Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Those Tasty Swedes, One Sauve Italian, and a Galaxy of Prizes

First off, a big welcome to the big Mac himself, David McIntire, now a registered reader. As I'm sure you all know, David is real, unlike various fictional Big Macs. (My favorite of these was Mac Tonight, who managed to turn a bizarre congenital deformity of the head into a short-lived career shilling for the Big Mac Supper Club. Say what you like, he was a star.)

On rereading the last entry, I realize I had not paid Abba much in the way of compliments, and all the while I was having fun with their lyrics. They were, in my opinion, very good pop writers and arrangers. Tasteful, yes, tasty Winslow, tasty. I find it kind of amusing that they are thought of primarily as a very up, happy band, but the last third or so of their career was chock full 'o' depressing lyrics about dissolving relationships, crappy dating scenes, depression, messy divorce settlements, etc. And very much inspired by real life. How the hell did they keep working together during that time? Just like the Ramones. (Mark that one on your calendar: the one and probably only time you'll hear someone suggest "Abba: just like the Ramones".) You know, long-term bad blood over relationships. OK, so with the Ramones it was over a non-band member, not within the band, but...they still went years and years playing gigs and not talking to each other. Jeez.

I was realizing the other day, once again, how much of my memory is taken up by tidbits of inane commercials from my youth. Sometimes it surfaces with no warning and no apparent provocation. Chrissy and I and the baby were driving somewhere and suddenly it came into my head: "Ham...and cheese. Everyday it's ham....and cheese." Now that's obscure and not particularly memorable, but there it was. No jingle attached to it. Jingles are fiendishly effective pnemonic devices, which might explain why I can still spout off about various L.A. area car dealerships. ("Dial, Dial, Dial Chevrolet, two blocks off the Santy Anna freeway, one one nine eight oh east Firestone, Dial Chevrolet." Yes, I know it used to be called something else- can't recall what, Hyam knows- and that the jingle was courtesy of Les Paul and Mary Ford. Or: "If you think you'd like a hand in buying a Chevy today, come on down to discount land, Cormier Chevrolet [cue corny heartworming- er, warming- harmonica]". Sometimes it was simply an astonishingly poetic turn of phrase: "A beautiful place to lease or buy your beautiful car...Bob Spreen Cadillac...Where the freeways meet in Downey." It didn't have a jingle, but it had a kind of magical swirly harp "Calgon-take-me-away" music behind it; and it was uttered as though to help you picture the distant and wondrous land of Downey. Think about this for a minute: it was the place where the freeways meet. I mean....wow! That's a big deal! That's like, super crossroads or something. Over the mountains of the moon, if you search for an El Dorado.

(A side note: I'd originally thought about naming the "Driving Life" trilogy, from "Tales Of Today...", "Where The Freeways Meet In Downey". As happens to me fairly often, I decided to go with something less specific, but it still comes into my head every time I hear one of those pieces.)

It was a discussion about lame commercials of the '70s which led Splatt Winger, host of KXLU's "Brain Cookies", to dub me "The Hans the Woodcrafter of the guitar". We were at X=Art, a short-lived but truly fun and memorable club, and I don't recall how the subject of commercials came up. We went through various classics, like the dancing musical "Cup-o-Soup" commercial, and the switch to the nauseatingly conformist "I'm a Pepper" from the more likeable, underachieving "Dr. Pepper, So Misunderstood...". There were the commercials that led to careers, like the bank commercial that brought both the Carpenters and Paul Williams to prominence through "We've Only Just Begun"...Or another bank commercial that rocketed Sandy Duncan to short-lived fame, or Rodney-Allen Rippey ("I can't, I got...unh..."). There was the Coke commercial that led to the "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing" hit. And then somehow I brought up Hans the Woodcrafter, and Splatt let out a hollering "Yes! Yes!" of recognition. We ran through our memories and checked them against each other, for the delivery, the dialogue ("Carnuba and monton!", "Look at that shine!", etc.), and whether or not Hans was played by Bo Svennson (we decided we thought he was). Why we were so excited about this is pretty near impossible to explain, but we were. This is the kind of thing where, if you get it, you get it, and if you don't, you take a step back or two back and excuse yourself. In retrospect it doesn't seem very rational. But then I've only been accused of that on rare occasions.

But anyway, Splatt said, "Well, that's it. Dude- you ARE Hans. From this day on, you are the Hans the Woodcrafter of the guitar, the only guitarist with both carnuba and monton." There was no point in arguing, I'd been dubbed.

The other night, once again for no reason I can recall, another product of the advertising arts invaded my thoughts; a mythical fella named Aldo Cella. He was this short guy with a mustache, looked like Dennis Franz or my brother Jeff, all decked out in a white suit and a white hat, with various beautiful women pawing at him saying "Aldo...Aldo!"etc., like he's the first guy to figure out what to do with a clit. A total "Seven Beauties" takeoff. He makes his way to a bottle of Cella wine, opens it, and to the camera, he smiles, looks up through the caresses of his laidy- er, lady friends, and says, "Chill a Cella!" Very heavy on the Guido, when the guy was probably from Pasadena. Hadn't thought about this in years, but...there it was again. Meanwhile there's always things in my immediate environment that won't stay in my head five minutes. Gives me a feeling of dread, truth be told; alzheimer's runs in the family. But I can push back the fear and cover it up, along with all sorts of other things, with babbling inanities that make me laugh:"Aldo...Aldo!!! Aldo!!"

In the far distant time of my first decade, I can recall the wonders of cheap commercials on the cheapest of the local L.A. stations, channel 13. They had a giveaway contest called "KCOP's Galaxy Of Prizes", and the commercial involved a large poster, and zooming in at various speeds on various parts of it. The opening had the wonderful bad sound of a worn-out 8mm school film: "You can WIN!!!" (A warbly fanfare sounds.) "Fabulous PrrEYE-zezzz!!!" (More warbly fanfare.) "With KCOP's Galaxy of Prizes-zez-zezez......" Meanwhile, the camera is twisted side to side and zoomed in and out from the promo poster, until at the end, someone spins the poster very quickly in front of the camera. Imagine the worst possible version of what I'm describing and you'll probably have a pretty good idea of what it looked like. Now the commercial went on to show fuzzy close-up shots of little print ads for their various advertisers. "Spend a night on the Riviera...convertible sofa that is!" "Win a fabulous mink stole!" [breathy woman's voice:] "From Mannis furs...". etc. The Riviera folks had their own commercials, as did several of the Galaxy of Prizes sponsors. Chrissy eventually learned to understand the absurdity of me saying, out of
nowhere "I spent a night on the Riviera- convertible SOFA, that is!" She will sometimes say this to me out of nowhere too. And I like it.

Friday, February 5, 2010

more on Stein, Dementia 13, etc.

I've been listening more to the Ronald Stein CD and feel there's more to say about it. Of course, I'm doing this in the dining room, while my girl plays and hopefully entertains herself. This kind of autonomy is not entirely new, but I'm just starting to get comfortable doing things and not being fully interactive with her. She is helped by the large boombox we have in our dining room, which can be set to infinite repeat. It got set that way about two, maybe even three months ago and hasn't gone off since. This has been a test of my patience, and I feel I have passed with flying colors. Why so sure of myself? Let's see what's been in the player.

There were the two discs of the Fisher-Price "Little People" 50th birthday set; these are sung in character by the voiceover actors who do the animated Little People shorts. Before the play button was first pressed, I made a little bet in my head, with no one in particular, that there would be lots of perky surf/mashed-potato beats, which I tend to hate (unless accompanied by something adequately ripping, a la Dick Dale et al). People who do music for kids, and who do family-oriented or "fun" commercials, always find this particular rhythm an essential. The accompanying smarminess makes the whole thing that much worse, like somebody giving you a wet willie with hot sauce. (UK readers be advised: wet willie in the states refers to having someone stick a wet finger in your ear when you're not expecting it. In UK slang of course, a wet willie could be a very good thing, depending on the moisture source.) Of course the guess was a no-brainer, and the album was full of examples of smarm-surf-potato (both discs). So I first had to learn to hear around that. Then there were some awful cover tunes, such as Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" and the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine". The topper for me is when Farmer Jed goes to the beach with the Little People and sings Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" (in character, of course). That one was actually a turning point for me; it was too funny to stay annoyed at. The rest of the album sort of fell into line behind that, and I mellowed out. My kid loved the whole thing right off, of course. Is it still five kinds of lame all at once? Oh yeah. But I get to do the chicken dance with my girl, both of us flapping our folded arms and making chicken sounds, every time it comes on. Sometimes we play it multiple times in a row.

Next up, with Chrissy's help, she discovered Abba. Now, I never had any beef with Abba, but they were never top of my hit parade either. I felt they were harmless fun. But anything played that many times in a row might get a bit grating after a while. I simply learned to tune it out and make it background. Of course the ear/mind combo tends to play tricks on me after a while, and my inner Norm Crosby goes to work.

"What a loo"....

As it turns out, that's what's on now, the Abba CD, by request.

But after Abba, Chrissy turned her on to Duran Duran. Again, no major beefs, and some of their stuff I actually like a lot. Other tracks took a bit of tuning out, but I found myself dissecting the writing, the production, etc. While I found that some of it initially remained borderline annoying and gave me that "quick, change the station" feeling- until I managed to tune it out- all of it was fascinating to pick apart, and some of it really raised my opinion of the band and their talents. The one that really grabbed me was "Ordinary World", which I never paid any attention to when it came out, but which I now think is a very well written, arranged and performed track. Emphasis on the writing; it's not only far ahead of what a lot of their contemporaries were doing, it's way better than a lot of what even they were doing. But they did have a good track record, so it's not that huge of conceptual leap to imagine. It's not as jarring as, say, a useless tosser of a band like Bon Jovi turning out the melodically and harmonically superb "Wanted Dead Or Alive" (the lyrics live down to the rest of the band's output, however).

Meanwhile here, Abba plays on in the background.

"How can I ever refuse
I feel like I win when I'm loose"....

Where did we come in? Oh yeah, back to Ronald Stein. The two highlight sections of the album are the "Dementia 13" pieces and the tracks from "Spider Baby". The Spider Baby tracks are a highlight because they're fun, especially the last two, which feature in-studio chatter between Lon Chaney Jr., who sings the title track, and Ronald Stein, who is producing him through the recording. Can't say too much without giving it away but it's hilarious. Then, on to the title track itself, which is no less funny. Goofy and creepy at the same time, much like the film.

But man..."Dementia 13" is REALLY a standout, not just on this album but possibly in the guy's whole career. Most of the album sounds like what it was meant to be- good horror movie music. But it's fairly conventional, almost to the point of being cliche'. Here, I think Stein is probably a victim of his own success; he did so many of these, that, like book cover artist Richard Powers, he appears to be an entire wave or period of a genre all by himself. You might have thought that at one time, all horror soundtracks sounded like this, or in Powers' case, all science fiction and horror paperbacks looked a certain way; when in both cases, it was one prolific artist creating the impression of an era in commercial art. But "Dementia 13" is a whole 'nuther ball 'o'wax. The most direct comparison might be to Herrmann's Psycho soundtrack, and there are certainly some similarities. But Stein's work goes into some really adventurous territory, with prominant discordant harmonies for the melody line, big bold punches for the ax murders, the creepiest harpsichord ever recorded...amazing stuff. I am so tempted to drag the main title theme into my digital studio and do my own remastering of it...not that the existing one isn't terrific, it is; I've never heard this music sound so good, in fact I'd say it's pristine. But the dynamics are a little different than how I hear them in my head, and I'd love to tamper with it and make it more obviously the raging powerhouse it deserves to be. This, in essence, makes me co-conductor, but it's for me so WTF.

"Did you brush your gums Fernando
For gingivitis is a terrible disease
And it can rob you of your teeth
Before your time..."

The movie "Dementia 13" is no less superb, and has been one of my top 3 favorite horror films for many years. (The other two are the original versions of "Carnival Of Souls" and "The Haunting".) It's the only one of the three to have any gore, and even at that, by today's standards it's pretty tame. It's the overall product- acting, lighting, music, editing, script- that makes it so good. I don't know if Francis would agree today, but I'd rate it in another top 3- one of his best three pics. (The other two being the first two Godfathers combined as one- OK, cheating, sue me- and Apocalypse Now.) It just barely beats out "The Conversation" for inclusion. That's a kicker too, highly recommended.

"Chicken Tikka you and I know..."

All right, it's time to move this party downstairs. Bye bye for now, Abba. Nap time for the kid, possibly for me.

Downstairs, turn on the tube...What's this? Perry Mason (a favorite- great cinematography and guests). Wait, who's that, playing the wacky heiress, and this episode's focus? It's Mary Mitchel, who played the "good girl" in "Dementia 13"! Cool! (And she was also in "Spider Baby"!) The gods of reruns and syndication and synchronous references have smiled upon this endeavor. Huzzah!


Well, predictably, I've slacked up a bit here on posting. But I'm here again, so let's start off by welcoming Mike, and congratulating him and Tonya on the arrival of Geoffrey! Got the pic today, thanks, it's now on my fridge. He's off to a great start.

Also, let's welcome Jerry, glad to have you here. Hope the book is going well.

Nice to see the readership grow, I'm up to nearly half my listeners now!

OK, err...uhh....content, content, gotta have new content....

I got a CD in the mail today that I've been wanting for a couple of years now: "Not Of This Earth: The soundtrack music of Ronald Stein". This guy counts as a major influence on me, even just based on his work for "Dementia 13", Francis Coppola's first mainstream flick. My first memory of that goes back to around the age of 4, when they started to show it pretty faithfully on t.v. in L.A. I have early recordings I did with a couple of friends where I initiated a jam based on riffs inspired by that soundtrack. That's music that prepared me for things like "Lark's Tongues" and "Red". But not only is "Dementia 13" on there, but so is "Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman", "The
Terror", "Attack Of The Crab Monsters", "Not Of This Earth", "Spider Baby", and others. He worked a lot for American International (AKA Roger Corman and friends). So this guy's stuff was going through my ears and writing its way into my brain functions long before I knew who he was, and more frequently than I ever realized.

That was a nice thing about t.v. back in the 60s and 70s, you could usually see at least one decent horror or science fiction movie a day, especially if you were willing to get up in the middle of the night to do it- or were already awake. The t.v. was usually on in at least one room in whatever place we happened to be living in. (I lived in 17 places before my 11th birthday.) L.A. stations not only had a great library of Hollywood movies from the 30s on up, but we also got a lot of dubbed Mexican horror, some of which was great fun. "Brainiac" or "Curse Of The Puppet People", anyone? How about "The Aztec Mummy", who was so slow he made Kharis from the Universal pics look like he was racewalking? (The Aztec mummy's given name was Popoca, but to me he was, and shall remain, Slopoca.)

It's not just music I picked up from horror/science fiction/fantasy on t.v., but also sounds. They've been showing the original Outer Limits on a local station here late at night, and they recently had on the one with Barry Morse and Carol O'Connor, where they're undercover Martians going to witness a murder. They have a machine that tweaks time back and forth, so they can sort of rewind events, or watch them in slow or fast motion. The sound the machine makes when it's turned on can now also be heard on the Dog Neutral set, because I found out how to mimic it pretty closely on guitar. Obviously it was done in a totally different way originally- sounds like something with an interesting envelope and decay turned backwards. So many great sounds in these old movies and shows, things like the flying saucers stuttering and crashing in "Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers", or the death ray sound in "War Of The Worlds". How about the ant sound in "Them"? At the Jr. College I went to, I used to hear something very similar to that coming from behind a locked door, but couldn't figure out what was making it. Then one day I saw it open, for maintenance. It was apparently some large cooling system, and what I was hearing was a very squeaky and large fan belt (probably 3 ft. from flywheel to flywheel). Great sounds are everywhere, you never know where you'll find them or where they'll turn up. But I'm probably more attuned to that than most because I grew up watching horror and science fiction on t.v., and those films, regardless of budget, had more inventive sound
designs than almost any other kind of picture. The content demanded it.

Would we have space rock without space movies and shows? Seems unlikely to me.

Listening to a lot of Le Orme lately. They may be my favorite Italian prog band. Great stuff. Back when I was first starting to play (drums), I had an 8-track of the English language version of "Felona and Serona" (English lyrics by Peter Hammill!). Played that sucker religiously, that whole first summer I had my kit. Looking forward to the arrival of my other mail order purchase, "Sync Or Swarm", a book about improvisation by David Borgo. Looks great. Currently making my way through "Modern Times", a book about the historical context of 20th century music. Well at least classical music. One day someone will take on a more comprehensive view, which I think is a must, but this is still very interesting.

Well, I'd best finish my evening- due up with the munchkin in the morning. Hats off to all.