Learning a lot about a subject over the course of an assignment can leave me loving or hating it. A couple of years ago, I started a gig doing research for a documentary on the Beatles’ touring years. I had a passing knowledge of the group’s music and the various cultural spokes that radiated from it—Beatlemania, the films, the break-up—but possessed a benign ignorance of the details and never really understood it as a whole (as I suspect many people my age simply take for granted a number of Boomer-boosted icons of the 20th century). It turns out, I think the band is great. And the stories and anecdotes are often very good, sometimes great, ranging from the gothic to the ridiculous.

In any case, the fruits of that research (my part of which was just a fraction of the collective effort) can be found in the Ron Howard-directed doc The Beatles: Eight Days A Week—The Touring Years (and streamed on Hulu).

Witness, fellow pre-Millenial/post Gen-Xers, your antecedents’ enthusiasm!


Three Kinds of Sugar

1. Yesterday, I learned that Wilson Pickett did a cover of the 1969 Archies hit “Sugar, Sugar.” One of the best known examples of the Bubblegum Pop genre, “Sugar, Sugar” actually sounds pretty good when given the Pickett treatment.

2. “Sugar, Sugar,” remains popular at weddings, a grand generalization I base solely on the fact that it played at mine during the cutting of the cake. Our version was by neither Pickett, nor The Archies, but Bob Marley:

Indeed. So two of our favorite singers of all time have covered this song. They do a pretty good job of it, considering what they’ve got to work with. Not that they haven’t gotten a little flack for it from the critics.

3. The song, while certainly catchy (burrows-into- your-brain catchy), was the product of a manufactured band assembled by a producer. Music mogul Don Kirshner formed the group after a split with his earlier creation, The Monkees. Where The Monkees were real people who wanted more artistic control and bridled at the sheen of inauthenticity, The Archies were considerably more malleable given their status as a bunch of cartoon characters (the Archie comics characters, in fact) whose performances were provided by studio musicians. New York Magazine has an interesting little article about the creation of The Archies in ’68, in which Kirshner says that their music will be the type that’s played in clubs, but will appeal to all ages—and by all ages, he means starting with the “2-to-11” year old market. (If you’re familiar with the Kirshner vs Monkees mess, the article has an interesting paragraph in which songwriter Jeff Berry recounts a story that ridicules Monkee Mike Nesmith for having musical pretensions. Nesmith, one of The Monkee’s true musicians, is the bandmember who made their private, internal tensions with Kirshner public.* It also mentions Kirshner’s next project, a collaboration with the film producer Harry Saltzman, that would feature a band composed of “an English guy, a girl, a Negro and a white Southern guy.”**)

As for the origins of these covers? Pickett seems to have covered “Sugar, Sugar” for the same reason he covered a lot of songs during a period in his career (“Hey Jude, “Born to Be Wild”, “Hey Joe”): the pursuit of continued pop success and broad appeal.

Meanhile, Marley’s version is supposed to have come at the suggestion of a producer, the Chinese-Jamaican music mogul Vincent Chin.

*On a purely digressive note, Nesmith was the heir to the Liquid Paper fortune.
**My guess is this became the film Toomorrow, a space musical that starred Olivia Newton-John and by all accounts is a mess.

art, history, movies, music, race

Steamboat Willie


“Steamboat Willie” was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. [First distributed in theaters, not first produced —Ed.] It premiered November 18, 1928, at the Colony Theater in New York City. It was also the first cartoon to have synchronized sound.

If you watch the whole thing, which I had never done until last year, you’ll see it’s also a catalog of animal abuse that would not pass muster today.

screenshot of mickey mouse pressing his shoe on the back of a cat's neck

Since I mention abuse: About halfway through, the song “Turkey in the Straw” starts playing. I never gave much though to the single verse of lyrics that my brother and I learned for this song as kids. (I also never learned that version asking if your ears hang low.) A quick look at Wikipedia suggests that they were from a variation sung by George Gobel on television in the ’50s. Ours went a little like this:

Oh, I had a little chicken and she wouldn’t lay an egg,
So I poured hot water up and down her leg,
Oh, the little chicken hollered and the little chicken begged,
And that darn little chicken laid a hard-boiled egg.

Ouch! Poor little chicken.

1918 sheet music cover portraying a fashionable african-american man called the zip coonLike folk music in general, this song has undergone all kinds of tweaking and transformations. In fact, one of the earliest versions had the unfortunate title “Zip Coon,” a minstrelsy reference to an African-American who was sharply dressed, urban, and free. Or, to use another more subtly charged word that is still around: uppity.

Maybe that earlier song variation could makes sense in the Steamboat Willie context, given the criticism of Mickey Mouse as minstrel.

Fortunately, we were spared the blatant racial mockery when we learned our lyrics. Though if you want to insist on some social subtext, I suppose there was some gender silliness: the hard-boiled-egg-laying chicken’s sex was variable in our singing. Sometimes we poured hot water up and down his leg.

photo of horse and hill
animals, music, photography, really?

Lonely Horse

Remember that song from the ’80s by Yes? “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” When I heard that as a kid, I misheard the lyrics. I was convinced they were singing about the “owner of the lonely horse.” (I also thought Starship “milked this city.” I was wrong.) It was not until I was nearly out of high school, while standing in a grocery store in Fairbanks, Alaska, that I realized this was not, in fact, the case.

For years I felt bad about that horse.

[Photo above taken outside of Olema. Point Reyes, CA. October 2005.]


The Russians Are Coming. Take Five.

Val Bennett. I haven’t found much information on Val Bennett. I know he played the saxophone. First name was “Lovall.” And he died in 1991. And there are records, b-sides. We don’t really have b-sides anymore.

The first time I heard “Take Five,” it wasn’t “Take Five.” Wasn’t the slick Dave Brubeck original that sends fingers thrumming on tables. What I heard first was Val Bennett’s version.

It’s messy, and the timing is a bit more ragged. It doesn’t make me think of coasting in a car through a dusky blue city, like Brubeck’s. Instead, it’s like sitting in a hot, empty restaurant on a neglected Caribbean island, where drops of water run down the sides of Coke bottles. A place that might look like this:


Image of bar in Grenada by Alex Webb.

Bar in Grenada by Alex Webb, 1979.

(Apologies to Alex Webb)


Funny to remember that I first heard this because it was the theme to a show about how dishwashers and toasters work. A terrific show. The song is called, “The Russians Are Coming.”

Postscript, 31 Dec 09: The show that this was the intro theme for was The Secret Life of Machines, which will get its own post here in future. It was created by Tim Hunkin, seen below in a picture from Hunkin’s website.

[Post updated 14 March 2013: embedded new working Youtube video]


On Maurice Jarre and Film Music

There must be some kind of testament to Maurice Jarre in the fact that my girlfriend can hum along to “Lara’s Theme” without having seen Dr. Zhivago.

Jarre died a couple of days ago. I’ve been thinking a lot about the movies of David Lean, especially Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Jarre scored those, and many more. They are such big films, and tangible in their scale. In those days, if the script called for an army, you raised an army. Programming a virtual one was many decades away.

We learn about films in large part by watching them, and Lean’s epics, made almost 50 years ago, are not a bad place to start. You can watch one and say, “Now there is a movie.” Part of that experience is also hearing the film, and that includes its score. Jarre’s scores are not a bad place to start, either.

Many films today opt out of the traditional orchestral score. It’s probably cheaper. Instead, they tend to have soundtracks curated by KCRW DJs, which is not such a bad way to find new artists. But I think there’s something to leaning on the symphony, with its wind section and strings and full complement of percussion instruments, to effect a mood. True, the music is never really meant to be noticed, so much as absorbed. But still, there are film scores and composers worth noticing: the clever machinations of Danny Elfman, the hypnotic patterns of Phillip Glass, or the thrilling swells of John Barry, whose work, of these three, is most reminiscent of Jarre’s.

Big Movies. Here, a bit from Lawrence of Arabia

cool, music

Rotation: The Oracular Spectacular

Have been listening to MGMT for a little while, so figured I ought to share.


I like the album, Oracular Spectacular. Funny how lots of groups I like seem to have shades of lots of other groups I like. You listen and hear various elements rise to the fore and slip away as quickly. It’s like those people who sample a wine, gargle, roll it around, then pronounce, “Hints of chocolate and raspberries and fricaseed rabbit and oak and tobacco and an old baseball glove.” Depending on the MGMT song, there are hints of Bowie and the Stones and Ratatat and old video games, to start.

Used to be that I would hear something new from a show called “Take Me Live.” Where’d that go?

journalism, multimedia, music

Add Some Rhythm

It seems to be a never-ending quest to find appropriate music to add to projects like radio shows, multimedia presentations, or , you know, Exit Music (for a film), that sort of thing. Here is the latest resource I’ve seen: “film music,” at mobygratis.com.

So sign up and you can request free non-commercial licenses for whichever ambient-electro-synth songs you need for your project.

cool, money, movies, music, race, video

It’s a Mad World

As is customary when wasting any significant amount of time on YouTube, I stumbled across a cute enough little animation about an ambitious, yearning kiwi. And then another version of the same cartoon, this time with the Gary Jules/Michael Andrew song “Mad World” dubbed on top. It all seemed suitably angst-ridden. Kiwi and other videos, plus attempted exegesis, after the jump. Continue reading