Tag Archives: On Music

Sales from the crypt: Elvis is back for Halloween

By Dennis Hartley

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The White House, 1970: Two great recording artists meet at last

I’ve never been a huge Elvis fan, but like most ‘murcans who have strolled this planet since mid-century last, I have a sizable portion of his catalog burned into my neurons (how do I know all these lyrics?).  But the people who are really into Elvis? They are really into Elvis.

I can’t deny that he’s an icon. Some have suggested he literally is:

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The Statue of Liberty thing is spooky; some point even further back:

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I digress.  This crossed my desk at the radio station the other day:

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The sticker on the shrink wrap read: Elvis is back! Really?! You mean all that Weekly World News stuff wasn’t complete and utter shash? The cover photo was obviously archival, but I flipped over the jewel case and sure enough,  there it was: copyright 2015,  RCA Records.  14 tracks, spanning Elvis’ career, but remixed with the addition of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Conceptually, it’s a comedy premise:

I was intrigued enough to give it a spin, and…it sort of works, depending  on the track. For example, “Burning Love”, does not work;  “Hunka hunka burnin’ love”  and “lush string arrangement” should never appear together in the same sentence, much less the same mixing console (ditto the cover of James Taylor’s  “Steamroller Blues”). On the other hand,  “Love Me Tender”  is beautiful; the reflective ballad transforms here  into  lovely chamber pop, in the vein of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” (or  George Martin’s orchestral enhancement of George Harrison’s  “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”  demo for the Beatles Love remix). Unfortunately, the deeper you go into this collection, the more exploitative and schmaltzy it all seems.  Rabid fans will likely adore it; speaking for myself, I say…let the man rest in peace.

If I Can Dream-Elvis Presley with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

RCA Records CD (Street date: October 30)

Rating: **

There once was a note: Lambert & Stamp ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 17, 2015)

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The Kinks came up with one of my favorite album titles, Everybody’s in Show Biz. True dat. Everyone wants to be a star; movie star, rock star, top dog, grand vizier, whatever. Of course the reality is that everyone can’t be. And those that do make it to the toppermost of the poppermost rarely get there on raw talent alone. One of the secrets? Good management; particularly evident when one considers the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll.

While The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin were certainly destined to make great music, it’s fun to speculate how differently their careers might have played out had they never hooked up with Brian Epstein, Andrew Loog Oldham and Peter Grant (respectively) at the right place and the right time (Tonite: Puppet show and Spinal Tap!).

Which brings us to another iconic rock act, The Who, four gifted but somewhat (initially) rudderless blokes who arguably had the most to gain from bumping into the right handlers at the right time. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp may not be household names like Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon and John Entwistle, but for all intents and purposes, they were (for a crucial formative period) the 5th and 6th members of the Who.

In his cheeky and absorbing documentary, Lambert and Stamp, which slipped in and out of theaters this past summer and is now available on home video, director James Cooper draws from a trove of archival footage, adding latter-day interviews to recount this unique creative partnership which on paper, should not have worked out as well as it did.

The two men could not have been any different in social background and personality makeup. Lambert was gay, cultured, privileged; the son of a famous composer-conductor, he spoke with what the British refer to as a “posh” accent. Stamp, on the other hand, was straight, working class, the son of a tugboat operator, an East Ender replete with Cockney h-dropping. Together, they created a formidable entity; like the Who themselves, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Cooper gets much mileage from that disparate personality quotient; drawing parallels between Lambert and Stamp’s dynamic with that famously volatile “push me-pull you” tension that made The Who…The Who.

A lot of the story is one happy accident after the other, so I won’t spoil it here. It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops; Cooper gives us the ups and the downs. Stamp was still alive when Cooper began working on his film (he died in 2012), so we get the benefit of his latter-day perspective. Stamp’s famous acting sibling Terrence (“Kneel before Zod!”) is also on hand to add a few observations.

Unfortunately, Lambert died in 1981, so he is relegated to archival snippets. This obviously robs him of the luxury to share benefit of hindsight, and entrusts his legacy to the comments of associates like Townshend and Daltrey, who help fill in some of those cracks. While not the best place to start for neophytes, hardcore Who fans will appreciate Cooper’s fresh angle on familiar material.

So Lambert & Stamp may not be for everyone; here are 3 Who flicks no one should miss:

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The Kids Are Alright– Director (and super fan) Jeff Stein’s 1979 labor of love is not only the ultimate Who film, but one of the best rockumentaries I have ever seen. It’s a truly amazing compendium, curating every worthwhile archival performance clip extant, from the band’s earliest TV appearances in the U.K, to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, and feature films like Woodstock and Monterey Pop. Stein also folds in a generous helping of archival interview snippets.

There’s no traditional narration; Stein cleverly edits the footage in a manner that essentially enables the Who to tell their own story. His only acquiescence to the tradition of adding “present day” perspective was (in hindsight) a prescient move; a concert staged exclusively for the film in 1977, beautifully shot in 35mm (the band tears it up with rousing renditions of “Baba O’Reilly” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”). Sadly, this turned out to be the final filmed performance of the original lineup; Keith Moon died in 1978 (footage of the band’s entire set was restored and released on Blu-ray as The Who at the Kilburn 1977).

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Quadrophenia– The Who’s eponymous 1973 double-LP rock opera, Pete Townshend’s musical love letter to the band’s first g-g-generation of most rabid British fans (aka the “Mods”) inspired this memorable 1979 film from director Franc Roddam. With the 1964 “youth riots” that took place at the seaside resort town of Brighton as his catalyst, Roddam fires up a visceral character study in the tradition of the British “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the early 1960s.

Phil Daniels gives a James Dean-worthy performance as teenage “Mod” Jimmy. Bedecked in their trademark designer suits and Parka jackets, Jimmy and his Who-loving compatriots cruise around London on their Vespa and Lambretta scooters, looking for pills to pop, parties to crash and “Rockers” to rumble with. The Rockers are identifiable by their greased-back hair, leathers, motorbikes, and their musical preference for likes of Elvis and Gene Vincent. Look for a very young Ray Winstone (as a Rocker) and Sting (as a Mod bell-boy, no less). Wonderfully acted by a spirited cast, it’s a heady mix of youthful angst and raging hormones, super-charged by the power chord-infused grandeur of the Who’s music.

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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 precise 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 band members have roles-Roger Daltrey is charismatic 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 section of film veterans (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! Raucous, garish and gross…but never boring.

And we just have enough time left for a quick one…

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees announced: My 5 picks for the 2016 inductees

By Dennis Hartley

While I abhor the concept of tossing creative artists into the gladiatorial pit (art, prose, poetry, music and film are not competitive sports), my sworn duties as a pop culture critic occasionally require me to add my two cents worth of bread,  in regard to such circuses.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced their 15 nominees: The Cars, Chic, Chicago, Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, Janet Jackson, The J.B.s,  Chaka Khan,  Los Lobos, Steve Miller, Nine Inch Nails, N.W.A., The Smiths, The Spinners,  and Yes. Worthy artists all, but (this is what I hate about “contests”) how do I justify my 5 picks (the Hall’s yearly limit for new inductees) without seeming to denigrate the rest? By doing my job and plowing forward (alphabetically):

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  1.  Cheap Trick– The “newest” artists on my list stormed out of  the gate in 1977 taking names and kicking ass as the missing link between the Beatles and punk. While they could be seen as direct descendants of melodic power pop pioneers like Big Star and The Move,  they weren’t afraid to turn the Marshalls up to “11” and rage like balls-to-the-wall rockers . I think that’s why they’re one of those rare bands (like AC/DC and The Ramones) that metal, punk, new-wave,  alternative and pop fans can all get together on. And if you ever get a chance to see them live…do not pass it up!

Best 3 albums: Cheap Trick, In Color, Heaven Tonight

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2.  Chicago– While I’m not fond of their schmaltzy  (if chart-topping) descent into “adult contemporary” territory from the 80s onward, there is no denying the groundbreaking nature of those incredible first three double albums Chicago Transit Authority (1969), Chicago II and Chicago III (what I call their “Roman Numeral Period”). Those early albums were (for the time) a bold fusion of hard rock, blues, soul, jazz, and Latin styles, fueled by the late great Terry Kath’s fiery guitar and accentuated by a tight horn section. Not to mention an impressive catalog of radio hits over the years. Let ’em in, already!

Best 3 albums: Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago II, Chicago III

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3. Deep Purple– It’s criminal that this seminal hard rock outfit hasn’t been ushered into the pantheon yet. They’ve been around since the late 60s, and had a major influence on the genre. There were many lineup changes over the decades (chiefly involving lead vocalists and lead guitarists), but the quality and power of their music never faltered. The most well-known lineup featured one of rock’s great screamers, Ian Gillian on lead vocal, and maestro of the whammy bar Ritchie Blackmore on guitar. Ian Paice (drums), Roger Glover (bass) and Jon Lord (keyboards) completed the classic team.  I must mention the worthy contribution of the  excellent (if less-heralded)  1975 Purple lineup that produced Come Taste the Band, featuring the late great Tommy Bolin (guitar), Glenn Hughes (vocals and bass), and future Whitesnake front man David Coverdale (lead vocals).

Best 3 albums: In Rock , Machine Head, Come Taste the Band

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4. The Spinners– I was also a bit gobsmacked to learn that these guys have not already been inducted. For god’s sake, they’ve been around for nearly 50 years, and should be considered (at the very least) as the godfathers of “smooth groove”. Their classic period was the 70s, when they became the ambassadors for the “Philadelphia Sound” through their fruitful collaboration with songwriter-producer Thom Bell. If “I’ll Be Around”, “Could it Be I’m Falling in Love”, “Games People Play”, or “The Rubberband Man” comes on the radio while I’m in my car, I’ll still crank it up without hesitation and sing along at the top of my lungs (with my windows rolled up…as a public service).

Best 3 albums: Spinners, Mighty Love, Pick of the Litter

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5. Yes– Long before MTV (or YouTube), my teenage self would while away many hours listening to Yes with a good set of cans, staring at Roger Dean’s art, envisioning my own music videos (special effects courtesy of the joint that I rolled on the inside of the convenient gatefold sleeve). Good times (OP sighs, takes moment of silence to reflect on a life tragically misspent). Anyway, why this band hasn’t been inducted yet is beyond me. Complex compositions informed by deeply layered textures, impeccable musicianship, heavenly harmonies, topped off by Jon Anderson’s ethereal vocals; an embodiment of all that is good about progressive rock (I know the genre has its detractors, to whom  I say…”You weren’t there, man!”). R.I.P.  bassist/vocalist Chris Squire, who we sadly lost this year.

Best 3 albums: The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge

That’s entertainment: The Jam: About the Young Idea ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 3, 2015)

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When former British PM Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, Digby did a great post about how the populist backlash against Thatcherism provided fertile ground for the Agit Punk movement in the UK (I wrote a companion piece on Thatcherism’s likewise effect on film makers). One of the best bands of that era was The Jam. Formed in 1976, the three lads from Woking (guitarist/lead vocalist Paul Weller, bassist/vocalist Bruce Foxton, and drummer Rick Buckler) exploded onto the scene with their seminal album, In the City. The eponymous single became their signature tune and remains a punk pop anthem. While initially lumped in with contemporaries like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, the band was operating in a different sphere; specifically regarding their musical influences.

What set Weller and his band mates apart was their open adulation of The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, The Small Faces and the Motown sound. At the time, this was heresy; as astutely pointed out in The Jam: About the Young Idea (a rockumentary that premiered on Showtime this week), you had to dismiss any music released prior to 1976, if you wished to retain your punk cred. In the film, Weller recalls having a conversation with Joe Strummer of The Clash, who told him (in effect) that all of Chuck Berry’s music was crap. “Oh Joe…you don’t really mean that,” Weller replies rhetorically into the camera.

Also on hand are Foxton and Buckler, who still register palpable sadness while recalling their reaction to Weller’s unexpected announcement to them in 1982 (at the height of their greatest chart success) that he was quitting the band to pursue new musical avenues. Weller is philosophical; he argues it’s always best to go out on top (as Neil Young said, it’s better to burn out than fade away). Director Bob Smeaton (The Beatles Anthology) does a marvelous job telling the band’s story, sustaining a positive energy throughout by mixing in a generous helping of vintage performance clips. This is a must-see for fans.

I saw Fear in the People’s Temple: The Decline Trilogy arrives on Blu-ray

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 8, 2015)

I saw Fear in the People’s Temple. Sounds poetic, but I’m being quite literal. In 1980, I saw Fear (the L.A. punk band) perform in the People’s Temple (1839 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco). And yes, this was the People’s Temple, as in the former home ministry for Jim Jones and his congregation. For a brief period from 1979 to 1980, the church was leased as a performance space for punk bands (unsettling in retrospect, but par for the course in the heady days of California’s early 80s punk scene). I don’t remember much about the 4 or 5 acts who preceded them, but Fear certainly left an impression, opening with their signature “hello” song, “I Don’t Care About You”.

I’ve seen an old man                                                                                                         Have a heart attack in Manhattan                                                                            Well, he died while we just stood there lookin’ at him                                        Ain’t he cute?

I don’t care about you                                                                                                     Fuck you!                                                                                                                                      I don’t care about you

So much for all that “We hope that you’ll enjoy the show” Sgt. Pepper peace’ n’ love shit!

It was also a brief set, as I recall. As if the opening tune wasn’t alienating enough, lead singer Lee Ving continued baiting the punters with a barrage of insults (witnessing the crowd’s reaction, I soon grokked why the beer was served up in plastic cups). After 4 or 5 2-minute songs, Ving haughtily announced that the show was over, citing the audience’s hostility. It was obviously ironic shtick; half the audience got it (like me, they were laughing their asses off) the other half truly did look like they were ready to murder the band. I suspect Fear’s influences were more Andy Kaufman than Ramones.

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Things seem so much different now, the scene has died away                            I haven’t got a steady job, and I’ve got no place to stay                                    Well it’s a futuristic modern world, but things aren’t what they seem       Someday you’d better wake up, from this stupid fantasy  

 -from “Bloodstains”, by Agent Orange (1980)

As we entered the 1980s, music was in a weird space. The first surge of punk had died away, and was already being homogenized by the marketing boys into a more commercially palatable genre tagged “New Wave”. The remnants of disco and funk had loosened a tenacious grip on the pop charts, yet had not yet acquiesced to the burgeoning hip hop/rap scene as the club music du jour.

What would soon become known as Hair Metal was still in its infancy; and the inevitable merger of “headphone” prog and bloated stadium rock sealed the deal with Pink Floyd’s cynical yet mega-successful 2-LP “fuck you” to the music business, The Wall (the hit single, “Another Brick in the Wall”, was the #2 song on Billboard’s chart for 1980, sandwiched between Blondie’s “Call Me” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic”). Clearly, the conditions were ripe for a new paradigm.

Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk                                                                      It’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me.

 -from “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me”, by Billy Joel (1980)

In 1981 (the year MTV signed on), The Decline of Western Civilization was released. Filmed in 1979, Penelope Spheeris’ documentary was a “lightning in a bottle” capture of the L.A. punk scene, (to quote Hunter S. Thompson) right at that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. That “new paradigm” may in fact have already arrived on the cusp of the decade, as a scenester named Eugene explains in the film’s opening: “Well, I like that (punk) is something new, and it’s just reviving, like the old rock ’n’ roll. It’s raw again, it’s for real, and it’s fun. It’s not bullshit…there’s no rock stars, man.”

Spheeris mixes fan and musician interviews with well-shot performance footage of some of the seminal L.A. punk bands of that era, like Black Flag, X, The Germs, The Circle Jerks and Fear. While every bit as arch and unconventional as its subject, you’ll notice touches (like providing subtitles for the song lyrics) that subtly position the film as more anthropological study than rockumentary. And indeed, this once “shocking” film has since gained much cachet as a serious historical document; it is now shown in museums.

The film has been tough to track down for a number of years, as the only previous home video version was a long-out-of-print VHS release. Spheeris (who reached a commercial pinnacle with Wayne’s World) has been promising a restored print on DVD to her clamoring (and frustrated) fans for some time; apparently she kept getting sidetracked (or something). The wait ended June 30 with Shout! Factory’s DVD/Blu-ray releases of the film and its two sequels, packaged as The Decline of Western Civilization Collection set.

For her 1988 sequel, The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years Spheeris once again parsed her subject through a socio-cultural lens; fans are given equal face time with the musicians to paint a full picture of L.A.’s late 80s metal scene. What a difference a decade makes; while the concept of a “rock star” was anathema in the first film, it’s catnip for this crowd. It seems that everybody in II (whether musician, fan, or passer-by) wants to be (to quote Dirk Diggler) a big, bright, shining star. Well, almost everybody.

The film’s most famous (and disturbing) scene, wherein W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes is interviewed floating in a pool (clothed) and downing what looks to be a lethal amount of vodka while Mom looks on in bemusement, is like a lost reel from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (he must have got treatment…I just Googled him and he’s still alive).

While it’s certainly a thrill to finally have pristine prints of I and II on the home shelf, the real revelation is the inclusion of The Decline of Western Civilization III, which I had never had a chance to see until now (it played at several film festivals in 1998, but never got picked up for wide distribution). The film departs from its two predecessors, in that it feels more like an act of real social compassion, rather than mere historical preservation.

The setting remains Los Angeles. It is actually a more direct “sequel” to the first film, because “punk” is invoked once again. This time, it’s not so much “punk” in the sense of a music genre, or scene, but as the ethos of a specific lifestyle; in this case a subculture of street kids dubbed as “gutter punks”. Music is still an element, and several bands are profiled, but it’s the gutter punks who tell the real story here.

Sadly, it’s an ongoing story, which is the story of America’s homeless. It’s all the more heartbreaking when you realize that these really are only kids, who due to fate and/or deeply dysfunctional upbringings, feel compelled to reject “normal” society and take their chances tenuously living by their wits. The film reminded me of the 1984 documentary Streetwise (strongly recommended, if you have never seen it), which profiled a group of Seattle street kids.

The box set includes a bonus disc, chockablock with extras. Taken as a triptych, this collection rates as essential viewing, and gets my vote for best reissue of 2015 (so far).

You upset me, BB

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 15, 2015)

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Today, Lucille is a widow. Is there any guitar player of the past 60 years who hasn’t been influenced by him? He had a deceptively simple playing style…but just try to reproduce that tone (and that vibrato…Jesus, that vibrato). God knows, I’ve tried (and I’ve been playing for 40 years). With his innate and effortless stage cool, he made it look natural and easy; but each one of those smooth, economical lead lines were plucked directly from his blue, blue soul. His interpretation was singular and elemental. Long live the King…

Thoughts on a Beatles anniversary & a new (-ish) documentary (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 9, 2014)

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Digby has invited me to share my memories and thoughts about the Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago today (CBS is airing a 2 hour tribute special tonight-Paul and Ringo are doing a couple numbers!). Truth be told, that “memory” is a little fuzzy, for a couple of reasons. On February 9, 1964, I was all of 7 years old; a tad on the young side to fully grok the hormonal/cultural impact of this “screaming ‘yeah-yeah’ music” (as my dad would come to define any rock’n’roll he might overhear wafting from my room throughout my formative years).

Also, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. At the time, none of the local TV stations were equipped to carry live network feeds. We would get Walter Cronkite a day late (the tapes had to be shipped from Seattle via commercial jet flights). And weekly programs like Sullivan were, well, one week late. So technically I “remember” watching the Beatles 50 years ago… next Sunday.

My true “discovery” of the Beatles occurred soon after I turned 11, during the summer of 1967, when my best pal George (who was 2 years my senior) practically browbeat me into blowing a month’s worth of allowance to pick up a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s, assuring me that it would change my life. He was right. Sgt. Pepper turned out to be my gateway drug to all the music (from psychedelic and garage to metal and prog and punk and new wave and everything in between) that has become a crucial element of my life to this day.

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I’ve done a few posts in the past about the Beatles on film, and figured I had covered most angles. But the funny thing about Beatles-related movies and documentaries is that, like the band’s legacy itself, it’s a gift that seems to keep on giving. Just when you think you’ve learned everything there is to know, there’s Something New (hey…that would make a cool album title). A few weeks ago, I was perusing the bins of a music and video store here in Seattle, and stumbled upon a straight-to-DVD documentary from the UK with an intriguing (if unwieldy) title called Going Underground: Paul McCartney, The Beatles and the UK counter-culture.

Focusing on a specific period of London’s underground scene, it connects the dots between the American Beats (Ginsberg, Kerouac & co.), the social, sexual and aesthetic sea change in the UK during the early to mid-60s, and analyzes its subsequent influence on the Beatles (one word: acid). As one interviewee observes, “They were probably the most avant-garde group in Britain, but also the most commercial.” Actually the Beatles don’t enter the narrative until about halfway through, but it’s still an absorbing watch.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Beatle songs/clips (and a perfect example of that avant-garde/commercial dichotomy). BTW this is also the song I always play for those wizards who claim that Ringo was only a so-so drummer…listen to that mother go!

Blu-ray review: Jeff Beck Live in Tokyo ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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Jeff Beck Live in Tokyo – Eagle Vision Blu-ray

Who’s the coolest 70 year-old on the planet? My vote is for guitar virtuoso Jeff Beck, who just keeps improving with age. I’ve been playing guitar for over 40 years, and no matter how closely I study the man’s fingers, I am absolutely stymied as to how he wrestles those sounds from his axe. It’s some kind of alchemy that is beyond my ken. Eagle Vision’s Blu-ray captures a dynamic performance at the Tokyo Dome City Hall from April 2014. Beck glides effortlessly between genres, proving equally adept at blues, metal, fusion, jazz and funk (sometimes all within the same number). He also shows off his newest band, all chops players (as you would expect). It’s interesting to see him playing off a second guitarist (classical-leaning Nicolas Meier), which he hasn’t done in some time. Highlights include “A Day in the Life”, “Stratus”, and the achingly beautiful “Where Were You”. The disc has exemplary image and sound.

Blame it on the boogie: The Secret Disco Revolution **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2013)

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Remember the disco era? I try not to. Yeah, I was one of those long-haired rocker dudes walking around brandishing a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt and turning his nose up at anything that smelled of Bee Gee or polyester back in the day. What can I say? I was going through my tribal phase (I think it’s commonly referred to as “being in your early 20s”). Now, that being said, I sure loved me some hard funk back in the mid 70s. A bit of the Isley Brothers, War, Mandrill, Funkadelic, etc. oeuvre managed to infiltrate my record collection at the time (in betwixt the King Crimson, Bowie, Who and Budgie).

But I had to draw the battle lines somewhere around the release (and non-stop radio airplay) of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (ironically, I love the film itself). In retrospect, I think what offended my (oh so rarified) sense of music aesthetic was that while “disco” plundered R&B, funk, soul (and even elements of rock’n’roll) it somehow managed to expunge everything that was righteous and organic about those genres; codifying them into a robotic, repetitive, and formulaic wash. But hey, the kids could dance to it, right?

Now, I am extrapolating here about disco music itself, as one would reference “blues” or “jazz”; not “disco” as a cultural phenomenon or political movement. What did he say? “Political movement”?! Actually, I didn’t say. Director Jamie Kastner is the person who puts forth this proposition in his sketchy yet mildly engaging documentary (mockumentary?) The Secret Disco Revolution. I think he’s being serious when he posits that the disco phenomenon was not (as the conventional wisdom holds) simply an excuse for the Me Generation to boogie, snort and fuck themselves silly thru the latter half of the 70s, but a significant political milestone for women’s lib, gay lib and African American culture.

He carries the revisionism a step further, suggesting that the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” riot (ignited by Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl’s 1979 publicity stunt, in which a crate of disco LPs was blown up at Comiskey Park in front of 50,000 cheering fans) was nothing less than a raging mob of racists, homophobes and misogynists. Hmm.

Kastner uses the aforementioned 1979 incident as the bookend to disco’s golden era (kind of like how writers and filmmakers have used Altamont as a metaphor for the death of 1960s hippie idealism). For the other end of his historic timeline, he (correctly) traces disco’s roots back to early 1970s gay club culture.

How disco morphed from a relatively ghettoized urban hipster scene to arrhythmic middle-American suburbanites striking their best Travolta pose is actually the most fascinating aspect of the documentary; although I wish he’d gone a little more in depth on the history rather than digging so furiously for a sociopolitical subtext in a place where one barely ever existed.

Kastner mixes archival footage with present day ruminations from some of the key artists, producers and club owners who flourished during the era. The “mockumentary” aspect I mentioned earlier is in the form of three actors (suspiciously resembling the Mod Squad) who represent shadowy puppet masters who may have orchestrated this “revolution” (it’s clearly designed to be humorous but it’s a distracting device that quickly wears out its welcome).

So was disco a political statement? When Kastner poses the question to genre superstars like Thelma Houston, Gloria Gaynor and Evelyn King, they look at him like he just took a shit in the punch bowl. Hell, he can’t even get any of the guys from the Village People to acknowledge that their wild success represented a subversive incursion of gay culture into the mainstream (they’re likely toying with him because he’s belaboring the obvious…”The Village People were camp?! I’m shocked! Stop the presses!”).

Well, here’s how I look at it. Dion singing “Abraham, Martin and John”? That’s a political statement. James Brown singing “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud”? That’s a political statement. Helen Reddy singing “I Am Woman”? Tom Robinson singing “Glad to be Gay”? Those are political statements. KC and the Sunshine Band singing “Get Down Tonight”? Not so much. And as for Kastner’s assertion that anyone who wore a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt back in the day (ahem) was obviously racist, homophobic and misogynistic, I would say this: I have never particularly cared for country music, either…so what does that make me in your book, Mr. Smarty Pants?

In search of the lost chord: Pianomania ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 16, 2011)

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Tuner sandwich: Stefan Knupfer at work in Pianomania

“It looks like you’re just poking around in there,” observes a young woman. “Yes,” replies Stefan Knupfer, with a shrug and a laugh, “…that’s exactly what I’m doing.” On one level, he is in fact just “poking around” the innards of an immense concert grand piano. However, as we come to learn from watching Pianomania, a new documentary from Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, Herr Knupfer is being somewhat modest. He is actually engaging in a much more complex and esoteric endeavor: the art of piano tuning.

Cibis and Franck offer up a “year of the life” portrait of the affable Austrian piano technician, tagging along as he dashes around Europe in a company van (doggie in tow) to service Steinways for a bevy of world-class performers (including Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel and Richard Hyung-Ki Joo). I admit that I had doubts going in regarding the subject matter (“That note sounds flat-can he tweak it to A-440 in time for the big concert? I’m on the edge of my seat!”). However, as it turns out, this pursuit of tonal perfection holds the dramatic elements of a classic “quest” narrative.

Knupfer must prepare two pianos (beginning nearly a year in advance) which will be used by Aimard for a recorded performance of Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”. The fastidious Aimard isn’t asking for much…only that Knupfer adjust his instruments in such a way that affords him the option to call up the tonality of a clavichord, an organ and a harpsichord at will. The two artists (for the film bears out that the tuner is just as much an ‘artist’ as the performer) ensconce themselves onto the stage of Vienna’s Konzerthaus and set to work like a pair of mad scientists sweating over a formula.

Nothing fazes the cheerful Knupfer, with exception of a horrifying realization that his new hammerheads are off-size by 0.7 millimeter (prompting an uncharacteristic cry of “Shist!” from our intrepid hero). Knupfer is so empathetic with his client’s vision that when the performer makes a nebulous request like “less air!” he knows exactly what Aimard means (even if we don’t).

Knupfer’s infectious enthusiasm for his gig is a documentarian’s dream; especially when the camera is there for his frequent moments of creative inspiration. While helping Richard Hyung-Ki Joo and violinist Aleksey Igudesma brainstorm visual gags for one of their comedic performances, he comes up with an idea to replace a piano leg with a cheap yet still fully functional violin (in a very funny scene, Knupfer calls an instrument dealer and says he is looking for a violin that costs “like five Euros or something”, to which the dealer instinctively responds, “Do you want to smash it?”) Even the more serious work that he does inside the music box greatly benefits from his ability to constantly think outside the box, as it were (like bouncing tennis balls to temper the strings, for example).

I’m not a keyboard player, or frankly much of a classical piano fan (more of a guitar guy) yet I still found this film to be absorbing and entertaining . As credits rolled, I realized  I previously had no clue as to what a piano tuner  does; like a lot of folks I’ve always assumed it to be more on the technical, rather than creative side of the music.

I can relate to Knupfer’s obsessive nature; I’ve been known to zone out for two or three hours at a time “poking around” with pedal settings and amp adjustments in search of the “perfect” guitar tone. Some viewers may cry foul  that the filmmakers seem to have made a conscious decision not to reveal too much about Knupfer’s personal life. However, the pursuit of excellence and perfection in any field is an admirable endeavor, and  at the end of the day that’s really what the film is about. Sometimes, it not the music-it’s how you play it.