Categorized: Music

Fifty Years Ago Today… We Learned About a 19th Century Circus

Fifty years ago today, on June 1, 1967, the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in the United States. (The UK release was a few days earlier on May 26.)

You will no doubt hear a lot about this anniversary in the coming days, if you haven’t done so already. As a kid, I vividly remember the twentieth anniversary being a big deal, partly because because the opening lyric to the album’s title song is “It was twenty years ago today / Sgt. Pepper taught his band to play,” and because Capitol-EMI had released a digitally remastered CD of the album. CD was state-of-the-art in 1987. In that same spirit, Capitol EMI Universal Music Group released a newly remixed and remastered super-deluxe edition of Sgt. Pepper’s that includes a bunch of extras, such as some studio takes, a video documentary and a mono mix of the album. (There’s also a mere anniversary edition that won’t set you back $120.)

A reproduction of the 20th anniversary CD of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released in 1987.

I first listened to Sgt. Pepper’s in the aftermath of the twentieth anniversary in 1987. One of the songs that always stuck out to me was “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” The song might not be the best one on the album, but with its circus-like atmosphere, achieved through a variety of archaic musical instruments and through innovative multitrack recording and mixing, it was a song that transported me to altogether different time and place. Curiously, the song also features the Andalusian Cadence, although I did not know that at the time.

The fiftieth anniversary remixed-and-remastered recordings are available on streaming services, such as Amazon, Spotify, and Apple Music, and after listening to the remixes, which do in fact sound richer than what was previously available on CD and digital formats, I revisited “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” What on earth is John Lennon signing about in this song?

In case you need a refresher, here’s the lyrics that open the song:

For the benefit of Mr. Kite
There will be a show tonight on trampoline
The Hendersons will all be there
Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair—what a scene
Over men and horses, hoops and garters
Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!
In this way Mr. K. will challenge the world!

Writing in Smithsonian Magazine in 2011, Mike Dash wrote explains many of the references in this song, especially “Pablo Fanque’s Fair”. He explains how the song lyrics were based on an antique poster than John Lennon bought in Kent. The poster was “to benefit” a circus performance in 1843 run by Pablo Fanque, who was not only a very successful circus performer but was, in the golden age of the circus in Victorian England, a black man who owned his own circus(!).

A reproduction of the 1843 poster that inspired John Lennon to write “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in 1967.

Looking at the poster, you can see how Lennon assimilated the various elements of the poster into his song. There’s of course Pablo Fanque’s Cirus Royal, the Hendersons, Henry the Horse dancing the waltz, the “somersets” (somersaults) and trampoline, and, of course, Mr. Kite himself.

But beyond the connection to the song, the article provides a deep and engaging historical account of Pablo Fanque and his circus. It’s worth a read to learn about the circus and the “entertainment industry” in Victorian England.

Last month, the longest running and last remaining American circus of the Victorian era closed. But the atmosphere of the circus, in general, and the story of a black circus entrepreneur, specifically, might not be entirely forgotten. Perhaps, because of the anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s, some curious listeners will hear “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” we will remember this odd Victorian-era entertainment and wonder what it was like to see Pablo Fanque’s Fair.

Alan Light:15 Essential Chuck Berry Songs

In art and technology, it’s impossible to accurately say that one person invented a style or an invention. But if you had to chose one person and offered Chuck Berry as the inventor or rock ‘n’ roll, no reasonable person would dispute you.

In marking the death of Chuck Berry this weekend, music historian Alan Light offered an annotated list of fifteen essential compositions and recordings.

  • “Maybellene” (1955)
  • “Too Much Monkey Business” (1956)
  • “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1956)
  • “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956)
  • “Havana Moon” (1956)
  • “School Day” (1957)
  • “Rock and Roll Music” (1957)
  • “Johnny B. Goode” (1958)
  • “Carol” (1958)
  • “Memphis” (1959)
  • “Back in the USA” (1959)
  • “Let It Rock” (1960)
  • “Come On” (1961)
  • “Nadine” (1964)
  • “Promised Land” (1964)

You can listen to these on Apple Music or Spotify.

Aside from popularizing rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s, Berry was undoubtedly what was called at the time a “race man,” someone who advocates for and promotes blacks. Light notes that the lyrics of “Johnny B. Goode” was originally about a “colored boy” who could “play the guitar like he’s ringing the bell,” but in order to appease white radio stations of the day, the lyric was changed to a “country boy.” Also, the song “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” was really about someone with brown skin, but again the racial atmosphere at the time would have marginalized Berry to the race record charts.

Had he not changed those lyrics and countless others, he wouldn’t have been the crossover sensation he became. The world wouldn’t have known rock ‘n’ roll as it did in the 1950s and beyond.

Another interesting fact is that until this weekend, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard—three early rock ‘n’ roll pioneers— were all still living. That’s incredible given that their contributions to popular culture started over sixty years ago. By comparison, two of the three pop music giants of the 1980s born in 1958—Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson—won’t make it to 60. Let’s collectively hope Madonna makes it.

And today, Vera Lynn, the crooner who I know from singing “We’ll Meet Again,” the song that plays at the end of Stanley Kurbrick’s film Dr. Strangelove (1963), celebrated her 100th birthday.

BBQ Grilling

Mark Sultan, also known as BBQ, has played some great shows around these parts as of late. However, at a recent show at Union Pool, someone threw a beer can at him, and he rightly and figuratively flipped his wig, walked off the stage, and ended the show.

Mark Sultan - Union Pool - 2015-03-07 (5)

Since then, I saw him play with King Khan as “King Khan and the BBQ Show” in November at the Knitting Factory. However, throughout the show, he seemed to be on high alert and castigated the audience, almost challenging someone to throw a beer can… again.

King Khan and the BBQ Show at Knitting Factory, Brooklyn

As Oh My Rockness’s Patrick McNamara recalls, or at least tries to…

Was it King Khan & The Shrines or King Khan & The BBQ Show that I saw in concert recently (at some venue or another) where King Khan’s drummer insulted the crowd all night…something about New Yorkers being too cool or being just a bunch of trust fund kids or something… I can’t remember…

It was a very uncomfortable situation.

You’d think after that, Sultan—or BBQ—would never want to play this town again. Apparently not!

Details

  • August 19, 2016
  • Union Pool, 484 Union Ave, Brooklyn
  • $12.00
  • Buy Tickets

The 1980s, One Song at a Time, in Reverse

Another tip of the hat to the staff at The Awl for pointing out something totally awesome.

The long-running MP3 blog Fluxblog has been compiling yearly surveys of music from the 1980s. They posted the first compilation with music from 1989 last September, and every couple of months or so later, another year in reverse-chronlogical order drops. Each survey consists of eight discs and about 150 songs from the decade spanning various genres. Last week, they released the seventh survey with songs from 1983.

I started listening to the first compilation last week, and in my own obsessive-compulsive way, I set a few ground rules for listening to each survey:

  • I listen to each survey in reverse order, just as the curators—if not nature—intended.
  • I listen to each song in full from each survey. No skipping songs.
  • I will not listen to songs from the earlier collections until I get to that year’s survey.
  • I reserve the right to “side bar” to other recordings from the era.
  • And, of course, I allow myself to listen to other things, including music made before or after the 1980s.

Six day in, it’s been an almost all-consuming experience and, yet, I’m only getting through the end of the 1988 survey. To make for a better listening experience, I even bought this pretty solid and inexpensive Bluetooth audio receiver to connect to an older Harmon Kardon HK550 Vxi receiver, which is fittingly from the same era as the music I’m surveying, and to listen throughout the house.

Listening to the 1989 survey, I was surprised to hear song after song that I swore came from the 1990s. I suspect that going backwards in time will put me deep in the quintessential 1980s sounds before I reach the fuzzy transition period of the early 1980s, where pop music simultaneously bore the traits of the 1970s and the 1980s.

Cool.

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Three Juans for the Price

This Sunday, at Shea Stadium BK, no particular order…

  1. Juan Wauters
  2. Tall Juan
  3. Me

Okay, fine. I’m not actually on the bill because I’m not performing. But I understand that there’s karaoke “all night” and the next day is President’s Day Washington’s Birthday, so all bets are off.

Juan Wauters and Tall Juan

  • February 14, 2016
  • –Midnight
  • Shea Stadium BK, 20 Meadow St, Brooklyn
  • $10.00
  • Buy Tickets

Back from the Tombs

On July 29, 2006, at Southpaw, a now-defunct music venue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, my friend Adam invited me to see Rocket from the Tombs. He had met a girl at his sister’s birthday party a few weeks earlier. Named for a season of the year, she was a pretty girl with pale-skin, dark hair trimmed with bangs, and thick-framed black plastic glasses. He was interested in going to the show as I presumed he was trying to bone up on the kind of music she liked. Had he not jumped the queue, I probably would have talked to her first. Oh well: bros before… am I right?

Rocket from the Tombs was a short-lived Cleveland band that formed in the mid-1970s. Their sound, commonly referred to as “proto-punk,” was very heavy, loud and simple, especially compared to flair and multitrack ornamentation of album-oriented rock that populated FM radio during the same period. Though Rocket from the Tombs would only record a few songs, they would influence countless future punk bands and themselves split into two well-regarded bands of the 1980s: Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys.

I’m not sure if Adam and Autumn/Summer confused this band with Rocket from the Crypt, a 1990s San Diego band that enjoyed much greater financial and mainstream success than Rocket from the Tombs ever did, but joining him for this show was one of the best concert decisions I ever made. Having re-formed and despite looking more like jam band than a bunch of “punk,” they absolutely kicked ass and sounded like they had been playing together continuously with aplomb since 1975.

Rocket from the Tombs will return to the New York City area this weekend. They will be at Monty Hall on Saturday, December 5 in Jersey City and at Baby’s All Right on Sunday, December 6 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Not quite ten years later, I look forward to seeing them again.

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Yacht Rock… Ten Years Later

Twenty or so years ago, it was impossible to watch cable TV and some broadcast stations during fringe-time without seeing an ad—or even a full-length infomercial—for the Time-Life compilation Guitar Rock.

If memory serves, there was also a version of the ad that included two dudes hanging out when one of them asks the other where he got all this great music. The second bro emphatically responds, “it’s Guitar Rock!”

Over the summer, I had a similar moment. I was working with a guy on printing some t-shirts, and he was playing a Spotify playlist consisting of Seals and Croft and the Doobie Brothers. After a few selections, I asked, “what are we listening to?” In a comparatively hushed voice, he responded, “oh, it’s Yacht Rock!”

Almost immediately, the term conjured up the kind of soft rock music enjoyed and created by wealthy members of the yachting class.

But it was also an online video series!

Premiering ten years ago, Yacht Rock was a web series that fictionalized the lives of soft rock stars, including Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Steely Dan, Toto, and Christopher Cross. And the series’s parody of Daryl Hall and John Oates explains why they were again popular in the late 2000s and why “I Can’t Go for That” was on heavy rotation on the jukeboxes around the East Village and around Williamsburg in 2007.1 But today, even more than the “guitar rock” appellation, “yacht rock” has survived as a signifier for soft rock of nearly forty years ago.

And like cassette tapes, I hope that the “kids today” realize how bad it really was and move on to something else.

The Alternative Version of that Bob Mould Song from No Alternative

Earlier today, during a break from grading papers and writing exams, I poked around my iTunes library and got a hankering for listening to some music from my youth. One title that came up was No Alternative, the compilation of “alt-rock” bands to benefit the AIDS charity Red Hot. Although it was released in late 1993, it made its impact in 1994—one of the greatest ever years in popular music—and most of the songs still resonate with my aging ears.

One of the songs on the compilation that has unsettled those same ears is Bob Mould’s “Can’t Fight It.” I closely listened to this meditation on breaking up because it seemed to fit the melancholic mood of this cool, foggy day in New York City. For years, I’ve listened to this song and there has been a moment of silence at about 1:02 into the song. It’s not a pause; it’s as if the audio is just missing.

Having bought the CD from a reputable dealer, I reasoned that the silence was a dramatic, though disruptive pause in the middle of a very emotional song. Although I knew very little about Husker Dü or Sugar, Mould always struck me as an unconventional artist so I thought the pause was part of this artistic intent.

I was wrong.

Years ago, I ripped the No Alternative CD into my iTunes library, and although I have been an iTunes Match subscriber since 2011, I didn’t much pay attention to the “Matched” status. In iTunes, “Matched” means that iCloud had recognized that track as “Can’t Fight It” and that it would play on any of my authorized devices, such as my iPhone or any other Mac I control. It also means that I can download a fresh copy from the iTunes store should I delete the original audio file.

Wondering whether the iTunes version had the same moment of silence I’ve heard for over twenty years, I deleted the mid-2000s–era rip I made from my copy of No Alternative and downloaded a copy from the iTunes Store. Not only did the iTunes copy sound a little “richer,” it also played without that silent moment.

Well, I’ll be damned. My CD was defective all this time. I wonder how many other people got a CD with this silent moment in such an emotionally touching song.

As a qualified audio purist, I now have a bunch of questions. Which is the authentic recording? Is it the one with silent pause from my twenty-one–year-old CD? Is it the uninterrupted version? Is this an issue on the cassette version?

Or, should I just be happy that after over twenty years, I finally listened to this song as it was originally intended?

The Fall and Rise of a Hollywood Expat

During last month’s end-of-the-semester Gradeathon, which is as painful but not as fun as the Climbathon, I spent a bunch of hours sitting at a few coffee shops around my Superfund site grading papers and exams. I like grading outside of the home and office for several reasons: it allows me to feel like a social being watching other “knowledge workers” do their thing, someone other than me makes me a fussy coffee, and I get to listen to something other than my stale music collection and esoteric podcasts.

One song I heard during my “residency” at Budin in Greenpoint was “Hollywood,” a song by Canadian singer Tobias Jesso, Jr. The song is very simple: it consists of almost all vocals and a few notes on the piano throughout the song, and it is punctuated by a few horn riffs at the end of piece. The lyrics are filled with agonizing feelings about Hollywood, apparently referencing some really difficult experiences Jesso had while making a go of it in Los Angeles some years ago.

And I don’t know if I can make it,
and I don’t know if I should,
I think I’ll say goodbye to Hollywood.

I don’t know if I can fake it,
if they tell me I’m no good,
I think I’m gonna fry in Hollywood.

It’s a lovely tune for what is a common refrain about struggling in Tinseltown and might make a suitable musical accompaniment for Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra, a 1928 silent film by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich. In 9413, an actor with dreams of stardom arrives in Hollywood only to find a series of rejections. Instead of stardom, 9413 is anonymous and disposable.

As I listened to Jesso’s “Hollywood,” I kept thinking of 9413.

Kino included a version of this film on the DVD set Avant Garde: Experimental Film of the 1920s and 1930s, which is the same as the one I embedded above (and linked here in case oEmbed stops working). The music is so grating and distracting I always try to watch it silent. “Hollywood” might be for a better soundtrack to accompany 9413, or at least it will make for something to keep in my head because the song is much shorter than the film.

But unlike 9413, Jesso’s prospects are looking bright. Earlier this week, he released a second song, “How Could You Babe.” He also has an album, Goon, in the work for release in March on Saint Patrick’s Day. And he’s touring, too. He’ll be in New York at Baby’s All Right on Friday, March 27.

A Christmas Gift

Even if I was just listening to it through my earphones, I keep Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You, a compilation of thirteen Christmas songs in the Wall of Sound style, on heavy rotation every year.

This year, it’s filling my childhood home as a prime rib roast sits in the oven.

It’s still hard to believe that the same person who brought the world the toe–tappingest versions of “Sleigh Ride” and “A Marshallow World” was this guy.

Phil Spector mugshot 2009

Merry Christmas, everyone!