  Visitors are greeted with the one-sentence announcement that "Sony Corporation has taken over the Support and Service of AIWA products," along with a link to Sony's site.  But further down on the results page, I found Aiwa's Facebook page and a Twitter page, with active posts and the familiar logo.  So what gives?

Here's your answer - the 60+ year old Japanese brand now lives in Chicago, as a startup. 

Aiwa was founded in Japan in 1951, and made a whole host of consumer audio products like tape decks, boomboxes, CD players, and car stereos.  With their ubiquitous bookshelf stereos, they became a recognizable brand in the US in the late '80s and early '90s (with a big advertising budget to go with that).  But as technology changed with the advent of mp3 and the decline of physical media, the company suffered.  In 2002 it was forced to sell itself to Sony.  Sony tried to re-brand the company but gave up after only 3 years.  By 2006, Aiwa was dead. 

But in 2013, the Chicago company River West Brands acquired the trademark for Aiwa, and last year they partnered with a consumer audio startup called Hale Devices.  Hale Devices renamed itself Aiwa, and branded its Big New Product with the old logo that everyone knows.  The idea is that the brand automatically denotes a level of quality and reputation that a startup couldn't quickly build on its own; as the linked Chicago Tribune article notes, Hale Devices is "counting on consumers to recognize Aiwa from a previous musical and technological era. Listeners of a certain age will remember the company as a Japanese maker of stereo components, in particular the boomboxes of the '80s."  It's a clever strategy: Sony gets some free money for letting go of a trademark that was of no use to them anymore, and a brand new company gets the benefit of millions of dollars in past advertising and 50 years of "related" product experience for customers.  And so far it seems to be working: the company's $300 Bluetooth speaker has 5 stars over 134 mostly glowing reviews on Amazon.  It looks pretty cool. 

So there's your TMFW for today: the story of how a Japanese manufacturer from the 1950s died and was born again as a Chicago startup in 2015.  I hope you liked it. 


BONUS FACT/MORE OF THE STORY:  River West Brands, the group that acquired the Aiwa trademark and partnered with Hale Devices, works exclusively in acquiring and resurrecting dead brands.  This long 2008 New York Times article profiles the business in depth; among other brands, they have brought back Eagle Snacks chips, Salon Selectives hair care products, Nuprin pain relievers, and Brim coffee.  They don't make anything; they just get rights to an old brand and then find a manufacturer who sees some value in using a mark that people will recognize.  For example, CVS took the Nuprin name and sold it as an alternative to their generic ibuprofen.  The brand recognition justified a slight markup over the no-name stuff. 

River West's whole model, which is built on nostalgia for brands that have either failed or been abandoned, is fascinating.

BONUS FACT 2:  Regular readers of TMFW know that I like commercials, and particularly ones that make good use of music.  In the early 2000s, Aiwa had a classic that used "Another One Bites the Dust" to great effect.

BONUS FACT 3:  My friend and TMFW Subscriber #1 Jinx had an Aiwa stereo in his dorm room in college.  It had a "karaoke" button on it that basically just dropped out the midrange on whatever was playing.  This resulted in terrible-sounding music, but it did the job of allowing a would-be frontman (or frontwoman, in the exceedingly rare occasions when we had women visit) to sing along with favorite tracks.  I can remember many nights of fun drinking amaretto sours, hitting "karaoke," and then singing poorly over Earth Wind & Fire (his choice) or Weezer or They Might Be Giants (everyone else's).

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

TMFW 128 - OK Go Foils its Record Label (Kind Of)

At the end of the US version of the rock band OK Go's 2005 album Oh No, the band included the track "9027 km."  The song is a nearly 35 minute recording of muffled, ambient noise, and it was a cause of some confusion when the record came out.  Fan theories were that it was two people having sex, or maybe a guy out for a drive.  But it was neither; as Wikipedia explained in 2006, "9027 km" was "a 35-minute track of singer Damian Kulash's girlfriend sleeping, included on the US version of the album. He says there is good reason for it, but as of now, fans do not know why."  (They DID know the reason for the name - the band recorded the album in Malmo, Sweden, which was 9027 kilometers away from Kulash's girlfriend in Los Angeles.)
The "good reason" for the track's inclusion came out not long after: "9027 km" was on the US release to stick it to the band's record label.  More specifically, it was included to prevent the record label from sticking it to OK Go's fans.  
In the early 2000s, record companies were still reeling from the rise of Napster and trying their best to prevent digital piracy (on that front, see TMFW 30 for some creative subterfuge from Barenaked Ladies).  So labels started introducing "DRM" (digital rights management) protection in their digital files, to stop people from easily sharing purchased music with their friends.  Though DRM was fairly rare in physical CDs, it was not unprecedented, and in 2005 several labels were actively discussing adding software to their discs to limit how record buyers could consume CDs.  By contrast, artists (who since the invention of the record industry have been hosed by labels) were typically on the side of record buyers.  DRM interfered with their relationship with fans, and artists resisted it
Against that backdrop, OK Go was determined to prevent DRM on their new record.  Without any economic leverage with the label, they decided instead to get creative.  The band tallied up the running time of the songs on their album, and then decided to artificially fill up the rest of the disc with one long "bonus track."  The length of "9027 km" was designed to push the record out past 74 minutes, the limit for music CDs.  As the record was being mastered, Damian Kulash recorded his girlfriend sleeping and insisted on the band's artistic license to force the label to include it on the album.  With all of the space used for music, there was none left for DRM.  
All of this is a good TMFW: a band makes a last minute, 35-minute recording to run out the clock on their CD and foil the big bad label that would otherwise stick it to their fans.  Except, their attempt was almost wholly meaningless.  CDs no longer are limited to 74 minutes: the newer standard is 80.  So the band left several minutes of space on their record for the label to play with.  But even if every minute HAD been used up, there are around 100 MB available elsewhere on the disc where a nefariously-minded label could have applied DRM.  (In the case of OK Go's album, EMI didn't.  But despite the band's trickery, it wasn't because they couldn't.)
Still, credit to OK Go for trying.  Good on you, fellas. 
BONUS FACT:  Only a few months after the release of Oh No, the issue of DRM on physical CDs got national attention when it came to light that Sony/BMG had included some particularly nasty DRM on over 20 million CDs. Discovered in fall 2005, the software automatically installed (and then hid) itself on user computers, and it "phoned home" with private listening data of users.  Sony responded to the controversy by denying any wrongdoing, and then released an "uninstaller" that collected user e-mail addresses and did even MORE monkeying to their computers.  OK Go's fears were well-founded.
BONUS FACT 2:  Did you ever wonder why the CD is 74 minutes long?  As the story goes, when Sony and Philips (the joint developers of the technology) were negotiating on the standard format of the compact disc, Philips pushed for a disc that was 115mm.  That would hold just over an hour of music, which was considered a good length because a standard-cut, extended play vinyl record holds about 26 minutes per side.  So you could put a full record on CD and still have some time left.
But despite the practicality of one-hour discs, Sony pushed for a slightly larger CD that was 120mm.  That would hold an oddly-specific 74 minutes of music.  Why 74?  Well, the Sony executive who was in charge of the project (Norio Ohga) and the wife of the Sony chairman Akio Morita were classical music fans, and they felt that it was important that the entirety of Beethoven's 9th symphony should fit on a disk.  Performance times for that symphony ranged from 66 minutes to (you guessed it) 74.  So Ohga enlisted the support of Herbert von Karajan, the superstar conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic who recorded for Philips' subsidiary Polygram Records.  At von Karajan's urging (and with his promise to promote the new standard in the classical music community), Philips came around to 120mm discs and CDs as we know them were born.  So a guy born in 1770 was responsible for the size of a technology born in the late 1970s.
BONUS FACT 2.5:  Like the today's main fact, it turns out that the Beethoven's 9th story is probably too good to be true.  According to an engineer who worked on the project, the Beethoven story makes for nice advertising copy, but Sony's insistence on 120mm was driven at least in equal part by their knowledge that Philips already had the means to mass produce discs at 115mm.  To avoid being left behind in the manufacturing of the new technology, Sony insisted that 115mm was the wrong number and got Philips to cave.  Money over art: that's always how it goes.
BONUS FACT 3:  I can't imagine many TMFW readers NOT knowing that OK Go is most famous for making amazing music videos, but just in case: OK Go is most famous for making amazing music videos.  Starting with their "treadmill video" "Here it Goes Again," the band has consistently one-upped themselves with bolder, more elaborate videos.  Try out the intricate Rube Goldberg stylings of "This Too Shall Pass," the optical illusions in "The Writing's On the Wall," the car-as-musical-instrument "Needing/Getting," the dog trick extravaganza "White Knuckles," or the recorded-slowly-then-sped-up choreography of "I Won't Let You Down."  
Just last week, the band debuted their most ambitious video yet, for "Upside Down and Inside Out."  It was recorded in "zero gravity" on a Russian "vomit comet."  
BONUS FACT 4/FROM THE ARCHIVES:  All the way back in 2013, TMFW 3 told the story of OK Go's brilliant music video with the Notre Dame Marching Band.
BONUS FACT 5:  As this Reddit comment points out, the reference on Wikipedia for today's anti-DRM fact is this post on a comics site, which states only "[i]t has been rumored that the track was added to pad out the CD so that their label could not use the extra space to add DRM."  To support that statement, the post cites back to the Wikipedia page in question.  That's a fun but of "citogenesis," where Wikipedia cites a reference for proof, and in turn that reference cites back to Wikipedia for that same proof, creating a nice tight loop of faux-authority.  (In this case, though, the band's motive is almost certainly true: Kulash confirmed the story during a concert Q&A session and has repeated it since then too.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

TMFW 127 - Needlenose Ned Gives a Famous Band Their Name

Stephen Tobolowsky is a character actor and first ballot member of the "hey it's that guy!" Hall of Fame.  He was 200+ acting credits, including recurring characters in Deadwood and Glee, but he is most famously known as Ned Ryerson, the annoying-yet-endearing insurance salesman who steals scenes in Groundhog Day.  Today's TMFW is the story of how, in the strangest way possible, he inspired the name of a super famous band. 

The story starts in the early 70s, when Tobolowsky was in college.  As he recounts, "I had some unusual psychic experiences.  I could hear 'tones' coming from people's heads, and I could tell them about their lives.  [My girlfriend] Beth thought this was a great cash machine and in the theater department, she would charge $0.25-$1 for me to read people's tones...This turned out to be not as much fun as we thought it was going to be.  I began telling people real things that were happening to them.   Horrible things.  Exciting things.  Tragic things.  It began to scare me.  I stopped doing it."

Fast forward to 1985, in Tobolowsky's backyard in the Hollywood Hills.  The director Jonathan Demme had just worked with Tobolowsky's girlfriend Beth [the same one from college] on a screenwriting project, and his next gig was shooting the video for Talking Heads' song "Road to Nowhere."  Demme was looking for a swimming pool for some of the shots, and Beth offered up Tobolowsky's house.  So Demme and David Byrne (the lead singer of Talking Heads) came over and shot some scenes.  You can see the pool starting at 2:12 in the video

After the video shoot, Tobolowsky and Beth invited Demme and Byrne to stay for a barbecue.  As they sat and talked, David Byrne discussed a movie that he wanted to work on called True Stories.  According to Byrne, his vision was an art film "with songs based on true stories from tabloid 60 Minutes on acid."  (Byrne and Demme had just made the very successful and now-iconic Stop Making Sense, so this was real talk.)

During the discussion of True Stories, Beth convinced Tobolowsky to tell David Byrne about the "tones" that he could hear in college, and Byrne liked the story.  In fact, the barbecue went well enough that Tobolowsky and Beth were hired to write the first draft of a screenplay for True Stories; they and Byrne are the credited writers for the final film.

Inspired by Tobolowsky's story, during one of the rewrites for the film Byrne introduced a character that could hear "tones" in his head and wrote a song for that character to perform.  The song was called "Radio Head."  Here it is in the film, here's the whole song, and now you see for sure where this is going.

Around the same time that Tobolowsky and his girlfriend were entertaining David Byrne at a barbecue, Thom Yorke and some schoolmates in England formed a band called "On a Friday" (so named because that's the day they practiced after school.)  Except for a few brief periods of inactivity, they stayed together through high school and college, and in 1991 they caught the attention of EMI Records and signed a deal.  EMI didn't like their name, and asked them to change it.  Taking inspiration from Byrne's song, they mushed two words into one and took the name "Radiohead."  The rest - seven top-10 records (including five in a row that hit #1 in the UK and one that is often lauded as one of the best of all time) - is history.

So there's your TMFW for today: the guy who played Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day had psychic abilities in college and told the guy from Talking Heads about during a barbecue and that inspired him to write a song about it and that inspired the band On a Friday to rename themselves Radiohead (and go on to be one the most influential groups in recent history). Crazy.


BONUS FACT:  If you watch Groundhog Day enough times, you may inevitably start to wonder just how long Bill Murray's character Phil Connors repeated the same day over and over and over again.  It was at least long enough for him to learn 19th century French poetry, to become an expert ice sculptor and pianist, to learn about Nancy's chipmunk sounds, to (in deleted scenes) become a hustler in pool and bowl a perfect game and become proficient in radiology, and to get so desperate that he creatively ends his life several times over

It turns out that the movie was initially intended to address this question pretty directly.  According to a great entry on the No Film School website, the screenwriter had a plan "to have Phil read one page of a book on the inn's bookshelf each day, then he would show Phil moving across the shelf, then down the shelves until Phil finally read the last page of the last book, and went all the way back to the beginning again."  This would suggest a period of hundreds of years.  But the studio was not keen to put Phil through that and suggested the way-too-short period of two weeks instead.  So the compromise was that director Harold Ramis "took out all overt references to exactly how long Phil was stuck, including [screenwriter Danny] Rubin's page-a-day bookshelf to mark time. As soon as the audience couldn't see exactly how long Phil was stuck, nobody cared anymore and the film opened up for interpretation to let audiences decide for themselves."

Unsurprisingly, people have done just that.  Just from simple googling, you can find a pile of "scholarship" out there about how long Bill Murray's character stayed in his Groundhog Day loop.  Ramis initially said on DVD commentary that it was 10 years; he later revised the number to between 30 and 40.  A 2009 blog post (with charts, even) says it was 8 years, 8 months, and 16 days.  A video investigation in response concludes that it was 33 years, 350 days.  For his part, Tobolowsky cites Buddhist principles and says it was 10,000 years.

However long it was, I am glad for the 1 hour and 42 minutes of that film.  It's the best.

BONUS FACT 2:  We'll leave a broader exploration of Radiohead for another time, but I can't make a Radiohead post without linking to Thom Yorke's appearance on the "Knifin' Around" episode of Cartoon Network's sublime talk show Space Ghost Coast to CoastIt's a family favorite (and by that I mean I love it dearly and the family patiently accepts it).  Cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut.....

BONUS FACT 3/BIBLIOGRAPHY:  I got today's story from the Reddit "AMA" that Tobolowsky did last month.  It is an interesting read. 

For those of you who do not know Reddit or "AMA"s: Reddit is a social networking, bulletin-boardesque website where users post things that interest them.  Other users can then vote those posts up (if they like them) or down (if not), and in theory the cream rises to the top

Reddit is not without controversy, but AMAs - short for "Ask Me Anything" - are one of its best features.  In them, a notable person visits the site and answers questions posed by the community.  The result is a long, collaborative, evolving interview with a famous person.  In part because of the loose design of the site, in part because the best questions get upvoted and more noticed by the AMA guest, and in part because reddit seems to value authenticity, AMAs often give a nice picture of the "real" (or at least, closer to "real") person being interviewed.  Some notable AMAs are chef Gordon Ramsay, Tesla/Space X entrepreneur Elon Musk, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz AldrinCarol "Big Bird" Spinney, and (because why not) the guy that co-invented the Oregon Trail computer game.  Once you get used to/learn to navigate the weird layout, they are fun to read.

BONUS FACT 3.5:  If you liked today's story, Tobolowsky has a podcast series called The Tobolowsky Files.  And partly out of that podcast, in 2014 Tobolowsky and his producer successfully Kickstarted a storytelling "concert film" called The Primary Instinct.  It is available on Hulu.