May the gods eternally bless Rhino Records for so many reasons, but one of that label’s greatest contributions to weird society was the Golden Throats series of compilation albums. It endeavored—and largely succeeded—at bringing wide attention to one of my favorite vinyl collectibles sub-obsessions: celebrities not known for singing who nonetheless and against all reason recorded albums on which they sang, often very, very poorly. Adding to the kitsch appeal of the phenomenon, these albums were usually lounge or easy listening, and were often recorded in total earnest.
Notably, key Star Trek cast members William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were disproportionally represented on those Rhino comps, appearing on all fourinstallmentsin theseries, and scoring four tracks between them on the first one alone. Shatner’s stilted cover songs have become legendary on the basis of just one completely bonkers album, 1968’s The Transformed Man which manages to be a major head-trip both intentionally AND accidentally. Nimoy released about a half-dozen musical albums, a couple of which are Trek themed affairs on which he sometimes sings in-character as Spock, which have moments that approach the outsidery awesomeness of the Shatner LP. The rest are straightforward folk-pop albums, which are unironically not half bad at all.
Sadly, DeForest Kelley never made a musical LP, so it’s impossible to collect a complete discography of Trek’s archetypal Freudian trio. HOWEVER, there was more music to be found on the bridge: the recordings of Nichelle “Lt. Uhura” Nichols were totally neglected by Rhino when they assembled the Golden Throats comps (probably because she was actually really good). Between 1967 and 1991, she released three full lengths (sort of), two 7” singles, and an EP. Before she blazed a massively important trail for non-servile representation of African-American women on broadcast TV, Nichols sang with both Duke Ellington’s and Lionel Hampton’s bands, and she debuted as a solo recording artist with 1967’s Down to Earth. The title was an obvious nod to her stellar day job, and fittingly, the music was anything but cosmic. It’s a lightly jazzy lounge pop album, typical of its time, and loaded with standards and showtunes.
Behold the ‘Damn Fine Coffee’ edition of the newly reissued vinyl soundtrack for the original ‘Twin Peaks’ television series.
A little over a week ago—on August 10th—a vinyl reissue of the soundtrack for the original Twin Peaks television series (first broadcast in 1990) scored by long-time David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti was released into the wild via Mondotees and promptly sold out. If you missed the boat on that like I did there’s still a way (and a better one at that) to score the gorgeous release which comes pressed into coffee-colored vinyl whose color profile is described as “Damn Fine Coffee.”
Starting on September 9th many cool independant brick and mortar record and video shops across the country will temporarily transform into a version of Agent Dale Cooper’s favorite hangout, Tweed’s Cafe in North Bend, Washington and will offer up their own in-store “Coffee and Pie” event during which you can purchase the record while listening to the soundtrack. Two-long years in the making, the packaging for the soundtrack is almost as cool as the show which comes in a gatefold sleeve,with liner notes written by Badalamenti and a record jacket that pays tribute to the floors of the “Black Lodge” thanks to the clever use of a die cut pattern on the cover. If it sounds at all to you like I am completely geeking out on this, then you’d be correct. Especially since my favorite video store, the world-famous Scarecrow Video in Seattle, is holding one of the 20-some-odd “Coffee and Pie” events. Yummy.
For those of you bemoaning the fact that you don’t live in the U.S. according to the website Welcome to Twin Peaks there are a few locations in the UK, too that will also be hosting their own Twin Peaks party. More details on the record as well as a full list of shops (which does appear to be updated from time to time) that will be hosting the event, here. If your location isn’t listed or if you prefer to miss out on what sounds like a really excellent time you can pre-order the album (for a mark-up in most cases) at lots of places online.
In 1970 a British news show called This Week sent a crew to Colorado to document Hunter S. Thompson‘s unusual campaign to become sheriff of Aspen. It should come as no surprise that the documentary they ended up making is just dynamite, a marvelous, evocative document of the culture clash soon after the Woodstock/Altamont moment.
The program, titled “Show Down at Aspen,” states that in the prior contest for the same position in 1966, the longhairs came quite close to stealing away the election by sheer stealth but that this year, all sides were very much on the alert. Carrol D. Whitmire, the incumbent, was looking to garner enough support to stave off the rumblings of the upstart potheads and their chosen maverick candidate Dr. Gonzo.
Let’s start with the resonant, unmistakably British voiceover, which early on describes HST, not uncharitably, as “a hippie, a freak, an acid-head who openly smokes grass.” The show sets up the electoral contest as a battle between the older, more established residents of the ski resort and the long-haired newcomers who show no respect for the town’s status as a tourist attraction for the well-heeled—and then has the wit to undercut that very framing by cannily showing a smattering of “established” voters leaning for Thompson and younger ones not quite able to swallow Thompson’s schtick.
The first half has some truly fantastic footage of some hippies skinny-dipping (NSFW) and then passing around a few joints on the shore. A young Aspen police officer ambles down the slope to meet them—“a ‘pig,’ as the hippies normally call the police”—and quite astonishingly is shown enjoying one of the blunts and cheerfully admitting on camera that he smokes marijuana. (That guy should’ve been the poster child for a new generation of police officers that never came to pass.)
A few minutes later, a trio of elderly male Republicans describe their feared vision of an Aspen with HST in control. Those two sections, the pot use by the stream and the nattering of the out-of-touch old guard, make this show an absolute must-see.
The documentary explains that the result of the vote will hinge on turnout. The “freaks” are motivated, to be sure, but if enough of the regular solid citizens make their way to the polls, then HST’s chances will commensurately plummet. In the event, it emerges that turnout was indeed quite high—Whitmire was able to beat Thompson by a tally of roughly 1,500 to 1,000. Based on the evidence we see, Whitmire wasn’t hassling the drug users very much, and (let’s face it) in political terms (at least) Thompson is two steps away from a total nut. In the final analysis, it was Whitmire’s essential amiability that probably secured his victory.
The British documentary—and more—after the jump…..
Vangelis was born in Italian-occupied Greece during World War II with the moniker Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou, but quite understandably, when he came of age said to hell with that and went by plain old Vangelis (or Vangelis O.) most of the time. A true pioneer of synth prog music, Vangelis made his name with Aphrodite’s Child in the late 1960s before breaking out on his own some years later. In the 1980s his relatively tame soundtrack for the Oscar-winning flick Chariots of Fire propelled him to wider fame; you might also know his music from Blade Runner.
In 1974 he appeared on a French TV show called Melody and the results were frankly mind-blowing. This is quite simply a totally righteous 1970s jam (man) in the best sense of the word. The footage is broken up into a few different parts but the throughline is Vangelis burning it up on the synth as well as various percussion instruments, accompanied at various points by a quartet of bongo players and an enormous drum circle of young people bashing the bejesus out of a dozen or so kettle drums.
The material here heavily emphasizes Vangelis’ 1973 album Earth. The second song in the set is called “Let It Happen” and is almost certainly a track that the French electronic act Air pillaged for their own uses a good 20 years later. The third track is a cheery number called “My Face In The Rain” and resembles a satisfying mashup of mid-career Flaming Lips and Genesis in the days right after Peter Gabriel left.
Vangelis would soon record his masterpiece Heaven and Hell, which ended up furnishing the music for Carl Sagan’s 1980 PBS series Cosmos and also represented his first collaboration with Jon Anderson of Yes. The two men would later release several albums under the name Jon and Vangelis.
The joyous and infectious jam sessions in the show are fantastic, but what pushes this video into must-see territory is the audacious video effects knob twiddling that director Marion Sarraut demanded for the occasion. Basically there seems not to have been a back-projected visual effect that didn’t get used here, and indeed, the final takeaway is that the technician in the booth was improvising right along with the musicians. Vangelis and his singer spend much of “My Face in the Rain” floating around on individual magic carpets (take my word for it; you’ll see) over footage of the Iguazu waterfalls in Argentina and Brazil and similar natural wonders. Those effects and Vangelis’ brazenly open jacket, revealing a multitude of Greek chest hair and at least five ostentatious medallions (couldn’t tell if any of them was a coke spoon but I would be none too surprised), are the clearest markers of the year this footage was produced.
If there’s one show that’s generating a ton of buzz right now, it’s the Netflix original miniseries Stranger Things. A lovingly-crafted homage to the 70s/80’s “Golden Era” works of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King and John Carpenter, this show is inspiring the kind of love we haven’t seen for a TV program in a long time. Having heard so much good stuff about Stranger Things, I went into watching it with high hopes indeed. On paper this show is so my kind of thing that it’s not even funny: John Carpenter is my all-time favorite director. Stephen King is the guy who inspired me to write, and I can trace my obsession with movies back to formative experiences watching Spielberg’s films obsessively as a child.
So what could possibly go wrong? Well I have a confession to make: Having watched the show now, for the most part I found it… well… kinda boring. I certainly didn’t hate Stranger Things or anything but I definitely didn’t find it anywhere near as “awesome” as everyone else did either. I think it’s basically just… okay. For most of the viewing experience I had a nagging sensation of “Is this it? THIS is the show people are losing their shit for?!” But in truth anything that gets this sort of across-the-board, almost scarily uniform praise—like this particular show—it should raise suspicions.
And before anyone jumps in to tell me that I “just don’t get it!!“my fanboy credentials are more than sound. The fiction I write is horror with teen protagonists! From 2004-2008 I was part of the synth/prog group The Evil Eye, taking influence from John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream and soundtracking various short films including the 80s/video nasties-inspired web serial TV Face. On top of working on these things I am also a child of this era, so I’m as surprised as anyone that I didn’t love the shit out of the show. And trust me, I don’t wanna be The Grinch Who Stole Your 80s Nostalgia Buzz, either. Stranger Things has some serious problems that people seem willing to overlook in the rush to hype it up. So in the interest of fair and balanced journalism, I have put together a guide to what I find to be eight of the major flaws with Stranger Things.
Dare you taste the Hatorade?
1. Winona Ryder
Don’t get my wrong, I love Winona. She’s the beating heart of some of my all-time favourite movies. I’m a Veronica. But BY GOD did her performance do my head in! To the point where I zoned out whenever she was on screen. Her role as “Joyce” (and I had to look that name up, that’s how unmemorable the character was) never strayed from the single, overbearing note of “despairing mother.” Which is not necessarily Ryder’s fault as she was given so little to work with. Still, color me disappointed. I lay the blame for this squarely at the feet of the writers/creators Shawn Levy and the Duffer Brothers. Stranger Things’ characters were paper thin despite some great performances from the child actors. But the adults? From Winona Ryder to Matthew Modine, not to mention the oddly clueless suburban parents and the totally clichéd sidekick deputies… sorry. In the end it seemed like only Steve and Will were genuinely changed by what they had experienced.
But I was willing to forgive all that until it got to:
The treatment of Barb neatly sums up everything wrong with this show. I knew “who” Barb was before I’d even seen a single frame of Stranger Things, which is why I was expecting a lot more from this “beloved” character’s role. But the way they handled her storyline left a bad taste. [SPOILER] After her abduction at the end of episode 2, Barb gets, what, maybe three more mentions over the course of the next six hours? And in the middle of one child disappearance investigation, the disappearance of another kid gets completely and utterly overlooked by the police? Please! I’ve seen mention that this is a comment on the general lack of urgency placed on missing-girl cases (which IS a thing) but that’s retroactively applying something to the show that just isn’t there. Once Barb has served her purpose to the plot she’s basically forgotten about. I get the feeling that the show’s creators expected the audience to feel a lot more empathy for Barb than they ever showed her. Simply put, it was cheap and lazy. And her predicament left dramatically unexplored.
3. The Pacing/Plotting
Let’s be honest here, the pacing was wildly uneven. Long stretches—entire episodes, in fact—passed where the plot barely advanced a single inch. Perhaps this is another homage as Stephen King has been guilty of this kind of uneven pacing and self-indulgent mood-setting in his fiction. But when he has to, he can knock that shit out of the park. Much of Stranger Things felt saggy and repetitive. It’s clear the Duffer Brothers and Shawn Levy haven’t got a grip on writing episodic television yet. Compare the plotting to the 2013 conspiracy-adventure drama Utopia (a masterpiece in my opinion, and a benchmark for mystery-thriller-TV, written by Dennis Kelly.) Utopia covers roughly similar ground: a world-threatening government conspiracy is uncovered through a pop-culture cypher by a ragtag gang of geeks along with a mysterious woman with major ass-kicking abilities. The twists and turns of Utopia‘s plot in the first three episodes alone took the viewer deeper into an unpredictable, exciting story while serving up some boundary-pushing scenes. By contrast, the plot of Stranger Things only really seemed to get going by the end of episode 3, and rather than shock us or surprise us, every plot twist had an almost mind-numbing familiarity. Like how is Will hiding in the electricity? Oh yeah: Because Spielberg.
4. The Relentless Pastiche-O-Rama
It got bloody tiring! While I did enjoy the show in places, at no point did Stranger Things ever transcend its influences to become something truly great with its own unique voice. And that is something the films it references managed to achieve, lest we forget. The show instead relies on a checklist of “spot-the-cliché” (well-produced clichés, but clichés nonetheless.) Despite a couple of entertaining peaks, after the end credits rolled I was STILL thinking about Spielberg, King, Carpenter, Lucas, Craven, Cronenberg, et al, and not the actual story I’d just watched. This seems to be true of almost everyone else talking about the show, too, which says a lot. That’s the fundamental problem with pastiche: not only does it have to be as good as the classics if it’s going to constantly remind us of them, it actually has to stand apart from them too if it wants to eek out its own place in that canon. Otherwise the referencing becomes distracting and makes a viewer wish they’d just watched the originals instead. “We have consumed more 80s pop culture than you!” is really not the best basis for telling a story. It certainly never answered the question as to why I should use eight hours of my life to watch it when I could watch a quadruple-bill of ET, Close Encounters, The Goonies and Poltergeist. With still time for a lil’ Freaks & Geeks thrown in.
5. Eleven’s Psychic Realm
And this was the moment when the relentless pastiching just became TOO much for me. When it spilled over from cute into ugly. When it went from being a constant, wearying nag of “now where have I seen that before?” to “I know exactly where I have seen this before, and GROAN.” The direct lift from Under The Skin (like Utopia, another modern masterpiece) felt incongruous. Not for Under The Skin‘s adult themes or modern setting, but because that film worked so damn hard to take us out of our comfort zones and show us something unique and genuinely alien. Seeing that reflective-black-empty-world (NSFW) again in the context of a cozy-nostalgia-80s-synth-kids-horror-adventure was both jarring and annoying. It was also a hugely missed opportunity: seeing inside the mysterious Eleven’s mind (literally) could have been a chance for the Duffers and Levy to show us something awesome and bizarre and new, but no, they cynically opted for more lazy pastiche. Instead of investing in genuine character insight or visual innovation, we got yet another “have you seen THIS film?” wink-and-nudge reference. Boring!
Which brings me to:
6. The Monster/The Threat
I think we can all agree that the monster in Super 8 was rubbish, right? Both its design and its role within that 80s throwback felt off. But having said that, you have to give JJ Abrams this: at least his monster had an endgame. It had a motivation. A back story. Even a primitive logic. But the Stranger Things monster (as yet un-named, even by the fans. How odd!) had no sense of having its own life beyond being a plot device. Not to mention that its feeding rituals (dead deer or fresh humans?!) and appearances in and out of our dimension were so loosely sketched as to lose any genuine sense of creepiness. Vagueness can be cool if the audience is confident that behind the twitching curtain lurks something truly terrifying (The X-Files coasted on this approach for years until it blew it with a farcically convoluted mythos: We saw behind the curtain and it was just some greasy-haired nerd typing in his Mom’s basement.) In horror for “The Threat” to work it has to be fully realized. This wishy-washy threat never gets satisfactorily explored or convincingly/consistently deployed and this was obviously going to be the case from the first episode. (See also: It Follows.)
To top it all off I just wasn’t a fan of the creature design. The five-second scene of the melting head from The Thing blew it out of the water.
And speaking of John Carpenter…
7. The Score
Everyone’s going on about how fantastic the soundtrack—by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of Austin-based synth quartet S U R V I V E—is. And I’m not saying that it’s bad. It’s certainly authentic sounding, which is good. But just one question—how does it go again? I can’t remember, can you whistle the theme tune for me please? The beauty of John Carpenter’s original synth-based scores was not just in the signature sound palette he managed to conjure up, but in the memorable melodies he lodged in our brains, melodies that came back to haunt us long after the credits had rolled. He’s also the master at using minimal music cues to build genuine tension. In contrast, some of the Stranger Things music cues were way too much. The pounding drums during the sheriff’s breaking in at the research facility didn’t make the scene more tense, it just became grating. One of the things that tripped the score up in my mind, was the inclusion on the soundtrack of some genuinely atmospheric synth masterpieces that put the original score in the shade. I’m thinking in particular of this, one of my favourite pieces by Tangerine Dream (that was used to accompany a fist fight scene?!?):
Which brings me to…
8. The Hype
Ah, the hype. The Stranger Things hype is the thing that is really pissing me off, more than anything actually featured in the show itself. To the point where I felt compelled to write this piece so at least there could be ONE dissenting voice out there to balance the (suspiciously universal) adoration for the show.
In November 1979, BBC Northern Ireland aired the premiere of Green Rock, a six-week TV series devoted to Irish groups. The first act on the show was not, pace broadcaster Mike Edgar, Celtic rockers Horslips, but Derry’s mighty punk five-piece, the Undertones.
Captured mid-hurtle between their 1979 debut and 1980’s Hypnotised, the ‘tones blasted through their lovesick juvenilia with maximum pain and pleasure. The set includes two of their “girls talk” songs (“Girls That Don’t Talk” and “The Way Girls Talk,” though not their cover of the Chocolate Watchband’s “Let’s Talk About Girls”) and the single I personally find more affecting than “Teenage Kicks,” “You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It).” All that’s missing is “Male Model.”
The reunited Undertones—minus their original tremulous voice, Feargal Sharkey, who says he only sings to annoy his children these days—have UK dates booked through November. A remix of “Get Over You” by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine will be released as a seven-inch in October.
The Adverts had the poor luck to have a talented songwriter in T.V. Smith, a foxy-looking female bass guitarist, and an opening salvo that remarked on punk musicians who might not have been too technically proficient (a group that included some of the people in the Adverts, as it happened). Smith’s songwriting ambitions didn’t entirely fit in with the London punk scene that enabled the band’s existence, and the apparent boon of Gaye Advert’s photogenic, oftentimes goth-like glare simply became a weapon nay-sayers could use to put down the band (as in, “Oi, that girl bass player can’t play”). And naming your first single “One Chord Wonders,” well, you’re just asking for it now, aren’t you?
The Adverts broke up in 1979 after a single on Stiff Records (the aforementioned “One Chord Wonders,” featuring a typically brilliant Barney Bubbles cover) and a true hit in “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” for Bright Records—as well as two LPs—but the frontman and main songwriter for the band, T.V. Smith, never quit making good music, becoming something of a “troubadour,” in the words of Richard Strange as uttered in the 2012 BBC4 documentary We Who Wait: TV Smith & the Adverts.
When I first heard “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” I knew exactly who Gary Gilmore was but it had never occurred to me that the song was referencing a historical fact, that Gilmore had made sure to donate his eyes so that another might see. Would you want to have to look through Gary Gilmore’s eyes?
File this one under “I did not know that” (said like Johnny Carson): If you look him up on IMDB (which I did recently, although I can’t exactly recall why) you will see that rocker Lowell George, he of Little Feat fame, made a cameo appearance on the sixties TV sitcom F Troop. In 1967 George portrayed a long-haired member of an anachronistic teen combo called The Bedbugs, the joke (one F Troop used more than once) being that you have a rock group right after the Civil War. Har!
Along with George, the other members of the Bedbugs were played by guitarists Warren S. Klein (who was in the Stooges circa 1973) and Martin F. Kibbee; and future Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward. At the time, the four of them were collectively known as The Factory. Frank Zappa would produce two songs for the group, which remained unreleased until 1993’s Lightning-Rod Man anthology.
After the Factory disbanded, Lowell would briefly join The Standells before becoming (again briefly) a member of Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, appearing on the Weasels Ripped My Flesh album on rhythm guitar. The teetotal Zappa either fired him, or George left voluntarily, over Lowell’s penchant for partying and pot.
For all the ballyhoo around VH1 Classic rebranding itself as MTV Classic, the channel’s programming still doesn’t include very much music. In fact, most of the programming seems to date back only to the ‘90s, after the network began transitioning from actual music television to youth-culture oriented reality programming. If your nostalgic tastes run towards Pimp My Ride, The Real World, and Cribs, well, great, hunker down and binge. But if your trip is musical discovery, may I point you in the direction of the new streaming channel launched this year—to much less fanfare—by Night Flight?
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, you missed something amazing. From 1981-88, during the weekend’s wee hours, the USA cable network aired Night Flight, a four hour block of weirdo-culture programming that often defied easy categorization. Random bumps were culled from the most shocking scenes from John Waters films and strange old out-of-copyright cartoons, music from the backroads of post-punk subcultures was given a fair hearing—including but not limited to the late Peter Ivers’ incredible New Wave Theatre, profiles of outré performers were produced, and cult movies were aired in their entirety, including the punk documentary Another State of Mind (Who would have guessed back then that not only would Social Distortion be a band forever, but that they’d become SO HORRIBLE?), the not-to-be-missed proto-Riot Grrrl satire/drama Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, and The Clash’s classic Rude Boy. For that era’s weird kids who lived in flyover country, without access to the coasts’ record stores, clubs, and cinematheques, that basic cable freakshow was manna from heaven. More after the jump…
Right this moment, I really wish I spoke Russian, the better to understand this 1964 commercial that turned up yesterday on the wonderful Soviet Visuals Twitter feed.
Perhaps calling it a “commercial” is a misnomer—Soviet agriculture was mostly organized into a system of collective and state farms, so commerce wasn’t the objective here—there was no brand competition. The context for this ad was a big push for corn that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had undertaken in the mid-‘50s. Corn was never important to Soviet agriculture, but Khrushchev valued it as livestock feed.
”Corn—The Source of Abundance,” 1959
Corn’s failure in the USSR was one of the factors that weakened Khrushchev (the Cuban Missile Crisis was a much bigger one) and allowed for the more conservative Leonid Brezhnev to successfully conspire to depose him, but while that’s interesting, it’s not singing corn interesting. This ad is great fun, and about the only thing that could have improved it would be if it had starred Eduard “Mr. Trololo” Khil. It features animated ears and cans of corn, seemingly petitioning a singing chef to cook them. We’re then treated to a panoply of corn dishes. It’s supposed to demonstrate the grain’s culinary versatility, but every meal looks sufficiently unappetizing to have been culled from The Gallery of Regrettable Food. And I particularly love the overwrought fake smile on the woman near the ad’s end who’s eating corn on the cob as though for the first time ever in her life.