Category Archives: Rock ‘n’ Roll

The idol maker: Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 7, 2017)

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A long distance, directory assistance, area code 212                                       Say hey, A & R-this is mister rhythm and blues                                                     He said hello, and put me on hold                                                                                To say the least the cat was cold                                                                                  He said don’t call us, child…we’ll call you.

-from “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You”, by Sugarloaf

In Hit Men, Fredric Dannen’s excellent 1990 book recounting the golden era of the major record label power brokers, the author writes:

Rock historians tend to romanticize the pioneers of the rock and roll industry. It is true that the three large labels of the fifties—RCA Victor, Decca, and Columbia, which CBS had bought in 1938—were slow to recognize the new music. […]

The pioneers deserve praise for their foresight but little for their integrity. Many of them were crooks. Their victims were usually poor blacks, the inventors of rock and roll, though whites did not fare much better. […]

The modern record industry, which derives half its revenues from rock, worships its early founders. It has already begun to induct men such as disc jockey and concert promoter Alan Freed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When veteran record men wax nostalgic about the fifties, they often speak of the great “characters” who populated the business.

One of the direct descendants of those “characters” (and also profiled in Dannen’s book) is legendary A & R man Clive Davis. Davis was president of Columbia Records from 1966-1973, and founder and president of Arista Records 1974-2000 (when he founded J Records). In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the non-performer’s category. He was chairman and CEO of the RCA Music Group from 2002-2008; currently he is the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment (at age 85).

Davis is also the subject of a new documentary, Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives. You should know up front that Chris Perkel’s film was made with Davis’ full blessing and cooperation; so if you are looking for an expose of the cutthroat music business, you will be disappointed (for a more unvarnished portrait of Mr. Davis and his peers, I recommend Dannen’s book). Still, music fans should find it a worthwhile watch.

Putting the generally hagiographic tone of the film aside, the title’s “soundtrack of our lives” conceit is actually not too far off the mark. As is recounted in the film, the lawyer-turned-record company talent scout came roaring out of the gate by cannily raiding the embarrassment of new and exciting talent on display at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

After watching Janis Joplin’s jaw-dropping performance at the festival, he immediately signed Big Brother and the Holding Company (good call!). Other notable artists who joined the Columbia roster under Davis’ tenure and mentorship: Santana, Laura Nyro, The Electric Flag, The Chambers Brothers, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Loggins & Messina, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, and Earth Wind and Fire.

Unfortunately, Davis ended up getting fired from CBS in the mid-70s for alleged misappropriation of company funds for personal use. Details of this period are glaringly glossed over in the film; we are only offered Davis’ contention that he was the sacrificial lamb in a company-wide payola scandal that he denies having any direct involvement in.

Arguably, this could have been the best thing that ever happened to him, as Davis dusted himself off and founded Arista Records shortly thereafter. While he didn’t necessarily “discover” every artist on the label, he did assemble an impressive lineup that would seem to affirm his “golden ear” for talent: Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Eric Carmen, Air Supply, Ray Parker Jr., Carly Simon, The Grateful Dead, etc.

Davis has also displayed a talent for helping give long-established artists with waning sales a second wind in their careers; the film explores how he “reintroduced” Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, The Grateful Dead and Santana to a new generation of fans.

Not surprisingly, a sizeable portion of the film is devoted to Davis’ most storied client relationship, which was with Whitney Houston. Under Davis’ mentorship, Houston became one of the biggest selling artists of all time. Their partnership was at once professional and paternal; Davis’ recollections of his attempts (too little too late) to help her overcome the struggles with addiction that led to her sadly untimely end are very personal and moving.

As I inferred, music fans will find the film absorbing (if not necessarily revelatory). I would have liked to have learned a little more about Davis’ “process” as a talent scout and an idol maker; maybe a few more anecdotes about working directly with specific artists (at times as a de facto producer in the studio) might have spiced things up. Still, as a study of what is literally a dying breed of “hit men”, this single should make the charts.

Incense and liniment: Monterey Pop (****) turns 50

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 1, 2017)

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Back in my stand-up comedy days, I once had the pleasure of opening for Eric Burdon and Brian Auger in Fairbanks, Alaska (1991…I think). The promoter was kind enough to take me backstage for a brief meet and greet with Mr. Burdon before the gig. Eric immediately struck me as a warm and sincere individual (only rock star I ever met who gave me the sustained two-handed “bro” handshake with full eye contact combo platter).

This makes me sound like a fucking loon, but it felt like I was shaking hands with The Sixties. I remember thinking that sharing a bill with him placed me only one degree of separation from The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and the other artists he shared the bill with at the legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Okay, I may have been high. But it was enough to make my ganglia twitch. I mean, it blew my mind, man!

The Byrds and the Airplane did fly
Oh, Ravi Shankar’s music made me cry
The Who exploded into fire and light
Hugh Masekela’s music was black as night
The Grateful Dead blew everybody’s mind
Jimi Hendrix, baby, believe me,
set the world on fire, yeah

–from “Monterey”, by Eric Burdon & The Animals

The three day music festival was the brainchild of longtime Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, record producer Lou Adler, and entrepreneur/Delaney and Bonnie manager Alan Pariser (who figured prominently during early planning stages but ceded control to his higher-profile partners Phillips and Adler). With a stage banner that read “love, flowers, and music”, it was (and remains) the embodiment of the counterculture’s ephemeral yet impactful “Summer of Love” in 1967.

That said, while the festival itself generally went as well or perhaps even better than its organizers could have ever hoped, it wasn’t necessarily all peace, love, and good vibrations during the organizational process. As rock journalist Michael Lydon (who covered music for Newsweek, The New York Times, and the Boston Globe from the 60s to the 70s) writes in a contemporaneous piece included in his 2003 anthology, Flashbacks:

The Festival was incorporated with a board of governors that included Donovan, Mick Jagger, Andrew Oldham, Paul Simon, Phillips, Smokey Robinson, Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, and Paul McCartney. “The Festival hopes to create an atmosphere wherein persons in the popular music field from all parts of the world will congregate, perform, and exchange ideas concerning popular music with each other and with the public at large,” said a release. After paying the entertainers’ expenses, the profits from ticket sales (seats ranged from $3.50 to $6.50; admission to the grounds without a seat was $1) were to go to charities and to fund fellowships in the pop field. […]

This vagueness and the high prices engendered charges of commercialism—“Does anybody really know where these L.A. types are at?” asked one San Francisco rock musician. And when the list of performers was released there was more confusion. Where were the Negro stars, the people who began it all, asked some. Where were The Lovin’ Spoonful, the Stones, the Motown groups; does a pop festival mean anything without Dylan, the Stones, and The Beatles? […]

Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy were enthusiastic about the Festival at first, John Phillips said, “then they never answered the phone. Smokey was completely inactive as a director. I think it might be a Jim Crow thing. A lot of people put Lou Rawls down for appearing. ‘You’re going to a Whitey festival, man,’ was the line. There is tension between the white groups who are getting their own ideas and the Negroes who are just repeating theirs. The tension is lessening all the time, but it did crop up here, I am sure.”

As we now know, any “tension” behind the scenes lessened considerably by the time the gates opened to let the crowds (and the sunshine) in, and the rest, as they say, is History.

Luckily, for those of us who were too young and/or blissfully unaware to attend (or not even born yet), the zeitgeist of the event was captured for posterity by music documentary maestro D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back). His film, simply entitled Monterey Pop, originally opened in 1968; and now, to commemorate the festival’s 50th anniversary this month, it is in limited re-release in theaters (featuring a 4K restoration).

Shot in his signature cinema verite style, Pennebaker’s film distills the 3 days of “love, flowers and music” into a concise 78-minute document of the event. Granted, by its very nature such brevity comes with great sacrifice; not all the artists on the festival’s roster are onscreen. In the director’s statement that prefaces the booklet included with Criterion’s 2002 DVD box set The Complete Monterey Pop Festival, Pennebaker writes:

There is never enough time to just put in everything you want. In fact, that’s what film making is about, making the best stuff count for what you leave out.

 And so it is that The Association, Lou Rawls, The Butterfield Blues Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Byrds, The Steve Miller Band, Laura Nyro, The Electric Flag, Moby Grape, Al Kooper, Buffalo Springfield, Johnny Rivers and the Grateful Dead are nowhere to be seen. But the performances that made the final cut are, in a word, amazing.

Introduce yourself to Pennebaker’s film. It will feel like shaking hands with The Sixties.

[“Monterey Pop: the Re-release” is now playing in Seattle and other select cities.]

Beauty is the beast: The Lure **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 18, 2017)

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As far as retro 1980s New Wave-flavored horror musicals about sexy flesh-eating mermaids go, I suppose you could do worse than Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure (at the SIFF Film Center in Seattle March 24-26; check your local listings for possible limited engagements in your area). Needless to say…it is not for kids (this is a tale that would make Hans Christian Andersen plotz).

Near as I was able to discern the plot (thin enough to dissolve into sea foam at the slightest suggestion of an impending gale), two sultry sister-sirens are slithering about in the Baltic surf one evening, when they espy a Polish new wave band hanging around on the beach. As we all know, no man, be he a sailor or synth-popper, can resist the clarion call of a sexy Baltic Sea siren.

The band members have no option but to stash the sisters backstage at the strip club they gig at, until they can figure out their next move. Before long, the sleazy house manager discovers them and sees dollar signs. He unceremoniously demands that Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) show him their wares; however he quickly discerns certain elements of the mermaid’s human form to be, shall we say, un-formed…and incompatible with job requirements.

But before the manager can boot the freeloaders out, the band’s lead singer (Kinga Preis) intervenes on the sisters’ behalf. Feeling a maternal tug, she offers to take the young women under her wing, convincing the manager to begrudgingly hire them on as part of the band’s act. Naturally, the lovely sirens beguile the audiences and become an instant hit (A Starfish is Born?).

But alas, every Silver has a cloudy lining. Or in this case, sister Silver has a propensity for being a real man-eater. Literally. For now, Golden’s more feral instincts are being kept in check, because she finds herself falling in love with the bass player (it’s always the goddam bass player). As we’ve learned from many mermaid tales, bassists and mermaids are always star-crossed as lovers.

To label this film as “over the top” is an understatement. I’m not sure what to tell you. If you’re expecting something along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show…this one’s several leagues below (no pun intended). There are a couple of jaunty numbers, and the splashes of bold color are suitably garish in a 80s retro kind of way, but for a film being billed as a “new wave rock musical”, I found the production lackadaisical in both music and choreography departments.

Still, those who lean toward midnight movies might find more to love. With its deadpan performances, 1980s vibe, cheesy horror elements and overall weirdness, I found the film reminiscent of Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 punk rock sci-fi horror cult item, Liquid Sky (only in passing; Tskerman’s film is a genuine underground classic). Feel free to jump in at your own risk.

Acid daze: Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 4, 2017)

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Hard to believe that it was 50 years ago today (well, officially, as of June 1st) that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play around with vari-speeding, track bouncing and ambiophonics. Eh…wot?

Considering the relative limitations of recording technology at the time, the sonic wizardry and hardware MacGyvering that resulted in The Beatles’ groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band continues to amaze and fascinate musicians, studio engineers and music fans. For that matter, I bet any Beatle fan would happily buzz in through the bathroom window to have been a fly on the wall at any Beatles session, for any of their albums. Perhaps that’s not the best analogy.

That imagery aside, there is a “next best thing”, thanks to composer and musicologist Scott Freiman, who has created a series of multimedia and film presentations called Deconstructing the Beatles. His latest exploration focuses on the Sgt. Pepper song cycle. Some engagements are personal appearances; others limited-run film versions of the lecture. My review is based on the filmed version, which ran here in Seattle last weekend (you can find upcoming cities/dates here).

Freiman kicks off with deep background on the February 1967 release of the double ‘A’ sided 45 “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” (although he doesn’t deconstruct the recording sessions as he does for the Sgt. Pepper tracks). I think this is a perfect choice for a launching pad, as those two songs were not only crucial signifiers of the band’s continuing progression from the (seemingly) hard-to-top Revolver, but originally intended to be included as part of Sgt. Pepper.

The remaining three-quarters of the film is a track-by-track journey through the album (in original running order, of course). By playing snippets of isolated audio tracks and subtly stacking them until they transmogrify into their familiar finished form, as well as supplementing with archival photos and flow charts annotating how tracks were reduced and mixed down, Freiman is able to give the viewer a fairly good peek into the unique creative process that went into the Sgt. Pepper sessions. Freiman’s running commentary hits the sweet spot between scholarly and entertaining.

I was a little disappointed that he gives my two favorite cuts, “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole” short shrift; especially when compared to the amount of time he spends fixating on three cuts in particular: “She’s Leaving Home”, “Within You, Without You”, and “A Day in the Life”. Not that those aren’t all classics, but you can’t have everything. After all, art is subjective, right?

I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Freiman doing one of his presentations in-person; I imagine it’s more dynamic and engaging than watching what is essentially a filmed lecture (think An Inconvenient Truth). If you’re expecting something along the lines of The Beatles Anthology, this may not be for you. Still, the Fab force is strong in this one, and he obviously holds a genuine affection for the music, which keeps the proceedings from sinking into an academic snooze fest.

Side 2: It was a very good year

While Sgt. Pepper certainly deserves the accolades it has received over the last 5 decades, 1967 was a watershed year for a lot of bands; there was definitely something in the air (or the punch).

Here are 10 more fabulous albums that are blowing out 50 candles this year (goddam, I’m old…).

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CreamDisraeli Gears…Clapton’s psych-blues zenith, Bruce and Baker’s dangerous rhythms, Pete Brown’s batshit crazy lyrics, lorded over by producer/future Mountain man Felix Pappalardi. Best cuts: “Sunshine of Your Love”, “Swlabr” (fuck you, Spellcheck), and “Tales of Brave Ulysses”.

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The DoorsThe Doors…“He took a face, from the ancient gallery. And he walked on down the hall.” And music would never be the same. Best cuts: All of them.

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Jefferson AirplaneSurrealistic Pillow…Luv ‘n’ Haight. Remember, I want you to toss the radio into the bathtub when “White Rabbit” peaks. Get it? Got it? Good! Best cuts: “Somebody to Love”, “White Rabbit”, and “Plastic Fantastic Lover”.

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Jimi Hendrix ExperienceAre You Experienced?…Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful. There ain’t no life, nowhere. And you will never hear surf music, again. Best cuts: “Purple Haze”, “Love or Confusion”, “May This Be Love”, “I Don’t Live Today”, “Third Stone From the Sun”, and “Are You Experienced?”.

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The KinksSomething Else by the Kinks…The genius of Ray Davies cannot be overstated. Every song is an immersive picture postcard of the traditional English life. Brilliant. Best cuts: “Waterloo Sunset”, “Lazy Old Sun”, “Death of a Clown”, “David Watts”, “Afternoon Tea”.

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The Moody BluesDays of Future Passed…Mellotrons R Us. Symphonic rock before anyone thought it was even possible. A thing of beauty. Best cuts: “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin”.

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Pink FloydThe Piper at the Gates of Dawn…Syd Barrett, before the drugs kicked in for keeps. He’s got a bike, you can ride it if you like. Space rock, ominous dirges and proto prog supreme. Best cuts: “Astronomy Domine”, “Flaming”, “Interstellar Overdrive”, and “Bike”.

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Procol HarumProcol Harum…Gary Brooker’s distinctive voice, Robin Trower’s peerless fretwork, Matthew Fisher’s signature organ riffs and Keith Reid’s wry and literate lyrics made for a heady, proggy brew that didn’t quite sound like anyone else at the time. Still doesn’t, actually. Best cuts: “Conquistador”, “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence”, and “Repent, Walpurgis”.

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The Velvet UndergroundThe Velvet Underground and Nico…In which Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Nico, and Moe Tucker invited the flower children to attend New York art school. However, no one enrolled until about 10 years later, when it came to be called punk rock. Best cuts: “I’m Waiting For the Man”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “Heroin”, and “Femme Fatale”.

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The WhoThe Who Sell Out…A kind of warm-up for Tommy, The Who’s concept album was constructed to simulate a pirate radio station, with interstitial spoof ads and station jingles linking the cuts together. A very strong song cycle for Pete Townshend. Best cuts: “Armenia City in the Sky”, “Tattoo”, “I Can See For Miles”, “Our Love Was”, “I Can’t Reach You”, and “Sunrise”.

BONUS TRACK!

There were also a lot of memorable hit singles on the pop charts that year. Here’s one of my favorites from the summer of 1967:

Blu-ray reissue: Eight Days a Week ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years – Apple Deluxe Edition Blu-ray

I missed the theatrical run of Ron Howard’s 2016 Beatles documentary because I was sidelined by knee replacement surgery, but happily the powers-that-be have expedited its release to home video just in time for Christmas. As a Beatle freak who has seen just about every bit of Fab Four documentary/concert footage extant, I approached Howard’s film with a bit of trepidation (especially with all the pre-release hype about “previously unseen” footage and such) but was nonetheless pleased (if not necessarily enlightened) by what he’s managed to put together here.

The title pretty much says it all; this is not their entire story, but rather a retrospective of the Beatles’ career from the Hamburg days through their final tour in 1966. As I inferred, you likely won’t learn anything new (this is a well-trod path), but the performance clips are enhanced by newly restored footage and remixed audio. Despite the familiar material, Howard makes the nostalgic wallow feel fresh and fun. The Deluxe Edition is worth the investment for fans; in fact, I found the bonus features more interesting than the main film! The 64-page booklet caps this set off nicely.

Iggy Popcorn: Gimme Danger *** & Danny Says **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 19, 2016)

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Well it’s 1969 OK, all across the USA

It’s another year for me and you

Another year with nuthin’ to do,

Last year I was 21, I didn’t have a lot of fun

And now I’m gonna be 22

I say oh my, and a boo-hoo

-from “1969” by The Stooges

They sure don’t write ‘em like that anymore. The composer is one Mr. James Osterberg, perhaps best known by his show biz nom de plume, Iggy Pop. Did you know that this economical lyric style was inspired by Buffalo Bob…who used to encourage Howdy Doody’s followers to limit fan letters and postcards to “25 words or less”? That’s one of the revelations in Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch’s cinematic fan letter to one of his idols.

Jarmusch dutifully traces the history of Iggy and the Stooges, from Iggy’s initial foray as a drummer, to the Stooges’ 1967 debut (then billing themselves as “The Psychedelic Stooges”), to their signing with Elektra Records the following year (which yielded two seminal proto-punk albums before the label unceremoniously dropped them in 1971) to the association with David Bowie that gave birth to 1973’s Raw Power, up to the present.

While LP sales were less than stellar (and forget about radio exposure, outside of free-form and underground FM formats), the band’s legend was largely built on their gigs. From day one, Iggy was a live wire on stage; unpredictable, dangerous, possessed. Whether smearing peanut butter (or blood) on his chest while growling out songs, undulating his weirdly flexible body into gymnastic contortions, or impulsively flinging himself into the crowd (he invented the “stage dive”), Iggy Pop was anything but boring.

Keep in mind, this was a decade before Sid Vicious was to engage in similar stage antics. The peace ‘n’ love ethos was still lingering in the air when the Stooges stormed onstage, undoubtedly scaring the shit out of a lot of hippies. However, once they hitched their wagon to fellow Detroit music rebels/agitprop pioneers the MC5 (their manifesto: “Loud rock ‘n’ roll, dope, and fucking in the streets!”) they began to build a solid fan base, which became rabid. Unfortunately, film footage from this period is scant; but Jarmusch manages to dig up enough clips to give us a rough idea of what the vibe was at the time.

Jarmusch is a bit nebulous regarding the breakups, reunions, and shuffling of personnel that ensued during the band’s heyday (1967-1974), but that may not be so much his conscious choice as it is acquiescing to (present day) Iggy’s selective recollections (Iggy does admit drugs were a factor). While Jarmusch also interviews original Stooges Ron Asheton (guitar), and his brother Scott Asheton (drums), their footage is sparse (sadly, both have since passed away). Bassist Dave Alexander, who died in 1975, is relegated to archival interviews. Guitarist James Williamson (who played on Raw Power) and alt-rock Renaissance man Mike Watt (the latter-day Stooges bassist) contribute anecdotes as well.

Many might assume, judging purely by the simple riffs, minimal lyrics and primal stage persona that there wouldn’t be much going on upstairs with the Ig…but that would be a highly inaccurate assumption. To the contrary, Iggy is much smarter than you think he is; a surprisingly erudite raconteur who is highly self-aware and actually quite thoughtful when it comes to his art. It might surprise you to learn that one of his earliest creative influences (aside from space-jazz maestro Sun Ra and, erm, Soupy Sales) was American avant-garde composer Harry Partch, who utilized instruments made out of found objects.

A few nitpicks aside, this is the most comprehensive retrospective to date regarding this truly influential band; it was enough to make this long-time fan happy, and to perhaps enlighten casual fans, or the curious. As for the rest of you, I say: Oh my, and a boo hoo!

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Interestingly, Iggy pops up in another new documentary. In fact, there is much cross-pollination between Gimme Danger and Danny Says (on PPV), Brendan Toller’s uneven yet quaffable portrait of NYC scenester/music publicist/DJ/fanzine editor Danny Fields.

Fields was the talent scout/A&R guy/whatever (his job title is never made 100% clear…more on that in a moment) who “discovered” The Stooges while on assignment from Elektra Records to scope out the Detroit music scene in 1968. While the record company was primarily interested in the MC5, Fields convinced the suits to tack the Stooges on as a “two-fer” signing deal: $20,000 for the MC5 + $5,000 for the Stooges (!)

That’s jumping a bit ahead in Fields’ involvement with the music biz, which appears (according to Toller’s film) to have been attributable to a series of happy accidents, which begins with him falling into a managing editor position with the teenybopper fanzine Datebook in 1966. Within months of landing the gig, Fields found himself at the center of the infamous John Lennon “bigger than Jesus” controversy, stemming from a highlighted quote in a Datebook interview (his editorial decision). The consequences? Death threats against the band, Beatle record bonfires in the Deep South, universal condemnation by church leaders…essentially putting the kibosh on touring for the Fabs.

Whoops. I think we all owe Yoko an apology.

Thanks to his music journalist cred, he soon gains entree with the Warhol Factory crowd, which leads to his association with The Velvet Underground and a long-time friendship with Lou Reed, Nico, et al. This essentially plants him perennially thereafter at the epicenter of the New York arts scene, where, like a rock ‘n’ roll Forrest Gump, he manages to pal around with everybody who’s anybody from the late 60s ‘til now. He did publicity for The Doors, “discovered” and co-managed The Ramones, did windows, etc.

So why haven’t most people on the planet heard of him? I like to think of myself as a rock ‘n’ roll geek, with an encyclopedic brain full of worthless music trivia…and even I was blissfully unaware of this person until I stumbled across the film on cable the other night. So I am going to have to take all of the gushing interviewees’ word for it that Fields was a “punk pioneer” and essentially the musical taste-maker of the last 5 decades.

Fields proves a raconteur of sorts (the one about a meeting he arranged between Jim Morrison and Nico is amusing) but many anecdotes lead nowhere. For someone allegedly at the vanguard of the music scene for 50 years, he offers little insight. Most of Fields’ reminiscences are variations on “Well, I thought these guys were kinda cute, and I liked their music, so I told so-and-so about them, then I introduced these guys to some other famous guys.” For the most part, it adds up to 104 minutes of glorified name-dropping.

Still, the film is perfectly serviceable as a loose historical chronicle of the NYC music scene during its richest period (via numerous snippets of archival footage), and nostalgic boomers will likely find cameos by the likes of Alice Cooper, Judy Collins, Lenny Kaye, Wayne Kramer, John Sinclair, Jonathan Richman, Iggy Pop, etc. to be enough to hold their interest (although again, more context and/or insight would have sweetened the pot).

The film reminded me of another rock documentary, George Hickenlooper’s The Mayor of Sunset Strip (my review), which profiled L.A. scenester/club manager/DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, who, like Danny Fields, managed to stumble into the midst of every major music sea change from the 1960s onward, rubbing shoulders with any rock ‘n’ roll luminary you’d care to name. Which begs the same question regarding Fields that I posed of Bingenheimer: Is he a true music “impresario”, or merely a lottery-winning super fan?

Like we did last summer: Top 11 Rock Musicals

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 2, 2016)

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Ah, July 4th weekend. Nothing kicks off summer like a time-honored, all-American holiday that encourages the mass consumption of animal flesh (charcoal-grilled to carcinogenic perfection), binge drinking, and subsequent drunken handling of highly explosive materials. Well, for most people. Being the semi-reclusive weirdo that I am (although I prefer the term “gregarious loner”), nothing kicks off summer for me like holing up for the holiday weekend with a case of Diet Dr. Pepper, a decent ration of Wha Guru Chews (I’m partial to cashew flavor) and an armload of my favorite rock musicals.

So, for your consideration (or condemnation) I now submit my Top 10 personal favorites of the genre (actually…this one goes to eleven). As per usual, I present them in no particular ranking order (to prevent fistfights). And for those who are about to rock…I salute you.

Bandwagon – A taciturn musician, still reeling from a recent breakup with his girlfriend, has a sudden creative spurt and forms a garage band. The boys pool resources, buy a beat-up van (the “Band” wagon, get it?) and hit the road as Circus Monkey. The requisite clichés ensue: The hell-gigs, backstage squabbles, record company vultures, and all that “art vs commerce” angst; but John Schultz’s crisp writing and directing and mostly unknown cast carry the day.

Indie film stalwart Kevin Corrigan stands out, as does real life indie rocker/Chapel Hill music scenester Doug McMillan (lead singer of The Connells) as the Zen-like road manager (director Schultz is one of McMillan’s former band mates). The icing on the cake is the original music, an excellent set of power-pop (you’ll have the catchy signature tune, “It Couldn’t Be Ann” in your head for days). Anyone who has been a “weekend rock star” will recognize many of the scenarios; any others who apply should still be quite entertained.

The Commitments-“Say it leoud. I’m black and I’m prewd!” Pulling together a cast of talented yet unknown actor/musicians to “play” a group of talented yet unknown musicians was a stroke of genius from director Alan Parker. In some ways a thematic remake of Parker’s own 1980 musical Fame, the scene moves from New York to Dublin (be on the lookout for a quick winking reference when a band member starts singing a parody of the Fame theme).

These working class Irish kids don’t have the luxury of attending a performing arts academy, however (several band members are “on the dole”). The acting chemistry is superb, but it’s the amazing musical performances that really astonish, especially from the 16-year old lead singer, who has the soulful R & B pipes of someone who has been drinking a fifth and smoking 2 packs a day for 30 years. Gritty, realistic and spiced up with a goodly amount of ribald humor.

Expresso Bongo– This 1959 British gem from Val Guest undoubtedly inspired Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners– from the opening tracking shot giddily swooping through London’s Soho district coffee bar/music club milieu, to its narrative about naive show biz beginners with stars in their eyes and exploitative agents’ hands in their wallets. Laurence Harvey plays his success-hungry hustler/manager character with chutzpah. The perennially elfin Cliff Richard plays it straight as Harvey’s “discovery”, Bongo Herbert.

The film includes performances by the original Shadows (Richards’ backup band), featuring guitar whiz Hank Marvin (whom Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page have cited as a seminal influence). The smart, droll screenplay (by Julian More and Wolf Mankowitz) is far more sophisticated than most of the U.S. produced rock’ n ’roll musicals of the era (films like The Girl Can’t Help It and Rock Rock Rock do feature priceless performance footage, but the story lines are pretty dopey).

A Hard Day’s Night– This 1964 masterpiece has often been copied, but never equaled. Shot in a verite style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers. Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s cleverly tailored script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity.

Although it is in reality meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel-and therein lays its genius, because it still plays just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theater screens all those years ago. There’s much to savor in every frame; to this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (ever notice John snorting the Coke bottle?). Musical highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “If I Fell” and of course, the fab title song.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – It’s your typical love story. A German teen named Hansel (John Cameron Mitchell) falls head over heels for an American G.I., undergoes a (less than perfect) sex change operation so they can marry, and ends up seduced and abandoned in a trailer park. Now completely adrift (geographically as well as sexually) the desperate Hansel opts for the only logical way out of this mess…by creating an alter-ego named Hedwig, putting a glam-rock band together, and setting out to conquer the world. How many times have we heard that tired old tale? But seriously, this is an amazing tour de force on the part of Mitchell, who not only acts and sings his way through this  entertaining musical like nobody’s business, but directed and co-wrote (with composer Steven Trask, with whom he also co-created the original stage version).

Jailhouse Rock-The great tragedy of Elvis Presley’s film career is how more exponentially insipid each script was from the previous one. Even the part that mattered the most (which would be the music) progressively devolved into barely listenable schmaltz (although there were flashes of brilliance, like the ’69 Memphis sessions).

Fortunately, however, we can still pop in a DVD of Jailhouse Rock, and experience the King at the peak of his powers before Colonel Parker took his soul. This is one of the few films where Elvis actually gets to breathe a bit as an actor (King Creole is another example). Although he basically plays himself (an unassuming country boy with a musical gift from the gods who becomes an overnight sensation), he never parlayed the essence of his “Elvis-ness” less self-consciously before the cameras as he does here. In addition to the iconic “Jailhouse Rock” song and dance number itself, Elvis rips it up with “Treat Me Nice” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains A sort of punk version of A Star is Born, this 1981 curio (initially shelved from theatrical distribution) managed to build a rabidly devoted cult base, thanks to showings on USA Network’s Night Flight back in the day. As a narrative, this effort from record mogul turned movie director Lou Adler would have benefited from some script doctoring (Slap Shot scripter Nancy Dowd is off her game here) but for punk/new wave nostalgia junkies, it’s still a great time capsule.

Diane Lane plays a nihilistic mall rat that breaks out of the ‘burbs by forming an all-female punk band called The Stains. Armed with a mission statement (“We don’t put out!”) and a stage look possibly co-opted from Divine in Pink Flamingos, this proto riot-grrl outfit sets out to conquer the world (and learn to play their instruments along the way).

Music biz clichés abound, but it’s a guilty pleasure, due to real-life rockers in the cast. Fee Waybill and Vince Welnick of The Tubes are a hoot as washed up glam rockers. The fictional punk band, The Looters (fronted by an angry young Ray Winstone) features Paul Simonon from The Clash and Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School-As far as guilty pleasures go, this goofy bit of anarchy from the stable of legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman rates pretty high (and one suspects the creators of the film were, um, “pretty high” when they dreamed it all up). Director Alan Arkush evokes the spirit of those late 50s rock’ n’ roll exploitation movies (right down to having 20-something actors portraying “students”), substituting The Ramones for the usual clean-cut teen idols who inevitably pop up at the prom dance.

I’m still helplessly in love with P.J. Soles, who plays Vince Lombardi High School’s most devoted Ramones fan, Riff Randell. The great cast of B-movie troupers includes the late Paul Bartel (who directed several of his own cult classics under Corman’s tutelage) and his frequent screen partner Mary Waronov . I’m fairly convinced the film inspired the cult 1982 TV series Square Pegs.  R.I.P. Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy.

Starstruck-Gillian Armstrong primarily built her rep on female empowerment dramas like My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel, High Tide, The Last Days of Chez Nous and Charlotte Gray; making this colorful, sparkling and energetic 1982 trifle an anomaly in the Australian director’s oeuvre. That said, it’s the only Armstrong film I’ve watched more than once. In fact, I’ve watched it many times.

It does feature a strong female lead character, free-spirited Jackie (Jo Kennedy) who aspires to be Sydney’s next new wave singing sensation, with the help of her kooky, entrepreneurial-minded (and frequently truant) teenage cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan) who has designated himself as publicist/agent/manager. Goofy and good-natured, with lots of catchy power pop tunes (with contributions from members of Split Enz and Mental as Anything). Highlights include “I Want to Live in a House” and “Monkey in Me”.

Still Crazy– Q: What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? A: Homeless! If that old chestnut still makes you chortle, then you will “get” this movie. Painting a portrait of an “almost great” 70’s British band reforming for a 90’s reunion tour, Brian Gibson’s 1998 dramedy  Still Crazy does Spinal Tap one better (you could say this film goes to “eleven”, actually).  Unlike similar rock ‘n’ roll satires, it doesn’t mock its characters, rather it treats them with the kind of respect that comes from someone who genuinely loves  the music.

Great performances abound. Bill Nighy stands out in a hilarious yet poignant performance as the insecure lead singer of Strange Fruit. Prog-rock devotees will love the inside references, and are sure to recognize that the character of the “lost” leader/guitarist is based on Syd Barrett. Still, you don’t need to be a rabid rock geek to enjoy this film; its core issues, dealing with mid-life crisis and the importance of following your bliss, are universal themes. Foreigner’s Mick Jones and Squeeze’s Chris Difford are among the contributors to the exceptional original soundtrack. I also recommend Gibson’s 1980 debut Breaking Glass (a similar but slightly darker rumination on music stardom). Sadly, the director died at age 59 in 2004.

Tommy– There was a time (a long, long, time ago) when some of my friends insisted that the best way to appreciate The Who’s legendary rock opera was to turn off the lamps, light a candle, drop a tab of acid and listen to all four sides with a good pair of cans. I never got around to making those arrangements, but it’s a pretty good bet that watching director Ken Russell’s insane screen adaptation is a close approximation. If you’re not familiar with his work, hang on to your hat (I’ll put it this way-Russell is not known for being subtle).

Luckily, the Who’s music is powerful enough to cut through all the visual clutter, and carries the day. Two members of the band have roles-Roger Daltrey as the deaf dumb and blind Tommy, and Keith Moon has a cameo as wicked Uncle Ernie (Pete Townshend and John Entwistle only appear in music performance). The cast is an interesting cross of veteran actors (Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Jack Nicholson) and well-known musicians (Elton John, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner). Musical highlights include “Pinball Wizard”, “Eyesight to the Blind” “The Acid Queen” and “I’m Free”. And you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Ann-Margret, covered in baked beans and writhing in ecstasy! It may be raucous, garish and gross…but it’s never boring.

Shaker meets Quaker: Elvis & Nixon **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2016)

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While the line dividing politics from show-biz has always been tenuous, the White House meeting between Elvis Aaron Presley and Richard Milhous Nixon in 1970 remains one of the more surreal moments in United States presidential history. From Smithsonian.com:

Around noon, Elvis arrived at the White House with Schilling and bodyguard Sonny West, who’d just arrived from Memphis. Arrayed in a purple velvet suit with a huge gold belt buckle and amber sunglasses, Elvis came bearing a gift—a Colt .45 pistol mounted in a display case that Elvis had plucked off the wall of his Los Angeles mansion.

Which the Secret Service confiscated before Krogh escorted Elvis—without his entourage—to meet Nixon.

“When he first walked into the Oval Office, he seemed a little awe-struck,” Krogh recalls, “but he quickly warmed to the situation.”

While White House photographer Ollie Atkins snapped photographs, the president and the King shook hands. Then Elvis showed off his police badges.

Nixon’s famous taping system had not yet been installed, so the conversation wasn’t recorded. But Krogh took notes: “Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit. The President then indicated that those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest.”

“I’m on your side,” Elvis told Nixon, adding that he’d been studying the drug culture and Communist brainwashing. Then he asked the president for a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

“Can we get him a badge?” Nixon asked Krogh.

Krogh said he could, and Nixon ordered it done.

Elvis was ecstatic. “In a surprising, spontaneous gesture,” Krogh wrote, Elvis “put his left arm around the President and hugged him.”

I’ll bet you thought E was going to say, “Thank ya, sir…thankyahveramuch.” Amirite?

He very well may have, but since there is no verbatim transcript, it’s up for conjecture. Which brings us to Liza Johnson’s featherweight yet passably entertaining Elvis & Nixon.

Co-writers Joey Sagal (who, interestingly, played an Elvis-like character for the premiere run of Steve Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile), Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes frame their screenplay with the most oft-recounted anecdotal lore surrounding the meet, shored up by a fair amount of creative license. Of course, this device (nowadays referred to as “fan fiction”) is nothing new. There have been a number of such explorations done on both figures; at least one featuring them together (the 1997 TV film Elvis Meets Nixon).

What makes this romp eminently watchable are its two leads: Michael Shannon (as Elvis) and Kevin Spacey (as Nixon). While this is far from a career highlight for either, they both have the chops to rise above the uneven script and carry the day. It does take a bit of acclimation to accept the hulking Shannon as Elvis; but he is subtle enough as a character actor to convincingly transform himself into The King, despite the fact that has no physical resemblance to his real-life counterpart (neither does Spacey, for that matter, but he utilizes his gift for voice mimicry to really capture Nixon to a tee).

The film is  farcical in tone, but there are brief flashes of pathos. In a scene recalling De Niro’s “who am I?” dressing room soliloquy in Raging Bull, Shannon gazes into a mirror and laments about how disassociated he feels from “Elvis” the legend. It’s a genuinely touching moment. Spacey gets to flex his instrument in a monologue where he reflects to Elvis on their commonalities; how both men rose up from humble roots to achieve greatness (yes, I know…depends on how you define “greatness”).

It’s based on historical fact, but not don’t expect any new revelations. You may forget what you’ve just watched by the time you get back to your car, but political junkies will get some laughs. There are stretches where the film threatens to morph into a glorified SNL sketch, but at a short running time of 87 minutes, it’s over before you know it. If only I could say the same for the 2016 election…

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Too Rolling Stoned: A top 5 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  March 26, 2016)

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“I think that, finally, the times are changing. No?”

-Mick Jagger, addressing 450,000 fans at the 2016 Havana concert

It’s been quite a groundbreaking week for Cuba, kicking off with the first official U.S. presidential visit since 1928, and closing out with last night’s free Rolling Stones concert at the Ciudad Deportiva stadium in Havana. While it marked the first Cuba appearance for the Stones, the boys have seen many moons since their first-ever gig, 54 years ago (!) at London’s Marquee Club. The fledgling band wore their influences on their sleeves that night (July 12, 1962) with a covers-only set that included songs by Chuck Berry, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson. And despite the odd foray into chamber pop, psychedelia, country-rock and disco over time, they haven’t really strayed too awfully far from those roots. They simply remain…The Stones (it’s only rock ’n’ roll).

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In honor of their contribution to helping thaw out the last vestiges of the Cold War, here are my top 5 picks of films featuring the Rolling Stones (in alphabetical order, as usual).

Charlie is My Darling – The Rolling Stones did a few dates in Ireland in 1965, and filmmaker Peter Whitehead tagged along, resulting in this somewhat short (60 minute) but historically vital cinema verite-style documentary. We see a ridiculously young Stones at a time when they were still feeling their way through their own version of Beatlemania (although it’s interesting to note that it’s primarily the lads in the audience who are seen crying hysterically and rushing the stage!). In a hotel room scene, Jagger and Richards work out lyrics and chord changes for the song “Sittin’ on a Fence” (which wouldn’t appear until a couple years later on the Flowers album). The concert footage captures the band in all of its early career “rave up” glory (including a wild onstage riot). The film recalls P.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (filmed the same year), which similarly followed Bob Dylan around while he was in London to perform several shows.

Gimme Shelter – I sincerely hope that the Stones’ historic 2016 free concert at the Havana sports stadium went much smoother than their infamous 1969 free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, where a man near the front of the stage was stabbed to death in full view of horrified fellow concertgoers by members of the Hell’s Angels (who were providing “security” for the show). It’s unfortunate that Albert and David Maysles’ 1970 film is chiefly “known” for its inclusion of (unwittingly captured) footage of the incident, because those scant seconds of its running time have forever tainted what is otherwise (rightfully) hailed as one of the finest “rockumentaries” ever made. One of the (less morbid) highlights of the film is footage of the Stones putting down the basic tracks for “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” at Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Studios.

Let’s Spend the Night Together– By the time I finally had an opportunity to catch the Stones live back in 1981 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Brian Jones was 12 years in the grave and the band was already being called “dinosaurs”. Still, it was one those “bucket list” items that I felt obliged to fulfill (it turns out there was really no rush…who knew that Mick would still be prancing around in front of massive crowds like a rooster on acid 35 years later…and counting?). At any rate, the late great Hal Ashby directed this 1983 concert film, documenting performances from that very same 1981 North American tour. Unadorned cinematically, but that’s a good thing, as Ashby wisely steps back to let the performances shine through (unlike the distracting flash-cutting and vertigo-inducing, perpetual motion camera work that made Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light unwatchable). The set list spans their career, from “Time Is on My Side” to the 1981 hit “Start Me Up”.

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus– Originally intended to air as a TV special, this 1968 film was shelved and “lost” for nearly 30 years, until its belated restoration and home video release in the mid-90s. Presaging “mini concert” programs like The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert that would flourish in the 70s, the idea was to assemble a sort of “dream bill” of artists performing in an intimate, small theater setting. Since it was their idea, the Stones were the headliners (of course!), with an impressive lineup of opening acts including The Who, John & Yoko, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal and Marianne Faithfull. The “circus” theme (and the cringingly arrhythmic hippie dancing by the audience members) haven’t dated so well, but the performances are fabulous. Jagger’s alleged reason for keeping the show on ice was that the Stones were displeased by their own performance; the whispered truth over the years is that Mick felt upstaged by the Who (they do a rousing rendition of “A Quick One”). Actually the Stones are good; highlighted by a punky version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, and a great “No Expectations” (featuring lovely playing from Brian Jones on slide guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano).

Sympathy for the Devil – Relatively unseen prior to home video release, this 1968 film (aka One plus One) tends to loom at bit larger as a legend in the minds of those who have namechecked it over the years than as a true “classic”. Director Jean-Luc Godard was given permission to film the Stones working on their Beggar’s Banquet sessions. He intercuts with footage featuring Black Panthers expounding on The Revolution, a man reciting passages from Mein Kampf, and awkwardly executed “guerilla theater” vignettes (it was the 60s, man). While we “get” the analogy between the Stones building the layers of the eponymous song in the studio and the seeds of change being sown in the streets, the rhetoric becomes grating. Still, it’s a fascinating curio, and the intimate, beautifully shot footage of the Stones offers us a rare “fly on the wall” peek at their creative process.

MoMA and dada: The Theory of Obscurity ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  March 12, 2016)

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I once unintentionally attended a Residents gig, at a club in San Francisco, circa 1980. Technically, they weren’t really there. They were “appearing” via (mesmerizingly weird) videos. The videos were being looped, concurrently on several monitors, in a small room isolated from the main stage. This presentation functioned as a sort of passive “supporting band” for the act I was there to see, Snakefinger. Then again, as defined in a documentary called The Theory of Obscurity: a film about The Residents (and by the artists themselves) they’re not a “band”…so much as they are an ongoing art installation. So in that context, I’ll state unequivocally that I saw The Residents (you had to be there, man!).

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“The Residents Ultimate Box Set” (Museum of Modern Art)

Director Don Hardy Jr. has taken on the unenviable task of profiling a band who have not only refused to reveal their faces in any billed public appearances over a 40-year career, but continue to this day to willfully obfuscate their backstory (and the fact that publicity is handled through their self-managed “Cryptic Corporation” puts the kibosh on any hopes of discovery). As I inferred earlier, can you even call them a “band” with a straight face? Or are they more of an “art collective”? Or are they just elaborate pranksters? One thing that does become clear as you watch the film, is they are all of the above, and more.

Attempting to describe their music almost begs its own thesis-length dissertation; it’s best understood by simply sampling it yourself. Just don’t expect anything conventional. Or consistent; they are experimental in every sense of the word. Considering that they have over sixty albums to their credit, Hardy obviously can’t annotate their full discography in a 90-minute film, but he does spotlight some of their more seminal efforts, like The Third Reich’n’Roll (best album title ever) and the ironically entitled Commercial Album (40 delightfully dada 1-minute songs, which the band actually rotated as a 60 second spot flight on San Francisco Top 40 station KFRC in 1980…talk about a meta ad campaign!).

On a purely conceptual level (as pointed out in the film) The Residents could be seen as the antithesis of the Kardashians; whereas the latter are the poster children for those who are “famous for being famous”, the former are “famous” for shunning (and mocking) the Cult of Celebrity at every turn. Yet (paradoxically) they are lauded as innovative multimedia artists (Hardy shows how serendipity led these “failed filmmakers” into becoming a band, who then by necessity stumbled into becoming music video pioneers).

The Residents have also been more musically influential than one may assume; members of Devo, Primus, Ween and the Talking Heads are on hand to testify as such. I was a little surprised that Daft Punk isn’t mentioned, especially since they literally wear their influences on their sleeves (well, in this case, their heads). While The Residents are not for all tastes, Hardy has fashioned an ingratiating, maybe even definitive, portrait of them.