Song of the Week – British Invasion Music in Film

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This is the next installment of my series on Rock music in films; today covering the British Invasion.

The Beatles reached into the homes of millions of Americans via The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday evening, February 9, 1964, launching Beatlemania.  A month later, the Beatles began filming their first movie – A Hard Day’s Night – that was released in the US the following August.

Like the Beatles’ music itself, A Hard Day’s Night set the bar for quality very high.  It’s not only a good Beatle movie or a good Rock music movie; it’s simply a good movie – a very good pun and quip filled movie.

The screenplay was written by Alun Owen and deftly directed by Richard Lester.  Both provide ample opportunities for each Beatle to reveal their personality.  The Beatles prove that they are more than lovable mop tops.  They are smart and funny young men.  The scene where George accidentally stumbles into a focus group meeting for a ‘60s version of a style influencer is hilarious.

The segment where the boys escape the TV studio and romp around the Thornbury Playing Fields in Isleworth, Middlesex, to “Can’t By Me Love” was shot using camera techniques that would be copied many times over, especially by The Monkees.

Other movies starring British Invasion groups include fellow Liverpudlians Gerry and the Pacemakers in Ferry Cross the Mersey (1965), Herman’s Hermits’ Hold On (1966), and The Dave Clark Five in Having a Wild Weekend (1965).  They all seem to try to imitate A Hard Days Night to a greater or lesser degree.  But all fail.

Check out the DC5 mimicking the Can’t Buy Me Love, Thornbury scene at the end of this clip:

Having a Wild Weekend (originally Catch Us If You Can in England) is a decent film, the directorial debut by a young John Boorman who later achieved success with Deliverance (1972).  The plot involves a young model/actress Dinah (Barbara Ferris) who wants to escape the pressure of being the commercial image behind a meat industry campaign.  Stuntman Steve (Dave Clark) – who was a real-life stuntman before becoming a rock star — sympathizes with the craziness surrounding them and takes her away on an impromptu journey.

The film doesn’t take advantage of any “on-screen” performances by the group, a decision that limits its appeal.  But it does include several DC5 recordings – “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” “Move On,” “I Like It” and, of course, “Catch Us If You Can.”

So stay tuned.  There’s more to come in this exploration on the topic of Rock music in films.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – America, First Aid Kit

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I wanted to write something patriotic to honor our Independence Day.  There is so much turmoil today that we need something to bring us – all Americans – together.  After quite a bit of thought, I decided on Paul Simon’s “America”, originally on the Simon and Garfunkel album Bookends.

The song was used to great effect in one of the Muscarella family’s favorite movies, Almost Famous.  In the “America” scene, Anita Miller (Zooey Deschanel) is leaving home to become an airline stewardess.  Her mother (Frances McDormand) and little brother William (Michael Angarano) stand watching as the car is packed for the journey.  Before she takes off, Anita whispers to William… “One day you will be cool.  Go look under your bed.  It will set you free.”

Everyone needs a big sister like Anita!

“America” evokes Anita’s yearning for freedom and mobility.  It is a travelogue of a bus trip across the US.  True Americana.  References to real places (Pittsburgh, Saginaw), roads (NJ Turnpike), and the nostalgia of Mrs. Wagner’s Pies.

First Aid Kit recorded a beautiful version of “America” that is today’s SotW.

But what really grabs me today is the first two lines of the final verse.  That’s when the previously playful road trip (“Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces”, “She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy”, “I said, be careful, his bowtie is really a camera”) turns somber.

Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
And I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why

These lines seem to capture the anxiety and isolation many of us are feeling in these times of COVID-19, racial tension, and economic insecurity.

First Aid Kit performed “America” live, at the Polar Music Prize (a Swedish music award), in front of Paul Simon in 2012.  Simon was so moved, he gave them a standing ovation and seemed to be close to tears.

If their performance was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me.

Happy Independence Day!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Balloon Man, Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians

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“Balloon Man” was a 1988 “hit” for Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians.  (It reached #1 on Gavin Report’s Alternative Music chart.)

Hitchcock wrote the song about walking in NYC in the rain while eating a falafel.

He spattered me with tomatoes, hummus, chickpeas
And some strips of skin
So I made a right on 44th
And I washed my hands when I got in

And it rained like a slow divorce
And I wish I could ride a horse
And Balloon Man blew up in my hand

Besides the falafel hint, the whimsical lyrics are indecipherable.  But after watching the official video, I can’t help but think that it was at least partially inspired by the balloon character Rover from the ‘60s British television series, The Prisoner.  Hitchcock is of the age that he would have been very familiar with the show.

A bass line introduces the song and plays a key role throughout.  The guitars go full jangle in the chorus and then come back at about 2:40 to take us all the way home.

In a 2011 interview Hitchcock gave to Will Harris of the AV Club, he mentioned the song was originally written for The Bangles.

“Well, “Balloon Man” I wrote for The Bangles, if you remember them. I was in touch with a couple of them, and I sent them a quarter-inch, 7.5 IPS reel. I don’t know if they did anything with it.”

I wish The Bangles had recorded it because it perfectly suits their style of harmony-filled, jangle rock.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know, Blood Sweat & Tears

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“I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” is my favorite song from one of my favorite albums – Child is Father to the Man by Blood Sweat & Tears.  Child… is the first BS&T album from the time that Al Kooper led the band.  But he was one and done with the band he founded.

A blues in 6/8 time (I’ve never met a song in 6/8 that I didn’t love), ILYMTYEK packs an emotional punch – both lyrically and musically.

If I ever leave you… you can say I told you so
And if I ever hurt you, baby … you know I hurt myself as well

Is that any way for a man to carry on
Do you think he wants his little loved one gone
I love you
More than you’ll ever know

Steve Katz’s guitar tone in the opening riff is perfect!  And those horns!!!  The arrangement is beautiful, especially in the modulated bridge where they build to an emotional peak.  Then there’s that sax solo by Fred Lipsius.  Magnificent!

In his autobiography, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, Kooper claimed that he was attempting to channel Otis Redding when he cut the vocal.  Not known as a great singer, he pulls off a gem on this one.  Although his voice is straining at the cut’s climax, it only adds to the sense of pain he’s struggling to convey.

The great Donny Hathaway laid down a wonderful cover version of ILYMTYEK that’s worth tracking down.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Hip Hop Music in Films

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Today’s post was written by second time guest contributor, Pete McQuaid.  While on vacation together in the Adirondacks last summer, I hatched the idea of writing this Rock in Film series.  Since Pete is interested and knowledgeable in both music and film, I asked him to write about a genre that is more popular with his generation than mine.  He took the challenge and authored this terrific post.  While I originally planned to release this series in chronological order, current events have made it more relevant today.

[Writer’s Note: Tom asked me to write this SOTW a few months ago and I’ve enjoyed learning more about the history and films I discuss below in preparing to write the piece.  I wanted to make sure I mentioned, particularly in light of the necessary national conversation going on in the past few weeks, that I’m in no way an expert on either hip-hop or black film and that I would strongly recommend seeking out voices from the African-American community for deeper understanding and context on both this subject and black culture as a whole.]

The evolution of hip hop from an underground urban subculture to arguably the dominant modern pop music genre began in the early 1980s, coinciding with the arrival of a new wave of African-American filmmakers who focused their work on serious, empathetic depictions of the black experience in America.  MCing, and b-boying came to the big screen with the release of Wild Style (1983) and Beat Street (1984), bringing the world of New York City hip hop to the mainstream and leading the way for more rap-related films in the mid-1980s.

As Spike Lee was “looking for an anthem” for Do the Right Thing, his 1989 look at racial tensions boiling over during the course of a single day in Brooklyn, he commissioned Public Enemy to write what would become “Fight the Power.”  “Fight the Power” energizes Do the Right Thing from start to finish, first as accompaniment to Rosie Perez’s dance in the opening credits and then throughout the movie as the soundtrack of choice for boombox-wielding Radio Raheem.  As black men like Radio Raheem continue to be murdered by police and widely disenfranchised to this day, it’s a reminder of how relevant, prophetic, and, ultimately, sad Do the Right Thing remains 30 years after its releas

The 1990s brought more serious African-American cinema to the mainstream, with such films as Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, Above the Rim, and New Jack City, all of which were heavily soundtracked by prominent hip hop artists of the time.  However, “being taken seriously” in film often means Oscars, for better or worse (usually… worse).  The first rap song to win Best Song at the Academy Awards is “Lose Yourself” by Eminem in 2002 from 8 Mile, a once-jam that is now played in every suburban mom spin class. 

Hustle & Flow’s “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp” by Three 6 Mafia won in 2005 and has not had the same staying power, but this scene from the movie is a great example of how film can reveal process and character through rap music.  Also, it’s a fun Southern banger!  Jon Stewart said it best when Three 6 Mafia accepted their award in front of a bewildered, stodgy Oscar crowd: “How come they’re the most excited people here tonight?”

Filmmakers have found more creative ways to incorporate hip hop music into their movies, though for a time, the tired trend in mainstream comedies seemed to be to have every white dude rap explicit lyricsparody current hip hop videos, or… do whatever Tom Cruise is doing here

But one thing I’ve never seen before was in Jordan Peele’s Us, where the “spooky slowed-down pop song in a movie trailer” gambit is taken to a whole other level.  Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It” is introduced by the characters in a car ride (with very suspicious snapping on the 1 and the 3 by Lupita Nyong’o) and then is eerily, orchestrally weaved into the score by the movie’s end.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – You’ve Been In Love Too Long, Bonnie Raitt, and Martha & the Vandellas

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One of my favorite Bonnie Raitt cuts is the opener on her third album, 1973’s Takin’ My Time – “You’ve Been In Love Too Long.”

The album was produced by John Hall of Orleans, and Raitt was backed by an A-list of musician friends.  “You’ve Been in Love Too Long” features Hall (lead guitar), the late Paul Barrere (rhythm guitar) and Bill Payne (keys) of Little Feat, the great Jim Keltner (drums), and longtime collaborator Freebo (bass).  No wonder the song has such snap, crackle and pop!

“You’ve Been in Love Too Long” is a cover of a 1965 Motown release by Martha and the Vandellas.  The original cracked the Billboard 100 top forty at #36 but wasn’t a “success” by Motown standards – especially as the follow up to “Nowhere to Run” that reached #8 and stayed on the charts for 11 weeks.

I’m usually partial to originals over covers, but not in this case.  Compared to Raitt, Martha Reeves track feels sluggish.  That isn’t an adjective that’s often used to describe a Motown song.  So the credit here goes to Raitt and Co.

Enjoy… until next week.

New York Dolls, Subway Train

Some of us are living in a city that relies on mass transit, the subway and the bus (and for some of the Dolls, the Ferry). But those things are gone for those of us who don’t have to go riding, riding, riding. So much is lost because of the pandemic and the way we respond to it. I wonder if we’d be better off if we didn’t shut down, or we did as we did. I know my mother, in an assisted living facility is alive. For those in Sweden, which didn’t shut down, many more are dead. So, do your best. Right?

https://youtu.be/z-K4FPGdXbE

Song of the Week – Rock Music in Early ’60s Films

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This is the second installment of my series on Rock music in movies.  The first covered Rock music in 50s films.  Today’s post explores the movies of the early 60s.

At the close of the 50s, the great explosion of creative talent in Rock ‘n Roll was against the ropes.  Elvis was in the Army and out of the recording (and film) studio; Chuck Berry was in trouble with the law for a violation of the Mann Act for transporting a 14-year old girl across state lines; Jerry Lee Lewis was fending off a PR nightmare for marrying his 13-year old cousin (once removed) before the divorce from his second wife was final; controversy swirled around Little Richard’s ambiguous sexuality: a plane crash took the life of Buddy Holly.

What filled the void?  On the radio, it was bland covers of R&B songs by the likes of Pat Boone.  On-screen we were treated to a slew of beach movies (Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Muscle Beach Party, Surf Party) and “twist” dance movies (Don’t Knock the Twist, Hey, Let’s Twist).

There were a few highlights though, both involving my first crush – Ann-Margret.

In 1963 she starred in the film version of Bye Bye BirdieBirdie told the story of a rock star (Conrad Birdie) that was being drafted into the Army.  The gold lamé wearing Birdie was loosely inspired by Elvis Presley.  High school Birdie fan Kim MacAfee (Margret) wins a contest that will have her meet and be kissed by the star on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The theme song “Bye Bye Birdie” is sung by Margret at the beginning of the movie and is reprised at the end. In the first version, Margret plays up her youthful, girlish charm.  By the end of the show, Kim is a mature woman, and her performance vamps it up!  Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean!

A year later, Margret was starring with Presley himself in Viva Las Vegas – one of a handful of Presley movies that holds up.

The terrific title song – written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman – rocks.  It has been covered by artists as diverse as Dead Kennedys, Nina Hagen, Stray Cats, and ZZ Top.

Enjoy… until next week.