Sunday, July 2, 2017

Is Big Star The Greatest Band Ever?


New Release Goes a Long Way Toward Answering the Question




“It's like an alternate history hugest Pop band in the world.”




            You’ve probably never heard of the band, Big Star, unless you’re:

                        a. a musicologist

                        b. a record store clerk

                        c. a musician

                        d. a person who is really into music

                        or

                        e. someone who knows one of the above





            My point being that the average person has never heard of Big Star (and probably wouldn’t care about them if they did). A band who only (officially) existed for three years, from 1972-1975, had zero hit singles, only two proper albums and played live probably less than a hundred times, Big Star (on paper) is the definition of a never-has-been group of four guys who should have rightfully deserved to be consigned to the bargain bin of time.


            But something remarkable happened.
Left to Right: Hummel, Stephens, Bell, Chilton


            Long after the group had broken up and its members either went their separate ways or died, small groups of young musicians began to rediscover their albums that had never, really, been discovered in the first place. As these young music groups began to gain popularity (R.E.M., The Bangles, The Replacements, et. al.), they started to spread the gospel of Big Star. That gospel continues to spread incrementally, through the categories of people mentioned above, to this day.

      

Now, I’m not here to discuss the history of this ill-fated band, or their resurgence and partial reunion in the 1990’s. For that information, you can look to either Rob Jancovic’s incredibly detailed journal, Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop or take a look at Drew DiNicola’s exhaustive and beautiful documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, both available through Amazon and other retailers.

 

New Incarnation: Auer, Chilton, Stephens, Stringfellow

            In this blog entry, I’m going to talk about what happened after. After all of that. After the deaths of founding members Chris Bell (in 1978) and Alex Chilton & Andy Hummel (both in 2010). When the only surviving members of the band were the original drummer, Jody Stephens, and the two members of The Posies (Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow) that helped to reconstitute the band, substituting for Chris and Andy from 1993-2010.

 

            The death of Alex Chilton (whose own story can be read in A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man by Holly George-Warren) in 2010 of heart issues, only days before the band were slated to play at Austin’s SXSW Conference, sent the festival’s musical community into a crisis of conscience. Should they continue to play, even without Alex? That seemed irreverent and almost blasphemous. Alex Chilton was Big Star. Without him, it was just two guys from The Posies and Big Star’s drummer. That wasn’t Big Star. Their first inclination was “no”.

 

            But then other musicians attending the fest began to contact the three remaining members. They had all been touched by Big Star’s music and they wanted to turn the show into a memorial. They would step in and sing in Alex’s place. Evan Dando, Mike Mills, Sondre Lerche, John Doe, Chris Stamey and others ended up joining the frontman-less trio onstage for an elegiac consummation of Alex Chilton’s talent and Big Star itself. Jon Auer later stated, “After Alex died, there was no way that we could see to continue to do this music legitimately.” And that was the end of Big Star.

 

Or was it?

 

Chris Stamey (of the dB’s) who had played with Chilton way back in the late 70’s during Alex’s “punk” phase, had the idea to get ahold of the original string scores for Big Star’s ill-fated Third record and see if he could get a group together to perform it. All of the old creative gang were amenable. Original composer Carl Marsh said that he would recreate whatever was lost. Jody Stephens said he’d be willing to play drums. Mitch Easter (Let’s Active) wanted in. R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, too. Ken and Jon wanted to continue to play Big Star music, so they were on board. Some other musicians got involved and everyone learned Third, and every other Big Star or related song they could, going back to the master tapes and carefully going over each individual track. If the song had four guitar overdubs, they all agreed on having four guitars onstage. Each part was meticulously duplicated.

 

But they daren’t call themselves Big Star. Because they weren’t. Big Star was Alex and Chris and Andy and Jody. The 90’s incarnation weren’t really Big Star either, as much as we all wanted them to be. They were a second rate simulation. I know. I saw them once. It was emotionally thrilling. I was seeing Big Star! But, in reality it was a paint-by-numbers performance. Alex put zero passion into what he, clearly, saw as just another money making operation. Hell, during this time period he did reunion shows with the Box Tops as often as he would with Big Star.

 

            The new group decided to call itself Big Star’s Third Live, a rather unwieldy name; hard to fit on a marquee, but it told the audience what to expect. They weren’t a tribute band. This wasn’t “The Pink Floyd Experience”. Nor was it “Cheap Trick performs In Color in its entirely plus other hits”. Neither was it some kind of one-off “Tribute to Big Star” featuring Bruce Springsteen and others. This was a collective of, mostly minor, underground or unknown musicians who had, now, dedicated themselves to preserving the music of Big Star in a way that had never been done before. “This is a band giving tribute to themselves,” guest artist Robyn Hitchcock said. It wasn’t an “oldies” show. It was a show that was insisting that this music was as vital and as important as it had ever been. Maybe more so.

 

            So, for the past six or seven years, Big Star’s Third Live have been gathering around four times a year, in various locations, incorporating various guest artists (a list of whom would take up too much space) from the environs and putting on a concert that celebrates the beauty and importance of the music of Big Star. I’ve got bootlegs of about half a dozen of these shows. The performance at the Barbican Hall in London in 2012, guest starring locals Norman Blake and Ray Davies, is a thing of beauty. The sound quality is good. Not great, but listenable. Some of the other BS3L boots are taken from radio broadcasts and sound very clear.

The Barbican Show, London 2012

       This April, Concord Records released a proper 5.1 surround sound recording of a BS3L show with the double CD/DVD, Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s Third Live...And More. Recorded almost exactly a year prior at the appropriately named Alex Theatre in Glendale, CA., the line-up consists of core band members Stephens, Stamey, Easter, Mills, Auer, Stringfellow, Skylar Gudasz, Brett Harris, Pat Sansone (Wilco) and Django Haskins. Special guests include Robyn Hitchcock, Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo), Benmont Tench, Dan Wilson (Semisonic) and Jeff Tweedy. The Kronos Quartet provides the string accompaniment.

              For those who know the music of Big Star, the release (especially the DVD) is a revelation. The music is treated with respect. This is a recital, not a concert. This is something that you sit back and listen to with respect and (new) understanding as the complexity of the music is revealed through the players onstage. Director Benno Nelson focuses on not only the whole picture, but the little things that are happening. A little tap on a cymbal. An operatic soprano that you never knew was present in the original recording. Six guitars onstage, layering chords, one on top of the other, duplicating the painstaking process that it took to get the ringing sound of "September Gurls”. Four singers simulating the overdubbed harmonies on a song like “Give Me Another Chance”.


            The performance is divided into two parts. The first section consists of songs from the first two Big Star albums, #1 Record and Radio City, with the emphasis heavily on the former. Then the collective heads full bore into Third, playing the entire album, minus the cover songs that were included on the original vinyl. Original tracking order is ditched (Third never really had an official tracking order anyway) in favor of what, at first, feels capricious, but then reveals itself to have maximum emotional impact.

Gudasz, Harris & Haskins perform "Thirteen"


            Less famous core band members Brett Harris, Django Haskins and Skylar Gudasz really stand out. Maybe because we don’t expect them to be great. But they are. Tweedy puts aside his Tweediness and really gives “Kizza Me” and “Night Time” his all. Mike Mills shows his playful side with “September Gurls”, “Jesus Christ” and “You Can’t Have Me”. Everyone puts their egos aside for what is, obviously, a labor of love.

  Tweedy rocks "Kizza Me"


            I’ve viewed the DVD a number of times, and been close to tears each time. Like the quote that I started this piece with, this release makes you feel as if Big Star were the biggest Pop band ever. They’ve created (along with Elvis Costello) the most important music in my life.


            I hope that this CD/DVD release will inspire more people to invest some time in their music. It just might reveal itself to you and you might have an opinion on the question that I posed in the title of this piece.


            Is Big Star the best band ever?


            Of course not, you say (even if you’re a fan of Big Star). The Beatles, The Stones, The Who. There’s no way that Big Star (however good they may be) can compare to the likes of those bands. And I agree. There’s no way that they can compete.


            But let’s level the playing field a bit, huh?


            Big Star put out three records. Two really, since Third didn’t get a proper release until years after the band broke up. Now, let’s pretend that The Beatles, The Stones, The Who (or any other band that you’d like to insert here) were only judged by the first three records that they put out. Would The Stones be considered great if all we had to judge them on were The Rolling Stones, The Rolling Stones No. 2 and Out of Our Heads? I think not. They were still evolving. They’d just be a footnote in the history of Rock. What if The Beatles career had ended with A Hard Day’s Night? Or The Who had broken up after The Who Sell Out?


            Now that we’ve altered the musical landscape, who’s the greatest band ever?


            I think that Big Star’s in the running.


Trailer




If you’re new to Big Star and would like to explore their music, I suggest these recordings along with the books and recording that I mentioned above:


#1 Record/Radio City – Fantasy Records


Keep an Eye on the Sky – Rhino


Complete Third – Omnivore Recordings


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Splathouse podcast: Fresh Kill

Be sure to tune in and listen as Sarah & I give our rambling impressions of Joseph Merhi's "Fresh Kill" (1988) on the latest Splathouse popcast:

https://soundcloud.com/user-616846084/splathouse-fresh-kill-1988


Monday, May 15, 2017

Natalie Would - Felt (1994). Yes, I was in a band.

For anyone interested in hearing my band, Natalie Would, from the mid-1990's, look no further.

Link: Natalie Would - Felt (1994)

We wore jorts. I played drums.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Original Introduction to the April Fool's edition of SJ's TFS Column

With April Fool's Day approaching, the wife and I decided to collaborate on a special entry for her Overlooked and Underseen column on the Talk Film Society blog. We looked all around for film that no one could ever consider "overlooked" or "underseen", and decided to write about it as if it had been long forgotten. After we brainstormed for days, I turned in rough draft to her that, at 1200 words, might have been considered a little bit too long. We agreed to cut the entire first page, as I had gone off into a direction we had, previously, not discussed.

What we present here is that original introduction, cut not only for space, but for irrelevant content as well.

Remember. This was an April Fool's joke.

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These are heady times that we fans of geek culture live in today. All of our comic book heroes are being, finally, accurately translated to the silver screen and mainstream culture has caught up to us. Or, maybe, we have just become the mainstream in the way that the Baby Boomer radicals of the 1960s became the mainstream. But the Boomers are all retired now, and the world is being run by members of Generations X and Y. The Millennials are the new counter culture; the new “desired” demographic.

But the Millennials have short memories. Unprecedented access to media and entertainment have not allowed them any way to absorb film contextually. Everything exists as though it was contemporary, with no recognition of the culture and time of its origin in any kind of historical context. They will argue that anything that isn’t “woke” (reflecting some currently-held progressive philosophy, tolerance or acceptance) is not worthy of discussion, totally ignoring any film’s previously held reputation, pedigree or provenance.

Vigorously debating whether films once regarded as “classics” are worthy of merit as viewed through the lens of their “enlightened” 2017, Millennials rarely have a kind word for any film, regardless of quality, they feel espouses the wrong side of history concerning race, gender or politics. Almost every pre-1980 film is considered a dinosaur, a relic of a past better ignored and best forgotten.

The 1970’s mostly get a pass, but, if you look at the IMDB list of the Top 250 Films of all time (admittedly, not a critical survey, but, indeed, a populist one), you will find only 74 films made before 1970. And, of those 74, only 77% are filmed in black & white. Which places the total percentage of B&W movies made before 1970 occupying IMDB Top 250 at 6.8. That’s 54 movies out of 250.

Surely, there are more than 54 great pre-1970 B&W films, especially since color process has existed only since the mid-30s, and was used sparingly for the first 20 years of its existence.

All of this is to say that there is a lot of great stuff out there the current crop of movie goers won’t even give a chance, for a myriad of reasons, the umbrella being something along the lines of “old and out of date”.

We here at Overlooked and Underseen cannot help but point this same finger at ourselves. Only 20% of the films that we’ve talked about are pre-1970. And the only B&W movie we’ve mentioned was made in 1999. Although we watch an incredibly wide variety of films (just check out our respective Letterboxd diaries), for the most part, we’ve only stuck to films that have been released in our lifetime. I couldn’t tell you why. I just don’t know.

This week, we’re going to talk about a movie that, it seems, was a few years ahead of its time. It is a film, whose failure to connect with the public effectively ended the director’s career, despite it’s incredible amount of early promise...

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To read about the film that we picked, and the column as it was published, go to http://www.talkfilmsociety.com/columns/overlooked-underseen-star-wars-1977

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Our Original Recommendations for The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra



Blood on the Dancefloor/Blood on the Petals



            Here, in 2017, the prospect of the fairy tale as the basis of horror films is a pretty common one. There are myriad films that have come out in the decade and a half since 2000 that have taken advantage of the familiar fairy tale tropes and turned them on their edge (or rather, properly, given them back their pre-existing edge) in an attempt to capitalize on them. By taking the Disney familiar and “subverting” it to apply to horror expectations , producers of these films believed that they could tap into a primal market, one that already had these particular images engrained within them.

            It is a heady and bold thought: tapping into these archetypical images to distort them into serving a different purpose. Mainly, to frighten.

            In this essay, I’m going to discuss two films that that came out well before the present fairy tale horror boom and that dealt with fairy tale images and archetypes. Both could be classified as “horror” films, although one is expressly horror and the other is far more experimental, yet still horrific in its nature. I’m going to give a quick synopsis of each film in question and talk about its specific fairy tale influences before moving on to the next one.

            Suspira is an Italian horror movie directed in 1977 by Dario Argento. By 1977, Argento was unquestionably the master of the Italian horror genre known as the giallo, a form known for Hitchcockian suspense mysteries paired with lurid, often taboo, subject matter. Many of the gialli served as template for the American slasher film saturation of the late 1970’s and 1980’s.

            But, after four very successful gialli (one in particular, Profundo Rosso, or Deep Red, considered to be one of the masterworks of the genre), Argento turned away from his roots and, with the assistance of his partner and actress Daria Nicolodi, wrote something altogether new. Taking inspiration from “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” from essayist Thomas De Quincey’s 1845 collection, Surpiria de Profundis, Argento and Nicolodi concocted a story of the first of “Three Mothers”, malevolent beings responsible for all the suffering in the world.

            Suzy Bannion is a young American ballerina who has gone to train at an overseas dance academy. The prestigious Tanzakademie (literally “Dance” Academy in all of its genericism) is located outside of Freiberg, deep in the heart of Germany’s Black Forest. While she is there, several students and employees are murdered or die in various gruesome and unexplained ways. Suzy finds herself becoming very weak and is forced into a nightly drugged state by the Academy’s doctor. The reasons given for this treatment, behind the scenes, away from Suzy’s hearing, are due to her “strong will”.

            One of Suzy’s new friends at the Academy, Sara, begins to suspect that all is not right (it was her friend, Pat, who was one of the first to be murdered), and then disappears under suspicious circumstances. Suzy is determined to find the sinister secret of the Tanzakademie and its mysterious connection to legendary witch, Black Queen and Academy founder, the long  deceased Helena Markos. For brevity’s sake, I am leaving out a number of plot points, characters, and incidents, and this is the barest frame upon which Suspiria hangs.

            Fairy tale trappings abound in this movie, some obvious, some symbolic, and some subtle.

            Some of the obvious lifts here are the Black Forest location, the main character (a young woman sans family, with the exception of a faraway aunt) who is a visitor in a foreign land, a couple of evil mother figures disguised as good and helpful mother figures, various deformed or handicapped servants and a large house or palace which holds dark secrets.

            Symbolism occurs throughout as well, nowhere more explicitly than in the color palette in which Argento choose to decorate and light his films. Suspira was one of the last films to be filmed in pure Technicolor, and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli removed certain filters in the process so that each individual primary color would stand out, without any blending.This was in accordance with Argent’s desire that the film emulate the color contrast and expressionistic lighting of Disney’s Snow White.

            As for the subtle, the original script dealt with girls aged eight to twelve, but the prospect of the violence involved made this impossible so, although the film was cast with young twenty-somethings, efforts were made to make them appear childish and smaller than their surroundings. They squabble like grade schoolgirls and are treated with an authoritarian air in which one would never treat adults. The students are literally dwarfed by their surroundings within the school, and Argento went so far as to place all of the doorknobs on the set at head level, thus emphasizing the smallness of the characters.

            What Argento accomplishes, within the confines of a supernatural horror film, was to subconsciously play with those fairy tale archetypes that are so ingrained within our psyches, that we don’t even realize that we’re seeing them. It is only with close examination that the Grimm nature of what is spooling out before us is revealed.

          

Pre-dating Argento’s film by seven years, Jaromil Jireš’Czechoslovakian surrealist horror film, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, is a different animal altogether from Surpiria. More of a convoluted horrific dreamscape than a straight forward horror film, Valerie comes at the tail-end of the Czech New Wave, essentially a dissention from the then current communist regime. Despite being based on a novel by surrealist Czech writer, Vítězslav Nezval , the film of Valerie is literally a checklist of Eastern European folk tale markers, each one building upon the last, resulting in a combination that can be disorienting, especially when applied beside the religious condemnation, perverse sexuality, and overwhelming sense of innocence that pervades the narrative. If you can conceivably call what occurs on the screen a coherent narrative. Rife with “is it a dream or isn’t it” moments, one can only attempt to lay out the basic plot points of Valerie, reconstructing the film into a pattern that makes sense in the telling.
 
            The titular heroine, Valerie, has just had her first period, symbolizing her entrance into womanhood. She owns a pair of magic earrings that once belonged to her mother, long banished from the family house due to impropriety. Valerie now lives with her aged, very religious, grandmother, who is very upset to learn of the onset of her menstrual cycle. Together, they live in a small town that is beset by the plague. The town is expecting a visit from a regional bishop and his missionaries for blessing.

            Valerie keeps encountering a figure. Alternately a priest/constable/vampire, the figure attempts to corrupt her by repeatedly showing her that the world is not as innocent as it seems. The constable has an assistant named Orlik who is, at first, Valerie’s suitor, and then, revealed to be her brother. The vampire is revealed to have been a former lover of the grandmother, and revives her to a youthful state using the blood of a young bride.

            When the bishop arrives in town, he attempts to rape Valerie, who saves herself by swallowing one on her earrings, simulating death. The bishop then hangs himself for his perceived sin. Valerie uses her earrings to bring him back to life, in reward for which he has her burned at the stake for being a witch. Valerie again uses her magic earrings to transport herself away from the flaming stake and back to her family house.

            The now youthful grandmother arrives at the house claiming to be a long lost cousin and tries to bite Valerie. The vampire says that he himself is Valerie’s father and that only her pure blood can save him from the plague and restore the grandmother’s youth permanently. Valerie’s earrings turn the vampire into a ferret and he is eventually nailed to a wall.  Her grandmother is restored to her older self. Then Valerie’s true mother and father return and are the exact image of the young grandmother and the priest. Again, brevity necessitates leaving out many scenes and instances.

            Valerie and Her Week of Wonders contains, along with the surrealism, many folk story elements. Firstly, there is the motherless child, being raised by a cruel grandmother figure. There is the absent father replaced by evil surrogate fathers. The earrings are a magic talisman that can, seemingly, accomplish whatever Valerie needs. Valerie’s blossoming into womanhood precipitates everything that follows, demonstrating the danger of sex. The grandmother’s predation upon Valerie recalls the Queen/Snow White dynamic, which is also rife with sexual rivalry.

            Together, these two films provide fairy tales for adults. Unencumbered by the need for morals or lessons, they instead tweak our subconscious into paying attention to things that have been embedded there since childhood.  We seek and recognize the familiar and this, in turn, serves to intensify our experiences and inform that which we take away. That we are all just children dealing with a confusing world, a world filled with dreams and horror, but, also, beauty and innocence.