Tag: Beatles

Day 833: Tales From The Motown Snakepit

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The music that roared through the stucco and plaster of Hitsville U.S.A. to become the Motown sound that defined soul music in the 1960’s was crafted by some of the most formidable talent the music world has ever cradled. Unfortunately, while stars like Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves are free to bask in the wondrous afterglow of their landmark careers, some of Motown’s elite suffered a premature closing curtain.

Mary Wells, the one-time Queen of Motown who helped to launch the label into the mainstream suffered from an unfairly tragic end, while the unappreciated fuel that fed the funk-tank, James Jamerson, is anything but a household name today. Both deserve to have their story told, if not within the fiery glow of a major studio bio-pic at least with the delicate and reverent touch of a kilograph written by an eternal fan.

By the time I was born, each of these individuals had already ridden the crest of their relative stardom. That means nothing to me – I grew up in an era when people paid actual money to own “We Built This City” on vinyl. The music industry, which has always been a pit of snakes and scammers, had become a wretched den of Milli-Vanillified lies. That’s why the music that rocked my youth was mostly culled from an era I’d never seen. And it’s fair to say that no one rocked my innards quite as much as James Jamerson.

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James moved from Edisto Island, South Carolina to Detroit with his mother when he was a teenager, and he learned to play stand-up bass in high school. On nights and weekends he began playing in local jazz and blues clubs, which led to a steady gig at Barry Gordy Jr.’s studio in 1959. I don’t feel it is any measure of exaggeration when I say that James’ bass playing, which appeared on roughly 95% of Motown’s recordings between 1962 and 1968, was the most fundamental ingredient in the label’s extraordinary, genre-defining success. Read more…

Day 819: How To Talk Like A Geek, Circa 1993

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As romantically as it may roll from the tongue, the notion of September, 1993 being referred to as “the Eternal September” is far from the fodder for another Nicholas Sparks melodramatic novel (which he has no doubt penned in the time it has taken me to write this opening sentence). The Eternal September is a gripe, not a blessing. It’s a common kvetch among those in the cyber-know, or the Information Age hipsters. You know, those folks who swooned to their telephonic modem’s screech before it was cool to do so.

Back in the days when the online population consisted of hackers, crackers and e-thwackers, September was traditionally the month they’d have to endure a fresh crop of newbies – the fall-semester college crowd who had been granted Usenet access through their schools. These kids would swarm all over the discussion forums, staining each one with the stench of their inexperience.

Perhaps it has something to do with the primordial netizens’ having been burdened with the label of the outcast in their offline lives, I don’t know. Maybe the hackers of yore didn’t want anyone new in their clubhouse. It’s also entirely possible the college Usenet crowd was obnoxious and foul, dropping into the alt.2600 forum and asking if someone can teach them to hack into Visa’s server and clear off their credit card debt.

It was standard September procedure to put up with these newbies until they either learned the protocols or dropped out from lack of interest. Then these bastards changed it all:

AOL

In September of 1993, AOL started offering Usenet access to its users as part of their early efforts to dominate the entire webosphere. The so-called ‘Eternal September’ meant that not only did the Usenet insiders from the green-screen era have to contend with a new batch of fall freshmen, they’d be fending off every Johnny and Janie Schmuckstein who plugged in a free AOL trial CD just to see what all the fuss was about. Read more…

Day 795: Smelling The Glove – Controversial Album Covers Part 1

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As I’m often heard remarking to strangers in the check-out line at Safeway, music is best when it’s either controversial or being sung by the aural euphony of Michael McDonald. In those sepiatone days when rock music was still gathering its struttin’ legs beneath its warbly frame, artists found new and creative ways to bump their product toward the edge of edgy. And when it wasn’t enough to leave sensitive parental ears cringing in their wake, they’d go a step further.

The visual attack. Shake up that pelvis. Grow that hair. And just when the parents are starting to settle into your schtick, brew up an album cover that will send their socks a-quakin’.

The album cover is most certainly a distinctive facet of its contents’ artistic expression. Perhaps not as much so today, now that its predominant form has shrunk from 12-inch vinyl sleeves to 5-inch CD jackets to a tiny thumbprint embedded into an audio file. But when the Beatles looked up from their album covers at a young fan, rabid and anxious for the tuneage within, it meant something special.

Even when the Beatles were covered in blood, gore and severed doll heads.

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For the Beatles’ ninth Capitol album, photographer Robert Whitaker thought it was a good idea for a little conceptual art to spice up the band’s image. The piece was called A Somnambulant Adventure, and it had literally nothing to do with “Drive My Car”, “Day Tripper”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”, or any other track on the album. After almost four years of mundane pretend-to-be-happy photo shoots, the band was happy to play along. Read more…

Day 791: Surviving Shabbat

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I think for a change of pace today I’m going to throw caution to the flatulent wind and boldly discuss religion. First of all, Shabbat Shalom to all my Jewish friends. Secondly, you’d better not be reading this before sundown, lest the wrath of the almighty rain down upon you, which would really cut into your weekend.

Shabbat – that’s the Jewish Sabbath for those who aren’t up on the lingo – has always fascinated me. I was raised Jewish, inasmuch as I had a bar mitzvah and dutifully followed the careers of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Beyond that, I spent Christmases ripping open presents and downing eggnog with my mother’s family, and the rest of the year believing Jediism to be the one true faith. But I had a strange Shabbat experience back in high school.

I was spending the weekend with a Jewish youth group at the unreasonably massive home of one of our city’s wealthiest families. It was Friday evening (after sundown – Shabbat had rolled its opening credits) and I was winding down by listening to the Beatles’ White Album on my Walkman when one of the family’s smarmy little children scolded me for using an electronic device on the Sabbath. “It’s the White Album,” I told him. “Fuck off.”

The next day I went home. I’d have no part of a group that restricted my access to “Sexy Sadie”.

Some of us simply won't compromise our faith.

Some of us simply won’t compromise our faith.

The rules of Shabbat – and I have no doubt that zillions of diligent Jewish lawyers have perused these Biblical statutes – have a catch: they need to be interpreted through modern technologies to determine whether or not they are relevant to our lives. Conservative and Reform Jews (and wholly non-practicing Jews like myself – you know, the one who are just in it for the bagels) tend to land on the side of ignoring the Shabbat limitations or not applying them to our modern conveniences. Orthodox Jews want to make sure their bases are covered, God-wise, and they have found ways to carry those ancient restrictions into the present. We heathens just want to have a good time and work a bunch of Yiddish words into our lexicon. Read more…

Day 790: Pissing Away The Profits – Worst Business Decisions Part 1

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The secret to business success lies in making good decisions. I have no doubt that thousands of qualified individuals could offer monumentally wiser business advice than this, but in that most general, inarguable, obvious-even-to-a-schmuck-like-me way, it all comes down to decisions.

Some culture-shaping decisions were outright brilliant, like JVC and Microsoft spreading VHS and Windows around numerous manufacturers while Sony and Apple kept the Betamax and Macintosh systems to themselves, leading to one’s demise and the other’s miniscule 1990’s market share. Other business decisions, like my choice to devote at least two hours of each of my days over this thousand-day period to producing articles for free public consumption online – not so much.

That’s okay, I can live with it. So what if this project floats gratuitously among the ether, leaving no significant residue upon my personal net worth? It’s art. Art that is smattered with Cliff-Claven-esque trivia and poop jokes, so the best kind of art. And besides, as far removed from savvy fiscal acumen as I may be, at least I can pride myself on not having made the bonehead decisions these folks did.

DickRowe

Meet Dick. Dick was a successful producer in the 1950’s. By 1962 he was a proud A&R man (that’s ‘Artists & Repertoire’ – the guy who screens potential acts) at Decca Records in England. On a blustery New Year’s Day, Dick sat in the studio as a hopeful young quartet from Liverpool tried to dazzle him with their sound, one which had already billowed many a swoon into excitable young women (and even men) in the northern towns. Those men were John, Paul, George and Pete Best, and they proceeded to make Dick famous.

Famous for flubbery, that is. Dick Rowe told the group’s manager Brian Epstein that guitar groups were “on the way out”, and he turned them down cold. It would take a few months for the Beatles to become the biggest group in the country and years before Dick was able to scrape away all the solidified egg from his face. Read more…

Day 776: Of Fingers And Knuckles And Stuff

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Faced with the prospect of a sixth trip to the dentist in two months for the same misbehaving molar, I find myself begrudgingly short on optimism for today. Rather than delve through another tale of a corrupt world or criminal conspiracy (both of which usually keep me perpetually entertained), I’m going to turn my curiosity toward the world around me.

There are so many miniscule aspects of our trivial routines whose histories and origins are overlooked because deep down, we simply don’t care. Throughout this project I have learned more than I’d ever wanted to know about the history of swear words, about polypropylene chairs and about German artist collectives. My life is endlessly richer for it.

Rather than comb the obscure I’m going to investigate a bit of the history behind some of the hand gestures we take for granted. Why do I do this? Does the public really need to know? Will Day 776 go down in this project’s history (or really any history) as anything but just another day? Should I stop asking rhetorical questions and twirl my word-fork through the pasta of this subject?

HighFive

The first nationally exhibited high-five in history (though it had no doubt gone through years of laboratory testing before reaching this level of exposure) occurred on October 2, 1977 between Glenn Burke and Dusty Baker of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Baker had just blasted his thirtieth home run of the year over the fence, marking the first time in baseball history that a single team saw four players notch at least 30 homers apiece in a single season. Glenn Burke, who was next to bat, was waiting with his hand raised when Dusty jogged home. Dusty, being of a quick wit and a clever mind, smacked the open hand with his, changing the course of greetings history. Read more…

Day 774: Beware The Madness Of Jerusalem & Paris

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A few days ago, I attempted to bake a word-brew that would adequately (or at least semi-adequately) justify the singular importance of the Beatles’ inaugural appearance in American culture on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. We all know what followed that show – the British phenomenon known as Beatlemania spent the next few years pummeling our culture and steering kids into an idolizing frenzy. But the Beatles were not the first to incite madness and hysteria in an adoring public. No, Elvis wasn’t the first either.

The original Rawk Gawd, the man whose very presence on a stage would incite heart palpitations, unrestrained shrieks and a swift swoon of consciousness-sapping wonder for ladies of a certain ilk was none other than Franz Liszt.

That’s right – no matter how passionately parents in the 1950s and 60s railed against the scourge of popular music that was causing their kids to devolve into manic, startled sheep, those folks merely had to look at their own great-grandparents to see how natural a phenomenon this could be. And for what, some classical pianist?

Alright, I guess he was kind of dreamy.

Alright, I guess he was kind of dreamy.

The term ‘mania’ as it existed in 1841 when this phenomenon was first observed meant something entirely different than it does today. Beatlemania (and ABBA-mania or Bay-City-Rollers-mania or Roxette-mania or whatever media soundbites have oozed out since) refers to a craze, a trend, even the unrestrained jubilation in the presence of the subject. An 1840’s mania was seen as a disease, a potentially contagious affliction that required the intervention of medical personnel. Read more…

Day 772: Shock & Roll

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These days it seems that if a musical artist wishes to ‘shock’ their audience they either have to piss in a hotel mop bucket or declare themselves to be a genius whilst naming their offspring after a compass direction. Where are the ornithological decapitations? The pseudo-sanguine fluid cascading from a bass player’s chin stubble? How can it be that today’s demographic of millennial youth have tamer, less interesting incarnations of shock within their musical landscape? I know, on the fringes of fame that gaggle of Juggalos continues to stoke the presupposition that clowns are inherently scary. And misogyny is alive and well in what’s left of the world of gangsta rap.

But so what? My generation sang of big butts and their prodigious appreciators. Color Me Badd wanted to sex us up. And our rock stars didn’t put on makeup and dress like some clown school dropout who has made some bad choices. No, they went and got intimate with the ugly end of a shotgun. The makeup thing had already been done to death by the time I was a teenager.

Ever since the birth of rock there has been shock. Parents have turned a furrowed scowl at their children’s godless music, and enterprising musicians have sought to ingratiate themselves to the masses of youth by offering more godlessness and weirdness, even if it was just for show.

Godlessness sells, baby.

ScreamingJayHawkins

That scary guy with the skull is the great Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. In the 1950’s, when the older generation was still scared of the seductive power of rock ‘n roll (and let’s face it, they were still scared of black people), Screamin’ Jay was the show kids probably shouldn’t have gone to with their parents. After his manically glorious 1956 song “I Put A Spell On You” became a hit, disc jockey Alan Freed paid Jay three hundred bucks to pop out of a coffin onstage. This gave Screamin’ Jay the inspiration to take it even further. Read more…

Day 771: On Tonight’s Show… History.

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Once the collective click of a few million TV sets shutting off had resonated throughout North America in the shadowy hours of February 9, 1964, the pentimento of American culture as it existed before that day was almost invisible. This is the news blurb that kids – and I include here many in my generation, those who played their opening number on this earthly stage some years after the 60’s had taken their bow – will gloss over and ignore. Precisely one half of a century has elapsed since the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Trying to rationalize the significance of this broadcast to my children is a fruitless endeavor. Even in my limited history, the only television “events” that embedded a rusty touchstone in our shared timeline were series finales (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Seinfeld), sporting events or news stories. The first two would get us talking, but eventually they’d meander under the covers of the past. And while the scope of our world might have shifted after we all watched O.J. race through the arteries of Los Angeles in a Ford Bronco or after we saw the towers fall a few years later, television was merely the window through which we’d all observed a salient chapter in history. When the Beatles splashed down into 74 million pairs of eyeballs for the first time, it was culture announcing through its own mouthpiece that everything was about to change.

There had never been an equivalent in the world of popular music. And given the splintered state of our popular tastes and the three-block buffet of media options at our disposal, such a singular jarring of our culture is not likely to ever occur again.

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First of all, there is no parallel to Ed Sullivan today. Sullivan’s show was a weekly stage for performers to hurl their skills at a national audience in hopes the exposure will crank their success meter up to the next notch. You’d see plate-spinners and dog trainers, classically-trained actors and world-renowned singers. The late-night talk show circuit is the closest to an equivalent today, but Ed’s show was about showing off his guests, not interviewing them to hear pre-rehearsed stories about the time George Clooney pranked them in the studio commissary. Sunday nights were our culture’s window into the wider world. Read more…

Day 762: Cuing Up The Fetid – Worst Music Part 3

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It’s time once again to clear the room of friends, family and suspicious strangers by cranking up the worst of the worst. You know, the most urethra-scrapingly awful thing about these terrible songs is the fact that they have each achieved a grotesque level of popularity. People who toil for eight, sometimes sixteen hours in a day, who often pay only the minimum payment on their Visa bill and who have likely contemplated buying the store-brand mayonnaise in order to save a little extra money for lottery tickets have nevertheless flushed some of that precious cash down the crusty-sewage-lined pipes of the recording industry to own these.

And we know these songs are awful – we all do. I’m not talking about stuff like Chicago’s “You’re The Inspiration”, which is more harmlessly schmaltzy than outright offensive, or “Ice Ice Baby”, which grew exponentially more ridiculous until Vanilla Ice turned Amish and the tune shifted into ironic-nostalgia country.

No, these are the inexcusables. I’m pulling off of Blender magazine’s “50 Worst Songs Ever” list, one which I’m loathe to trust, due to its inclusion of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence”, Huey Lewis’s “Heart of Rock & Roll” and The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” But despite these grievous errors, the list makes a few points. It also puts Starship’s “We Built This City” at #1, so kudos for that one.

AchyBreakyHeart

Number two on the list is inarguably more insipid, more soul-draining than Starship’s 1987 trudge through knee-deep fetid hoopla. Yes, I’m talking about Billy Ray Cyrus’s biggest single, a song so astoundingly wretched it is now considered to be an attempted mass murder in three states if someone tries to perform this as a karaoke number. “Achy Breaky Heart” is the song whose video introduced the 90’s fad of line dancing to popular culture. Remember when people used to make fun of the Ramones because their songs only contained three chords? This one features just two: A and E major. Read more…