Archive for April, 2008

Music on Film

Posted in Uncategorized on April 28, 2008 by pulmyears

This weekend I finally got around to watching the Ramones documentary, End Of The Century, on DVD. I had missed it when it came out – I suspect that it had a limited theatrical run outside of the festival circuit -and always knew it would be a DVD rental someday. Well I though it was a great, if depressing, documentary about one of the most important bands in the history of rock. Yes, I said that. One of the most important bands in the history of rock. Think about it, without the Ramones, no Clash, no Sex Pistols and certainly no Green Day, maybe even no Replacements or Husker Du or even Nirvana. I even hear Ramones in power pop bands like The Smithereens- listen to “A Girl Like You” and tell me Pat DiNizio isn’t in the Joey Ramone register. The story of the band is, like I said, a dismal and depressing affair. By the time the film debuted, in 2003, Joey was already dead from Lymphoma. Dee Dee had OD’d shortly after his last interview in the movie and Johnny died a year after the film was made. A quote on the DVD box says he saw the film and found it disturbingly accurate. I learned a lot about the Ramones, and I thought I knew a lot about them already, they were very important in my household (I still remember how if my older brother Peter was having a rough day, he’d run up to his room, slam the door behind him, and play “Blitzkrieg Bop” on his stereo as if to blast the angst away). And yet it was, like white suburban blues, happy music that took your disappointment and made you feel positive, somehow in control of a world gone mad.

I had no idea, back then, that Johnny was hardcore right wing Republican often at odds with Joey who was an extremely liberal activist (I don’t seem to recall Johnny beside Joey in Little Steven’s Sun City video, after all). And yet, according to the filmmakers Jim Field (I wonder if he’s related to Danny Fields?) and Michael Gramaglia, Johnny Ramone (John Cummings to his family) was the business head of the group, as essential as the drill sergeant (and protector of “the brand”) as Dee Dee (Doug Colvin) was to the true punk essence of the material. Joey (Jeff Hyman) was the geek who loved rock and roll, the male Patti Smith, who really understood the transformative power of rock and how, if you close your eyes and attack the microphone you could be your own David Johansen (young Stephen Morrissey had a similar epiphany in Manchester, resulting in the Smiths). The film also reminds one that, despite how we lionized (canonized?) them for being defiantly uncommercial, the band wanted nothing less than a big stinky NUMBER ONE HIT RECORD – which sadly they never got.

As a chaser, I rented Hedwig and The Angry Inch again (speaking of the New York Dolls) which on second viewing, I loved even more. For entirely different reasons. The nuances in John Cameron Mitchell’s performance (think Joel Gray’s Cabaret “emcee” crossed with lip smacking Cher from her TV variety years) touch a wide variety of emotions, he’s funny, he’s tragic, he’s glib, he’s poetically confessional, but he’s never less than compelling. If Bugs Bunny was a “scissor sister” then Hedwig is your, um, man?

Yes, the original Off Broadway musical that resulted in the film wouldn’t have happened without a huge debt to The Rocky Horror Picture Show although I found myself thinking more of Ken Russell’s Tommy some of the time, and a few Wim Wenders films too. The other essential truth of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the musical score by Stephen Trask, a tour de force of Jim Steinmanish proportion but with enough earnest Hunky Dory Bowie-ism and real live punk rock ferociousness that you couldn’t call it “show tunes”. It’s not a parody of rock (as, frankly the Rocky Horror Picture Show could be termed, although I love it) it’s real rock.
The question of the day then.

What are your favourite (and favorite) rock music themed films?

They can be the best music documentaries or even narrative films that use the motifs of rock. So for instance, A Hard Day’s Night is not a documentary but it could be one of the best music movies ever made. Or you could choose Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten – a great documentary about the late mainstay of the Clash.

Tell me, I really wanna know.

The Ramones – from Queens to Eternity!

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Idolatry – Just who is the American Idol target audience?

Posted in Uncategorized on April 24, 2008 by pulmyears

I decided to watch American Idol tonight, just for the heck of it. Andrew Lloyd Webber was the guest this week and everybody had to sing some of his tunes. Webber himself appeared in some awkward commentary moments looking like a cross between an upper class twit and a grotesque ventriloquists dummy (but that’s not nice of me to say, is it? Sorry). Next week they promise Neil Diamond and apparently previous weeks featured Dolly Parton and Mariah Carey. Now I actually appreciate Neil Diamond, but I’m a middle-aged songwriter. Do the kids who watch American Idol really want to see how these young singers handle Webber and Diamond? Is that something that their target audience demanded? Or is it something that the middle-aged and older producers of Idol want to foist upon them. I get it, of course, these are all well-established icons of the “Entertainment Industry”, and perhaps when we’re talking about great melodic material for the contestants, it’s better to go back to earlier times of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and London’s West End to find songs to challenge their voices. But aren’t there any stars of today who are writing big material for singers? And not just Clive Davis disciples like Alicia Keys. Open question then, who of today’s superstars would be more identifiable to the younger audience — second part of the question – is Idol not in fact aimed at the younger crowd, is it just a show for middle-aged folks to look at the young and cute newcomers handling material suited to people twice as old as them? Comment back to me, I love hearing from you!

Webber & Cowell

Webber and Cowell: Phantoms of the Pop-Era.

i Fidelity: Human Interaction in the Cyber mall…

Posted in Uncategorized on April 18, 2008 by pulmyears

Online retailers like iTunes, Amazon and other music commerce outlets offer a lot of great new conveniences, but I wonder if one of the more unfortunate, and under appreciated, repercussions of the death of bricks and mortar record stores is the total absence of human clerks. At their worst (see Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity”) music clerks were a nuisance, snobby geeks who judge their customers with a hipper than thou sneer and unfriendly demeanour. But even that chill was a form of human contact. And, in the best of circumstances, music clerks can find the music you want based on you humming a line of a song or half-remembering the words. They were experts, keen students of recorded music who could steer you not only to what you came in for but could gently guide you to something you didn’t even know about. Well, that’s all done isn’t it?

What would a live online human “music store clerk” service look like, one that interacts with the consumer, online and by phone, in real time, to perform the old style music clerk function – perhaps without the attitude. The website would have knowledgeable articles, shopping tips and guides on the site but it would also have a phone number that leads to a kind of 1 800 “call center” with live “operators” standing by 24/7 to answer questions and steer consumer’s mouses to anything and everything available online. You could hum a tune to them, or tell them what commercial you heard the song on, and the call center operators would endeavor to help you find the music. Heck, you might even have a snobby department that would sneer at you for wanting to find a Billy Joel album and try to play you the new Band of Horses instead.
True, there will be consumers who will want to navigate the cyber seas, gellin’ like Magellan, to find their own stuff just like in the brick and mortar days. But for some consumers, live interaction with human consultants could prove very popular. Not quite sure about “monetization”, i.e. who would pay and for what, or how the service could pay for its staff.

That’s the question of the day then, how would we go about making this work?
John Cusack, Jack Black, Todd Louiso and Tim Robbins in High Fidelity.

Here Comes the Soleil or Fab Four: Men in Tights!

Posted in Uncategorized on April 15, 2008 by pulmyears

I just got back from a trip to Las Vegas not for the loosest slots in town (more on the food later) but to see the Cirque Du Soleil show Love, at the Love Theatre in the Mirage hotel, a multi-media event which features the remixed sounds of my Beloved Beatles set to the Cirque’s acrobatic choreography. Brief preamble: I have never considered myself a fan of the Cirque’s mime infused style, didn’t really feel compelled to see their shows in the past and only really came out to this one because I had already been convinced about the George and Giles Martin remix, remodelling (and remastering) and because I had heard about the “speakers in your seat” which promised the best audio experience ever in the theatre. So I was skeptical, at best, about the visual component of this Love show.  Well, pardon my French, but this show is F**kin’ Great! As I said, I am lifelong Beatlemaniac (my friend Blair used to use the term “recovering Beatlemaniac” but I think last time I checked we’d both fallen back off the wagon) and I’m also a fan of deconstruction (I dig audio mash-ups, Photoshop collages analytical documentaries and long walks on the beach — sorry ladies, I’m married) So this Love show was right up my doubleback alley! (gratuitous Rutles reference there). The gymnastic, acrobatic and be-bungee corded dancers twirl and fly on hydraulically moving stages, trampolines and even inline rollerblades (the rollerbladers wear helmets obscured by black shag Beatle wigs — sounds bad but it’s awesome do to see them perform rad half-pipe maneuvers to the sounds of “Help!” , like the X Games version of the Fabs. The promised audio experience exceeded even my oft-unmet standards and I was truly drawn “inside” the music, which for a bootleg toting fan like me, was a huge treat of re-edited gems and humanizing outtakes, laughter and at times flubs. And how’s this for deconstruction? At one point the white VW “Beetle” from the cover of Abbey Road wheels itself out to center stage, whereupon it breaks in five or six panels carried by black clad dancers – get it? A Beetle deconstructed right before our eyes.  When the sound of Ringo’s vocal from “Octopus’s Garden” glides over the orchestra section from “Good Night” I felt wistful for the time when I could innocently feel that Ringo was singing to me to get to sleep back in my (blue) suburban bedroom in North York, Ontario (canada). That happy sad feeling (remember Ringo taking off in A Hard Day’s Night? Didn’t you root for the lonely outsider?) And its also in the times we hear George’s voice up front on his songs “Here Comes The Sun”, “Something” and a new version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” using an alternate Harrison take and brand new orchestration by the Martin team) just made me miss him all the more, sadly it’s been almost seven years since cancer finally stopped the quiet one and I still feel the loss like it was yesterday.  I’ve never seen anything like Love, whoever wrote and arranged the staging (which included references to both the 1941 bombing of Liverpool AND the 1969 landing of a man on the moon) really felt the sense of social as well as musical history that is wrapped in our “idea” of the Beatles – and yet, there is still room amid the bungees, light tricks and pratfalls, to celebrate the simple truth of four friends (two of them gone) whose brief union brought focus to the lives of millions – and continues to inspire (against all odds) their children and grandchildren.  I may not be rushing out to see other Cirque shows, but I’d go back to Vegas anytime for the only safe bet on the strip, Love.  And I never thought a cynic and protective Beatlemaniac like me would ever say that with a straight face.

5 Dollar Foot Long – the paradigm has long since shifted…

Posted in Uncategorized on April 8, 2008 by pulmyears

It’s no secret that commercials are to some extent the new radio. Ask Feist if the Apple “1,2,3,4” spots helped her sell a few albums. And I wonder if 70’s rock warhorse’s Foghat are getting a sales spike out of the new Carl’s Jr spots that feature their hit “Slow Ride” set to the arresting image of girl in tight jeans eating a sloppy burger on a mechanical bull – I’m not making this up. Then there’s the other side of the coin, the behind-the-scenes talent who increasingly turn to commercial work to pay the bills. I have two different songwriter friends who have both told me, quite happily, that they just got the gig to be the voice of (two different, respectively) department store chains (one of them got the Target ads in the U.S. and a Canadian friend got the Zellers chain ads). Then there’s the case of They Might Be Giants who have written about ten or so songs exclusively for Dunkin’ Donuts. You can’t miss ’em. “Fritalian” is so TMBG that I was surprised they weren’t actually IN the spot. Right now, just now actually, I heard a new song (by whom, I do not know) for Subway. The song has a really great indie pop hook, perhaps you know it. “Five…Five dollar…Five dollar foot long…” And when they sing “foot long” the chord is pure pop heaven, filled with the emotive longing of lazy days of summer – wistful is the word. Not traditional ad music at all. But that’s the point I guess. Ever since Nick Drake’s Pink Moon was used in that moonlit Volkswagen commercial — regardless of how Drake-heads felt about it, that ad generated a whole new cult of Nick Drake fans — or when Jose Gonzales’ recording (of the Knifes “Hearbeats”) was used in that Sony Bravia ad (the one with the tiny colourful balls bouncing down the hills of San Francisco) or “Half Acre,” the Hem tune on the Liberty Mutual ads, the paradigm has long since shifted. Frankly, in this DVR / TiVo world, it makes perfect sense to give me a hook to make me watch your TV ad. I find I spend a lot of time, because I care about music, searching (google and the like) out the songs used in commercials these days. Here’s my question to you (and you can comment below) What songs or artists have you “discovered” through commercials? And as a bonus, Where did you go to find out who performed it and the name of the song?

Storytelling is a key to great songwriting.

Posted in Uncategorized on April 4, 2008 by pulmyears

I was chatting on Facebook with someone I barely know. I humbly offered that Joni Mitchell’s album Blue should be mandatory listening for any songwriter (male or female) who wants to write personal, emotional songs. My “friend” pointed out that storytelling is, for the most part, a lost or at least underappreciated art. I concurred and said the following:
Even the most abstract, avant garde music only really develops a huge cult following or better, if there’s a story. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has stories, Nick Drake has stories. There’s no shame in being understood, but in the post Michael Stipe world a lot of people missed that point, emotional mumbling became vogue. Which is not to say the Stipe didn’t tell stories, but his mumbling was the impediment to his art not the sole cause of it. Notice that he soon developed a skill for articulate imagery and story telling.
My own earlier songs were all “clever” sometimes at the expense of emotional resonance because a lot of the bands and artists that I liked during the “irony age” of the late seventies and early eighties were all intellectualists. I actually stopped writing songs for a while, I believe, because I had realized that bringing another cold and clever lyric into the world was like having an unwanted pregnancy. I think I’ve evolved however, now the trap to avoid is thinking that (to quote Dennis Hopper in Search and Destroy) “just because it happened to you, doesn’t make it interesting.”

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