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Only assholes don’t like the B-52s (part 3)
11.04.2011
06:46 pm
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Welcome to part III of my multimedia dossiers on the wild and wonderful recording career of that great American band, the B-52s. Today’s topic, my personal favorite of all of their releases, the 1982 EP produced by David Byrne known as Mesopotamia.

Yes, what is generally thought of as being one of their least successful records—it was critically savaged when it came out—is to my mind their very best work. The hiring on of Byrne, then at the height of his creative powers—he was simultaneously producing the seminal score he did for Twyla Tharp’s Broadway production, The Catherine Wheel—I thought was an inspired move on the band’s part. Byrne introduced the polyrhythmic African beats of Remain in Light and his Brian Eno collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts into the signature sound of the “tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia’’ ” to great effect. I was a huge Talking Heads fan, so hearing elements of their “African/Eno-era” sound melding with the trademark B-52s wacky racket was heaven for me as a teenage rock snob. Byrne took their sound to a different place, and I felt nicely expanded on their sonic palette. The B-52s obviously felt differently, as Byrne was fired before a complete album could be recorded (hence an EP of the sessions was released).

Seriously, you have no idea how often I played this record. It falls into the “soundtrack of my life” category in a big way. But what many fans of the group do not know is that there are three very different versions of Mesopotamia: The “classic” short (US/Warner Brothers) EP version; the extended mix version mistakenly(?) released in Germany and in the UK by Island Records; and the 1991 CD version, which basically mixed David Byrne right out of the proceedings…

The first two B-52s albums are classics, and to my mind, perfect in every way, but a third album in that same style would have probably been one too many. Byrne’s involvement, for many fans, took the band a little too far away from their inspired amateur beginnings perhaps, but who else but Byrne was capable of coming up with such amazing grooves back then? And haven’t the B-52s always been about the beat? David Byrne was on fire then creatively. I’ve read that the B-52s felt that his production made them sound too much like the Talking Heads, but hey, what a valid direction that was for them!. True, certain elements of their sound (Ricky Wilson’s Venusian surf guitar for one) were diminished, but other elements (Wilson’s striking use of dissonance in his compositions) are given free rein with different instrumentation (like the nearly atonal horn lines). Their sound was nicely expanded upon by Byrne’s “dubbier/trippier” and more-layered production approach, if you ask me, but the B-52s didn’t ask, and it’s their call, ultimately…

Still why not release a special collector’s edition of Mesopotamia with the original David Byrne mixes, the longer Byrne mixes and the known outtakes: “Queen of Las Vegas,” (see below), the original “Big Bird” and “Butterbean” (both recut for Whammy) and the out of character Fred Schneider ballad “Adios Desconocida” (which I found here)? In any case, the longer, “alt” David Byrne version of Mesopotamia, unavailable now for nearly 30 years and never released on CD can be downloaded at The Same Mistakes blog and elsewhere)

PS I don’t hate the 1991 remix of Mesopotamia, but I’d never choose to listen to it over either of the David Byrne versions. Ever. Nuff said.
 

Kate, Fred and Cindy on the set of The Guiding Light soap opera in 1982 (see below for video clip)

Compare the nearly 8-minute version of “Cake” with the shorter version that was released ex-UK and Germany. This song minus the horns at the beginning? A sacrilege!
 

 
And to think that at one point, I actually thought this song really was about baking a cake… Short version of “Cake” (US version):
 

 
Below, “Deep Sleep.” It’s true that this would very much sound at home on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, but would anyone doubt that this is the B-52s once the vocals come in?
 

 
A slamming live “Mesopotamia” from the Rockpop Festival, Dortmund, Germany, 1983:
 

 
After the jump, the B-52s make a guest appearance on “The Guiding Light” soap opera in 1982… and more!

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Posted by Richard Metzger
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11.04.2011
06:46 pm
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Bruce Conner: The Artist Who Shaped Our World
06.25.2011
04:37 pm
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I find it difficult to watch Adam Curtis‘s various acclaimed documentaries without thinking: how much has he taken from Bruce Conner?

Indeed without Conner, would Curtis have developed his magpie, collagist-style of documentary making?

I doubt it, but you (and Curtis) may disagree.

The late Bruce Conner is the real talent here - an artist and film-maker whose work devised new ways of working and presciently anticipated techniques which are now ubiquitously found on the web, television and film-making.

Conner was “a heroic oppositional artist, whose career went against the staid and artificially created stasis of the art world”. Which is academic poohbah for saying Conner kept to his own vision: a Beat life, which channeled his energies into art - with a hint of Dada, Surrealism and Duchamp.

Conner was cantankerous and one-of-a-kind. He would wear an American flag pin. When asked why, he said, ā€œIā€™m not going to let those bastards take it away from me.ā€

He kicked against fame and celebrity, seeing art as something separate from individual who created it.

“I’ve always been uneasy about being identified with the art I’ve made. Art takes on a power all its own and it’s frightening to have things floating around the world with my name on them that people are free to interpret and use however they choose.”

Born in McPherson, Kansas, Conner attended Witchita University, before receiving his degree in Fine Art from Nebraska University. At university he met and married Jean Sandstedt in 1957. He won a scholarship to art school in Brooklyn, but quickly moved to University of Colorado, where he spent one semester studying art. The couple then moved to San Francisco and became part of the Beat scene. Here Conner began to produce sculptures and ready-mades that critiqued the consumerist society of late 1950’s. His work anticipated Pop Art, but Conner never focussed solely on one discipline, refusing to be pigeon-holed, and quickly moved on to to film-making.

Having been advised to make films by Stan Brakhage, Conner made A MOVIE in 1958, by editing together found footage from newsreels- B-movies, porn reels and short films. This single film changed the whole language of cinema and underground film-making with its collagist technique and editing.

The Conners moved to Mexico (“it was cheap”), where he discovered magic mushrooms and formed a life-long friendship with a still to be turned-on, Timothy Leary. When the money ran out, they returned to San Francisco and the life of film-maker and artist.

In 1961, Conner made COSMIC RAY, a 4-minute film of 2,000 images (A-bombs, Mickey Mouse, nudes, fireworks) to Ray Charles’ song “What I Say”. With a grant from the Ford Foundation, Conner produced a series of films that were “precursors, for better or worse, of the pop video and MTV,” as his obituary reported:

EASTER MORNING RAGA (1966) was designed to be run forward or backward at any speed, or even in a loop to a background of sitar music. Breakaway (1966) showed a dancer, Antonia Christina Basilotta, in rapid rhythmic montage. REPORT (1967) dwells on the assassination of John F Kennedy. The found footage exists of repetitions, jump cuts and broken images of the motorcade, and disintegrates at the crucial moment while we hear a frenzied television commentator saying that “something has happened”. The fatal gun shots are intercut with other shots: TV commercials, clips from James Whale’s Frankenstein and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The film has both a kinetic and emotional effect.

REPORT revealed “Kennedy as a commercial product”, to be sold and re-packaged for arbitrary political purposes.

REPORT “perfectly captures Conner’s anger over the commercialization of Kennedy’s death” while also examining the media’s mythic construction of JFK and Jackie ā€” a hunger for images that “guaranteed that they would be transformed into idols, myths, Gods.”

Conner’s work is almost a visual counterpart to J G Ballard’s writing, using the same cultural references that inspired Ballard’s books - Kennedy, Monroe, the atom bomb. His film CROSSROADS presented the 1952 atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in extreme slow motion from twenty-seven different angles.

His editing techniques influenced Dennis Hopper in making Easy Rider, and said:

“much of the editing of Easy Rider came directly from watching Bruce’s films”

The pair became friends and Hopper famously photographed Conner alongside Toni Basil, Teri Garr and Ann Mitchell.

Always moving, always progressing, having “no half way house in which to rest”, Conner became part of the San Francisco Punk scene, after Toni Basil told Conner to go check out the band Devo in 1977. He became so inspired when he saw the band at the Mabuhay Gardens that he started going there four night a week, taking photographs of Punk bands, which eventually led to his job as staff photographer with Search ‘n’ Destroy magazine. It was a career change that came at some personal cost.

“I lost a lot of brain cells at the Mabuhay. What are you gonna do listening to hours of incomprehensible rock’n’roll but drink? I became an alcoholic, and it took me a few years to deal with that.”

Conner continued with his art work and films, even making short films for Devo, David Byrne and Brian Eno. In his later years, Conner returned to the many themes of his early life and work, but still kept himself once removed from greater success and fame. He died in 2008.

Towards the end of his life he withdrew his films from circulation, as he was “disgusted” when he saw badly pixelated films bootlegged and uploaded on YouTube. Conner was prescriptive in how his work should be displayed and screened. All of which is frustrating for those who want to see Conner’s films outside of the gallery, museum or film festival, and especially now, when so much of his originality and vision as a film-maker and artist has been copied by others.
 

‘Mea Culpa’ - David Byrne and Brian Eno.  Directed by Bruce Conner
 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

‘The Loving Trap’: brilliant Adam Curtis parody


 

Posted by Paul Gallagher
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06.25.2011
04:37 pm
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