Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Top 5 Greatest Use of Rock Songs in (Non-Rock) Films of All-Time.

From the moment that 1955's Blackboard Jungle featured Bill Haley & the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" & propelled it to become rock & roll's first #1 hit, rock & film have always made for ideal bedfellows.

There's something about a good song that can conjure up mood & feel in a way that a thousand pages of dialogue cannot, just as there is something powerful about the way film imagery is composed that can push an already-remarkable song over the top.  Even songs that stand alone as bonafide classics can evoke wonderful film moments in their own right—just think of The Beatles' "Twist & Shout" in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" in Dirty Dancing, or even Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" in Wayne's World. Heck, movies like American Graffiti & Dazed & Confused take this phenomenon & build an entire film it, such that they are almost their own mini-genre.  (In hindsight, all this begs the question of not why did MTV come along, but rather, how did it not come sooner?)

But with thousands of classic instances of rock music & film coming together—there are literally a dozen examples in Wes Anderson's films alone—the idea of ranking the very best is an insanely daunting & impossible task. Not that that's ever stopped me before. What follows is my Top 5 list of the greatest use of rock songs in non-rock films, which is to say, "regular films," i.e., not musicals, documentaries, or concert films. (That is—& will be—a list unto itself.)

These are not necessarily the greatest songs or the greatest films, but rather, an attempt to find the perfect marriage between a great song & a great film, such that they form a synergy unique to what each is capable of providing on its own.

To quote David Bowie—himself no stranger to music & film—it is a matter of "sound & vision."

5. "Everybody's Talkin'" by Nilsson, Midnight Cowboy (1969).

There is a flipside of failure to the American Dream that is so repressed, we often forget that the success of the American Dream—as opposed to its failure—is the exception, not the rule. No film captures this better than Midnight Cowboy, starring Jon Voight as a dumb hunk from Texas who heads to New York City in search of fortune by becoming a gigolo for rich Manhattan ladies, only to decline into impoverishment & failure. Weaving in & out of the film's opening like a ribbon of highway, Nilsson's definitive reading of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" plays like an elusive golden ring, summing up the American Dream in 11 words or less: "I'm goin' where the sun keeps shinin', through the pouring rain..."

4. "The End" by the Doors, Apocalypse Now (1979).

Throughout 1967's "Summer of Love," The Doors' self-titled debut sat lodged behind the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the US charts, an ominous harbinger of the dark days of 1968 & 1969 ahead. The LP's unforgettable finale is where Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now begins—"The End," a psychological nightmare of unconscious fears & desires, thus making it a perfect match for Apocalypse Now's Vietnam War reading of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The horror of war is matched only by Coppola's beauty of editing, until all of the madness & failure resolve in Jim Morrison's haunting prophecy: All the children are insane.

3. "Mrs. Robinson" by Simon & Garfunkel, The Graduate (1967).

Perhaps the greatest example of a great song coming from a great film. The Graduate was a watershed moment in the partnership of rock & film, as the movie featured several recent Simon & Garfunkel songs—most notably, "The Sound of Silence" in the airport moving-ramp opening—but it was the new tune that ended up getting all of the attention. Originally conceived as some bouncy filler for Dustin Hoffman to drive his Alfa Romero to, "Mrs. Robinson" proved so effective that Simon & Garfunkel were called into the studio to complete the song, which went on to become their second #1 hit. Check out the stripped-down original version (starting here at 6:24), which catches the song at the crossroads between the throwaway afterthought it was & the classic rock staple it became.

2. "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John, Almost Famous (2000).

It's 1973, & rock & roll had reached the end of its 1st Golden Age. In the place of rock giants like the Beatles, the Stones, & Hendrix, hip bands were fighting to become the "next big thing" as pop stars like Elton John came in to fill the gap, while further driving the wedge between rock & pop. Almost Famous is about a fictional rock band trying to weather this era, internally & externally, as seen through the eyes of the wunderkind boy reporter who covers their tour for Rolling Stone. No scene sums this up better than the jaded-turned-exuberant singalong to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," capped by the film's famous "You are home" line. Writer-director Cameron Crowe, who spent his teenage years covering bands for Rolling Stone in this era, once said the film was 90% nonfiction. One imagines that if this scene didn't happen in real life, it should have.

1. "Born to Be Wild" by Steppenwolf, Easy Rider (1969).

In compiling this list, I was struck by how many film/song combinations utilized motion. "Everybody's Talkin'" caught Jon Voight walking (& later riding on a National bus) en route to the Big City, "Mrs. Robinson" had Dustin Hoffman driving his Alfa Romero, & "Tiny Dancer" found its cast singing on a tour bus; even Apocalypse Now's use of "The End" was effective because of its ability to conjure the mad psychological restlessness of a war veteran's mind.

But the rock-song-using-film to end all rock-song-using-films is 1969's Easy Rider, about a long, strange motorcycle trip to run drugs from one end of the country to the other. Of course, the "plot" (or lack thereof) is little more than an excuse to document the counterculture's obsession with rock, drugs, & film. Some parts hold up better than others, but no one can deny the power of this opening sequence when Peter Fonda & Dennis Hopper first hit the road to the tune of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild."

Quite simply, no song has better captured the feeling of breaking out onto the open road better than "Born to Be Wild," & no film has illustrated it better than Easy Rider.

Just try to not think of it the next time you kick it into high gear on the highway.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Clash's "Bankrobber": An Appreciation.

The Clash's "Bankrobber" is one of those rare songs in which nothing should work, but everything somehow does.

It's a reggae song by a punk band.  It runs well over 4 minutes without ever changing rhythm, tempo, dynamics, or melody.  Its lyrics are meandering—even pointless at worst—with verses & refrains all but interchangeable, rendering any inherent structure meaningless.  With all of these elements, the song feels long & repetitive, almost to the level of deadening.

& yet, it's a masterpiece.

Released by the Clash in the August of 1980—the first new music after their artistic pinnacle of the previous December's London Calling—"Bankrobber" was put out as a stand-alone single.  It reached #12 on the UK pop charts, which makes it the biggest hit on their native soil outside of the anthemic #11 "London Calling" & their sole #1 hit, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go."

Along with "Rock the Casbah"—their next best-charting UK single at #15 & their only Top 10 American hit—"London Calling" & "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" are perhaps their most popular, easily-recognized songs.  It feels intuitive that these songs did so well; it makes sense.  But "Bankrobber" is something else entirely.  It is not famous, iconic, or influential—by comparison, it is a deep-cut, a well-kept secret among those in the know.  Without being tied to a classic album like London Calling, there is no vehicle by which people can discover it (like "Guns of Brixton" or "Lost in the Supermarket"); with the band being inactive & no major covers of it, there is no way for it to become a classic-in-hindsight (like David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" or Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," brought to light by Nirvana & Jeff Buckley, respectively).  Viewed this way, "Bankrobber" is like its titular outlaw—a song without a country.

It turns out that the outlaw figure is the key to unlocking the song. Despite the song's punk performers, reggae sound, & '80s production touches, it is a folksong at its root, far more in common structurally to Bob Dylan's "Girl from North Country" or Paul Simon's "Kathy's Song" than anything the Sex Pistols ever released—& far more in common thematically with Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd" or the even older "Jesse James" ballad than anything on The Harder They Come soundtrack.  Spiritually it goes back even further, pitched between Kelly Harrell's "Charles Guiteau" & the Carter Family's "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man," which appear consecutively on the third side of Harry Smith's Anthology of [Old, Weird] American Folk Music. "Bankrobber" has the sing-a-long come-uppance of "Guiteau" (about a madman who shoots the president & is hanged for it) & the melodic grace of the "Hardy" (about a railroader who shoots an unnamed man & is hanged for it), but none of either song's violence. After all, the first thing we're told after "My daddy was a bankrobber" is "But he never hurt nobody," as though to reassure the listener.  If the Clash were to hear "Guiteau" & "Hardy," I think they'd be less drawn to the sensationalism of the violence (which would be the American focus) & more interested in the people to whom the violence was done. I mean, it's hard to imagine a bigger range in social standing than the President of the United States & a random railroad worker, & the interchangeability of each figure in their respective song are the underlying secret that most closely ties them to "Bankrobber." 

* * *

It is in this way that, unlike the American folk ballad tradition, where the outlaw is a central figure from which any revelations about the class system must emerge, the Clash are product of a country where the class system is the central obsession, & thus, the source from which any revelations about the outlaw figure must emerge.  But just as they do with rock & roll, the Clash take the American outlaw & grab it by the throat, shaking it down & internalizing it until it becomes less a figure to condemn or glorify than it does simply a means of escape.

It's little wonder that the outlaw is everywhere in the Clash's finest work. Born out of Robin Hood's "wealth distribution" (as mentioned in "White Man (in Hammersmith Palais)"), revived by Jimmy Cliff's Ivan in the reggae film The Harder They Come (as name-checked in "Guns of Brixton"), & epitomized by Stagger Lee (as heard in the unrestrained, ridiculous false start of "The Wrong 'Em Boyo"), the outlaw was a very real thing for the Clash. "Bankrobber" is the internalization of these 3 figures — the British Robin Hood, the Jamaican Ivan, & the American Stagger Lee—as heard in the song's perfect everything/nothing refrain:

My daddy was a bankrobber
But ever hurt nobody
He just loved to live that way
& he loved to steal your money

Central to the song is its sense of romanticism.  As previously noted, there is no violence in the song, as opposed to what one might find in source material like The Harder They Come or latter-day outlaw gangsta rappers like Tupac & Notorious B.I.G.  Compared with these heavy cultural products, "Bankrobber" sounds like the folksong that it is—not afraid to look death in the eye but doing so in a way that feels oddly distanced & refreshing.

For, unlike so many other Clash songs, the lyrics to "Bankrobber" are not overly preachy or targeted, they merely set the scene in which the song inhabits.  Like a folksong, the verses feel less like a set narrative than they do a stream-of-conscious collection of ideas, train cars that can be linked in almost any order.  Sometimes the verses repeat, sometimes the rhymes don't match up, sometimes a word is used twice in lieu of a rhyme.  It often sounds like somebody making it up as they go along.

Consider then, what I believe to be the creative apex of the song—its center, in which 3 lovely verses float by in an exercise of all that is random yet perfect in the song:

The old man spoke up in a bar
Said, "I never been in prison—
A lifetime serving one machine
Is ten times worse than prison."

Imagine if all the boys in jail
Could get out now together
Whadda you think they'd want to say to us?
While we were being clever.

Someday you'll meet your rocking chair
'Cus that's where we're spinning
There's no point to wanna comb your hair
When it's grey & thinning.

I hear it less as a set of interconnected verses than I do an unintended narrative.  If we take the Clash at their word (& the Clash are nothing of not literalists), the old man at the bar can mean "the old man," as in, "My daddy," i.e., the Bankrobber.  It makes sense that he never went to prison (he never hurt nobody) & his wisdom about "serving one machine" could be either the life that drove him to bank robbing or a metaphor for the society that gave him the job in the first place.

His mind shifts to an old man's dream of the boys in jail getting out together, which in turn leads to one of the strangest moments in a song made up of them.  The old man doesn't want to judge, lecture, dismiss, or scheme.  In fact, he doesn't want to speak at all.  He wants to turn the scenario around to hear what the boys in jail have to say to us—"while we were being clever" (whatever that means).  It's a very civil & noble act, & one that takes a group of people easily stereotyped as beasts & humanizes them, giving them strength, validity, & perhaps honor.  It is a question that sets up an impossible answer, doubling back on its own question.  What would they want to say to us?

The old man then seems to address the boys in jail, warning them of old age & bringing the song back to the motifs of boys in jail & old men in bars; of youth & aged; of fathers & sons. Again, there is a touch of weirdness—a rocking chair that spins?—which makes it feel all the stranger & deeper.  & then come the devastating, comic, blunt final lines that sum up image, age, & rock better than any line outside of Pete Townshend's "Hope I die before I get old."

By the time the final new lyrics come at the song's end about being able to find "that hole-in-the-wall," it doesn't matter if it's the slang for a bar or a literal hole-in-the-wall that the Bankrobber uses to get his stash, because the two have already become one.

* * *

So what do we have here?

A song about the English class system centered around a version of a folk hero—invented in England (Robin Hood), glorified in America (Stagger Lee), & revitalized in Jamaica (Ivan)—in a UK punk band's reggae song with weird synth flourishes, in which the verses & refrains collapse into each other until the two become one, all comprised of the same melody, until the whole thing becomes one big circle, like the record that plays the song.

& herein is the song's strange power: It's a song about classless society that itself is built like one.  Verses & refrains are the peaks & valleys of popular music, with the verses almost always playing second-class citizens to the big & all-important refrains.  But in "Bankrobber," it's not quite that simple.  In this verse, the first verse is the refrain—or one of the refrains, since it's not even the only "verse" to repeated in full—thus leading to a breakdown, if you will, of the song's inherent class structure.

As such, the melody doesn't change, the rhythm doesn't change, the tempo doesn't change, the feel doesn't change. What makes it seem deceptively flat is the same thing that gives it its strength — every part leans equally on the other, nothing rising to the surface.

Wait, did I say nothing rising to the surface? Spoke too soon. Because this song would be nothing without Joe Strummer singing his most passionate &—yes—beautiful performance. His conviction is the engine that runs this train, seeing through all aspects of sound, vision, & vibe.

There's so much more that can be touched upon—the weird, shooting synthesizer blasts that sound like a futuristic space-age Star Wars, the ominous; wordless choruses that sound like the ancient song of moaning monks; the way the words bob & weave around the music, obscuring pronouns & blurring verbs; hell, even the way the guitarist does that weird strum rhythm once in the opening & then only after the line "jazz it up," as though he is jazzing it up to illustrate the lyrics; & on; & on; & on.  Like the finest rock & roll—"Like A Rolling Stone" or "Louie Louie"—this is a song in which you can pick up something new every time you hear it, or hear it a new way that makes you pick up something old, or something that you didn't know was there, or something that never was there but you imagined.  Which is all just to say, it keeps going.

For, like the record it plays on, this is a circular song; as Greil Marcus wrote of Clarence Ashley's epic reading of the folksong "The Coo-Coo," this is a song in which the beginning & end feel false; this is a song that goes on forever. Is it any wonder that "Bankrobber" opens with an awkward drum fill that doesn't really even set the tempo & ends with the central "verse/refrain" that takes it back to the end of the beginning of the end?

My daddy was a bankrobber...

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Top 5 Greatest Rock Cover Songs of All-Time.

Rock & roll, like all of American culture, is built upon theft.

White stealing from black, who steal back from white, who steal back from black, & on & on until the concept of authenticity is left behind as an empty joke.

Not coincidentally, some of the finest rock songs are covers — many of which have become so popular that they eclipse the original versions.  It's kinda like Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" theory about how William Shakespeare is so influential, he swallows the entire canon of everything that came before him.  Thus, perhaps a hundred bands have covered Richard Berry's old B-side "Louie, Louie" before the Kingsmen got to it, but you'd never know — virtually every recording since has been a reaction to the Kingsmen, not to Berry.  (I'd wager to bet that even the ones that aren't are purposely trying to sidestep the Kingsmen to get to Berry, which would still be a reaction — albeit indirect — to the Kingsmen, but I digress.)

In compiling this list of the greatest cover songs, I went for the old "anxiety of influence" bit — songs that swallowed the canon that came before them.

As always, I had to set up at least one major guideline: In this case, both the original & the cover had to be within the rock & soul genre(s).  If I hadn't done this, virtually the entire Led Zeppelin catalogue (along with some of the best parts of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, & arguably any white person who ever picked up a guitar & played a song in the twelve-bar blues format) would be fair game.  That seemed unnecessary — and tedious.  By the same rationale, a song like Janis Joplin's "Me & Bobby McGee" is out because it's a cover of a Kris Kristofferson's country original; same goes for the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn," because its based on a Pete Seeger folksong.

The whole blues cover concept itself could be its on list (or several — one for Delta blues, one for electric blues...).  But for now, I'm gonna to stick with this list, from rock to roll, from roll to soul, from soul to rock. With lotsa weird twists & turns in between.

5.  "Blue Suede Shoes."

Original: Carl Perkins, 1956 (#2 Pop; #2 R&B; #1 C&W)

Cover: Elvis Presley, 1956 (#20 Pop)

Elvis has long gone down in popular memory as "the boy who stole the blues" — the quintessential young white kid (Huck) who took the music of an older black generation (Jim) & rode the raft of success downstream to wealth & fame.  But like so many things associated with Elvis, the simplest parts of the story become the most complicated.  Yes, Elvis "stole" the music from black blues singers, but also white blues singers, & in this case, white "Blue Suede Shoes" singers. A natural hit by his once Sun label-mate Carl Perkins, Elvis's version would be among his finest recordings. In fact, growing up in a post-Elvis world, it is hard to hear any version other than Elvis's, which has so eclipsed Perkins that I have never once heard Perkins' version (or any of his other songs for that matter) played on oldies radio. In covering it, Elvis somehow seemed to erase Perkins, at least in popular knowledge.

Ironically, the reverse was true about the song initially. Not wanting to eclipse his old label-mate, Elvis purposely did not release the song as a single, instead issuing it as a lead track on an EP (which still made it to #20 on the singles chart). Meanwhile, at the time Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" chased Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel" up the charts — with publicity largely funded by the money Sun Records made from selling Elvis — until "Heartbreak Hotel" edged it out from the top spot. But ever since, it's been Elvis's song, & it's easy to hear why — his rocks where Perkins' simply waddles & struts. Hearing them side-by-side, Perkins' version sounds like the safer, country music of rock & roll's past, while Elvis's races ahead full-throttle into the wild, driving sound of rock's future.

4.  "Louie, Louie"

Original: Richard Berry, 1957 (Did not chart)

Cover: The Kingsmen, 1963 (#2 Pop)

In our politically-correct, post-global cultural economy, there's a story we like to tell ourselves that has become such a cliche, it was mocked in the old Rutles: All You Need Is Cash mock-rockumentary almost 35 years ago: Rock & roll passes from the older black generation to the younger white one, & if the newer version is more, well, rocking, the old one can be held up as purer, more—here we go—authentic. But what if this story isn't true?  What if the black music is the nebulous template & it requires the white music to improve upon & fully realize it?  Well then, my friend, I would say you have entered the realm of "Louie Louie."  As previously noted, "Louie Louie" was written by Richard Berry, who initially released it as a fine, if unremarkable, B-side. & it sounds like it. One of a thousand filler songs that took no time to write & were thrown in at the end of a session just to make sure the disc had a flip.

But jump a few years ahead to the Kingsmen version & you have the perfect/imperfect garage-rock/proto-punk masterpiece: Recorded in one take by a band led by the singer (who garbles the lyrics beyond recognition such that people thought he was swearing) & the drummer (who can't land the groove such that it sounds like the whole thing is one sloppy fill, a frustration which, by the way, does culminate in a swear—check the just-barely-audible "fuck!" at the 0:56 mark), all straitjacketed by the classic organ riff that is just junky enough to all but preface the punk barre-chord, but just arty enough to be channeled by Frank Zappa every time he sought to invoke everything amazing (which is to say, stupid) about rock & roll.  The Kingsmen record is one of the few rock songs I can never grow tired of hearing; for Richard Berry's original, however, I have to make an effort to get through it a single time.

3.  "Twist & Shout"

Original: The Isley Brothers, 1962 (#17 Pop; #2 R&B)

Cover: The Beatles, 1963 (#2 Pop)

So much has been attributed to the Beatles & Elvis (& rightly so), it's easy to forget that they were also each the finest cover act of their respective era.  Give something to a pre-army Elvis or a post-George Martin Beatles & yer almost guaranteed to get a cover that's better than the original.  (The only exceptions are when Elvis tries to cover Little Richard, which, outside of a smoking "Ready Teddy," never seem to go well, & when the Beatles reach beneath their normal gold standard & do some ill-conceived girl group kitsch or a Larry Williams song.)  But for those looking for the best of the best, there is no outdoing their cover of the Isley Brothers' "Twist & Shout."  It seems strange now to think it, but the Isleys' original was a blatant play into the pop industry machine, in this case, combining Chubby Checker's runaway hit "The Twist" (which itself was a cover of an obscure Hank Ballard B-side) & their Isleys' own signature tune, "Shout! (Parts 1 & 2)."  It would be like if Roy Orbison released a song called "Oh, Do the Locomotive, Pretty Woman."

Heard in this context, the Isley Brothers' "Twist & Shout" makes sense, it sounds fine.  But fast-forward a single year & you have the difference between a tidal pool & a tidal wave.  Long used as the Beatles' live closer, it somehow only crossed their minds to record it when a final song was needed for their debut LP.  It was the end of a long day, & John Lennon, who sings lead on the number, was on the verge of having his voice give out on him completely. So they gave him some warm milk, set everything up, & got it.  They tried to do a second take for safety, but John's voice gave out almost immediately. No worry, the version they got — itself a one-take wonder, like "Louie, Louie" — is as good & rockin' as their finest (which is to say, rock & roll's finest) music ever was.

2.  "All Along the Watchtower."

Original: Bob Dylan, 1967 (Did not chart)

Cover: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1968 (#20 Pop)

Less than 50 years after the fact, the 1960s already feels like a time in which gods roamed the earth. The chief songwriter was Bob Dylan. The chief instrumentalist was Jimi Hendrix. & it is here, on "All Along the Watchtower," that they effortlessly become one.  By the time the Byrds' broke through with their #1 cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" in 1965, it was already becoming a cliche for rock bands to do acoustic Dylan songs & turn them into "folk rock."  Dylan always hated the term, & usually disavowed any association with it. In fact, Dylan rarely had anything nice to say about the scores of people covering his songs — the (in)famous exception of his high praise for Johnny Rivers' "Positively 4th Street" notwithstanding (which itself kind of says it all, doesn't it?) — in part, one might expect, because they almost always drastically altered his sound (& if there's anything that Dylan's proven during the last 15 years or so of his "Never-Ending Tour," it's that he's more than capable of drastically altering his songs' sound by himself, thank you very much).

The glaring exception to this rule is Jimi Hendrix's cover of "All Along the Watchtower." Interestingly, even though Dylan wrote it after his initial acoustic/folk phase, it came from his proto-country rock "comeback" album (his first of about 37), John Wesley Harding.  On Dylan's version, you can hear a fable just weird & unfinished enough that only in repeated listenings does its simplicity grows complicated, its singularity becomes universal, & its parable turns biblical.  Dylan released his version in late 1967; about 12 minutes later, Jimi Hendrix bought a copy, heard it, & began covering it, turning it from a hickory wind, piney-wood folk tune into a cutting-edge psychedelic experience.  Dylan himself was just as floored by it as anyone else — after hearing Hendrix's cover, he realized that that was the way it was supposed to sound & never played it again without an electric guitar.  Let's see if Johnny Rivers can match that.

1.  "Respect."

Original: Otis Redding, 1965 (#34 Pop; #4 R&B)

Cover: Aretha Franklin, 1967 (#1 Pop; #1 R&B)

Reinvention runs deep in American society; as our cultural heritage goes, the only things deeper are freedom & liberty.  We're a country built upon the idea that one's position in life is never concrete but rather always in flux — it's why we love our rags-to-riches stories, romanticize about the open road, & often believe that our best natural resources may just be ourselves.  It's how Abraham Lincoln could tell the boy that he currently occupies this big White House, how Bill Clinton can say that the God that he believes in is a God of second chances, the line connecting Melville's The Confidence-Man, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, John Voight in Midnight Cowboy, Eddie Albert in Green Acres, Bob Dylan in his early interviews, & the runaway slave, among a thousand other cultural artifacts.  Is it any wonder that some of the finest American music comes from cover versions?

Case in point: "Respect."  Perhaps no other cover song has so fully taken over its original in terms of sound & story — all the more surprising given that the original, like the cover, is a full classic, rendered by a true legend.  Strip these similarities away though, & you are left with two very different songs.  Otis Redding's original is a tough, strutting groove, revived by jackhammer drums & a vocal that's pitched somewhere between a scream, a beg, & a moan.  This is the sound of a man who wants respect from his woman, but knows that the fact he has to ask for it in the first place already says it all.  It is a strictly secular tale, which is to say a sexual tale, pent-up & distracted, bursting at the seams. He doesn't sing the song as he throws himself into it, face first, like a fool diving into a concrete sidewalk.

Aretha Franklin's cover, recorded just two years later, tells a completely different story.  Unlike Redding's barking & pleading, Franklin remains poised, evaluating the words as she sings them.  It is clear that, like the woman Redding sings to in his song, she has the upper hand.  But there is something else even stronger — & stranger — going on.  Without altering nearly any words of the original, Franklin's version transcends the secular (which is to say, sexual) tensions of Redding's original, & crosses the divide from private to public, from personal to universal.  Her song becomes less a tale of woe than a stirring conviction of strength, easily carried by the cool confidence of her voice & the energy of the singers backing her up.  It is no longer a song about a woman, but rather the woman, that is, about a movement congealing & finding its voice in a song that could make everybody sing, make everyone dance, make everyone relate. "Respect" is a testament not only to Franklin's own considerable talents, but things that she had far less control over — timing, politics, & way the world looked in 1967.

This is all just to say that if a man's lament about the sexual frustration of being mistreated by a woman can in turn become the quintessential song for women's rights & equality, then I can think of no greater transition possible in the shared dialogue of popular music.  For these reasons, it remains the finest rock & roll cover song of all-time, with virtually nothing that can touch it.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Top 5 Greatest One-Shot Videos of All-Time.

Somehow or another I came across this tweet from Taylor Swift:

"Fun facts about the 'We Are Never' music video: it's all in one take, shot with one camera, 5 costume changes, and woodland creatures."

Having already read Entertainment Weekly's love of the song featured in the video — "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" — I was intrigued.

& I'll be damned if I wasn't impressed. It got me thinking about one-take music videos — there's something very cool about them, something that somehow takes the most modern technology equipment available & cuts through it like a jackknife, back before music videos, before studio recordings, before live recordings, before any recordings, back when you had one shot, one shot only to do what it is that you were gonna do & it was all gonna come down to that.

Film critic Gilbert Adair once wrote that he thought the quintessential Alfred Hitchcock film was Rope, for, unlike Psycho & Vertigo & all the rest, Rope is comprised of eight 10-minute takes, which was at that point the maximum amount that could be filmed consecutively.  Adair says that knowing this adds a layer of suspense to the already suspenseful tale — not only is there the story's suspense over whether or not the lead characters will get caught for their "perfect murder," but there's also the suspense of the actors having to get through each 10-minute shot without messing up.  If one person makes one flub 8 minutes in, they gotta start it all over again.  Having that foreknowledge makes the craft of the film just as suspenseful as the story it tells, & both all the more effective.

All of which is to say that I began to wonder: Is Taylor Swift's "We Are Never" video among the best one-shot videos ever?  As the Orioles tell us, it's probably too soon to know, but I figured it was a good excuse to round up the canon & contemplate.

5.  The Spice Girls: "Wannabe." (1996)

Yeah, I know, the Spice Girls.  But in terms of a video being an interesting one-shot with pluck & savvy, this one does its job rather effectively.  You may not like the Spice Girls or the song, but you can't deny the fact that this video is effective in summing up everything they were about.  Which apparently was a cross between the Monkees, the Marx Brothers, & New Kids on the Block.  As girls, of course.  It turns out that Tweenlandia has some decent one-shot videos — props go out to Miley Cyrus's "Start All Over," which was disqualified for a quick edit right at the end (although its gaudiness probably woulda disqualified it anyway).  But here the Spice Girls do it & they do it well — by the video's end, you basically have an idea of each one's persona, as well as their singing & dancing styling.  If you look close, you can even see Posh sing for several seconds.  Who knew?

4.  The Replacements: "Bastards of Young." (1985)

The quintessential anti-video.  When Minnesotan punks the Replacements were told to make a video for their major-label debut, Tim, they refused.  A compromise-of-sorts was reached with this, a non-video video, mostly of a black-&-white shot of a speaker blaring their song.  The camera backs up a bit & you can see someone's sneakers & cigarettes, but for all intents & purposes, the video is mostly just looking at a speaker. Which is to say, it's the "music video" our grandparents would've seen while listening to the radio.  Coming from the same year as a-ha's "Take on Me" — which fer my money, may just be the greatest music video of them all — what it lacks in production it makes up in perfection.

3.  OK Go: "Here It Goes Again." (2006)

OK Go have become to the one-shot music video what Billy Idol is to the dried-ice music video.  Mixing extreme lo-fi production values with extreme hi-brow cleverness, their videos have slyly matured into the already-legendary love-letter-to-Rube-Goldberg video for "This Too Shall Pass," which would've made this list, but technically is a splice between three different continuous takes.  But what we do have is this, which is tighter & simpler, a Revolver to "This Too Shall Pass"'s Sgt. Pepper.  One might see this video as the next step up from their earlier silly-dance-routine-in-the-backyard stuff, but I see it as a sly nod to another video that, like "This Too Shall Pass," is a seeming one-shot that was deceptively spliced: Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity."  By including this video, I feel like I can cover both, as they both play to the outer-space weirdness that has come to define rock & roll: Traveling without moving.

2.  Bob Dylan: "Subterranean Homesick Blues." (1965)

The original music video, shot fer the start of D.A. Pennebaker's legendary Dylan documentary, Don't Look Back, which also happens to be a one-take video (the first?).  What you see is what you get: Bob Dylan, looking cooler than anyone else ever as he peers into the camera, standing in the alley with his famous cue cards & Allen Ginsburg chanting behind him.  It was such a great & simple idea, it got lifted by INXS in their video for "Need You Tonight/Meditate," which went onto win both the Best Music Video & the Viewer's Choice Awards at that year's MTV Music Video Awards.  But accept no substitutes — the original is still the greatest.

1.  Lucas: "Lucas With the Lid Off." (1994)

If Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is the Battleship Potemkin of one-shot music videos, Lucas's "Lucas With the Lid Off" is its Citizen Kane. Working with French director Michel Gondry (who would make Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind one decade later), rapper/writer/producer extraordinaire Lucas made the single-shot music video to end all single-shot music videos.  It's as intricate as it is beautiful, with a staggering amount of seemingly random variety, balanced by certain motifs (like pianos) & anchored by the little room in which Lucas sings the wonderful "Whatever bubbles, bubbles up" line.  The 90-degree turns alone make my head spin, let alone everything else that's going on.  Perhaps what impressed me so much about Taylor Swift's video is how much it seemed to reference this one, from the camera-turning opening & closing cityscape shots to the constant room-hopping to the guy-&-girl-in-a-fake-car schtick.  If I were a betting man, I'd wager that Taylor Swift &/or her production team watched this video a lot, just as so many modern filmmakers watched Citizen Kane.

In fact, I'm damn-near sure of it.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Top 5 Worst Elvis Songs of All-Time.

Elvis Presley is a figure like no other in American culture.  He exists in his own cultural vacuum — the only American entertainer who can match the country in size, spirit, & style; no one else even comes close.  It helps that his story is also the American story — a rags-to-riches tale with its own rise ('50s rockin' Elvis), fall ('60s actin' Elvis), & resurrection ('70s Vegas-in' Elvis), more or less.

All three parts are essential to the story: Elvis wouldn't be Elvis if it weren't for his hip-gyrating early rock, his rhinestoned-jumpsuit grandiose gestures of his late rock-n-schmaltz, or the string of crappy B- to D-level movies he made in between.  The latter is what gets the least amount of attention, largely because unlike his glorious early rock & campy late rock, the movies aren't very much fun — if they looked dumb when they were made, time has only rendered them worse.

But still, when I was compiling every recording Elvis released while he was alive, the '60s soundtrack stuff was a big part of the slog, often filled with weird, fascinating artifacts that were borderline absurd to the point of disbelief.  It was as though someone took the greatest singer in the world & paired him with the worst material conceivable.

It wasn't pretty, but it too was an essential part of the story.

What follows is the worst of the worst — 5 trainwrecks that are so bad, they in turn become compelling disaster-pieces in their own right.

5. "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad"

The year is 1968: Vietnam wages on while revolutionaries all across the world take to the streets; by the year's end, MLK & RFK will be assassinated & LBJ will announce he won't seek another term.  Not that you'd get any of that from this, a chidingly patriotic number from Speedway that seems to exist in its own parallel universe.  In light of Elvis's own army stint, as well as his own conservative politics, it's all the weirder, & that doesn't even take into account the song's grounding concept of Elvis duetting with Uncle Sam (i.e., America) in a tune that speaks to his character's chief dilemma: Tax evasion.  Oh yeah, & that's Gale Gordon who pops out towards the end, Lucille Ball's favorite comedy foil & the "other" Mr. Wilson on TV's Dennis the Menace.  Just in case things weren't already weird enough.

4. "Queenie Wahine's Papaya"

I needed a song to represent Elvis's famous Hawaiian pictures, & found it surprisingly tricky to narrow down. At first, I wanted to go with Blue Hawaii's "Rock-A-Hula Baby" as a sort of "mainstream" example of Bad Elvis — a minor hit (as the flip to "Can't Help Falling in Love"), just decent/famous enough to be sung on Full House (by Uncle Jesse, 'natch!) & included on Elvis: 2nd to None, the follow-up to the huge Elv1s: 30 #1 Hits comp — & then with "Ito Eats" from the same film, which fit all the requirements of awful & embarrassing, but was somehow in its stupidity, was bad even as a bad song.  It's basically just Elvis singing to a gluttonous fat guy [insert yer own joke about Elvis later singing AS a gluttonous fat guy here].  No, the tongue twister-filled "Queenie Wahine's Papaya" from 1966's Paradise, Hawaiian Style will have to fit the bill. It's got the most inane title, the dumbest lyrics, & gets extra schtick points for increasing in speed as it continues.  Plus, the little girl duetting with Elvis in the movie is yet another weird, awful-n-awkward touch.

3. "Old MacDonald Had a Farm"

Thomas Jefferson once imagined America to be nation of independent farmers, ruled by a sort of "philosopher king."  According to his wife Priscilla, when Elvis was informed he was to sing the traditional children's song "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" for 1967's Double Trouble (Elvis plays twins — in London!), the King had his own philosophies on the matter, reportedly screaming, "It's come to THIS?!"  Yes, it had.  & with the added lines that strayed from the traditional version — presumably to distant it a bit & add in a few (not-funny) jokes so that it sounded, um, better — only made it weirder. That, & the way Elvis sings "Oink, noink." Huh? At least he was told when recording it that the song would be left off of the movie's soundtrack album. Except that they included it anyway.

2. "There's No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car"

Among Elvis's awful period are many songs where the titles seemingly speak for themselves, offering a shot of random surrealism that must've been envied by the likes of Dali & the Dadaists: "The Walls Have Ears," "Song of the Shrimp," "Poison Ivy League," "Dominic (The Impotent Bull)," & "Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce."  Yes, the King of Rock & Roll once recorded a song about an impotent bull & another called "Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce."  Boggles the mind.  At any rate, in this grand tradition, we have "There's No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car" from 1963's Fun in Acapulco.  It's too bad that I couldn't find an accompanying film clip to go with this one, but luckily (or unluckily), the bizarre clarity of the lyrics & the awkward cha-cha of the beat conjures up mental images that the real movie could only begin to hint at.

1. "Yoga Is As Yoga Does"

Here it is, the "A Day in the Life" of Bad Elvis, from 1967's Easy Come, Easy Go.  There's so, so much that's wrong with this it's basically a perfect storm of stupid Elvis songs: You've got the dumb, clunky title of "Sports Car," the cloying, stuck-in-your-head childishness of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," the one-joke lyric (& awkward duet) of "Queenie Wahine," & the stupid call-&-response structure of "He's Your Uncle."  But there's more.  Singing the duet with Elvis is none other than Elsa Lanchester, A.K.A. the Bride of Frankenstein from the classic 1935 film.  Throw in the hindsight knowledge of yoga exploding out of nowhere some 30 years after this was released, & it becomes more than absurd — it becomes oddly prophetic, as if the Beatles had recorded a song about eating home-grown organic vegetables.  (Oh wait, that was the Beach Boys.)  The result is the bizarre cultural artifact to end all cultural artifacts: The King of Rock & Roll.  Singing about the still-nascient cult of yoga.  With the Bride of Frankenstein.  Like the best parts of American culture, you just can't make this stuff up.