Wednesday, February 24, 2016
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 Gizmodo.com 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 Aiwa.com, 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
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
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 newspapers...like 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 Coast. It'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 Aldrin, Carol "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.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
In TMFW 119, I told the story of the Gemini VI astronauts making "Jingle Bells" the first song transmitted from space. Today is another "music from space" story, but a much sadder one. It relates to the space shuttle Challenger, which blew up shortly after liftoff on January 28, 1986. Challenger has recently been in the news because last week marked the 30th anniversary of the loss.
The most famous astronaut on Challenger's final flight was "first teacher in space" Christa McAuliffe, but (of course) there were six other astronauts on the crew as well. One of those was Dr. Ronald McNair, a Mission Specialist for the flight. Dr. McNair was an impressive guy. An African American born in South Carolina in 1950, at age 9 McNair was told that he could not check out books at the still-segregated public library. He refused to leave, and the librarian called his mother and the police. At the urging of the police, the library backed down and gave him his books; the building is now named in his honor.
After his 4th-grade act of civil disobedience, McNair graduated valedictorian of his high school and went on to North Carolina A&T, where he got a degree with high honors in engineering physics. Five years later, he got his Ph.D. in physics from MIT and went to work at a federal research laboratory. Shortly after he started, McNair was one of 10,000 applicants for the NASA shuttle program and one of the 35 chosen. When he flew on Challenger's fourth mission in 1984, he became just the second African American in space (Dr. Guion Bluford was the first, beating McNair by less than six months.)
McNair was an accomplished saxophone player, and during his first space flight he brought along and played the instrument (sadly no flight recordings exist). News of his music-in-orbit intrigued TMFW 25 subject Jean-Michel Jarre, the French avant-garde composer. Jarre was working on his album Rendez-vous, and worked with McNair to compose a track that featured a prominent saxophone element. Jarre intended for McNair to perform and record the saxophone part on his next Challenger flight; it would have been the first piece of original music recorded in space. Jarre hoped to use the video of the recording during live performances of the larger piece. When Challenger exploded shortly after launch, McNair was killed and so was the performance.
After McNair's death, Jarre went ahead and recorded the song (on Earth). The song is titled "Last Rendezvous," with the name "(Ron's Piece)" appended to the end. It is dedicated to the lost Challenger crew. You can hear it here: "Last Rendezvous (Ron's Piece)." It's not for everyone, but knowing the backstory there's a sort of spooky, almost weightless beauty to it.
BONUS FACT: Roger Boisjoly was an engineer for Morton Thiokol, the private firm that designed the solid booster rockets and the O-ring that failed on Challenger. Boisjoly was concerned about the O-ring design and its potential for failure, and in the summer of 1985 he wrote a memo to his bosses warning them about it. The last sentence of his letter was "[i]t is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action to dedicate a team to solve the problem with the field joint having the number one priority, then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities." Sadly, the Thiokol bosses took no action and that's precisely what happened. Boisjoly was then shunned by his coworkers and was pushed out of the company. He died in 2012.
BONUS FACT 1.5: Bob Ebeling was another Morton Thiokol engineer who unsuccessfully tried to stop the launch of Challenger. Though it is apparent that he was unlikely to succed, he still lives with a heavy regret that he didn't insist more strenuously. Ebeling told NPR this year "I think that was one of the mistakes that God made...He shouldn't have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I'm gonna ask him, 'Why me. You picked a loser.'" Heartbreaking.
BONUS FACT 2: It will not be for everyone, but here is a great technical overview of the O-rings and how they failed on Challenger. It features an MIT aerospace engineering professor/former astronaut and an MIT professor of polymer science.
BONUS FACT 2.5: The famous, beloved physicist Richard Feynman was part of the Rogers Commission that was formed to study the causes of the Challenger disaster. At a time when NASA was obfuscatory about the O-rings and their knowledge of the risk of failure, Feynman famously demonstrated the effect of cold on the O-ring by dipping it in a glass of ice water (and by implication, he demonstrated how simple it should have been for NASA to understand it, too.) It was a moment of real embarrassment for NASA.
BONUS FACT 3: While assembling the Challenger crew, NASA had some creative intentions. As Sesame Street writer Norman Stiles describes, NASA proposed to the Sesame Street team that Big Bird could go up in the Space Shuttle as a way of sparking kids' interest in space. Carol Spinney (who plays Big Bird) was interested, but logistical issues around fitting an 8-foot-tall bird into a functioning spacecraft ultimately made the plan unworkable. Still intent on a mission focused on childrens education, NASA decided to send a teacher instead. Oof.
BONUS FACT 4: (This one is not about Challenger, but about the loss of the shuttle Columbia.) The author William Langewiesche wrote a story about the Columbia disaster, including what caused it and how it was treated in the aftermath. "Columbia's Last Flight" ran in the November 2003 issue of The Atlantic; you can read the whole thing at that line. It is absolutely fascinating if you like space.
BONUS FACT 5: (This one is not about Challenger or Columbia, but I'm on a roll here.) Last fall, there was a successful Kickstarter campaign to reprint the 1976 NASA Graphic Standards Manual in book form. The manual was issued in January, 1976, when the now-iconic "worm" was a controversial new logo. At NASA's site, you can download the entire 60-page manual, which features guidance on uniforms, letterhead, envelopes, and all manner of NASA business. It's really really cool.
BONUS FACT 5.5: An oft retold story of NASA's initial reaction to the worm logo focuses on NASA administrator James Fletcher. Reviewing the design, Fletcher objected that the two "A"s did not have a "crossbar" line. This was a design choice in part to make the As look like the nose of a rocket (and that's pretty cool). But even after that explanation, Fletcher renewed his objection, and allegedly responded “I just don’t feel we are getting our money’s worth.” I enjoy that.
BONUS FACT 5.75: On the subject of NASA and funny quotes and getting money's worth, first American in space Alan Shepard was allegedly asked by a reporter what went through his mind as he was sitting on top of the modified ballistic missile that would launch him into space. He replied "the fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder." The quote was paraphrased and recycled by Steve Buscemi as he and Bruce Willis waited to blast off (and blow up a meteor with a nuclear weapon!) in the movie Armageddon.