Thursday, October 29, 2009

National Cat Day

I told the cats that today was National Cat Day. They could have cared less.

Thanks to Christie for the tip.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Soupy Sales

Pie-throwing master Soupy Sales, whose madcap antics won the hearts of both young and old, passed away Thursday at age 83.

Sales was born Milton Supman on January 8, 1926, in Franklinton, North Carolina. His parents owned a dry goods store, and the Supmans were the only Jewish family in town. Young Milton picked up the nickname "Soup Bone", in reference to his last name, which he adapted to "Soupy" when he became a professional comedian.

Graduating from high school in 1944, Soupy enlisted in the Navy and served in the South Pacific during World War II. He entertained his shipmates with practical jokes and with crazy characters that he would often broadcast over the ship's PA system. He invented a large dog, "White Fang", that would play outrageous jokes on the seamen. After the war, he enrolled at Marshall University, graduating with a journalism degree. Soupy then moved to Cincinnati, working as a DJ and performing in nightclubs using the name Soupy Hines. He landed his first TV job at WKRC, where the station manager suggested he change his stage name to Soupy Sales, after the 1920's comic Chick Sale.

Sales rose to stardom in the mid-50's while working at WXYZ in Detroit. His Lunch With Soupy Sales, although intended to be a childrens' program, also attracted a sizable number of adults with its rapid-fire slapstick humor. He developed a series of routines using puppets, including White Fang from his Navy days, Black Tooth, and Pookie the Lion. His comic routines were often climaxed by somebody, often Sales himself, getting a pie in the face. Lunch With Soupy became enormously popular in Detroit, and in 1959 was picked up for national broadcast by ABC. During his time in Detroit, he also hosted a nighttime program, Soupy's On. A noted jazz aficionado, Sales used this program to promote many of the leading jazz artists of the era.

Sales moved his program to Los Angeles in 1960, and in 1964 began a run at WNEW-TV in New York City. Soupy was at the height of his fame during his years in the Big Apple. The Soupy Sales Show was syndicated throughout the country, and White Fang, Black Tooth, Pookie, along with private detective Philo Kvetch, Hobart and Reba whose heads poked out of the pot-bellied stove, and other Sales characters became etched in the national consciousness. As in Detroit, he often featured jazz and pop music on his programs, often coming up with madcap dances. One of his dance inventions, "The Mouse", became something of a national fad.

Soupy's most infamous moment occurred on New Years Day 1965. Angry at being made to work the holiday, Sales instructed his young audience to sneak into their parents' bedrooms and remove those "funny green pieces of paper with pictures of U.S. Presidents" from their pants and pocketbooks. "Put them in an envelope and mail them to me," Sales told his young viewers. Several days later, Soupy began receiving envelopes containing money from kids all over the country. The uproar from enraged parents led to WNEW suspending Sales for two weeks. Soupy apologized, explaining that most of what he had received was Monopoly money, and donated the remaining cash to charity. He was sometimes accused of sneaking dirty jokes into his shows. Soupy had a standing offer he would pay $10,000 to anyone who could prove he used obscenity on his childrens' programs; no one ever took up the offer. Antics like this, though, helped to win Sales an unlikely cult audience among college students, who saw his anarchic comic routines as a subversive challenge to authority.

The pie in the face was Soupy's trademark. Sales estimated that he had over 25,000 pies thrown at him in the course of his career. There was a science to successful pie-throwing, as Sales recalled in his memoir Soupy Sez: “You can use whipped cream, egg whites or shaving cream, but shaving cream is much better because it doesn’t spoil. And no tin plates. The secret is you just can’t push it and shove it in somebody’s face. It has to be done with a pie that has a lot of crust so that it breaks up into a thousand pieces when it hits you.” One day, though, Soupy was notably caught off-guard: “One of my younger fans made the mistake of heaving a frozen pie at me before it defrosted. It caught me in the neck and I dropped like a pile of bricks.”

After Sales' program went off the air, he stayed in the public eye by appearing on a number of game shows, including What's My Line?, To Tell The Truth, The Hollywood Squares, and The $10,000 Pyramid. He continued to host local TV and radio programs in New York, and did occasional movie work. He also fathered two sons, Hunt and Tony, who became rock musicians, best known for their band Tin Machine and working with David Bowie and Iggy Pop.

Soupy Sales was a one-of-a-kind talent; zany, madcap, sometimes infuriating, but you couldn't help but like him. Enjoy this fine tribute to the master of the pie in the face.

(Crossposted at SteveAudio.)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Album project: Help!

The Beatles, Help! (1965): By now, not only were The Beatles the world's most successful musicians, but their witty, ebullient personalities made them naturals for an even greater celebrity status approaching that of Hollywood idols. Movies, then, seemed to be a logical career progression, and in the first part of 1965 the Fab Four once again hooked up with director Richard Lester to make Help!. The film was intended in the vein of Marx Brothers classics such as Duck Soup, and also as a spoof of James Bond movies, but the results weren't quite as successful as what they achieved with A Hard Day's Night. The group would later say that they didn't enjoy working on Help!, with John Lennon remarking that they felt like extras in their own movie. The Fab Four had difficulty at times understanding the plot, although Lennon suggested that their recent mind-altering discoveries may have had something to do with it:

The movie was out of our control. With A Hard Day's Night, we had a lot of input, and it was semi-realistic. But with Help!, Dick Lester didn't tell us what it was all about. I realise, looking back, how advanced it was. It was a precursor for the Batman 'Pow! Wow!' on TV -- that kind of stuff. But he never explained it to us. Partly, maybe, because we hadn't spent a lot of time together between A Hard Day's Night and Help!, and partly because we were smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period. Nobody could communicate with us, it was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time. In our own world. It's like doing nothing most of the time, but still having to rise at 7 am, so we became bored.

The Beatles began recording the soundtrack to Help! prior to beginning the film's shooting, and sandwiched in additional sessions as filming progressed. When the LP was completed, it featured seven songs used in the movie, and additional tracks the band had written during the same period. On Help!, the band starts moving forward again, incorporating elements of country and folk music, including ideas picked up by way of Bob Dylan.

Lennon's melancholy, which he had begun to explore on Beatles For Sale, hangs over many of the tracks on this record. Those feelings are apparent on "Ticket To Ride", with its bluesy mood underlying the folky guitar chords. Paul McCartney provides some inspired lead guitar licks, but the power of the song comes from Ringo Starr's deep groove, as soulful as anything to come out of Motown in those days. Dave Marsh says of "Ticket To Ride", "Here, they ride their bar band roots in Liverpool and Hamburg to a new kind of glory."

Lennon's melancholy is tempered at other times by the folksy sweetness of songs like "It's Only Love" and "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away". The sentiment's of "You're Going To Lose That Girl" are among John's most mean-spirited, but here they are offset by some of the most gorgeous harmony work the Fab Four ever turned in. Lennon lets everything hang out on "Dizzy Miss Lizzy", which along with another stock rockabilly turn by Ringo Starr on "Act Naturally" would be the last covers The Beatles would record.

By now, Lennon and Paul McCartney were already going their separate ways as songwriters, and this was becoming apparent in the tracks written principally by Paul. "The Night Before" and "Another Girl" feature jaunty yet complex melodies. "I've Just Seen A Face" is a standout; its folksy melody and uptempo pace suggest a hint of bluegrass. The plaintive "Yesterday" may seem a bit precious, but it's one of Paul's greatest successes; the song was hugely successful when released as a single, and became the Beatles composition performed most by other artists.

The title track is another of the Fab Four's greatest triumphs. "Help!" is arguably Lennon's strongest expression of the claustrophobic feelings brought on by his sudden fame, and his accompanying melancholy. He considered "Help!" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" to be his most genuine Beatles songs. But John was not pleased with the recording of the song; he wanted "Help!" to have a slower, bluesier feel. George Martin and the other Beatles overruled him, though, and the uptempo final recording suggests dimensions to John's pain that his intended reading would not have conveyed. In Dave Marsh's words, " 'Help!' isn't a compromise; it's bursting with a vitality that Lennon's less mediated solo albums never achieve. And John certainly doesn't sound like he's trying to spit the bit; he sounds triumphant, because he's found a group of kindred spirits who are offering the very spiritual assistance and emotional support for which he's begging."

In the US, as with A Hard Day's Night, the Help! soundtrack omitted the tracks not used in the movie and substituted instrumental sequences from the soundtrack. Hardly slowing down, after the movie and LP's release, The Beatles accepted the Members of the Order of the British Empire award from Queen Elizabeth II, causing controversy among many of the order's more conservative members, some returning their medals in protest. Then in August, the Fab Four returned to America for the first-ever stadium tour by a rock band, beginning with appearing before a record audience of 55,600 at New York's Shea Stadium.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hierarchy of the brows

Following up on an exchange with Marc in comments to the Hard Day's Night post, here's a bit of context. This is from a 1949 Life magazine article, posted by Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber.

Although the above chart is (I think) a bit tongue-in-cheek, it does show that prior to the pop culture explosion of the 50's and 60's, this stuff was taken pretty seriously, especially by stuffy critics of the sort that wrote for Life and major newspapers such as the New York Times. One effect of the post-World War II rise in living standards was a democratization of culture. The vulgar unwashed masses were starting to have an economic impact on American culture, and judging from the Life article, at least one highbrow didn't like it:

The thing that burns up high-brows like me is that the dominant feature of our mental and spiritual life is the overwhelming flood of cultural sewage that is manufactured especially for the tastes of the low-brow and lower middle-brow. It is difficult even for a high-brow to escape its influence. Only eternal vigilance keeps it from converting us into 100% low-brow people. This flood exists for only one reason. The oafish classes, being overwhelmingly numerous, are the biggest consumers of everything from salad to music, and an investment in their tastes is correspondingly profitable. They therefore dominate taste in nearly all our big industries where taste is factor, the most horrible examples in point being the radio and Hollywood movies.

Then a real tragic thing happened; the highbrows began to like "cultural sewage" as well. As a Crooked Timber commenter put it, lowbrow has worn quite well over the years.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Album project: Beatles For Sale

The Beatles, Beatles For Sale (1964): The Beatles spent most of 1964 touring the world, In June, they did 19 shows in 32 days, visiting Denmark, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand. They folowed this with a triumphant return to the United States in August, performing 30 shows in 23 cities during the month. The tours became a monotonous grind, with the time before shows spent with promotional appearances, and dealing with obnoxious promoters, journalists, and DJs. The shows themselves were frustrating experiences, the group usually hurrying through 15 songs in 25 minutes that neither band nor audience could hear over all the screaming - as John Lennon remarked, "We might as well had been playing broomsticks." Afterward, the group headed back to the hotel, parading scores of young women through their rooms into the wee hours of the morning. On August 28 in New York, The Beatles met Bob Dylan, an artist that Lennon particularly admired. This meeting became a turning point for both Dylan and the Fab Four. According to legend, Dylan introduced The Beatles to marijuana that afternoon, opening up the group to all manner of mind-expanding experiences that would in time show up in their music. For their part, John, Paul, George, and Ringo gave Dylan the inspiration to start moving away from folk music and form his own rock band.

Physically and emotionally exhausted, The Beatles returned to England in September needing a break, only to discover that EMI Records and Brian Epstein were demanding that a new album be completed for release during the Christmas season. Furthermore, they only had a few weeks to complete the record before going out on another tour of Great Britain. During this time, the group knocked out Beatles For Sale, which bears the marks of a tired group pushed to its limits.

When one writes of a mediocre Beatles album, it must be noted that this is a relative assessment: a sub-par Beatles disc is nevertheless superior to the best efforts of the majority of rock groups. The frenetic pace of the band's tour schedule made it difficult for John Lennon and Paul McCartney to compose new material; Lennon told interviewers, "Material's becoming a hell of a problem." Once again, The Beatles decided to augment their original material with a selection of covers, which account for most of the disc's weak spots. Of the outside material, Ringo Starr's vocal on "Honey Don't" is the best moment, as Starr was by now showing a flair for country and rockabilly-oriented material. Uptempo material like "Kansas City"/"Hey Hey Hey" and "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby" seems uninspired; even John's performance on Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" lacks spark when compared to earlier efforts like "Twist And Shout" and "Money". The less said about "Mr. Moonlight", the better.

The eight original compositions show an increasing musical sophistication, as well as reflecting the ever-increasing pressures of The Beatles' fame, and the claustrophobic feeling of living every moment in the spotlight. "No Reply" was a surprisingly downbeat way to open an album. Along with the next two tracks, "I'm A Loser" and "Baby's In Black", they form a trilogy, mostly written by Lennon, that highlights John's sad, despondent feelings; Lennon increasingly seems to be a man trapped by his own fame. "I'm A Loser", with its chord structure and vocal inflections, also shows the increasing influence of Bob Dylan on The Beatles' songwriting. "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" continues in this vein. A counterpoint to the moodiness is found in the shimmering "Eight Days A Week", with its unusual fade-in introduction and extensively overdubbed guitar parts. Although not released in the UK as a single, "Eight Days A Week" became the Fab Four's seventh US chart-topper in March 1965.

On Beatles For Sale, the group and producer George Martin continue their experimentation with multi-tracking and overdubbing, in the process sparking a revolution in music recording that would continue for the rest of the decade. Some of the aggression and despair that marks the album could be due to the nervousness of The Beatles realizing that they had crossed into uncharted territory, and wondering if they might be getting too far ahead of their times to sustain their success. A lot of it, though, could have been the tensions caused by that success itself - even in the cover photo, the group looks fatigued, on edge. As George Martin said, "They were rather war-weary during Beatles For Sale. One must remember that they'd been battered like mad throughout '64, and much of '63. Success is a wonderful thing, but it is very, very tiring." But success was also continuing to be lucrative, as Beatles For Sale replaced A Hard Days Night atop the UK album chart upon its release on December 4. In the US, the Beatles For Sale material showed up on Beatles '65 and Beatles VI.

The Beatles' musical progress is even more apparent on the non-LP single "I Feel Fine"/"She's A Woman", released the week prior to Beatles For Sale and one of the strongest double-"A" sided singles ever. The riff-driven "I Feel Fine" features a confident group creating a style of rock all its own. The song is notable for the first-ever use of feedback on record. According to Paul McCartney, “John had a semi-acoustic Gibson guitar. It had a pick-up on it so it could be amplified… We were just about to walk away to listen to a take when John leaned his guitar against the amp. I can still see him doing it… and it went, ‘Nnnnnnwahhhhh!” And we went, ‘What’s that? Voodoo!’ ‘No, it’s feedback.’ Wow, it’s a great sound!’ George Martin was there so we said, ‘Can we have that on the record?’ ‘Well, I suppose we could, we could edit it on the front.’ It was a found object– an accident caused by leaning the guitar against the amp.”

"She's A Woman" is another driving riff-rocker. McCartney turns in one of his best Little Richard imitations here, with counterpoint provided by his bass and piano. Many Beatles experts also credit Paul with the lead guitar solo. Lennon and Harrison nail it all down with their chunky guitar chords.

The Beatles entered 1965 on top of the world, ready to make another movie. Not even they could have predicted the impact that the musical revolution they sparked would have over the next twelve months.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Album Project: A Hard Day's Night

The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night (1964): Back in the day, making a movie was essential for any would-be conquerors of the entertainment world. Pop music acts weren't expected to last more than a year or two; if you really wanted to make it big, you had to get into the movies. The group enlisted director Richard Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen to put together a mock documentary of a couple of days in the life of a Liverpool pop group on its way up; the result was a lighthearted romp that proved successful at the box office, further cementing the Fab Four as international titans, as well as establishing each as an individual personality - sardonic John, romantic Paul, pensive George, good-natured Ringo.

A Hard Day's Night's title track opens with that chord - instantly recognizable, arresting, it became the signature of the early Beatles' sound and still recalls the heady days of the British Invasion today. "A Hard Day's Night" is yet another in the remarkable string of singles The Beatles released in this period, featuring John's double-tracked lead vocals, Paul's work on the bridge, and a spidery guitar solo from George, showing his mastery of his new Rickenbacker twelve-string guitar. They even throw in a cowbell as a finishing touch.

Two notable developments on A Hard Day's Night signify considerable advances in The Beatles' style and sound. For the first time, the group uses a four-track recorder, giving the Fab Four and producer George Martin added flexibility in constructing the tracks. Also, this is the first Beatles album where all the compositions were written by the group; specifically, it is the only Beatles album written entirely by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The duo were writing new material at a frenetic pace at this point, giving The Beatles a deep pool from which to pull the LP's thirteen tracks.

The first seven tracks (side one) comprised songs featured in the movie. They feature the maturing romanticism of "And I Love Her" and "If I Fell", and John's bittersweet performances on "I Should Have Known Better" and "Tell Me Why". George Harrison has no songwriting credits on the disc; Lennon and McCartney give him "I'm Happy Just To Dance With You" to sing. Also included is "Can't Buy Me Love", the smash single released prior to A Hard Day's Night, in which McCartney provides one of the 60's enduring catchphrases: "Money can't buy me love".

The final six tracks consist of material written around the same time that didn't fit in the movie, yet represent some of the group's most mature songwriting to date. McCartney's lone vocal track, "Things We Said Today", is a gem; a philosophical look at a relationship projected into the future, with an upbeat, rocking middle eight. The remainder of the tracks are primarily John's as he shifts through a kaleidoscope of moods - angry, hurt, jealous, always longing for love underneath. He pledges his loyalty on "Any Time At All", shows his jealous side on "You Can't Do That", and closes the LP with a poignant air on "I'll Be Back". (The US version of A Hard Day's Night leaves off all of the UK disc's second side except for "I'll Cry Instead", and substitutes four George Martin instrumentals used on the movie soundtrack.)

The album and movie complete The Beatles' rise to the top of the entertainment world, and lead the way in convincing their fellow musicians that rock 'n' roll could be much more than good-time dance music. Bob Dylan was fascinated by the unusual chord changes throughout the disc, while Roger McGuinn was inspired by Harrison's guitar playing to go out and buy his own Rickenbacker. Within a period of eighteen months, The Beatles catapulted themselves from Liverpool beat group to the biggest stars the rock music world had ever seen outside of Elvis Presley, and yet they had merely scratched the surface of their vast talents.

(Update: John Lennon would have been 69 years old today. Happy birthday.)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Album project: With The Beatles

The Beatles, With The Beatles (1963): Most Americans first heard of the Beatles in early 1964 with "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and their Ed Sullivan Show appearance. But the Fab Four's true watershed moment came on August 23, 1963, with the release of their fourth single, the irresistibly catchy "She Loves You". Paul McCartney said of the tune, "I’d planned an ‘answering song’ where a couple of us would sing ’she loves you’ and the other ones would answer ‘yeah yeah’. We decided that was a crummy idea but at least we then had the idea of a song called ‘She Loves You’. So we sat in the hotel bedroom for a few hours and wrote it — John and I, sitting on twin beds with guitars.” The structure was simple, but The Beatles adorned the tune with expert harmonies, and the hook - that "Yeah, yeah, yeah" - summarized the entire British Invasion sound that was now poised to sweep the globe in the next year. "She Loves You" stormed to the top of the UK charts, and became the biggest-selling single in British recording history. That record would be broken by McCartney himself in 1977 with "Mull Of Kintyre".

The Beatles were now the biggest musical act Great Britain had ever seen. The next several months would be a whirlwind of live shows and promotional appearances, while manager Brian Epstein worked diligently to secure his clients a beachhead in the US market. In the midst of this activity, producer George Martin booked six dates scattered through their hectic schedule between July and October for the recording of the Fab Four's second album. With The Beatles maintains much of the energy level of the debut, while also featuring a bit more polish, as well as starting to hint at some of the directions The Beatles' music would follow in the coming months.

The songwriting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney had quickly become the band's greatest strength, kicking off the album with "It Won't Be Long", an aggressive number cemented by those familiar "Yeah! Yeah!" interjections. "All My Loving" features one of McCartney's best early vocals, as well as featuring distinctive chord changes that would become a Beatles trademark. One of the best compositions, "I Wanna Be Your Man", was saved for Ringo Starr to sing, and he gives a fine performance that is still one of his best vocal turns. George Harrison checks in as a composer for the first time as well, although his "Don't Bother Me" is most notable for its guitar solo, an example of Harrison's steady improvement as a guitarist.

As with the debut, With The Beatles featured eight originals and six cover versions. The covers are arguably the LP's weakness, for as songwriters The Beatles were already beginning to outstrip many of the American R&B artists they derived their early sound from. Their versions of "Please Mr. Postman" and "Roll Over Beethoven" sound flat, and "Devil In Her Heart" is downright cheesy - a trait the early Beatles were not immune from. The best of the covers was Barrett Strong's "Money", a raucous, stomping set-closer with another throat-straining Lennon vocal in the manner of "Twist And Shout". Overall, With The Beatles is a portrait of a band with still-unfulfilled vast potential, with one foot still planted in the sweaty beat music of the Cavern Club, and the other preparing to explore the new worlds opening up before them.

With The Beatles, released on November 22, replaced Please Please Me at #1 in the UK album charts, staying there for 21 weeks, for a total of 51 consecutive weeks spent by the Fab Four at the top of the album chart. The nearly year-long stranglehold was finally broken by The Rolling Stones' debut LP. The closest US equivalent LP is Meet The Beatles!, featuring nine tracks from the UK release. A week later came the release of their fifth UK single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand". The Fab Four's most groundbreaking work yet. Brian Epstein requested that Lennon and McCartney write a single with the American market in mind. "I Want To Hold Your Hand", with its dramatic buildup and innovative chord structure, provided not only a breakthrough hit for The Beatles in America, but also a preview of the next decade's musical evolution. John Lennon said of the song's creation, "We wrote a lot of stuff together, one on one, eyeball to eyeball. Like in 'I Want to Hold Your Hand,' I remember when we got the chord that made the song. We were in Jane Asher's house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, 'Oh you-u-u/ got that something...' And Paul hits this chord [E minor] and I turn to him and say, 'That's it!' I said, 'Do that again!' In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that—both playing into each other's noses."

Alan Pollack gives a detailed analysis of "I Want To Hold Your Hand", although much of it may be a bit deep for those who are not musicians or students of music theory.

What "She Loves You" did for The Beatles in Britain, "I Want To Hold Your Hand" did for them in the rest of the world. Capitol rush-released the single on December 26, 1963, and backed by an unprecedented promotional blitz from Capitol Records, it sold 2.6 million copies in the US by the time the Fab Four landed in New York for the first time on February 7, 1964. Two days later, their first Ed Sullivan Show appearance was seen by 73 million viewers. Beatlemania had gained full force, unleashing an incredible wave of popularity that crested on April 4, when "Can't Buy Me Love", "Twist And Shout", "She Loves You", "I Want To Hold Your Hand", and "Please Please Me" occupied the first five positions in the US singles charts.