Transistor Heaven: The Secret History of a Top 30 Countdown, 1971

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At 13 years old, you’re old enough to leave the house and mess about on your own, but not quite old enough for a real summer job once school vacation rolled around. Back in 1971, a paper route or mowing the odd lawn would be enough to keep you in cream sodas and 45s for the time being. It was the type of singles below that would infatuate us later baby boomers either on our record players or over the humid airwaves on stations like the old WMEX 1510 AM, whose playlists I once collected and managed never to lose. With the transistor radio pressed to the left ear with one hand, while the other flung copies of the old Boston Evening Globe at suburban ranch houses, here is how it went down 43 years ago today—a typically great countdown of the post-Woodstock, pre-disco age.

“Maggie May” Rod Stewart. Rod the Mod’s breakout solo hit dominated the local charts that whole summer, as did the album as a whole. Maybe us young’uns were in awe of a singer who would happen to know a seducing older woman who would actually “wreck the bed.” But by late August, the inevitable backlash set in, with some WMEX DJs grousing about its overexposure. But it was nothing like the backlash from his old rock fans when he dropped “Do You Think I’m Sexy” some seven years later. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” The Who. Another classic that hasn’t left the radio since its ’71 debut. But here you’d be listening to the lean-and-mean single version, which clocked in at 3:37, a full five minutes shorter than what was on Who’s Next. This edit, which blows by like a bullet train, pre-figures punk rock and was matched with a great B-side as well (“I Don’t Even Know Myself”). “Color My World” Chicago. With its drowsy six-note piano motif and Hallmark lyrics, this song was the inevitable slow dance choice at school cafeteria mixers. Awkward! It was also an early indicator that Chicago as a band would soon go from cool to clueless. “Signs” Five Man Electrical Band. The Sixties may have ended but that didn’t mean we had to stop getting up in the grill of The Man, as this Ottawa quintet so righteously proved. C’mon, all together, “If God were here he’d tell it to your face/Man, you’re some kind of sinner!” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” Joan Baez. Like a surprise cavalry attack, Joan’s dilettante version of the Band’s masterful Civil War drama charged into the Top 5 before anyone could react in time. As Janet Maslin (then a Rolling Stone record reviewer) pointed out, the original Robbie Robertson lyrics were printed right inside her own album jacket, making inexcusable such gaffes as singing “so much cavalry” instead of “Stoneman’s cavalry” and declaring “there goes the Robert E. Lee” as if the narrator were watching a riverboat and not the legendary Confederate general in the flesh. “Smiling Faces Sometimes” Undisputed Truth. Blue-chip advice on dealing with frenemies from this R&B vocal trio from the Motor City. Hear them out; they’re “only trying to school ya.”

“Reason to Believe” Rod Stewart. Back to the Summer of Rod. His pensive take on the great Tim Hardin ballad was originally the A side but Maggie was not to “B” denied. “So Far Away” Carole King. It was also the Summer of Carole, who assured us that the age of the woman singer-songwriter had well and truly arrived with the blockbuster Tapestry album. “So Far Away” and “I Feel the Earth Move” (at #8 and #11) followed up “It’s Too Late” which had been #1 nationally for five weeks that spring. “Ain’t Got Time Anymore” Glass Bottle. One-hit wonders who harkened back to the AM pop style of the later 60s. “Ain’t No Sunshine” Bill Withers. Two “ain’t” songs in a row? What would your 7th grade English teacher think? Withers’ brooding acoustic-soul classic made the biggest leap up the chart this week. “Deep Blue” George Harrison. The flip side to the “Bangla Desh” single made it much higher in the survey, helped no doubt by WMEX’s quirky methodology.

“If Not for You” Olivia Newton-John. If not for this limp Dylan cover, the Top 30 would be a much better place. “Beginnings” Chicago. A damn sight better than “Color My World” though it was a bit odd that Columbia Records was going back to the first album for hits even though Chicago III was already in the stores. “I’d Love to Change the World” Ten Years After. The only hit single by Britain’s blues-rock titans, who had wowed the hippie hordes at Wodstock exactly two years earlier. “Rain Dance” Guess Who. Eccentric later hit by Burton Cummings and Co. and much appreciated by future hipster kids in our subdivision. “Story in Your Eyes” the Moody Blues. Gateway prog for the same group as above. “Stop, Look, Listen” Stylistics. The first of many elegant U.S. Top 40 hits for one of the premier Philly Soul groups. “One Fine Morning” Lighthouse. Kick-ass Canadian brass rock which also featured some blazing lead guitar, which you could hear in full if you caught it on an FM station, something we were catching wind of by then.

“I Just Wanna Celebrate” Rare Earth. The first successful white band to record for Motown (who named a label imprint after them) and this song, famous for its count-off and thunderous beat, had a refrain that made it popular in commercials and soundtracks ever since. “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” the Bee Gees. After three months on the survey, plenty of us were tired of hearing Robin Gibb’s tremulous rhetorical question, but it wasn’t going without a fight, barely getting pushed out of the top 20 this week. “Sweet City Woman” the Stampeders. Those Canadians keep right on coming. It’s Instant Summer once you hear that triple-time banjo strum, cowbell and lyrics filled with romantic anticipation—the biggest hit for the Calgary-based trio. “Baba O’Riley” the Who. If the ‘MEX staff wanted a great album track on the countdown then on it went, though I wondered how a song that was debuting at #23 could have been on the charts for five weeks. “All Day Music” War. The first post-Eric Burdon hit for the multi-ethnic Long Beach band, and one of several associated with the warmest of seasons.

“Friends of Mine” McGuiness Flint. These appealing and unassuming folk-rockers probably couldn’t get played nowadays unless they owned a radio station. For shame. “Ride a White Swan” T. Rex. If you listened to the New Music Authority on 1510AM you wouldn’t have to wait around for “Bang a Gong” to get hip to Marc Bolan and his elfin ways. Of course, the first of many HUGE hits for him in the U.K. “Sooner or Later” the Grass Roots. One of the latter-day smashes for these AM pop princes. I’m pretty sure Creedy had left the band by then. “Go Away Little Girl” Donny Osmond. You know, I always thought that this ditty should have had an answer song from the fairer sex. There would be a mid-song spoken word part where the girl would say “Why don’t you go away first, Donny, and we’ll call it even.” “Wedding Song” Paul Stookey. Wow, two clunkers in a row. I said it was a great Top 30, not a perfect one. “Imagine” John Lennon. This actually didn’t become a hit until the fall and an international anthem after that. But that didn’t stop the new Music guys, though the progressive AM business model would not hold and as we young teens grew up and it was quickly onto WBCN and other FM rock outlets, including college radio in the 80s and beyond.

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Well, I’m not sure what, if anything, happened to Lodi—though album-oriented groups like Yes were quickly migrated to the FM band. Speaking of albums, this top 15 list (with a few exceptions) is like a veritable Mt. Rushmore of classic rock LPs. But those aged 11 or under at the time get a pass if the first of these you owned was Sound Magazine.

Dubious Documentaries #4

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The Silent World
Jacques-Yves Cousteau, with Louis Malle—1956—86 minutes

Cousteau’s Oscar-winning 1956 documentary, based on his bestselling book of the same name, was his first film and a template for all the exploration/discovery type programming that would become a television staple in years to come. Rarely available on home video, I saw a screening several years ago at the Harvard Film Archive along with a sizeable student-age audience; it must have been assigned viewing for some course or the other.

Welcomed by Cousteau’s universally-recognized, French-accented narration, we settled in for a vintage seagoing nature doc, little suspecting what lay ahead. At first, Silent World proceeds as a conventional, if visually spectacular, science-travelogue film. Future auteur Louis Malle, fresh from film school, does a lot of the cinematography and there are several spectacular scenes: a diver’s-eye view of plunging headfirst to a depth of 150 feet in clear tropical waters, a school of racing porpoises jumping ten feet in the air in patterned intervals, the Calypso pitching and rolling through an Indian Ocean monsoon as shot from the crow’s nest looking straight down at the bow. The educational aspects, like the part explaining the ocean’s deep scattering layer or “false bottom,” were intriguing.

But the murmurs of appreciation turned to nervous laughter and gasps of disbelief with the mid-film arrival of the two notorious scenes that have since been dutifully noted on the film’s Wikipedia page. First the Calypso crew uses some TNT to blow to bits a coral pool in the interests of “scientific” investigation then call the results “tragic” (?!) before salting away the dead fish. Not long after, their vessel is steering (a mite too close) beside a herd of sperm whales when the baby of the bunch is accidentally killed by the ship’s propeller. When sharks, doing what comes natural for them, attack the wounded whale, the crew decides they must exact revenge upon their “enemy” and pull about a half-dozen sharks up onto the deck, slaughtering them in a spasm of ill-considered violence.

After a couple of more scenes of oceanic misadventure, The Silent World returns to a relative comfort zone until Cousteau asks “can man become more intimate with fish?” I could almost feel the audience brace itself, wondering if it were about to witness the ultimate indiscretion. Although a false alarm, you could hardly blame us at that point. As the Calypso sailed off into the 1956 sunset, I could at least comfort myself in the knowledge that Cousteau would soon become far more environmentally aware. And really, if you cut out the offending scenes, you’d have a one-hour program of some of the best marine documentary material ever. But that night, when the lights came up in Harvard’s Carpenter Center theater, there was nothing else to do but slink away without making eye contact.

Dubious Documentaries #3

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(The first two entries in this series were posted on my Facebook page, before I decided to originate them here. Please feel free to friend me on FB, I am the Rick Ouellette from Bedford, MA)

The Hellstrom Chronicle
Directed by Walon Green—1971—90 minutes

Professor Nils Hellstrom is a man who has “lost two fellowships and a few friendships” because of his left-field theory concerning the imminence of insect world domination. The viewer is told right off that Hellstrom is a fictional creation; actor Lawrence Pressman plays him as a man on the verge of madness in a performance that stops just short of satire. After all, he asks, is the idea really so crazy? Those little buggers have a long evolutionary head start and limitless adaptability—not to mention that they kill more people each year through diseases like malaria than die in wars, car accidents and from old age. Viewers who can excuse the film’s daffy cinematic conceit will move on quickly to the real attraction: the astonishing field footage of the insects in question. The by-now-familiar time lapse and super-macro photography must have seemed extraordinary in 1971 and still holds up pretty well today. “The Hellstrom Chronicle” actually won a best documentary Oscar despite being nominated alongside Marcel Ophul’s “The Sorrow and the Pity.” Ophul’s four-hour investigative film about French collaboration and cooperation amid the Nazi occupation is now acknowledged as one of the great achievements in the documentary field. Amends were made 17 years later when Ophuls won for the similarly-themed “Hotel Terminus.”

Reel and Rock takes a holiday

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When we return from the idyllic retreat overlooking Ipswich Bay, I’ll be continuing my “Dubious Documentaries” series, the first two entries which have already appeared on my Facebook page. Speaking of FB, please feel free to friend me there. I’m the Rick Ouellette with the glasses and the location of Bedford, Mass. Hope your summer’s been great so far.

The Pale Beyond, Part Three

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It’s been about ten months since part two of this series. In the long interval before this concluding entry, a long unfolding social problem has received more and more media coverage. A front-page headline last September in the Wall Street Journal summed it up rather neatly; “The New Asylums: Jails Swell with Mentally Ill.” The story tracked a pattern from the mass closings of outsized state hospitals in the 70s and 80s to the subsequent rise in the homeless population as many patients went from overcrowded (and sometimes abusive) facilities to no care at all. The ideal of a community-based middle way never really took hold and while advances in pharmaceuticals to treat psychological ailments have helped those with less severe cases, many others fell between the cracks during that process and in the years since. The situation just seems to get worse. Today, as I was getting set to put up this post, a major page-one report in the New York Times detailed the severe injuries suffered by 129 inmates at the hands of correctional staff at the huge Riker’s Island jail between the Bronx and Queens. A full 77 per cent of those inmates had been diagnosed with mental illness.

Obviously, this is a difficult problem and a tough one to get right. No one wants to go back to the warehousing asylums of old, where people could be committed for an indefinite stay on some flimsy pretense, like vagrancy or for being a troubled child that a parent could no longer deal with. But this downward spiral of insufficient mental health resources, underemployment, homelessness, drug abuse and petty crime invariably leading to incarceration is disheartening if not scandalous. Where’s the proper middle ground?

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I recently made a couple of visits to historic Tewksbury Hospital, the prominent Old Administration Building of which, seen at the top, was built in 1894 in bewitching Queen Anne style. It’s been continuously in operation since 40 years before that, first as an almshouse (Anne Sullivan lived there before becoming Helen Keller’s tutor and friend) and then used for the treatment and containment of contagious diseases. Although it was operated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and mental health care did figure in the mix throughout its history, it was never a state hospital in the way we would come to think of it—the overcrowded and malignant institutions on large campuses that have in their closed state become havens for urban explorers. But when one of the more infamous such places (Danvers State Hospital, as discussed in previous installments of this series) closed in 1992, the Mass. Dept. of Mental Health moved from there to Tewksbury and—along with the Dept. of Public Health—established the Public Health Museum there two years later.

The museum is tucked into one section of the Old Administration Building’s first level. This ground floor is a beautifully restored wood-paneled interior that the unfortunate people being admitted here never got to see, if a preserved sign near the front entrance is any indication.

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Much of the exhibit space is given over to showing the evolving history of methods for treatment of physical maladies, and you can see antique wheelchairs and an iron lung for real. But another room shows a similar backstory for mental health treatment. This will be the chilling highlight for many visitors. The curators, to their credit, do not shy away from showing patient treatments that nowadays would be considered barbaric or shocking. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have a mannequin strapped down to a bed to show any and all comers exactly what insulin-induced coma therapy looked like back in the day:

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Another interesting factoid I learned there: Danvers State once had a baseball team.
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You’re free to stroll the grounds at Tewksbury, which has an old formal gateway and other buildings of architectural interest. But it’s still an everyday working hospital. People ‘round my neck of the woods who want to get a feel for one of the classic creepy institutions can head south of Boston, where the isolated ghost town-sized Medfield State Hospital has been opened for people who want to have a walkabout. This is one of the few places I know that have done this, maybe as a co-opting measure for the hundreds of people who have seen these places as targets for infiltration. Of course, rules state that going inside the boarded buildings is strictly verboten. Still, it’s a great way for us urban-explorer dabblers to daytrip without worrying about getting nicked for trespassing. Now made safe for family excursions, I took along Ryan as my urban-explorer-in-training and lens-changing assistant.

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Although drastic methods like insulin or shock therapy may have been seen as necessary to control the worse-off patients, the power that comes with such authority still tempts abuse as we found out recently here in Massachusetts. Bridgewater State Hospital is site of Frederick’s Wiseman’s muckraking and groundbreaking 1967 documentary “Titicut Follies” (see Part 2 for more). It was reported in June that BSH was in danger of losing its national recognized hospital accreditation after it was found staff had significantly increased the use of isolation and strapping, even after the 2009 death of a patient during the application of restraints. Granted, Bridgewater is actually a medium-security prison that happens to house the most severely mentally-ill people in the state. But it also pointed out the thorny no-man’s land that exists between incarceration and the proper levels of mental health treatment. After a ban of “Titicut Follies” that lasted a quarter-century for “invading the privacy” of inmates (even though he had full clearances), Massachusetts courts finally allowed Wiseman to air his devastating expose of institutional abuse as long as he included a disclaimer at the end saying conditions have since approved at Bridgewater. The director’s one-sentence disclaimer, blankly using that very phrase, spoke volumes.

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Walking off the grounds at Medfield State, we caught view of the above. Who wrote this? Driving away, thoughts bounced around on different angles. Was it a mocking ex-inmate, a droll site worker, an urban explorer? There are certain people who get creeped out at the thought of these sites of suffering being converted into semi-affluent residential communities (possible sales blurb: “Nowadays, you would have to be crazy NOT to live here”) and the sign seemed to reflect that. That didn’t seem to affect folks who streamed into the old Danvers State property, re-purposed by Avalon Communities.

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“And over there is where they invented the full frontal lobotomy. Care for a swim?”

This spring I snuck onto the perimeter of the now-closed Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass. (see part 2), to visit a geographical feature that had always intrigued me but that I’ve never been able to classify. It began just off to the side of the Fernald Volunteer Center, a veritable Boo Radley house that despite its disrepair, always seemed vaguely occupied. During the time we lived on a street just across the way, I’d often turn my bike into a mowed section of field that dipped down below the level of Trapelo Road and continued for several hundred yards. I would pedal along a meandering path behind the also-closed daycare place, and through a wooded section that then opened up into a boulevard-wide lawn that undulated in sunny seclusion before returning to the gloomy main grounds, where once thousands of unfortunate (and usually quite young) patients lived. Until recently, even when there was only a couple of dozen patients left on the vast campus, someone dutifully mowed this obscure stretch of land on a regular basis. Thinking of the shaded sanatorium walks of old, I wondered if this had been a place where patients were brought to for a “country” walk. It would have been a brief respite—if it ever even happened—for a cruelly exploited class of luckless people who were otherwise liable to be the subjects of unconsented experiments: the children who were fed radioactive isotopes or autistic kids given doses of LSD for months on end. Soon this place will cover itself up, unseen and all but forgotten but leaving a lot of questions in the air about what’s left to do after all the hell holes are abandoned in place.

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“Documentary 101″ now available as e-book

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Happy to announce that my book, “Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film”, previously available only in paperback, has now been released as an e-book in all formats—in most cases selling for the low low price of only $4.99. All these sites allow you to “look inside” at the first 40 pages. See below for the links.

My publisher BookLocker.com has done a great job on the e-book conversion, allowing readers to land on any of the over 300 reviews by clicking on the title in the table of contents.

In my Categories list to the right, the “Documentary 101 Samplers” offer highlights from a more varied cross-section of the book, along with film stills only seen there.

Cheers, Rick Ouellette
(Reel and Rock readers: I am now on Facebook if you’d like to connect with me there)

AMAZON:

BARNES & NOBLE:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/documentary-101-rick-ouellette/1116257055?ean=2940149447824&itm=1&usri=2940149447824

BOOKLOCKER:

http://booklocker.com/books/6965.html

ITUNES:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/documentary-101-viewers-guide/id833794635

KOBO:

http://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/documentary-101-a-viewer-s-guide-to-non-fiction-film

I Saw a Film Today, Oh Brother! The 1978 “Sgt. Pepper” Film Folly Re-visited

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The $1 VHS Film Festival continues with 1978’s misbegotten Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I first got interested in the film (I had only seen bits of it on TV) after a lengthy and absorbing look-back piece by Clark Collis in a 2001 issue of Mojo magazine (discussed below). At the time it was unavailable on home video and down to its last couple of prints. So I figured if I ever came across a used tape it would be priced at either fitty cents or $30, depending if the seller knew what he had. So I when I spotted it for a buck at a used record store, I did not feel hard done by. It has since been issued on DVD and is available on Amazon for $6.66, a perfect price point for that company, if you catch my drift.

At this late date, it doesn’t seem that the status of Robert Stigwood’s white-elephant film musical of the Beatle’s most famous album will ever change much. Sgt. Pepper the movie seems forever suspended between being a forgotten fiasco and a potential cult classic, with little momentum left to nudge the needle either way. The Mojo article tracked the utter hubris of impresario Stigwood and his top-drawer clients who were recruited to star in the film and sing most of the numbers: Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees. In 1977 these were musical artists who were riding very high, the former with his blockbuster live LP Frampton Comes Alive and the latter with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. All involved apparently believed that Beatles’ generational game-changer (all of ten years old at that point) was already forgotten by younger kids and that their film version would replace it in the minds of future generations. Moreover, Frampton said at the time that his role would likely lead to his becoming a movie star on the level of a Robert DeNiro. Along with this unearned arrogance, this work also comes across as a by-product of a sort of collective cocaine psychosis that gripped certain sectors of the movie and recording industries during that era. It didn’t seem like anyone was straight enough to have a coherent vision about the final product, instead they just rode the Beatles’ military-style coattails right down into a ditch.

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If you think these clothes are painful to look at, just try prancing around in them!

With its candy-colored costumes, overstuffed production numbers and fructose-encrusted goodies-vs.-baddies storyline, Sgt. Pepper is so icky-sweet that I felt a tummy ache coming on before the end of the first act. But once your eyes adjust to the gaudiness and your brain dials down to the film’s bottom-scraping sensibility (Mean Mr. Mustard is stealing the original Sgt. Pepper heart-shaped flugelhorn that ended World War One!) it’s not all bad. After all, you have a bumper crop of stellar Beatles tunes (mostly from Pepper and Abbey Road), many sung by a trio of brothers who, before their disco phase, were bona fide purveyors of 60s progressive pop. And the wacky visual effects are a guilty pleasure, even if they look like they were conceived by someone who was dosed with some of that bad brown acid left over from Woodstock.

Problem is, aside from the ongoing narration of Heartland mayor Mr. Kite (an amiable George Burns) it’s all music. Somewhere, a decision was made that the Brit and Aussie accents of the four stars made dialogue a no-go. That leaves them to otherwise mug and mime between singing parts and Charlie Chaplin these guys are not. Without any speaking lines, what plot there is gets cobbled together by creating scenes to fit the lyrics of disparate songs, a tricky task that the hapless director Michael Schultz is not often up to.

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Tonight you did not swing successfully.

Watching Steve Martin applying his wild-crazy-guy shtick to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” or Alice Cooper over-enunciate “Because” from inside a God bubble are one-and-done experiences. Obscure R&B singer Diane Steinberg does fine with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and various duets but squeaky-clean newcomer Sandy Farina as Strawberry Fields, the girlfriend of Billy Shears (Frampton), croons “Here Comes the Sun” and her namesake tune to little effect. (The utter lack of romantic chemistry between her and Peter doesn’t help matters).

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As soon as they let him out of the bubble, Alice headed back to the golf course.

Nowadays, the only songs from the soundtrack you’ll hear on the radio are Aerosmith’s “Come Together” and Earth Wind and Fire’s slinky funkification of “Got to Get You into My Life.” George Martin, the film’s musical director and only real connection to the Fab Four (unless you count Billy Preston), regretted afterwards that they didn’t take more chances with the material. They had the Bee Gees play it too safe, though there are some occasional treats, like Robin Gibb’s pensive “Oh! Darling.” But after our heroes have dispensed with a succession of silly-ass villains (whose brainwashing motto “We Hate Love, We Hate Joy, We Love Money” was later purchased by a Wall St. consortium) and we get to a “Sgt. Pepper” reprise finale featuring dozens of movie and music stars brought onto the Hollywood backlot, many filmgoers must have been wondering why they didn’t just stay home and play a few Beatle records instead.

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By this time, it was too late to call the whole thing off.

The movie opened to a withering volley of contemptuous reviews (Paul Nelson in Rolling Stone: “a film upon which every major decision is wrong”) but did make back it’s $18 million production budget and then some, largely thanks to foreign distribution and impulse purchases of the soundtrack album. While Robert Stigwood did end up making a profit, the film’s pariah status with the press and US/UK audiences set back him back as a producer until 1996’s Evita. Sgt. Pepper also effectively ended the “acting careers” of Frampton and the Gibb brothers, while poor Sandy Farina never ate lunch in that town again. A similar cinematic exercise, Julie Taymoor’s 2007 Across the Universe, may have had a more talented director and a more plausible look, but also suffered from an awkward literalism and left behind a trail of mixed reviews and red ink. Consider this as an object lesson to “leave well enough alone,” a favorite old adage of mine that seems to have fallen out of favor in modern times. Fact is, the Beatles’ music is so vivid and timeless that it carries its own inner-eye visual legacy in the minds of both baby boomers and many others in generations that followed. Just “Let it Be” already.

Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Now in Exciting VHS Format!)

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A great recent find to kick off my hypothetical $1 VHS Film Festival, as over the summer I’ll be going through the stack of videotapes that I’ve picked up for short money at various library book sales and thrift stores over the last couple of years. Although clips from the Pythons’ celebrated four-night stand at the iconic venue in 1980 have shown up in compilations, documentaries and online, the full 78-minute film (briefly released theatrically in ’82) has had a history on home video that has been sketchy at best, no pun intended.

Live at the Hollywood Bowl was a treat to watch all the way through for the first time, to get a fuller sense of the event that was the visceral highpoint of Monty Python’s popularity in the States. The troupe was met with rock-star adoration by the extremely enthusiastic southern California audience and many fans dressed the part as well—lots of them are seen sporting the handkerchief headgear of the show’s dim-witted Gumby men and one is even done up as the Pantomime Princess Margaret.

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A pensive Python group shot from back in the salad days (no, not the one directed by Sam Peckinpah). From left, Terry Jones, the late Graham Chapman and his famous pipe, John Cleese, a squished-in Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin.

Another plus is that they had released a few records since the TV show had ended in 1974 so there was material that was new to me or that was only vaguely familiar. Sure, you get your Silly Walks, your Argument Clinic and your Lumberjack Song. But they also perform a pair of naughty tunes from their then-current Contractual Obligation Album (“Never Be Rude to an Arab” and “Sit on My Face”) and skits where John Cleese’s pope chastises Eric Idle’s Michelangelo for a muck-up on The Last Supper (he’s painted twenty-eight disciples, three Christs and a kangaroo) and that great bit where self-made millionaires sit around with cigars and champagne trying to outdo each other on who had the toughest upbringing (“A cardboard box? You were lucky; we lived in a rolled-up newspaper inside a septic tank”).

There are also several fun segments where the group takes their act out into the audience, as when Cleese’s roving waitress tries to peddle seabird-flavored snacks during intermission.

Considering Python’s enduring popularity, maybe this concert flick will eventually get a proper release for the digital age. Does anyone out there have a copy of the short-released DVD “Live at Hollywood Bowl and Aspen”? That may be the original film plus some extra bits from the same era, because after 1980 the guys (which here also included Carol Cleveland and Neil Innes) wouldn’t get together for a proper string of live shows until (wait for it)… next month!

Their recently announced ten-night run of shows coming up in July at London’s O2 Arena will be the last time the legendary troupe will perform together (according to themselves) before they all eventually “bring down the curtain and join the Choir Invisible.” A live simulcast in over two thousand movie theaters worldwide is planned for the last of these ten shows, scheduled for July 20th. Keep a look out for details, sounds like a must-see event for us diehards.

Man of Aran at 80, plus British Sea Power and the Ostrich Oblivion

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It will be 80 years ago this August that Robert Flaherty’s docu-fable Man of Aran won the prize for Best Foreign Film at the third Venice Film Festival. In a world where certain market psychologies would have you think that something a year old is passé, a documentary that’s been eight decades in the rearview mirror could be assumed to interest only academics and deep-diving film buffs. But Flaherty’s piece, which vividly evoked (somewhat anachronistically) the rugged lives of Aran Islanders, seems to resonate from around the margins of present popular culture. Daniel Radcliffe is currently starring on Broadway as “The Cripple of Inishman” a drama based around the production of the film, a 2010 feature-length retrospective on Flaherty (“A Boatload of Wild Irishmen”) references Aran in its title and a recent DVD release of this semi-silent film features a new soundtrack by the iconographic indie-rock group British Sea Power. On their regular albums, BSP’s poetical topics often revolve around the natural world and geographical/environmental themes that are simpatico with Flaherty’s work. Samplings of their lyrics are in bold face throughout.

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“I headed for the coastalry/Regions of mind, to see what I’d find”

Robert Flaherty had considerable difficulty duplicating the great achievement of Nanook of the North, his 1922 Eskimo epic that is widely considered to be the mother of all narrative documentaries and also helped popularize awareness of indigenous populations. It would not be until 1934, twelve years after Nanook, that Flaherty would recapture his winning formula for success with Man of Aran. It is a film filled with stark beauty and authentic admiration for the stalwart people of these islands off the west coast of Ireland, a place where “the peculiar shelving of the coastline piles up into one of the most gigantic seas in the world”. As in Nanook, Flaherty went beyond straight documentary; he also convinced fishermen and their families to collaborate with him in conjuring up a nearly pre-industrial lost age, making for a unique film experience but one that has come in for a certain amount of criticism over the years.

“Hoopoes and herring gulls over chalky cliffs/It’s all that’s left you know, carbonate and myth”

Initially, Flaherty had mixed results gaining the islanders’ cooperation but eventually recruited enough residents to make the production possible and was assisted at times by members of England’s famed EMB Film Unit, the groundbreaking organization run by John Grierson, the man who coined the term documentary after seeing Nanook of the North. Yet the film was financed as a “real-life drama” by the Gaumont British studio. It was just as well. Flaherty, who was born in 1884, had “one foot in the age of innocence” according to photographer Walker Evans and was a filmmaker who was as enthralled with the spirit of truth as he was with the letter of it. Several recent documentaries, like Surviving Progress or Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, have noted a particular aspect of our current ecological crisis stems from the notion that mankind sees itself as separate and superior from the very planet that it is part of. Man of Aran by contrast is a vivid re-imagination of man as sublimely co-existent with nature and even if this ideal is archaic or unrealistic, it still remains a quiet but powerful corrective.

(Or copy this link in separate tab: http://youtu.be/AjfVmJhkt-s

In this arcadian sequence above, boy protagonist Michael Dillane interrupts his fishing to climb partway down a craggy bluff when he spies a basking shark lolling just below the water’s surface (at the end of the clip which is 5:10 not 1:34 as listed). The song that British Sea Power chose to go along with this scene is a lovely instrumental re-working of the song “North Hanging Rock” from their 2005 album Open Season.

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The local practice of hunting these whale-like creatures with harpoons died out a half-century earlier but Flaherty’s enthusiasm and persuasion won the day and soon the men, especially his closest Irish collaborator Pat Mullen, were brushing up on the subject and getting new harpoons forged. This centerpiece of the film, and one of the great prototypical scenes Flaherty would ever commit to film, shows Mullen and the “Man” of the title (Colman “Tiger” King) as they lead the crew through the daunting surf in their modest curraghs then meticulously track down and harpoon the beast—but not before it repeatedly slaps at the boat with its tail and nearly tows it out into the open sea. This led to rebukes that his film almost led to the drowning of a “boatload of wild Irishmen.”

“I don’t know what I’m made of or where from I came/Don’t even seem to remember my name or why the ghost’s alive in this cave”

Although Flaherty did not pretend that he was making anything more than a “picture” that used real islanders, Man of Aran can seem disingenuous when the purpose of the hunt is said to be to gain “shark oil for their lamps”. Electricity had been available on the Aran Islands for some time. Contemporary critics pointed out that, in the midst of the Great Depression, the poverty and absentee-landlord system that existed on the Arans at least deserved a mention. The headstrong Flaherty felt entitled to his own agenda and his tribute to his leading man (“In this desperate environment the Man of Aran, because his independence is the most precious privilege he can win from life, fights for his existence, bare though it may be”) can and probably did resonate back then as well as any more literal recognition of economic inequality.
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British Sea Power is based in Brighton on England’s cliff-lined southern coast and is known for their melodic indie rock and poetic lyrics that veer from personal and romantic concerns into themes that suggest astute ecological and historical awareness and that celebrate the overarching domain of nature. There are not too many bands out there inventing words like “coastalry” and writing a paean to “Larsen B” their “favourite foremost coastal Antartic shelf” that disintegrated in 2002. When the band addresses Larsen with the acknowledgment “you had 12,000 years and now it’s all over” the bittersweet observation seems turned on mankind itself, esp. with the recent escalation of dire warnings about catastrophic climate change and the Ostrich Oblivion of denial and resignation that exists alongside it.

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“Daisy chains of light surround the city now/They glow but never quite illuminate/Hell and high water won’t stop us now/The future’s twisted, righteousness is coming back around/And we fall like sparks from a muzzle”

In Flaherty’s 1948 Louisiana Story, his last major film, benign oil riggers treaded lightly on the primeval Cajun bayou and indulged its inhabitants (the film was commissioned by Standard Oil though R.H. had free creative reign). Flaherty tried to see his way clear to a world where industry and nature could indefinitely co-exist. Were it only so. When British Sea Power advocated “Lights Out for Darker Skies” on their 2008 CD, Do You Like Rock Music?, it reminded me of a couple of things—the ethereal late-night radio ads from a skywatcher’s advocacy group I used to hear in the Eighties and the idea that the true meaning of the word “understanding” is nearly literal with the idea of letting oneself stand under something in order to fully comprehend it. BSP’s brand of bracing anthemic rock comes from that same imperative, devoid of the overly self-conscious type of uplift you get from bands with similar attributes. (Not to mention any names, but one has the initials A.F. and another has the initials U.2.) If you like rock music pick up one of their CDs, you won’t be sorry.

Official video for British Sea Power’s “It Ended on an Oily Stage.”
All rights to video, music and re-printed lyrics go to BSP and their publishers