Multi-talented musician, designer, and hacker Martin Backes from Germany has designed a robot to croon a pop ballad like a superstar from the ‘90s. As Backes writes,
“What do machines sing of?” is a fully automated machine, which endlessly sings number-one ballads from the 1990s. As the computer program performs these emotionally loaded songs, it attempts to apply the appropriate human sentiments. This behavior of the device seems to reflect a desire, on the part of the machine, to become sophisticated enough to have its very own personality.
In comments, Backes explained that the sounds were generated by digital signal processing, or DSP: “the sound is generated by the real time synthesis language called SuperCollider, same for the Visuals, so you have to write code. There`s almost no Audio FX or something like this, its basically a sine wave, the most artificial sound.” You can find out more about the device on Backes’ website.
The results are strangely impressive; even if the enunciation of the words isn’t always ideal, at least in the case of Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” the computer does a good job of matching her vocal range and expression.
Unfortunately, the robot’s repertoire consists of only five songs:
Here’s a video of one-man-band street performer located in Buenos Aires, Argentina flawlessly playing his homemade didgeridoo meets plastic pipe drums kit for an unusual rendition of Depeche Mode’s classic “Just Can’t Get Enough.” And then he plays something that sounds like Hot Butter’s “Popcorn” meets Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” meets “Swamp Thing” by The Grid???
In 2004, Ben Folds produced William Shatner’s album Has Been which included a surprisingly great cover version of Pulp‘s hit song “Common People.” Folds enlisted ‘80s icon Joe Jackson to sing on the choruses of that cover. The Has Been album was surprisingly well received by critics, and many agreed that “Common People” was the “hit” on that record.
Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker even praised the cover version, stating, “I was very flattered by that because I was a massive Star Trek fan as a kid and so you know, Captain Kirk is singing my song! So that was amazing.”
A fan has created a video for Shatner’s “Common People” using clips from Star Trek: The Original Series.
What makes this edit truly incredible is the attention to detail in matching shots with the lyrical content, even nailing specific lines of the song to lines spoken by Kirk in the show. Check twenty-seven seconds in where “I want to live,” or forty-seven seconds in where “I’ll see what I can do” sync perfectly. The amount of work that went into this is apparent and astounding.
In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger admitted that Their Satanic Majesties Request wasn’t a particularly good album. Interviewer Jann Wenner actually compared it to Spinal Tap, and perhaps unable to deny the resemblance to “Listen to the Flower People,” Jagger answered, “Really, I know.”
However the hippie-dippy experimentation of 60s Stones is in no way their most Spinal Tap era—that would be the mid-70s. In 1975 Jagger would ride a giant inflatable phallus onstage. In ‘76, they released Black and Blue with the very Smell the Glove-reminiscent advertisement you see above; the feminist group Women Against Violence Against Women protested until it was removed from the Sunset Boulevard billboard it adorned. The tour that promoted Black and Blue was a singularly debauched affair, complete with elaborate riders and highly specific luxury travel demands.
This 1976 mini-doc is a great record of the period, with footage of the band, crew and adoring fans. Highlights include a crew member trying to explain the inflatable pee-pee stage design; watching Mick and Bianca taking pulls off a champagne bottle celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary; a short Keith Richards makeup tutorial, and a surprisingly candid Charlie Watts reflecting on his ambivalence towards fame. There is a tension to the film. A fan made the Beatles/Stones comparison, despite the Beatles being long gone at this point, and the the interviewer actually questioned the band on a final album.
Nirvana fans worldwide were devastated, when on April 8th, 1994, Kurt Cobain was found dead. Adding to the distress, it was revealed he took his own life, dying from a self-inflicted shotgun wound. Over 20 years later, a new documentary, Soaked in Bleach, examines the possibility that Cobain’s shocking death wasn’t due to a suicide, but a homicide.
Largely told through information provided by private investigator Tom Grant, writer/producer/director Benjamin Statler takes another look at the case. Grant was hired by Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, in April 1994, supposedly to find Kurt after he went missing following a stint in rehab. Almost immediately after taking the case, red flags started popping up, and Grant began recording all the conversations he had with Love and others. Statler airs selections from those audio recordings, along with interviews with Grant, various law enforcement experts, and friends of Cobain’s, taking the viewer down a path that is revelatory and often chilling. I was surprised to learn of all the myths we’ve taken as truth in regards to the crime scene, how much the media played a role in disseminating this misinformation, and just how badly the Seattle police department bungled the case. Statler also filmed several recreations, and while such a technique can often appear cheesy and cheap looking, here they are highly effective and stylistically pleasing.
Kurt in 1994
So if Kurt Cobain was murdered, who did it and why? In Soaked in Bleach, all roads lead to Courtney Love. Kurt was planning to divorce her and was drafting a new will at that time of his death; the two had signed a prenuptial agreement and Courtney had a lot to lose financially if the couple divorced. She’s portrayed, often through recordings of her own voice, as being highly manipulative and contradictory. In the documentary, she’s all but accused of orchestrating Cobain’s murder, which will surely be a stretch for many, while others will find it impossible to deny the possibility after watching the film. It’s worth noting that Love has yet to file a defamation lawsuit against Statler, nor Grant, who’s been pursuing the case, publicizing his findings—and his interpretations of those findings—for decades. (including his appearance in Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney documentary of 1998). Her lawyers did send Statler cease and desist letters and recently threatened theatre owners set to screen Soaked in Bleach, but no further action was taken.
Kurt and Courtney
Though the documentary is one-sided, and Statler doesn’t offer conclusive proof of foul play, what’s presented does raise many questions. One indication that Kurt’s death may have been a homicide is the unusually large amount of heroin found in his bloodstream. In the below clip from Soaked in Bleach, the query is put forth that if Kurt did inject the quantity of heroin that’s been stated (the toxicology report is still sealed by law), how could have he possibly fired that shotgun?
Soaked in Bleach will be released on DVD on August 14th. Watch the trailer and pre-order the disc via MVD or Amazon.
A friend recently shared some vintage garage-rock goodness with me from the Saginaw, Michigan band, Half-Life and man, it knocked me for a loop. On June 27, 1969 Half-Life recorded the track “Get Down” at GM Studios in East Detroit (the same studio that the MC5 recorded Back in the USA).
The minute I hit the play button, I was immediately floored by the opening riff in “Get Down” and its remarkable resemblance to Tony Iommi’s fuzzed-out riff on “Paranoid.” Even the opening percussion is eerily similar to the Sabbath classic. Recorded in only one take, when the band started shopping “Get Down” around to local Detroit radio stations they were told it had no commercial viability. Half-Life would later drop the song from its
Half-Life, a garage band from Saginaw, Michigan. Circa 1969
So this could mean one of two things. Either Half-Life are actually time bandits of the most awesome kind or Black Sabbath somehow caught wind of “Get Down” from 3,652 miles away (the approximate distance between Detroit, Michigan and Birmingham UK), allowing Iommi to claim the sweet lick for his own. Not only do both scenarios bear the markings of a lunatic conspiracy theorist, the first one has no real basis in reality. No matter much I wish that it did. Another interesting fact to add to this weird mix is that “Paranoid” almost didn’t make it onto the record and the track came came to be in a somewhat similar way that “Get Down” did—according to Sabbath bassist, Geezer Butler:
The whole story of how we created that song is funny. It became the most popular song from the album, but it wasn’t something we thought much of when we wrote it. In fact, we finished the record and then the producer told us we needed one more song to finish up the album, so we just came up with “Paranoid” on the spot. Tony [Iommi] just played this riff and we all went along with it. We didn’t think anything of it.
In all seriousness, the riffy similarities between “Get Down” and “Paranoid” are rather uncanny, but I’ll leave you to judge that with your own ears. Just press play below. Now do I believe that Tony Iommi, one of the most influential guitarists of all time lifted the epic riff for “Paranoid” from a little known garage-band from Saginaw? Of course not, and neither do you. However, if you dig “Get Down” (and I strongly suspect you will), I recommend that you pick up the compilation A-Square (Of Course): The Story of Michigan’s Legendary A-Square Records which features “Get Down” and other rare recordings from the Ann Arbor-based label from bands like the legendary MC5 and The SRC (The Scot Richard Case).
One could be forgiven, perhaps, for thinking that the recent and ongoing national conversation (or racist jagoff chest-thumping tantrum, if you prefer) about the appropriateness of Confederate flag display is a new thing. But that point of view is ahistorical; this isn’t new, just newly launched into noisier, more vigorous debate. That symbol has been considered divisive and offensive for quite a long time.
For example, as early as 1961, that flag kept an early Otis Redding single from receiving airplay! Redding’s second single, the acutely Little Richard-ish “Fat Gal/Shout Bamalama,” was released in 1961 on a label called “Confederate Records,” an imprint owned by a young white Georgia car salesman named Bobby Smith. The center label on Confederate’s releases, unsurprisingly, was a design based on the Confederate flag, which all by itself was a good enough reason for R&B DJs to utterly disregard the single. From an article in the December, 2007 issue of Atlanta magazine:
A rebel flag crisscrosses the first vinyl single of “Shout Bamalama,” released by the Confederate Records label in 1961. Consequently, African American disc jockeys chucked it into the trash without bothering to listen. Had they put the needle to the groove, they would’ve heard Otis Redding belting out his jump-blues tribute to Bamalama, a one-eyed busker who played a washboard with a thimble. It was another inauspicious break for the Macon vocalist, who was reportedly booed off the stage, in tears, the first time he performed outside of church.
Georgia had incorporated that flag into its own in 1956, as an explicit thumbs-up to white supremacy and segregation. Having been advised that adopting it as a logo for his wares was doing him no favors with his intended audience, the no longer so clueless Smith reissued the recording on Orbit Records, an ad hoc label he started for the sole purpose of getting the pariah Dixie flag off of Redding’s single. Per Smith himself:
Otis and I went on the road promoting “Shout Bamalama”. Stopping at Augusta radio station WTHB, we were told by the DJ it would be played if it were taken off the Confederate-flagged record label. I promised to do so. We went on to Columbia, SC and met with a program director, Big Saul at radio station WOIC, who also promised heavy play, but only if the label was changed. Otis and I hit it off very well with Big Saul. As we drove and listened to legendary DJ John R on Nashville ’s WLAC, Otis said, “Bobby, if that man played my record I would think I had made it”. When we returned to Macon, I wasted no time creating the Orbit label and putting “Shout Bamalama” on it. The following week I went to Nashville and talked to John R, and I explained the situation with Confederate and Orbit. John R was impressed with the record and promised me he would give it heavy duty air play.
No version of the record would get much attention, let alone “heavy duty air play,” but that would all be moot soon enough, as Smith would amicably part ways with Redding in 1962, when Redding leveled up to record for labels like Stax/Volt and Atlantic/Atco (neither of which sported the banners of states that committed treason in the name of preserving a human trafficking economy and surrendered unconditionally 100 years prior). And then, of course, rock history 101 happened, and Redding’s excellent Monterey International Pop Music Festival appearance brought him mass-audience attention, just six months before his tragic death in a plane crash at the age of 26 robbed the world of his potential.
Here’s that single, “Fat Gal” backed with “Shout Bamalama.”
Bonus! Check out the early Redding song which was the basis for “Shout Bamalama,” “Gamma Lama.”
Gratitude to Art Chantry for bringing this to our attention.
Phoenix, AZ classic rock DJ Paul “NeanderPaul” Marshall (oh, morning FM jocks, please don’t ever change…) has posted a supercut of over 120 (I sat and counted) examples of the suspiciously similar final seconds of AC/DC songs. The result is pretty great, and he posted it to the web site of his employer, KSLX FM:
So, you say to yourself; “Gee, a lot of AC/DC songs sound alike.” You’d be correct. Especially the *endings* to AC/DC songs.
I thought it would be “funny” to snag the endings of all the AC/DC songs that do the power-chord thingie. Little did I know how labor intensive the project would be.
On his Facebook page, Marshall promises that there are no repeaters, though that pledge is probably unnecessary—given that AC/DC have been around for over 40 years, have released 15 albums, and are celebrated for anything but stylistic diversity, I’m actually surprised that this is only 2 minutes and 39 seconds long.
In the 1980s, the elected-to-nothing wife of then-Senator Albert Gore Jr. made quite a splash for herself when she formed the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985 with three other prominent Washington wives. The group called attention to lascivious and offensive lyrics in pop music, including those by Prince, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper alongside more familiar targets like Black Sabbath, and was instrumental in creating the single most “1980s” cover element on CD covers, the ubiquitous “PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT LYRICS” rectangle, often found on one of the bottom corners.
Gore, naturally, protested that she was never interested in censoring anyone but the desire to use rating systems or warning labels in a corporate context inevitably has a chilling effect on speech and explicit content.
Understandably, Tipper Gore rapidly became Public Enemy #1 for fans of heavy metal and punk rock. (Indeed, I’m sure you could do a decent compilation of songs calling out the PMRC in their very titles.) When Bill Clinton named Al Gore to be his running mate in 1992, in an election they would ultimately win and which would delight liberals of all stripes as representing the end of the Reagan era, the existence of Tipper as a potential Second Lady was for principled rock fans a serious obstacle to voting for Clinton—indeed, DM head honcho Richard Metzger has never cast a vote for Al Gore largely for this reason, and bravo to him! Whatever benefit she was providing “parents,” the PMRC represented a generational war between Boomers and their children, even though its goals would be recognized as an utter affront to so many Boomer heroes like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Grace Slick, etc.
The PMRC singled out a few acts that represented their view of unacceptable excess in rock and roll content. They were known as the “Filthy Fifteen”:
Prince, “Darling Nikki” (sex/masturbation)
Sheena Easton, “Sugar Walls,” (sex)
Judas Priest, “Eat Me Alive,” (sex)
Vanity, “Strap On ‘Robbie Baby’” (sex)
Mötley Crüe, “Bastard” (violence/language)
AC/DC, “Let Me Put My Love Into You” (sex)
Twisted Sister, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (violence)
Madonna, “Dress You Up” (sex)
W.A.S.P., “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” (sex/language)
Def Leppard, “High ‘n’ Dry (Saturday Night)” (drug and alcohol use)
Mercyful Fate, “Into the Coven” (occult)
Black Sabbath, “Trashed” (drug and alcohol use)
Mary Jane Girls, “In My House” (sex)
Venom, “Possessed” (occult)
Cyndi Lauper, “She Bop” (sex/masturbation)
The PMRC was the best thing that ever happened to, say, W.A.S.P.—I scarcely remember any coverage about that band that wasn’t about “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast).”
In November 1986 CREEM magazine published a letter from Gore responding to a column by John Mendelssohn in which she defended herself against charges that she was an “uptight prude who wants to ban rock.” Eager to present herself as a fan of rock and roll, even of “the normal sex and sensuality of rock ‘n’ roll,” Gore depicted herself as undertaking the “responsible action” of protesting “the current excess of a minority of powerful artists.” Not unreasonably, she also framed her campaign in a feminist light, in that she was fighting “a degrading attitude” towards women, although without ever explaining how restricting the reach of a song like Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” fostered that goal.
In a later issue, Jello Biafra wrote in to debate Gore, accusing Gore and the PMRC of playing a 1980s version of Joe McCarthy and HUAC. Biafra pointed out that the climate for censorship was already plenty chilly, what with Republican Attorney General Ed Meese going after Playboy and Penthouse.
Most of the arguments about the PMRC’s methods are somewhat abstract—will this or that act prevent or foster this or that reaction? But Biafra pointed out that the PMRC was having real-world effects on working bands, specifically Biafra’s band the Dead Kennedys, who were facing the prospect of “a year in jail and a $2,000 fine” because of “what the Dead Kennedys say with their records.” Opponents of bodies like the PMRC are quick to say that they only end up benefiting their targets by increasing their sales, but Biafra disputed this point, noting that “more and more stores are now afraid to carry our records out of fear of being dragged through the nearest kangaroo court.”
Read the exchange for yourself, it’s well worth a read. You can see a larger version of these images by clicking on them.
Biafra would remain one of Gore’s harshest critics for many years. He dedicated a lengthy chunk of his first spoken word album, No More Cocoons, to a reading of this letter, the one he wrote responding to Gore in CREEM. On the Dead Kennedys live album Mutiny on the Bay, during their song “M.T.V.—Get off the Air,” Biafra tells the audience to “buy a homemade [record] instead, before the PMRC closes the stores down that sell ‘em”.
I found this issue of CREEM at the Rock Hall’s Library and Archives, which is located at the Tommy LiPuma Center for Creative Arts on Cuyahoga Community College’s Metropolitan Campus in Cleveland, Ohio. It is free and open to the public. Visit their website for more information.
Here’s a video from that era of Biafra and Gore on Oprah. Biafra’s mention of Willie Horton places this after the 1988 presidential election, so a good while after the above letters appeared.
Truly great jazz is rhythmic enough to lure you in but chaotic enough to make sure you don’t get bored…or too comfortable. Truly great funk is rhythmic enough to keep your body moving and your senses tighter than a trucker on a yellow-jacket binge. Cross these mighty twin forms together and you land somewhere near the county of James Chance. Even then, like any artist worth their salt, simple categorization is not only uneasy but also ill advised. And that’s when things get truly exciting.
Emerging during the late 1970’s quick-flash but potent No Wave movement, Chance, by way of Brookfield,Wisconsin, arrived in New York City and would go on to make a musical mark that initially defined and defied the very scene that he would be associated with. He first came to recorded prominence with an appearance on the Brian Eno-produced compilation, No New York, which also featured greats like DNA, Mars and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. (A band Chance helped create along with lead singer/force of nature Lydia Lunch.)
However, it was 1979’s album Buy, Chance’s debut along with his band, The Contortions, that changed multiple games and is a rare example of a work that is simultaneously of its era and yet aggressively repels dust and art-mold. Its sonic punch and bone-rattling kinetic rhythm is the kind that cracks buildings at their foundations and runs off all the right people from a party. Arriving on the scene with internal influences ranging from Thelonious Monk to The Stooges, it was a no brainer than the man’s creative thumbprint was going to be unforgettable.
“Contort yourself one time! Contort yourself two times! Contort yourself three times!....”
Buy was and forever is, a powerful work. Upon first listening, the instant vibe is chaos. Truly great music can either cause a riot (i.e. Stravinsky) or calm a riot (i.e. James Brown) and with James Chance the potential for both is thriving and waiting. Atonality collides with a jazz-blues-funk permutation, with Chance, in key moments, coming across like an angular, honky James Brown. The second wallop is what the man does with the sax. It’s the spiritual heir apparent to jazz godheads like Ornette Coleman combo-ed with the throbbing pulse of a city full of crime, despair, drugs, dirt and living defiantly while nodding your head to the less than pleasant reality that surrounds you. In short, one James Chance sax solo makes up for a multitude of sins committed against this noble instrument all throughout the 1980’s in popular music.
From the opening track, “Design to Kill” to the tiki-guitars-from-Hell work on “My Infatuation,” Buy is an unrelenting ride. If a punch can feel like an act of mal-love, this is it. There’s the crime-tinged jazz of “Twice Removed,” featuring lyrics like “...been washed up and left to dry” and “I only like things twice removed.” The big barnstormer of the album, however, is “Contort Yourself.” The song plays out like a battle cry for the entire work.
“It’s better than pleasure, it hurts more than pain. I’ve got what it takes to drive you insane.”
It’s a big, bold statement that not only can be backed up, but Chance himself knows that he can back it up. Seeing footage of the man even further backs it up, since once you witness Chance suited up and coiffed like the bastard son of Chet Baker and a lounge lizard, it hammers the point home. Then there’s the scream. The yowl that Chance lets out in “Contort Yourself” is piercing and possesses all the wow factor of a steel mill combusting.