The other day, probably in response to Ken Burns’ new miniseries Vietnam War, I saw a discussion online about pop songs that should never be used again in service of soundtracking the events of US involvement in southeast Asia in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. You could guess the ones overused; Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’, Jefferson Airplanes ‘Volunteers’, Grand Funk Railroad’s ‘Closer to Home’, the Doors ‘Break On Through’ or ‘The End’ etc, all good songs to be sure, but all heavily overused in pop culture on the topic (I’d even seen a few people calling the Stooges ‘Search and Destroy’ overused what with its opening line concerning a ‘heart full of napalm’). So then the conversation turned to what to use instead? It’d need to be anthemic, or at least righteously angry on the topic at hand (and made in the era in question), and catchy enough to prompt something akin to familiarity on first listen. I started to drift around to many options, it was the first real era of mainstream searing electric guitar. Continue reading
A funny joke of a pun started the idea behind this months mix—one that any hard rock fan who counted the Who over Led Zeppelin in their formative years has probably thought at least a hundred times. With dozens of friends over the years, not to mention classic rock radio DJ’s, insisting that Led Zeppelin, and not the Who, where the best English rockin’ band featuring a gonzo drummer, an incredibly gifted and underrated bass player and, and a cocksure front man with golden locks to his shoulders (oddly enough these aren’t the only two that fit that description!) it was nearly enough to drive us Who fanatics insane. I’ve alway remained steadfast that the Who are where it’s at—in many ways Led Zeppelin to me were birthed in an attempt for Jimmy Page to have his own Who to himself. Thus, via the very definition of ‘derivative’, Led Zeppelin were always a slightly more sluggish, prodding, less cerebral Who. In effect, a Who for the bar crowd who were thicker than any Porter on the menu. Continue reading
Today, Thursday, May 11th Wonders in the Dark will be hosting a 16 day Allan Fish Online Film Festival (Allan Fish OFF), of which I am a part of. The rules are simple; each day will see a new chairman host the festivities and select a film that is available to be watched by anyone, online for free from a popular streaming site (youtube, vimeo, dailymotion, etc.). The host for that day will decide how the film they chose will be presented; an essay, a sparse teaser introduction, or ‘other’ (the creativity seen on the blogosphere for film commentary knows no bounds as we all know). Thus, conceivably the film festival could be nearly real; people anywhere on the globe watching the same film, at roundabout the same time. It’s named in honor of our dear friend and film scholar Allan Fish, whose birthday was May 11th, and will be an annual event from this day forward. He found so many of his treasured Obscuro’s doing just what we’re setting out to do with this Festival, so it seemed the most fitting way to remember him. More information on the festival can be found here, with the first post here.
With this month being the triple themed smorgasbord that it was (Valentines Day, Black History Month, and LGBT Awareness Month), I tried to come up with an idea that used all these in some way, and still flow in a coherent, seamless way. Thus, I envisioned a dance mix (what could be as romantic on a Valentine’s Day?) with a more or less continuous heavy bass line running through it using African American artists predominately, but also many overtly political ones of several different nationalities as well (of mixed gender and sexuality throughout). Featuring a wide ranging mélange of genres (from raunchy hip hop to feminist post-punk dub to 70’s English prog rock to suedehead Mod), I wanted to show how all this is cut from the same cloth. In a world like ours currently, dance floor unity Trumps all (and many of the songs feature appropriate lyrical content for anyone interested in reading between the lines). So to all my soul brothers and sisters, I present my February mix: Get Higher Baby and Never Come Down.
Being a fan of 80’s guitar jangle that I am, it’d come as no real surprise that I’d consider Alex Chilton to be one the forms exemplary talents. Once anyone gets into the litany of bands from that era that regularly spoke of his expansive influence—REM, the Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream, the Posies, Soul Asylum, X, and on and on you could go—you would get to the point that you’d be almost tired of the namecheck and do the homework for yourself. What you’d find, first in the Box Tops records of the mid to late 60s (where his blue eyes soul vocal stylings were second to none) and then specifically the Big Star records of the mid-70s, is some of the most bristling guitar pop of that or any era. Big Star evoked a touching individualistic honesty that immediately marked the songs to his unique perspective (but, lets also not discount Chris Bell’s work with the band too; a fact his genius posthumous I Am the Cosmos LP more than bore), but the three records, as critically heralded as they were, sold poorly and the band remained mere cult darlings. These poor commercial showings strained the bands relationship with the label, and no doubt affected the psyches of Chilton and Bell. Thus, after three records (all of masterpiece quality), the band called it quits. Continue reading
Let me exploit the existence of Heat (1995) on screen a little further. As written and directed by Michael Mann, it is an absorbing picture, a suspenseful narrative for its full 171 minutes. I watch it a lot, and I can tell myself it is for the craft, the art or the performances (it is one of De Niro’s last good pictures). But I know I am drawn to it by the licensed fantasy of watching cops and robbers strutting their stuff—with guns, but with talk, too. It is a potent males dream. The women in the film are often intriguing, but they are not permitted to rival the male ideology. And Heat is a fire that doesn’t burn me. I can watch its immense street gun battles with excitement; I can be carried away by the notion that De Niro and Pacino are alike in their characters. But my wife once was mugged and I know that their suggestion of parity is insane. A brush with violent crime in lie can be searing and traumatic. Yet on screen it is indulged. Film only works in the dark, and because of safe distance from life.
The intrinsic deal in the movies was to say, Look, for a very modest sum—a nickel, say—we’ll give you an opportunity to see no just the wonders of the world, not just people who are beautiful beyond your dreams, but a set of conditions to which we know you aspire; sexual splendor, thrilling violence, clothes, decor, space, timing, and ultimate happiness; in short, the chance to bathe in the light. It’s the treat of the new age, and here’s the kicker: you can watch the sex and violence without ever being identified, or known. …
-David Thomson, How to Watch a Movie
Opening a piece on Quentin Tarantino’s new snow Western The Hateful Eight with this passage from David Thomson’s new film book seems serendipitously apt, the passage leapt to me as I read it days after receiving the small book for Christmas, the same day The Hateful Eight appeared in limited release. The passage cuts right into much of the random thoughts I’ve had bouncing around in the snow drenched atmospherics of Tarantino’s new film. As such, I’ve decided to write a piece entering Tarantino’s catalogue and specifically this new one in much the same way as I’ve done several Recent Cultural Happenings pieces. Continue reading
Recent Cultural Happenings will be a semi regular series collecting recent findings in the cultural realm I’ve experienced mixed with reappraisals or new vantage points of stuff I’ve always known.
Taking a leap off of the Buzzcock’s 1978 single (A-side ‘Love You More’/B-side ’Noise Annoys’), I’m finding myself swirling in an ever changing, but never ending delirium, of wonderful, blissful noise. The gist of Shelley’s pen in that previously mentioned single implied the wonderment in guitar fury (or being disruptively loud in general) with it being a young sensibility, the distinction made that “pretty girls, and pretty boys” will always have mothers who complain that ‘noise annoys’. It creates a chasm of auditory difference (aka defiance) where often in rock only a visual or lyrical one existed. I imagine that the sonic quality of the music has always been a problem on some level, but then it did take a while for the music to get really out of control and more readily resembled ’noise’ than it did ‘tunes’.
To these ears, the Who, and specifically Pete Townshend experiments in feedback are largely where it all started. I said in the past that bootlegs from 1966-68, the most famous of which is a April 1968 Fillmore East performance, are the vintage of the group that I now cherish over all else and it was a performance that night of an album track from 1967’s Sell Out called ‘Relax’ that set everything in destructive, forward motion. Eventually I’ll fully capture my thoughts on the track, but suffice to say I’m not lying when I say that, to me, it’s the most important performance in rock history, and therefor a singular artifact for the development on late-20th century art. The members of the Who coalesce from individual members of a group into one mechanical noisy object there; turning the songs almost 10 minutes into a convulsing, screeching wreckage. Elsewhere the Velvet Underground would be similarly experimenting (since the Fillmore East is in New York we wonder if the Velvets are in attendance that night), but their noise is a meandering, atmospheric kind. Not altogether unenjoyable in itself (in fact I love it), but when barriers are being destroyed, I happen to prefer they be assaulted in a full out frontal barrage. The Velvet Underground didn’t have the armaments that the Who had at their disposal for such an attack as unfortunately the world was only blessed with one Townshend, Moon, and Entwistle each.
It was with all this noise on my mind when we put the 2014 documentary Lambert and Stamp on last night. Judging a documentary with content so up my alley was always going to be difficult for me to be objective about, so really, I don’t pretend otherwise. It’s a wonderful immersion into the English world of the early to mid-1960s, and it’s shown in vivid detail thanks to the film backgrounds of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp (you’ll remember that they initially approached the Who while making a cinéma-vérité film on youth culture, but instead decided to document their managing of the band instead when they became ardent fans of the group) and the mountains of footage they shot. Much of this has never been seen before, certainly not at this length and with this level of completeness, so while you can become immersed in the unraveling of an important passage in Pop history, you’re also in for a special rare treat. All the living members recount the story with fresh insight and starkly honest assessments.
Much of any discussion inside any documentary on the early Who would tackle a bit of the mod culture they were a part of, and Lambert and Stamp succeeds wonderfully here, complete with several passages from famous mod and Who fanatic ‘Irish Jack’ Lyons. Our own Saturday night mod excursion was the monthly Windy City Soul night at Chicago’s Empty Bottle where rare Northern Soul 45’s are spun. A slightly thinner crowd then normal afforded those in attendance a welcomed bit more room to glide about to the shimmering stomper soul. While much of that music isn’t altogether ‘noisy’, you would be amazed to really study soul of the era to hear just how much fuzzy guitars were starting to be implemented in the R&B sound (plus, any exuberant music blared this loud over a club PA is going to generate some level of ‘noise’ for those in attendance).
I suppose our last cultural happening post had a bit of the noise too, the sustained screeching of the Red Aunts’ ‘I’m Crying’ had me humming about as you’ll recall, and their aesthetic no doubt is what moved me onto the next discovery (well, that and a nice tip in their direction), Olympia, Washington’s Broken Water gave me the next noisy sugar fix the past few days, specifically their 2010 release, Whet. It’s mostly a lower register affair, save track 5 ‘Heal’ whose very title implies it’s the release of the entire record. It plays that way too; the previous 4 tracks are all hazy feedback thumps, culminating with track 4, ‘Spore’, which is three minutes and 50 seconds of the band searching to capture the feedback loop within the hurricane. They do, and hold the hum triumphantly, before the song closes to slashing vibrating guitar and distant saxophone squeaks. ‘Heal’ then begins with a fuzzy bassline before a picked guitar (the cleanest sound on the album so far) mirrors the lullaby like vocals. It’s a nice bit of beauty amidst all the noise, even if track 2, ‘Hear’ was the one that had me returning most often (it’s as chugging and enveloping as it is chiming and clattering). Around a minute in the track absolutely takes off to the races around which a howling verse echoes the speed. From there, I plucked Providence noise-rock band Landed and their 2008 compilation How Little Will It Take via spotify. ‘Hear’ is the ‘heaviest’ Broken Water get on Whet, so there was an inclination of why I’d welcome Landed into my ears as their souped up bass driven noise pummel is something else entirely. There is a lot of song craft here too; which is saying something in a genre where tunes aren’t often as melodic as these. It can be paved over with layers of murky thudding, but it’s always a driving, welcome force. Additional return listens prove welcome, probable, and essential; these are dense tracks with intricacies that only repeated listens can probably unearth.
Perhaps it’s circular; with my mind immersed in the idea of a Buzzcocks’ track featuring a guardian snuffing out the enjoyment emanating from a teenage bedroom stereo (in Risky Business it was the Dad saying, “Is this how I left the equalizer?”) I started re-reading John Stuart Mill’s slim volume, On Liberty. It seemed apropos that if you’re going to put out into the universe what most would consider noise pollution that you feel comfortably grounded in your spatial limitations and freedoms. I watched the second GOP debate in a virtual stupor then, thinking what do all these gasbags going on about ‘liberty’ actually do to sustain and free the individual? From their mouths perfectly clear language has me doing a 180; the guitars that roar and bleep are suddenly comparatively tolerable and un-objectionable. Traditional ‘noise’ to our Buzzcock mother is no longer bleeding amps, but rather those that can’t understand Mill’s Third Basic Liberty principle: the freedom to unite with others (not to mention what a hawkish foreign policy means within the harm principle). Yes, the noise of obnoxious rhetoric annoys. Maybe that’s what they meant all along.