Monday, July 25, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #159 - Coasters – The Very Best of the Coasters

Cult filmmaker John Waters once called the Beatles “those honky Beatles who ruined rock and roll” and while I think that’s absurd (but funny) to say, I get his point. Before the Beatles made rock respectable with strings and orchestral backing, fancy time signatures and chord changes, song suites and concept albums, there was a youthful exuberance and transgressive energy that was traded in for that respectability. And The Coasters (along with their primary songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) represented that pre-Beatles rock and rock style more than just about any group on the planet.

As songwriters and producers, Lieber and Stoller were pure gold, creating 26 U.S. top 40 hits from 1954 – 1963. To put those numbers in perspective, check this: Motown powerhouses Holland Dozier Holland wrote 30 charting hits from 1963 – 1970, and the Rolling Stones had 24 top 40 hits in a comparable span from 1964 to 1973 – and Jagger/Richard didn’t even write them all. And that figure doesn’t include hit covers of these songs that the duo didn’t work directly on, like a little Elvis song called “Hound Dog,” or Dion’s #2 remake of The Drifters’ #10 “Ruby Baby.”

The Coasters began their life as The Robins, an L.A. based vocal group that Lieber and Stoller had written some hits for – most notably “Riot in Cell Block #9” and “Smokey Joe’s Café,” both included here – before relocating to Atlantic Records’ home of New York City with a slightly altered lineup. The Robins and the Coasters hits comprised a dozen of those 26 Lieber and Stoller songs to climb to the top 40. And in 1987, The Coasters became the first group (as opposed to individual or duo) to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The same year, Lieber and Stoller were also inducted for their contributions to the music.

So surely you’ve heard many of these – the #1 hit “Yakety Yak” or the #2 “Charlie Brown” (which they insist had no relation to the Charles Schulz comic strip) almost certainly, probably their first top ten “Down In Mexico” – but have you dug past the comic surface of them to get to the smarts and brilliant musicality underneath? Dig on the voices first because that’s easy: founders Carl Gardner and Billy Guy, bass men Bobby Nunn (early) and Will “Dub” Jones (after the 1957 relocation to NYC), tenor Leon Hughes (early) and Cornell Gunter (also after 1957). Dig on guitarist Adolph Jacobs, who played a vital role up through 1959 when he left to pursue a solo career. Dig on sax player King Curtis who played on many of the NYC sessions and whose sax breaks were written out for him verbatim by Lieber and Stoller. And then loop back around to realize how much musicality goes in to writing tight rock and roll songs like these: how the timing of the voices is pretty much perfect due to both the group’s talent and Lieber and Stoller’s legendary perfectionism, how Jacobs’ guitar rocks as hard as anyone of his day, how the low, honking sax in “I’m A Hog For You” is the exact right way to express the sentiment of the song. Dig how the lyrics are slyly funny throughout, yes, but also speak directly to the day to day realities of the young audience – pre-respectability, mind you – who’d be listening to this music: bad TV serials, doing your homework and chores, that cut-up Charlie Brown from school, that rock and roll nonsense your parents hate so much, and so forth. Adults making music that’s smart and sympathetic to a teen audience without condescending to them are a rare breed.

There’s not a bad cut here – hell, there’s not even a “good” cut here. From the top 10 smashes right down to minor chart hits like “I’m A Hog For You” or (my personal fave) “Shoppin' for Clothes” this is classic stuff beginning to end. Rock and roll was once synonymous with fun, and this is an instructive lesson in why.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, July 18, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #144 – Akira (1988, dir. Katsuhiro Otomo)

"The future is not a straight line. It is filled with many crossroads. There must be a future that we can choose for ourselves." -Kiyoko

Widely considered to be one the most important and influential anime films of all time, Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira is a one of a kind work of art. Released in 1988, Akira was one of the main anime films to break the genre into the American market. But all of that aside, this is one of the most interesting, beautiful, and down right cool animated films in existence. The animation is gorgeous, the plot is engaging and complex, the characters are well developed and relatable, and the action is almost unparalleled. If you are in the mood for a lighthearted, child-friendly animated movie this is most definitely not the film for you, but if you're looking for a fantastic and intriguing film that happens to be beautifully animated then by all means please don't skip this masterpiece of animated cinema.

The film opens on a silent aerial shot of Tokyo 1988 as a giant explosion occurs. We then jump to 2019 (30 years after WWIII) in Neo-Tokyo and the film takes off and doesn't stop. We are slyly introduced to the main characters of the film, who happen to be the rag tag teenage members of a biker gang led by a smooth character named Kaneda. In the first scene where we meet him and the rest of the gang, there is an obvious loving tension between him and one of the other members of the gang, Tetsuo. Kaneda is tough and commands respect, he razzes Tetsuo a little about the fact that he wasn't experienced enough to handle his bigger, impressive bike. This scene sets the tone for these two characters’ relationship throughout the film as they become the main protagonist and antagonist of the narrative. They take off and engage in an epic biker battle with their rival gang, the Clowns. After a long chase Tetsuo gets separated from the rest of the gang as he goes after a couple of the clown gang members. At this point we also get a glimpse of a strange figure running from some unseen group. He has obviously been shot and is dragging a strange looking child behind him. The tension of this situation heats up parallel to that of Tetsuo's predicament. In an odd and unexplained series of events the boy that the man was pulling along with him ends up appearing in the street in front of Tetsuo's bike. Just as Tetsuo is about to hit the boy, he is thrown from the bike and it explodes. As Kaneda and the rest of the gang find Tetsuo, a group of shady government figures, the ones who were presumably chasing after the boy, find them all. They arrest the bikers and take the boy and Tetsuo to an undisclosed location. From this point everything gets progressively more complex as we learn of the psychic powers of the strange looking boy, Takashi, and his two compatriots, Kiyoko and Masaru, and some strange and powerful change occurring within Tetsuo. And, this change has something to do with a mysterious figure named Akira.

"Heh, heh... what's happened to me? I must be dreaming. I feel like I can take out the world." - Tetsuo

This is the basic framework of the plot, however, there are a number of complex sub-plots that feed into the narrative. Tetsuo and the three psychic children, The Espers, are secluded from the rest of the characters in a strange government-run facility. They are being monitored and experimented on by a scientist while an important military Colonel keeps watch and reports to a council of politicians. Kaneda and the rest of the gang find themselves becoming involved with a mysterious group of revolutionaries, including a beautiful woman, Kei, who Kaneda has fallen for. This severe group is seeking to uncover the government secrets behind The Espers and Akira. Nothing in the film is quite what it seems. As in real life, the characters are all incredibly complex and it's hard to fully categorize any of the characters as purely protagonists or antagonists. At the heart of it this is a film about human nature and the struggle for freedom and power. Otomo who wrote and directed the film also wrote the Manga upon which the film is based, and it is obvious that he went to great length to make sure that every detail was perfectly crafted, and a film that tackles such grand topics and narratives turns out to be a brilliant success.

Taking a step back from the more heady reasons to turn you onto this film, the animation and fluidity of the action is indescribably stunning. The opening biker battle scene sets the bar for how awe-inspiring the action sequences throughout the film will be and the rest of the action consistently hits that mark. Additionally the color is vibrant, the dreary-future set designs are spectacularly crafted and the painstaking detail put into all of the characters and psychedelic, strange, and often gruesome visuals is almost beyond compare. Overall this is just one of the most amazingly animated films ever created.

In conclusion, I would love to turn you on to Akira because it is insanely awesome! Every aspect of the film, from its multifaceted, detailed, and enigmatic plot to the characters, action, and animation, truly culminates into one of the most important works of the anime genre. If you haven't had a chance to dig into the world of anime this might just be the film to pique your interest, and I certainly hope that it is because I cannot praise this film enough!

-         Edward Hill

Monday, July 11, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #158 - Frank Zappa - Lumpy Gravy

Prepare yourself for one of the most complicated and interesting stories in the history of modern popular music. In 1967 an executive from Capitol Records, impressed with The Mothers Of Invention’s first two albums, approached head Mother Frank Zappa about writing and conducting a piece of classical music for Capitol Records. The thinking was, if Zappa just conducted but didn’t play on the album he would not be in violation of his existing recording contract with MGM Records. This was extremely optimistic thinking on their part and presaged a professional life marked by almost constant lawsuits for Zappa. But I get ahead of myself. Back in 1967, Zappa took the challenge and wrote a complicated, dense, brilliant, highly listenable piece of modern classical music. He entered Capitol’s studios with a group of over 30 of the finest jazz, classical and session musicians in Los Angeles (dubbed “Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus”) and in short order recorded and edited the music down to about 23 minutes of masterpiece. It is arguably the greatest piece ever realized by Zappa. It has so many signature Zappa moments - wild leaps of time ala John Cage, matterhorns of percussion inspired by his hero Edgard Varese, jazzy interludes, soundtrack music for films never made - all edited together by Zappa with his patented disregard for standard measures of song. It simply flows from idea to idea, yet it all feels wonderfully a part of some cosmic whole. Capitol released it as a promotional 4-track tape to reviewers and industry insiders and were, of course, immediately slapped with a cease and desist order from MGM Records. (Now you want to talk about a REAL collectible - something the top Zappa collectors in the world drool over -that original 4-track tape is RARE! Hardly any of them exist and it is next to impossible to find.) So, to avoid a protracted lawsuit, Zappa takes the tapes of his masterwork and begins to reassemble them into a new and different work. He edits in some surf music, sound effects and the results of an experiment he conducted whereby various friends (including Eric Clapton and Tim Buckley) stuck their heads inside a piano and spoke closely enough to the strings that they vibrated in a strange and sympathetic way. Different parts of these weird, echo-y recordings would appear on Zappa records until the end of his life, but this is their first and most effective use. The new, re-edited version is released to the world in 1968 as Lumpy Gravy, while the original classical piece becomes the subject of rumor and desire.

Throughout the years, I have found Lumpy Gravy to be the most interesting and confounding of all Zappa releases. Re-edited, his original work is wildly audacious. He changed it from a classical piece with avant-garde leanings to an avant-garde suite that nods to classical. It is no less great. Lumpy Gravy stands alongside the most ambitious albums produced in the 1960’s in any genre. As it was released in 1968, it makes perfect sense in the arc of Zappa’s career; it is a completely weird exercise in musique concrète, but with a hip edge brought by the spoken word parts, which link the album clearly to the first Mothers Of Invention releases. In a strange way, the legal restraint of the original classical piece may have saved Zappa’s career (such as it was). If that primal composition had been given wide release, it might have been too confusing for the record buying public and in some way changed the course Zappa took moving forward. He was forced to recast the music in a more Mothers-friendly fashion, and thus, though the album is still incredibly weird, it fits in with other releases of the day.

Why have I expended so much ink discussing a project you can’t hear? Well, thanks to the Zappa family archives you can hear it now. With the release of Lumpy Money we can now hear that original piece, alongside hours of other Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It For The Money related materials from the sessions. In addition to that groundbreaking original classical piece, there are hard to find mixes of both albums, interviews, live cuts, extra session work - it is literally a treasure trove of prime-era Zappa goods. I believe this release is the most essential purchase in the entire Zappa catalog (now numbering 103 official releases). It shows Zappa as a completely self-possessed artist at only 26. He had vaulting ambition and, unbelievably, the talent and drive to see his vision come to reality (twice in this case). If however, this seems like too much to digest at once, I suggest just picking up Lumpy Gravy. It has much of what makes Frank Zappa great in the rock and roll universe, but it also shows very clearly why he simultaneously ruled other universes at the same time. He was, quite simply a one-of-a-kind musical genius with no peer, and Lumpy Gravy is ample proof.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, July 4, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #143 – Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, dir. Michael Curtiz)

People who know me know me to be fairly cynical. People who know me really well know me to have a sentimental streak a mile wide. If left to my own devices, I would probably choose to dwell exclusively in the past. Which past? A difficult question. But if push came to shove, I might just choose the past portrayed in Yankee Doodle Dandy. A biopic about the great American songwriter and entertainer George M. Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy is a sweet form of entertainment which has nothing to do with the pain, destruction and coarse realities of the modern world; it is an old-school story of American determinism and exceptionalism. The movie opens with a neat device as an older Cohan, in the midst of playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt on stage, in a play called I’d Rather Be Right, is summoned to The White House by the actual Roosevelt to be given the first Congressional Medal of Honor awarded an entertainer. After accepting the award, Cohan (played by James Cagney) tells the president his life story, and so the movie unwinds as Cohan’s early life as part of a family vaudeville act plays out. He is an unbelievably talented person from earliest childhood. But with that talent comes arrogance. He is an arrogant fool, whose foolishness is made tolerable by his talent. George quickly becomes the leader of his family act, but his hubris leads to them being shut out of work opportunities. Ultimately, the family act must break up. It is here that George M. Cohan, and the movie, begin to hit their stride. He begins to find his way and the successes start mounting up. As Cohan becomes more successful the movie becomes a vehicle for high-budget production numbers -recreations of Cohan’s original stage work - a more innocent form of entertainment than we are used to today. If you don’t like patriotic hokum, exit now.

Ultimately, Yankee Doodle Dandy is about the songs and their presentation. The cornball old songs like “Mary,” “Give My Regards To Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and of course the title song, will bring you to tears and the dance routines are literally breathtaking. But it is through these songs that Cohan’s larger message becomes clear. If one looks beyond the patriotic populism and flag-waving, these songs get to the root of American life. Topics as varied as immigration, family loyalty, humility, romantic love, and finally the American dream itself are tackled. In addition, Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of very few movies to successfully show the creation of music. We see Cohan’s inspiration, listening to a marching band on the street which, when mixed with his innate love of country and songwriting talent, produces another one of his masterpieces, “Over There.”

Most important in Yankee Doodle Dandy is James Cagney’s life-changing performance. Life-changing for himself and his audience. Shortly before this movie, Cagney, a known progressive, had been questioned by the government about possible communist sympathies. The experience left Cagney shaken. He wanted to prove his patriotism and Cohan’s story was the perfect vehicle. In addition, while making the movie in 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked, putting America into another deadly conflict. Cagney’s sincerity and true patriotism burn in every frame of this movie. I recognize that it is not “cool” to love your country anymore, but not long ago, it was not only cool, it was inspirational. Cagney gives it all he has. His dancing is a revelation, as he moves with a masculine physicality that leaves him in his own category. Cohan’s rise to the top is one of the great American success stories, and Yankee Doodle Dandy gives us that story in such a romantic, golden-age-of-Hollywood fashion, it is literally irresistible.

Ultimately, we see Cohan retire to a quiet life until he has a hilariously dated encounter with a carload of young hipsters who make him feel old, and drive him out of retirement. We are now full-circle, as Cohan finishes telling his life story to F.D.R. and starts leaving The White House. In one of the greatest scenes in Hollywood history, Cagney tap-dances down the steps of The White House before running into a marching band, leading a parade with a rousing version of “Over There.” As the country heads off to yet another World War, Cagney falls into step with the parade and we are assured that he has made a difference. It is a tremendously emotional scene and a perfect way to end this movie. Both the form of entertainment depicted and the style of movie-making are antiquated here, however none of that takes away from its overall impact. As we approach one of the most uncertain elections in American history, it feels like just the right time for a reminder of the people we once were.

-         Paul Epstein