[File under: heavy blogged about in 2009, when the book was originally published]
I’m not necessarily a Paul Thomas Anderson acolyte or a longtime Thomas Pynchon reader, but I am genuinely excited for the wide release of Inherent Vice this week.
Admittedly Vice is one of only three books I read last year, so that accounts for most of my enthusiasm, and while I didn’t love the beautifully written novel, it was pretty obvious that it could make for a fun movie. Los Angeles in 1970, a stoner gum shoe, a colorful cast characters, and a very layered underworld.
Paul Thomas Anderson re-teamed with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood to score the film, but anyone who has read the book will tell you that the book itself has a pretty stellar built-in soundtrack that Thomas Pynchon acutely details throughout the novel.
The music denotations read like a tertiary character, and the songs highlight the various moods that were simmering in Los Angeles at the time: the lingering hangover of a squeaky clean Gidget-ization of the Surf culture and the hippie spirit trying to make sense of a post Manson murders world. Case in point, one of the central figures in the story is a heroin addicted saxophonist from a once popular surf band who gets entangled with the wrong dudes.
Pynchon revels in the surf du jour by the likes of the Trashmen, The Surfaris, The Champs, the psych pop of the Byrds, Pearls Before Swine and Piper era Pink Floyd, and maybe the most revealing of Pynchon’s intended tone, multiple references to clown princes such as Tiny Tim and Bonzo Dog Band.
Having Spotify by my side as I read this book was fantastic. Multiple users had created Playlists based off the book, and it definitely was a great companion to the novel.
In Paul Schrader’s directorial debut, disgruntled auto plant worker Richard Pryor tells his equally downtrodden colleagues, Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel, about a safe he spots in the union rep’s office.
A plan is hatched.
(Side Note: It’s really hard to come up with a clever intro to a Blue Collar post when Patton Oswalt destroyed all past and future Blue Collar lead-ins with this post back in 2009. Oswalt also points out that the Auto Plant depicted in the film is manufacturing the same model Taxis that Travis Bickle drove in the Schrader penned Taxi Driver, which is an awesome notion to fancy.)
While the safe heist yields some complicated results for our working class heroes, composer Jack Nitzsche and his studio cronies put together a straightforward cohesive soundtrack with very uncomplicated results.
It opens with arguably the most straight forward Captain Beefheart track that’s ever been recorded, as he does his best Mannish Boy vocal over the rhythmic crunches of an automobile assembly line and Ry Cooder’s swampy guitar licks. “Hard Workin’ Man,” which is the main title music to the film, is pretty much your thesis paragraph that strings together the entire soundtrack, which is a well sequenced playlist of transistor radio rhythm & blues with a dash of swamp rock.
Nitzsche and Cooder original compositions blend nicely with Howlin’ Wolf, Ike & Tina, Jeanne Pruett’s “Satin Sheets,” and even Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special,” which sounds especially tasty within the context of this record.
Below Ry Cooder tells Australia’s Triple J Radio about locking a reluctant Captain Beefheart in the vocal booth to record Hard Workin’ Man (which was originally called “Hard Work Fuckin’ Man”. The movie contains the uncensored version).
“Party” is one of the Nitzsche compositions, and is pretty smooth blend of swamp and yacht, and could be one of the first signs of the “overproduced blues” trend of movie themes that flooded 1980’s buddy flicks (we will get to that someday, but think Midnight Run, Lethal Weapon, et al).
Ry Cooder intv. on working with Beefheart during Blue Collar sessions.
Kenny Rogers and The First Edition hit it pretty big in the late sixties, multiple Top 40 hits, strong record sales, and relative credibility throughout the industry. As they entered the 1971 they eventually parlayed their success into a network variety show called Rollin’ On The River that would feature more cutting edge guests than their variety show counterparts. Guests like Ike & Tina Turner, Tony Joe White, and Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks.
A few years later, as their star began to fade in the United States, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition were bonafide superstars in New Zealand. In 1973 their show was canceled, and their full length LP Monumental, bombed in the United States, but it went gold on the small island nation. Thus, Rollin Thru New Zealand was born.
Rollin is a travelogue that is part long form rock video, part tourism board video, part tour documentary that follows Hippie Kenny and his band of merry makers on what seems likes missionary work throughout the country. It’s like no rock film you’ve ever quite seen, but something you’ve always hoped existed.
It’s an eclectic mix of themes that is actually quite compelling in its own contrived way. There are beautiful scenics of the countryside overdubbed with a Kenny Rogers waxing poetic about the differences between America and New Zealand. The band going from town to town and winning over the locals via public jamborees. Amusing man-on-the-street interviews of dumbfounded Americans being asked about New Zealand. Elaborately staged rock video sequences with singer Mary Arnold singing on a snowy mountain top, and Rogers walking around an old mining camp with a pick axe. There even these really campy celebrity softball montages, of the band playing softball with the locals, complete with high-speed antics of wacky sitcom.
The most fantastical sequence, however, has got to be when Kenny and the band are in a bucolic countryside with local youth strewn all about them as they serenade them with the traditional “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”. Kenny has his arm around a native Maori boy, and cajoles him to participate. Slow motion footage of the band members and children riding horses on the hillside.
Rather than sit home idly and covet thy neighbor’s Record Store Day release of The Big Lebowski Soundtrack (White Russian Edition), I decided to crack out the soundtrack to the 1970 film Fools, which features some out-of-print tunes from Lebowski soundtrack stalwarts Kenny Rogers and The First Edition.
We see the band at a bit of a crossroads here as some tracks are billed to the entire band, and one track credited to Kenny Rogers solo. The solo track “Someone Who Cares (Love Theme)” is very much the silky smooth AOR Kenny Rogers that he would ultimately be associated with.
On the Main Title track gone is the blue-eyed psych of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and in it’s place is an orchestral American Folk based ballad “A Poem I Wrote For Your Hair.” The group gets back to it’s New Christy Minstrels roots with a three-part harmony verse full of breezy tones and autumnal lyrics. Kenny Rogers earns his top billing at the 1:54 mark by cutting into the studio magic with his steadfast crooning with juuuust the right bit of tension. A man among boys.
The second track here “If You Love,” is a duet between Katherine Ross and Mimi Farina (Joan Baez’s sister). It feels a little outdated for 1970, but never the less an intriguing combination. I’m not sure if this song is performed by Ross in the movie or just a vanity contribution, because the movie seems impossible to find.
The hard-to-find nature of the film coupled with Roger Ebert’s scathing review has recently made this a holy grail movie for me.
A Poem I Wrote For Your Hair – Kenny Rogers & The First Edition
Happy Thanksgiving! What better way to celebrate than by watching the trailer for Chastity, the turkey that Sonny Bono cooked for Cher in 1969.
Chastity was a vanity project for Cher, written and produced by Bono. It is also suspected that Bono directed the film under the alias Alessio de Paola. The film was bankrolled by our pals over at American International Pictures, which normally means you will be getting a Grade-A B-movie, but this one falls short. Sonny and Cher also conceived their daughter Chasity Bono while making this movie. There is a joke in there somewhere.
The real travesty here is that Cher was so shell shocked by the negative response to this film that she refrained from any movie work for well over 10 years. One of her next roles was in Silkwood, which earned her an Oscar Nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Cher’s title character is so unlikeable that I only lasted about fifteen minutes into this one (YouTube), but the trailer is perfectly rad!
Cher on the beach, running towards camera to some noir-ish gumshoe music and the strange marketing decision to have the narrator commit character assassination on it’s protagonist at the :15 second mark.
After poring through a few tributes to the late Mike Nichols this weekend, I was reminded that he directed Silkwood, the moving biopic on nuclear power plant worker turned activist Karen Silkwood.
I have not seen the movie in decades, but I did pick up the soundtrack earlier this year because I was curious to revisit Meryl Streep’s rendition of “Amazing Grace,” and not at all because of the smoldering looks that Meryl, Kurt, and Cher were throwing my way.
For the most part, musical scores are a little too highbrow for me, but I am most definitely glad I forked over a few dollars for this LP. The selections below made me want to revisit the movie, think of it as an emotional sampler. Per usual Meryl delivers.
Let’s finish this deep dive on the Ray Davies catalog by giving the man some credit where credit is due, specifically in the arena of pop music known as Twee.
In short, Davies does not get enough credit (or blame) for perfecting this particular strain of pop.
These days most pop listeners consider Scotland’s Belle & Sebastian and their mix of reverby guitars, contemplative melodies, and symphonic washes as the high water mark of this gentle brand.
The parochial subject matter and jangly sound of Belle & Sebastian’s early catalog almost immediately linked the band with The Smiths and other indie acts of the C-86 movement. Their orchestral dabblings and child-like vocal delivery can be traced back to The Beach Boys or even the Mo Tucker led tracks of the Velvets, but it is almost criminal not to acknowledge Ray Davies’ influence on Belle & Sebastian’s particular phrasing, and not simply because he had a hit single called “Dandy.”
Davies’ brand of Twee eschewed the jangly guitars and common adolescent yearning in favor of chamber-pop sophistication and articulate introspection with a proper English patois.
“Be Rational” is an unreleased demo from a short lived musical called 80 Days that Davies composed based on Jules Verne’s Around The World in 80 Days. This song is straight My Fair Lady territory. The high society woes of a debonair Hot Air Balloonist, who’s balloon and heart are both off course. The unabashed white collared nature of this song is definitely part of the Twee fabric.
“Sitting In My Hotel” from 1972’s Everybody’s In Show-biz is a unique and gorgeous take on celebrity. While most bands of the time would be singing about the hardship of the road, or the bottle, here we find Davies lamenting about what his working class mates would think about the posh rock n’ roll lifestyle he is embodying.
“If my friends could see me now, driving round just like a film star, in a chauffeur driven jam jar they would laugh.”
The self-deprecating and insecurity riddled lyrics, the slightly effeminate vocal delivery with piano accompaniment. Davies has Stuart Murdoch beat by decades.
One of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches is called The Gross Out Family. In it, Tom Hanks sits down to a family dinner and discovers that the milk has gone bad. Rather than just take his word for it, the rest of the family are compelled to taste the rancid milk to confirm just how awful it is. The sketch builds upon that premise, and we see Hanks and family (Jan Hooks, Mike Myers, Julia Sweeney and Chris Farley) go on to touch Chris Farley’s post work-out sweaty belly, sniff a very full litter box, and test out a loose step that sends them hurtling down the basement staircase. They just can’t help themselves.
In my second consecutive Kinks post that starts out with an ill advised analogy, I will now throw myself down the staircase of what most consider The Kink’s most difficult and overindulgent period. The RCA years. A phase so infamous, that there was allegedly a clause in their subsequent contract with Arista records that barred Ray Davies from turning in any concept records. I can’t help myself
The particular RCA window I’ve recently narrowed in on I will call Ray Davies’ “Starmaker” phase, which consists of Everybody’s In Show-Biz (1972), Star Maker, the 1974 Teleplay produced for English Television, and Soap Opera, the 1975 studio expansion of the teleplay.
Everybody’s In Show-Biz is widely known as a jumping off point for most casual Kinks fans, for it’s when Ray Davies started overtly shifting his songwriting styles to fit into the constructs of the more elaborate rock operas that would follow in the wake. While it might not put forth the cohesive narrative that would go on to inhabit Preservation Act I & II, Soap Opera, or even School Boys in Disgrace, Show-Biz sets into motion the main themes that would serve as the backbone Star Maker and Soap Opera: the allure of fame and the monotony of real life. In the case of Show Biz, the monotony of life as a touring musician.
Show-Biz is a double LP that set consists of one studio album, and one live album, and if you squint really hard, it kind of works as a concept album within itself: a band on the road, and a band on stage. Thematically the studio portion focuses on the excess of life on the road, the bad diets and road weariness of “Maximum Consumption,” “Motorway,” and “You Don’t Know My Name” to the sublime masterpieces “Sitting In My Hotel” and “Celluloid Heroes” which focus on the more fragile and isolated nature of fame.
Despite the many standout tracks on this record, it’s clear that the form is starting to outweigh the function here, and that Ray Davies’ is more interested in indulging himself in varying genre exercises (think Dance Hall, Tin Pan Alley, even Canned Heat style flute jams) then following any sort of 70’s rock handbook that his peers were reading. The preceding LP, Muswell Hillbillies, was a very well executed genre exercise in itself, but on Everybody’s In Showbiz you get the feeling that Ray’s self-editing skills are starting to deteriorate.
The live set, recorded at Carnegie Hall on the Hillbillies tour, acts as another reminder of where the Kinks were heading. Long gone are the garage rockers and posh poppers of the their early catalog, and in their place is a Ray Davies’ led Vaudeville Show, complete with sermons, parlor songs, and dance hall brass section.
Fast forward two years later, and it’s no surprise when Ray has crossed over to full camp mode for the 1974 Television Play Star Maker. He is in character, and full Elvis regalia, as a fictional rock star named Starmaker, who has taken it upon himself to try and turn an ordinary man into a celebrity.
The live musical, complete scene changes, backup dancers, and the remaining members of the Kinks demoted to anonymous backing band, was filmed live in front of a television audience, where a cheeky Davies regularly breaks the fourth wall to update the audience on his plans to live as an ordinary man in an effort to turn perils of a droll life into a hit song.
“I need a challenge to bring out my best work,” Starmaker tells the audience. One can’t help but wonder if this art imitating life for Davies. It’s almost a meta, as Davies now needs to build these elaborate storylines and characters in order to write his own pop songs. Which kind of makes sense, considering his existing resume.
In his somewhat short tenure as a rock star, Davies had already covered quite a bit of ground. “You Really Got Me,” is basically the title track of the British Invasion, “Waterloo Sunset” showcased his knack for tossing off the perfect pop song, and he practically perfected Twee music with “Sitting In My Hotel,” but if the RCA years show anything, it’s that Davies thought in big storylines, and outside of The Who’s Tommy, there wasn’t necessarily a blueprint for him to follow at that point in time.
Starmaker was Ray Davies’ Ziggy Stardust, but unlike Bowie, who could seamlessly cultivate and shed alter-egos with ease, Davies was a little more of a meat and potatoes guy. Maybe it was his working class upbringing, but Davies couldn’t assume these fictional roles with the savoir-faire that Bowie could, nor could he embody these characters as loose ideas or concepts as Bowie could. Davies needed the full constructs of characters, plot, and ultimately narration to beef up his concepts and stay interested in songwriting. This predicament becomes painfully to the surface on Soap Opera.
Outside of the opening track “Everybody’s A Star,” this album is a tough listen. Sure Pete Townshend’s rock operas also lament the dregs of British working class, but the difference is that Townshend and The Who are able to harness that contempt into something larger, bombastic, and ultimately carthartic. On Soap Opera the Starmaker character gets swallowed by the lowlights of his subject’s uninspired life, and the music itself reflects that. Mid-tempo showtunes and waltzes that ultimately suck the rock out of the rock opera.
If you are a casual and curious Kinks fan, I would recommend Everybody’s In Show-Biz. It’s not a perfect album, but has some gems. But do yourself a favor, outside of watching the posted clip above, beware of the Chris Farley belly sweat of Soap Opera.
When Nirvana released their b-side collection Incesticide in 1992, I clearly remember my reasons for not rushing out to buy it. One reason was that I had already acquired two-thirds of the songs from various import singles and EPs. The other reason was that I wanted to give myself some Nirvana music to look forward to in the future. A decision that came in handy when their short tenure abruptly ended in 1994.
My relationship with the music of Ray Davies and the Kinks runs in a similar vein. Throughout the course of my adult life I have intermittently fallen head over heels with some of their classics. LPs such as Something Else, Arthur…, Face To Face, Village Green Preservation Society, and more, yet I never immediately set out to feast upon their next masterpiece. Instead I have chosen to break off a little bit of their discography at a time, in part to always give me something to look forward to, and in part because I fear that the RCA & Arista years might be a bit dicey.
The latter sentiment is exactly what I assumed would hold true upon my first ever viewing of Return to Waterloo, the 1985 film that Ray Davies wrote, directed, and scored. At the time of it’s release, the 41 year-old Davies had spent the better part of his career channeling a middle-age man reminiscing about England’s good olde days. A healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek romanticism with a dash cynicism. The Stately Homes, Croquet Lawns, and the transcendent Waterloo Sunsets offset with the fat and married “Walter” who is in bed by half past eight, and the little man from “Shangri-La” who gets the train and has a mortgage over his head. Now that Davies was finally a middle-age man himself, one would only assume that Return to Waterloo would be a watered down attempt to get back to his roots, draw ink from a familiar well and spin his usual song-stories. As it turns out, Return To Waterloo is a pretty big departure from the usual Davies playbook, not so much in format or ambition, as Davies is no stranger to the concept album, but more so in overall tone.
The film stars character actor Kenneth “Admiral Piett” Colley as a typical business man who catches a train for what seems like an everyday commute. We catch a glimpse of his droll morning routine and his loveless marriage. We see him stroll over to Waterloo Train Station, and pick up a newspaper. We then catch a closer glimpse of the paper and see that the front page has a composite sketch of a suspected serial rapist that looks exactly like Colley.
Our man proceeds to board a train car that could be dubbed the Midlife Mystery Tour, the vessel in which Davies crafts his over the top satirical look at modern day society via musical numbers and early MTV production cues. Once seated, Colley essentially projects societal regrets and paranoia onto all of his cabin mates, and imagines them singing their life story to him ala his own personal musical.
The movie is a lopsided mix of noir, cynicism, satire, and camp, it after all, a rock musical. There is no waxing poetic about the Village Green here, though, Davies takes dead aim at the middle class, and virtually no stereotype or trope goes untouched in the film. The working class, the old guard, empty nesters, the modern woman, the punk rockers all get their say. We also learn from a series of flashbacks that Colley’s teenage daughter has gone missing, and that he has had a very unsavory relationship with her, and possibly has something to do with her death and disappearance.
Cutting through the abundance of ideas, however, is an extremely effective performance from Colley, and a surprisingly fresh set of songs from Davies. Colley doesn’t have a single word of dialogue in the entire movie, but through a series 100 yard stares, he sucks you into his melancholic and twisted world. Colley’s supporting cast go all in on Davies’ songs, especially a young Tim Roth who sells the shit out of his parts. The soundtrack is credited to Davies, who handles all the vocals on record, but in the movie, the actors take on a fair share of vocals, and I would love to see this out-of-print soundtrack reissued with the movie versions of the songs.
The biggest downside to Return to Waterloo is the dated 80’s production that riddles the project. It’s hard enough for some folks to get behind the rock musical genre in the first place, but when the songs are weighed down by outdated synth tracks and reverby drum machines, it doesn’t help the cause. If you couldn’t tell by now, I have a pretty high threshold for camp and novelty items, but this set of songs is worth picking over for most Kinks fans.
The Title track, Return To Waterloo, is vintage Davies (now with synthesizers!) weighing everyday monotony and universal and societal woes set to a damn catchy melody and slightly ominous pitch bender.
Not Far Away is a pretty great song, but any intended gnarl is immediately watered down by too much reverb and the Steve Nieve-lite keyboard part. Can I get some more Tim Roth in the monitors?
Elton John fans rejoice! Friends is coming to Netflix! Netflix just announced that…oh wait, nevermind…it’s not the long forgotten 70’s movie.
A movie that is so critically reviled that reading the skewering reviews virtually tempts one to hunt down a viewing copy and subject yourself to it.
A vehicle that we are forced to reckon with because it meets the criteria of virtually everything that piques our interest.
Out Of Print Soundtrack: Check
Out Of Print Movie: Check
Awesome Cover Art: Check
Taboo Subject Matter: Check
And while Friends passes the smell test, it is a really tough one to endorse. Let’s turn it over to Roger Ebert for a more blunt take on the film:
“Friends” is the most sickening piece of corrupt slop I’ve seen in a long time. It’s so cynical in its manipulation of youth, innocence, sunsets and all the rest that you squirm with embarrassment. And the movie is all the more horrible because you realize that its maker, Lewis Gilbert, no doubt intended this to be a “sincere personal statement” (as they say in the movies) after his “commercial” projects like “The Adventurers” and “You Only Live Twice.”
Yet, “Friends,” in its way, is more cynically commercial than “The Adventurers,” which was at least an honest piece of crap. “Friends” drips with simpering close-ups of wide-eyed young faces. It has a sound track of slightly rotten syrup, interrupted occasionally by banal songs by Elton John. It has so many idyllic romps through the fields, so many sunsets, so many phony emotional peaks and so much pandering to the youth audience in it that, finally, it becomes a grotesque parody of itself.
Oh and he’s just getting warmed up. Roger goes for the kill in his closing paragraph.
There are probably no 14- or 15-year-olds in the entire world like these two; they seem to have been created specifically for the entertainment of subscribers to Teenage Nudist. The archness of their “innocence” toward sex is, finally, just plain dirty. And the worst thing is that the movie seems to like it that way.
Critic vitriol aside, this movie was a worldwide hit (not so much in the US), and went on to garner a Golden Globe Nomination, and Lewis Gilbert soldiered on to make an even less welcome sequel called Paul and Michelle.
The Grammy nominated soundtrack isn’t a total loss. It’s Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s fourth full length collaboration, and you can tell they were locked-in, confident, and finishing each other’s sentences at this point. Not a huge surprise that this album precedes Madman on the Water and what went on to become their golden era.
Friends is the maudlin, yet worthy, distant cousin of Candle in the Wind, and Honey Roll showcases the New Orleans vibes that would later show up on 1972’s Honky Cat. Elton John fans rejoice!