Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Rolling Stones and Robert Frank and Rocks Off

If you remember when fuzz-covered needles scratched disks spinning under abusive turntables loaded in consoles the size of mini vans, then you might also remember when The Rolling Stones were The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band.

Well, so we were told. Most of us didn't doubt it. That meme, it turns out, was artificially bestowed on them during their nightly introductions on their tour of 1969. The iPod generations, on the other hand, are less convinced. Q magazine's 1998 readers poll of the Greatest Albums of All Time (presumably, their readers still listened to albums) put Exile on Main Street, generally considered by everyone
including The Stones themselves — to be their best work, at #42. By 2003 it didn't even make the top 100. (The gray heads at Rolling Stone magazine gave it a #7 on their The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. As news of The Beatles music released on iTunes was being shouted from billboards all over town, the Y, Z, and Millennial generations were boarding The Stones onto the bullet train to oblivion.

Ah well, the vagaries of time: Be that as it may, remembering back to a time when they did matter, Rocks Off was one of the betters of their best.

Exile would prove to be the final issue of The Stones classic period. As a result of flowering heroin addiction, it'd also be the last album to feature Richards as a dominant force. (Even his role on Exile has been under some dispute as guitarist Mick Taylor claimed his own guitar and songwriting contributions were never fully acknowledged.) The period that followed, what I would call their post-classic period — from Goat's Head Soup to Some Girls — would be an era ruled by Sir Mick. Under Jagger's direction, the band moved away from the rootsier blues material. (Though, by the time of Some Girls in 1978 the shock of punk would force them to pull out Chuck Berry riffs once again.)

And as to whatever happened to the band's records after that, who cares?

As to Rocks Off: Groove-wise, it's one of the hardest in The Stones canon; Lyrically, the song is more like a 12 year old's idea of smut used as a thin disguise to obscure its theme of heroin use. In the context of those LSD waning, cocaine ascending days of 1972, radio was already loaded with boundary-pushing vulgarities: The same year as Chuck Berry's comeback hit My Ding-a-Ling (Don't you want to play with my ding-a-ling?), The Isley Brothers's Pop That Thang (If my balloon goes down/Fill it up with wind), and Lou Reed's smorgasbord of eye-brow hoisters, Walk on the Wild Side. In that context, Rocks Off is like one more dirty word in a Tarantino script.

On Robert Frank: He was the Swiss-born photog who in 1958 began a sojourn through United States with the help of a Guggenheim grant. Along the way he took 28,000 photographs, met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and was arbitrarily thrown in a Southern jail. From these two years on the road comes a book of 83 photos he called Les Américains (with text by Kerouac). The book proved to be something of a sensation and would remain as the seminal photo document of America in the fifties. It's renderings of the South were especially poignant. (It's Frank's photo of a wall from a tattoo parlor that graces the Exile's cover.)

By the time
Les Américains was published, Frank had already moved into filmmaking. As a filmmaker, he'd be most famous as the guy hired by The Rolling Stones to shoot their 1972 tour, a film the band would later refuse to let anyone see. This mostly unseen film would be called Cocksucker Blues and even in its non-release it has only added even more layers to the band's thick mystique. (See some edited bits of it here.) For the band that'd eventually become the very model of musical corporatism, in the seventies their heads were still in a cool place: Not only in choosing Frank, but also French New Waver Jean Luc-Godard four years earlier for Sympathy for the Devil.

A court would order that the film be limited to only one showing a year and then only with Frank in attendance. Now that the maestro is well into his eighties the likelihood of any of us ever seeing the film in a theater are more remote than ever. The clip above is about as much as most of us will ever get to see. I stand corrected; See comment below.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Old School Beatbox: "Love Me Tonight"

"Love Me Tonight" was a musical minted for the height of The Depression in the summer 1932. It's songs are by Rodgers and Hart, its stars are Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette McDonald, and Myrna Loy (for young 'ens who don't know: all were boffo box office in their day), and its director was Imperial Russia-via-Georgia born, Armenian-American Rouben Mamoulian. (A director as famous for what he didn't do as what he did, he was fired from the films Cleopatra, Porgy and Bess, and Laura. He did direct Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire, Dr Jekyll with Fredric March, as well as The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand.)

In the scene above you'll discover some the film's notable innovations in both music and film editing. Most remarkable is its complex and sophisticated music editing, presaging the digital age by nearly an eon. Looped rhythms, which are now so de rigueur in this age of Pro-Tools, may've gotten their debut here. This scene not only predates Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon by 41 years (drum looping first came of age in the Disco era), but also preceded Musique concrète by 10 to 15 years, at least. (And as far Hip hop is concerned, even its progenitors' great-grandfathers were yet to be zygotes.)

Credit to the blog where I discovered the film:

Friday, March 18, 2011

For those whom the "he" is always lowercase

In a world of stories, the wags always win:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The indiscreet charm of Billy Preston

He was the child prodigy who played with Mahalia Jackson at age 10, Nat King Cole at 11, portrayed W.C. Handy as a child in film at 12, backed Sam Cooke and Little Richard by 16, and then had that little stint as the "Fifth Beatle" at 23.

That's the résumé; The legacy of Billy Preston we can write for ourselves. Mine would include his Clavinet-standard studio improv "Outa-Space," those iconic electric piano performances from the "Let It Be" sessions, his surprisingly creative piano work on the Stones' career-twilight albums, a canon of hit-worthy compositions under his own name, and the countless other classic contributions he made across the rock and roll era.

But playing is only part of his story: It's been argued that his gregarious and infectious personality was at least partly responsible for holding together the centrifugal egos of John, Paul, and George during the "Let It Be" sessions. You don't get to play with as many greats as Preston unless you've a substantial personality. But what resonates most about the legacy of musicianship, I believe, is his obvious and deep love of playing; It's the irreducible component of truth in all great musicians' art. See this in action along with a jubilant and manic energy that rises to escape velocity levels in this 1969 performance from "The Concert for Bangladesh":

Also on the bill were Dylan, Clapton, George Harrison, Leon Russell, and Badfinger. It was often written that Billy stole the show; That was probably an understatement.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Loves Metallica, hates self

If you're a Metallica fan, low self-esteem may not be your only problem: Add social awkwardness and a predisposition for slacking into the mix as well. (For this, you may not want to wear your fading "Tour 1998" shirt to your next job interview.)

The source: A study out of Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University in 2008 looking to gain insight into our musical tastes and how the content of our iPod may correlate with that of our character. The study also claimed to have collected data on the largest sample ever taken: 36,518 subjects were queried on 104 different musical styles before taking a personality test. If you can imagine the legions of marketers drooling over this bumper trove then you won't be surprised to learn researchers already considered the possibility. The study's author Professor Adrian North notes:

"If you know a person's music preference you can tell what kind of person they are, who to sell to.
There are obvious implications for the music industry who are are worried about declining CD sales." [Facebook users have already seen this in action.]

Also: "One of the most surprising things [discovered in the study] is the similarities between fans of classical music and heavy metal. They're both creative and at ease but not outgoing.... The general public has held a stereotype of heavy metal fans being suicidally depressed and of being a danger to themselves and society in general. But they are quite delicate things."

Take that fans of Slayer: You fragile flowers. (As, apparently, are also fans of Chart Pop and Soulsters but the Prof. seems to single out Metal in particular.)

If you're into Radiohead, according to the Prof. you're no better than the Metallica fan: I.e., if you overcame the unlikelihood of snagging a girlfriend then you're probably living off her as well (socially awkward and loath to work). And while your self-esteem may be pitiable, you're not as delicate as the Metallica fan; Instead, in the parlance of the study, you're "not gentle" (whatever that means).

Country fans, on the other hand, besides leaning overwhelmingly Republican (that's my own bit of data, the study doesn't mention political affiliations), they're hard working and outgoing. (This could partly explain the popularity of the Southern mullet.)

And though most Jazz fans are known for their musical snobbery, the study claims they have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, and at ease. Classical lovers are shy and just about every musical category gets credited for having fans that are "creative." All, i.e., except one: Chart Pop. (Sorry little Gaga Monsters!)

As to why a slacker is drawn to Metal and a hard worker to Country will,
alas, have to wait for another study. Also no mention of how music tastes inform dress or what your chances of joining a terror cell
are if your ears delight in maqâmât modes. Or: What to make of our iPod playlists larded up with music that crosses genres? (Heaven forbid!) Can't wait to see those studies. In the meantime, we'll have to suffice with the exploitation of our shopping habits.

For a list of some of categories and how they stack up go here.