The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 3.1: Mono and The Beatles’ U.S. Albums

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

Because I’m aware the upcoming multiple sections of Volume 3 will be of little interest to anyone, I am temporarily abandoning my pattern of posting only on the first Saturday of the month. The next two sections of Volume 3 will be posted over the next two weeks just to get the damn thing over with.

“‘Revolution’ was a heavy record [in mono]…stereo turned it into a piece of ice cream.” — J. Lennon.

Hmmm…no mono Beatles on Spotify? Mono Beach Boys, sure. Mono (early) Stones, even. But no mono Beatles.

As I was making my playlists, it came to my attention that the Beatles catalog on Spotify was available only in stereo. This is not a big deal to most people. Two separate channels of sound emerging from two speakers (or headphones or earbuds or “airpods”) to create a kind of audio widescreen is the primary way music has been listened to for over fifty years now. I was certainly reared on stereo recordings of the Beatles (via their American albums, see below.) But that wasn’t always the case, and when you’re talking about recording artists of the caliber of the Beatles, there should at least be a conversation about what kind of mixing better suits their music.

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Mixing a song is a vital part of the recording process. Vocals and instruments are initially recorded across multiple tracks of audio tape, and a good mix ensures the sounds are properly balanced against each other. You can write a great song, perform it flawlessly in the studio…but a bad mix can ruin it. The Beatles and their producer George Martin lavished hours of attention on the monaural (single audio channel) mixes of their songs, because that’s how 90% of their initial audience would hear the music until about 1968 or so. Through one-speaker portable record players, one-speaker transistor radios, one-speaker car radios, one-speaker jukeboxes. “Stereo” in the 1960s was for classical music freaks, jazzbos, and “hi-fi” fanatics with record players housed in polished wooden cabinets the size of Buicks, and shelves groaning with “LPs.” The Beatles did release their stuff in stereo, but stereo mixing was usually a hurried afterthought. The Beatles did not bother to attend their stereo mixing sessions. Even George Martin would sometimes skip out, leaving it in the hands of assistants.

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1960s Mono

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1960s Stereo

As stereo pushed out mono by the end of the ‘60s, the Beatles’ catalog stayed in print, selling quite well, and demand kept the record plants pressing out vinyl. As a kid, I was still buying factory-fresh, brand new copies of Beatles albums in record stores as late as 1988. All stereo by then, and the vinyl LP’s center label was no longer the classic Capitol Records black ringed by a rainbow, but an ugly, bruised purple (indicating a re-issue pressed between 1977 and 1983). 

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1960s Capitol label and 1977-83 reissue label (supposedly a “throwback” to pre-1960s 78 rpm labels)

Work had been done on more careful stereo re-mixing in dribs and drabs beginning in the late 60s and through the 70s, and by the time I heard the stuff in the 80s, it sounded fine. Some horrible over-separation had been fixed, Dave Dexter’s dated, splashy reverb (again, see below) had been cleaned up, and stereo is how my ears were raised on Beatles music. (My generation of re-issues had “New Improved Full Dimensional Stereo” written proudly across the top of the jacket). When the Beatles’ catalog was reissued on compact disc in 1987, the stereo versions of the UK albums were made official canon, and anything still out there in mono — along with the old American albums — vanished. (The Beatles themselves still didn’t like the fresh stereo mixes the CDs were given. They’ve been re-mastered and improved since, but if you were to ask the Fab Four themselves — mono forever, baby.)

In the early 2000s, demand for the release of the original mono mixes by Beatles purists grew, and their wish was granted. In 2009, The Beatles in Mono CD box set was released. Every song re-mastered in their original, glorious mono. Even as a 13-disc collection that sold for as much as my first car, it made #40 on the album charts. I didn’t rush out and buy it, but I knew someone who did, and he was nice enough to loan it to me for a good long time. And…I still prefer stereo. I guess I’m a philistine. But for playlist-assembly purposes, it would have been nice for Spotify to offer the option. What’s more frustrating is that I’ve heard that the mono stuff was on Spotify briefly, but removed. (And if you think my stuff is over-detailed, at least one entire book has been written about the differences between the Beatles’ mono and stereo mixes.) 

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Another thing now available on CD but not on Spotify is the early Beatles albums as issued in the U.S. by Capitol Records.

The Beatles’ American albums on Capitol were often quite different from the “official” British releases on Parlophone from 1964 through ‘66, and were pretty much the only way American consumers could experience the band’s pre-1967 material for over twenty years. They are not included on Spotify. Like the mono thing, this doesn’t bother most listeners. The British albums were how the band intended their stuff to be presented anyway, and the group was generally horrified by Capitol’s seemingly careless re-sequencing and repackaging.

How did Capitol Records’ Beatles discography come about, and how and why did they make the decisions they did? It’s complicated, and sometimes their choices are logical, and the results work. Sometimes they seem clueless and totally wrong-headed. Continue reading

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 2: Making Playlists

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

The “Spotify Chronicles” were/are cobbled together out of random music-based thoughts I shared with the Institute of Idle Time (see previous entry for more on those tasteless wretches) via instant messaging as I “worked” from home, or typed piecemeal into a constantly-open Google Doc late at night as I was drinking old-fashioneds and plugged into my earbuds…keep in mind, these are unvarnished opinions, and chunks of the following is literally copied-and-pasted out of IM discussions, with a few editorial tweaks to keep it semi-coherent…

So I’m doing a lot of listening and making a lot of playlists. I suppose I should start by giving you my definition of a playlist.

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A decades-themed “mixtape” on Spotify

To my mind, a playlist is dedicated to a single band or artist, and is a microcosm of that artist’s entire discography. Greatest hits, obviously, but also personal-favorite Deep Cuts, maybe a few live tracks, and some other odds & sods, like something that popped up on a movie soundtrack but nowhere else. This definition dates from a pre-streaming era when you had to boil your physical-media music collection down to make it portable — either onto blank cassettes, or blank CDs after a certain point in music-copying history.

One of the advantages of making playlists from streaming platforms is that there’s no time limit, which expands your options. On the other hand, I do remember enjoying the challenge of a time limit. An 80-minute CD-R or 90-minute cassette imposed boundaries to work within. It was all about maximizing space. I remember being appalled when WH used up fifteen minutes of a Hendrix compilation with the blues workout “Voodoo Child.” (“And I’d do it again,” he asserted when asked about it recently.) And if you ran out of space for a really good artist with a lengthy career? You did Volume 2, Volume 3…

Now let’s draw a distinction between “playlists” and “mixes” (which I will almost always refer to here as “mixtapes”). 

Playlists are a reference work, a song-based encyclopedia entry. Mixtapes are more like literature. They can be thematic, or mood-based. They take you on a journey. You can do a single artist mixtape, but they tend to be multi-artist. Mixtapes are finite, they are a finished work. Playlists can be endlessly tinkered with, revised, and updated, especially when you’re as neurotic about them as I am.

I use mixtape in the broadest possible sense, of course. The term obviously originated in the days of the cassette tape, but for over twenty years now, all of my “mixtapes” have been burned CDs or made online. (And muddying the waters a bit, streaming services generically call any list or mix you make a “playlist.”)

If you’re going analog, a 60-minute cassette, thirty minutes a side, are best for mixes. Mixtapes are often intended to be given to someone else, so you need to keep it short and tight. Don’t want to bore the person you’re trying to impress. You get a slightly better sound quality from a shorter tape, too, and they’re not as likely to break or get tangled. The 90-minute cassette was my standard workhorse for making artist playlists. 120-minute cassettes were available, too, but they were just too fragile and tended to warble a little. Some people swore by Maxell, I was a TDK man. Solid quality at a slightly lower price.

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Sure, you can swap mixtapes with your music-nerd buddies, but I’ve found that mixtapes are almost exclusively made for the object of your affection. This is certainly not an original observation.

My wife lamented awhile back that I made her four mixtapes over the first year we were dating, and then no more. My sister-in-law chimed in said the identical scenario went down between her and my wife’s brother. Mixtape-making for your significant other usually ceases right when cohabitation begins. Mixtapes are supposed to inspire them to think about you when you’re not around. Once you’re snoring next to them on a nightly basis, and they can hear your frankly alarming bathroom noises on the other side of the door, mixtapes seem a tad superfluous. (And new cars don’t even have CD players!)

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R.I.P.

The last time I did something similar to this Spotify project was before streaming became a thing. I spent a summer about ten years ago making iPod playlists. I had ripped my thousand or so CDs into mp3s, and supplemented my collection by flying the BitTorrent Jolly Roger. (I am a reformed man, and now duly pay for my streaming services.)

But iTunes (sorry, “Apple Music”) has been gleefully pissing in the Cheerios of old-school music fans for a number of years now. Every iTunes update actually making the interface objectively worse? Good move, Apple. Blithely “discontinuing” their 160-gig, physical-click wheel iPods? Screw you, Apple. Way to make me hate you forever. So I dumped those shallow Cupertino grassfuckers and started giving my money to the humble Swedes of Spotify Premium. 

So the Spotify Playlists of the 2020 Quarantine were preceded by the 2010 iPod Playlists of the BitTorrent Boom…there was another cycle of making “playlists” ten years before that — right when CD burners became an affordable option — when I was happily listening through my CD collection on a battery-sucking Discman with sponge-covered headphones, and filling Case Logic carrying cases with artist-themed CD-Rs made on my PC. 

(Hear that, Apple? On my PC! And who really preferred super-douchey toolbag Justin Long to nice, earnest John Hodgman in those commercials?) 

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Not coincidentally, I switched to Spotify the day after Tom Petty died, and I immediately poured my grief into a Petty playlist. I added other playlists over the next couple of years when the mood struck me or I was bored at work. I put together some obvious favorites (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Dylan), and some good-but-not-exactly-favorites because that’s what interested me that day (Queen, Steve Earle, a Faces/Small Faces mashup that I’m pretty damn proud of). 

Now I’ve decided to put my socially-distant, non-work time (which is copious) to use filling in the gaps in my Favorite Artists playlists. No Springsteen? There is now! Green Day, which everyone seems to think I like way more than I actually do? They’re on the to-do list. Johnny Cash and Prince are going to be daunting, but I haven’t worn pants since St. Patrick’s Day, so I might as well plunge in. Next week, maybe. Or in two or three weeks. Time has lost a lot of meaning.

What’s my method? I’m so glad you asked.  Continue reading

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 1: The Institute of Idle Time (A Re-Introduction)

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

The “Spotify Chronicles” were/are cobbled together out of random music-based thoughts I shared with the Institute of Idle Time via instant messaging as I “worked” from home, or typed piecemeal into a constantly-open Google Doc late at night as I was drinking old-fashioneds and plugged into my earbuds listening to Spotify…so some of it is a little venomous (talking to my fellow Idle Timers brings out my feisty side) and a little more rambling than usual (imagine!), but keep in mind, chunks of the following are literally copied-and-pasted out of IM discussions…

And, for the first time in Holy Bee of Ephesus history, this piece has a co-author. My friend and Idle Time collaborator for almost twenty years, MMDG, will be weighing in with his recollections. (In our written shorthand, we always refer to each other to this day by initials, like some kind of music-nerd Cosa Nostra…I’ve changed my actual initials to “HBE” here for clarity purposes.)

If you were to dig back into this website’s early history, say 2007-2010, you’d find me mentioning the Institute of Idle Time quite a bit. Since they’ve made a bit of a resurgence in my day-to-day life (due to the sheltering-in-place), and are an important part of the chronicles to come, I thought I’d re-introduce them. 

Idle Time Logo invert-01I co-founded the Institute of Idle Time in early 2002 with two people — WH and MMDG — who were my co-workers at the time. (Actually, I’ve known WH since I was 20 — almost literally a kid.) It was a jokey name for what we did in our spare moments away from being rookie middle-school teachers, which was talk about music, argue passionately about music (we have very different tastes), and make ranked and themed lists of music. 

Once we abandoned our Pitchfork-style decimal-based rating system, the Idle Time ranking process became a drawn-out and brutal ritual of MMDG’s invention we call Rock & Roll Roulette. The basics are simple, but the nuances and subtleties amount to sustained psychological warfare. Depending on the number of albums or songs we’re working through, it can take days, weeks, or months. It can be done in person (where it is the most fun, especially over several beers) or online (thanks to shared spreadsheets and polling apps).

We used to compile songs into individual mixes (or entire series of mixes) to share with just each other via burned CD-Rs. Then we started collaborating on group mixes for public consumption, and gave away CDs of our lists to anyone who was interested (they made great stocking stuffers and wedding gifts). Beginning in 2003, the CDs got elaborate — glossy covers and extensive liner notes (“blurbs” in IT-speak). We truly became a collective at that point.

Let’s hear from MMDG:

“Adrift on the wide-open internet waters was a bounty of images, mp3s, and treasure-map signposts towards albums, singles, and recordings that we never knew existed. It was a grand time to be a pirate. HBE had his Your Music Sucks series, which seemed to specifically target my indifference towards bands like Son Volt and Supergrass. I adopted The Promise Ring’s “Make Me a Mixtape” as a battlecry for any number of mix-CDs. We mail-ordered labels and booklets in bulk.

It was WH’s What I Heard compilation that gave real direction to our operation. Following his lead, we shared our favorite albums with one another just prior to winter break in 2002. Initially, these discs included songs from 2000 and 2001. That was before the project took on radioactive parameters and, screeching with mathematical fury, threatened to destroy Tokyo to the hundredth decimal point.

idle-time-002We went from friends, happy to find common ground in something like 02’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (HBE: I actually didn’t like it all that much past the first two songs, I think I was still playing nice), to bitter rivals, arguing vehemently over whether or not 03’s Hail to the Thief belonged on a year-end celebration of the best music. (HBE: It didn’t.) We were doing one list, one compilation, and affixing one name to the glossy inkjet-printed booklet: The Institute of Idle Time’s Top 20 Records of the Year. I even had the audacity (or foresight) to stick a little ® on there, even though I shamelessly stole the Jack White artwork from someone on the internet.

The cute pseudonyms were born in the 2003 CD booklet too. I think subconsciously all this rampant piracy made us a little nervous. How were we to know that not even a decade later intellectual property rights would hardly mean a damn and the world wide web would turn into a playground of digital socialism? So we hid cleverly behind the impervious anonymity of our own actual initials, confident that this would foil any FBI plot to root out felonious file-sharers and make an example of them. We had our own paper-and-staple usernames way before any online avatars came into being.”

The Institute drifted out of workplace lunch breaks and into our social lives. IT06Membership expanded and became fluid — different members have come and gone over the years (including myself, as we’ll see), but it always seems to hover around ten. 

At a certain point, several years in, a healthy portion of the group was made up of a handful of former students from out first year or two of teaching (we were only decade and change older than them, and they were the frequent, sometimes puzzled, recipients of those early CD-Rs).

This was the Idle Time Junior Division…still thought of that way even though they’re all now in their thirties. For those keeping track, the three original members are referred to as the Elder Idlers. The Elder Idlers plus the longest-standing member of the Junior Division (known by the moniker RF, who joined as an enthusiastic mascot while still in high school) are known as the Core Four.

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The Core Four looking like sad pandas, posing in front of our favorite record store that went out of business in December 2006

What self-respecting music junkie of a certain age can resist a lavish CD box set? We designed a pretty elaborate one (limited-edition, of course) for our fifth anniversary in 2007. An unprecedented two discs of the collectively-chosen “best of 2007” (featuring Spoon, Arcade Fire, the Shins, LCD Soundsystem, the White Stripes, Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, and many, many more), and including four more discs, each individually curated by a member of the Institute. (Mine sadly included a Velvet Revolver track, but I stand by everything else.)

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You don’t still have your copy?

The cover art of the box was intended to be a parody of the Hives’ The Black and White Album (see below), a timeless reference and sure never to date itself at all.

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Our version was a little off. We did what we could with the matching outfits. I normally keep my jowly double-chin covered with at least a goatee if not a full beard, but I took one for the team and shaved down to just a skeevy-looking mustache to replicate the cleft-chin glory of Hives bassist Dr. Matt Destruction.

I tried to capture his intense stare, looking straight ahead as fiercely as I could. Of course, I should have been staring straight at the camera lens…which was slightly to my right. Oh, well.

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I had to walk around looking like that for two weeks until my goatee grew back.

We self-published a few zines, and our magnum opus — a big, glossy book called Decades: A Tribute to Our 400 Favorite Albums of the Last 50 Years, which gave rise to the Roulette process. Continue reading

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The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 4)

The Budget Sequels

MV5BZGMxODA2NGEtOTI1MS00Y2QwLThhODYtOWUwZjU3NWI1OGEyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjc1NTYyMjg@._V1_The Ghost of Frankenstein (March 1942) and Chaney’s performance marked the transition of Frankenstein’s Monster from Karloff’s confused, hurt, and occasionally dangerous creature seeking some kind of human connection to the slow, clumsy, blank-faced killing machine he would remain in many people’s imaginations from then on. (People who see Karloff in the first two Frankenstein films are often surprised by how lithe and expressive the Monster was initially.)

Now that Universal had Chaney, Tom Tyler was given his walking papers (shuffling papers?) after a single performance as the Mummy. Lon was duly wrapped up into his least-favorite character and staggered through increasingly bored performances in The Mummy’s Tomb (October 1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (July 1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (December 1944). On-set sources say he had a flask of gin wrapped into his mummy bandages by the costume department, with the tip of a drinking tube near his collarbone. If nothing else, he was a creative engineer of ways to get his daily intake. He did create the Mummy’s well-known gait, based on the damage the monster sustained by Tyler’s incarnation in Hand…left arm cradled against his chest, left leg dragging.

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Chaney’s face says it all. He hated doing his Mummies.

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And who better to play Count Dracula than the lumpy, pot-bellied, double-chinned Lon Chaney? Universal’s commitment to putting Chaney into all of its monster roles reached its ludicrous limit when the hilariously miscast Chaney donned the cape and fangs in Son of Dracula (November 1943). The title is a head-scratcher — most of the time, the movie seems to think that the leading character is the Count himself. (Anyone suggesting the 61-year-old Lugosi should reprise his role would have been laughed out the room, but Chaney is even more risible.)

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Really?

What’s frustrating is that this had the potential to be a pretty good B-level horror flick. It’s based on an original story by Wolf Man scribe Curt Siodmak, and its setting among the old plantation houses of Tennessee gave it an eerie, swampy, Southern Gothic atmosphere. It boasted the first on-screen bat-to-man transformation. Long-suffering Evelyn Ankers gamely returned for a third go-round as Chaney’s on- and off-screen victim. 

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Well over a year before Son of Dracula splattered onto the screen, Curt Siodmak off-handedly mentioned a funny idea for a title to producer/director George Waggner …Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man. Waggner took him seriously…

“Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man”

Lon Chaney was Universal’s in-house horror star, and had already played both Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man. Was it possible he could play both at the same time? He insisted he was up to the challenge. Director Roy William Neill, a veteran of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone, considered the possibility. With a liberal use of doubles and a little trick photography, he decided it could be done. But it would inflate the budget, and Chaney’s reliability was questionable. Universal nixed the idea.

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If nothing else, it made for a great poster

The next option was someone who was a big name in horror, and whose salary would not break the bank. To Universal, that could only mean one thing — get Bela. This would actually neatly tie in with the end of Ghost of Frankenstein, where the Monster received Ygor’s brain. It was a logical development that he should speak with Ygor’s voice. (Not that Universal ever cared a fig for continuity, it would just be a happy coincidence.) Would Lugosi take on the role of the Monster, that he had so famously turned down over a decade before? Lugosi was in no position to turn down high-profile work. He would soon turn 60 and had recently begun self-administering morphine to ease the pain caused by sciatica. So Bela subjected himself to the rigors of Jack Pierce’s Monster make-up at long last. (“For the money,” confirmed his wife later.)

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Lugosi’s Monster side-eyes a nervous-looking Chaney

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was released in March 1943. The first half is all Lon Chaney as Larry Talbot, resurrected by grave-robbers working under a full moon, and desperate to find a final cure for his lycanthropy, or at least the sweet relief of a permanent death. He believes the secret is to be found in the journals of Dr. Frankenstein (?!), and sets off to find the doctor, or his notes. For some reason, after perishing in a laboratory fire in his previous appearance, the Monster is found by Talbot frozen in a block of ice under the ruins of Castle Frankenstein. The Monster (mostly blind and speaking in Ygor’s voice in the original script) is run-down and of little help.

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Ilona Massey takes over the role of Elsa Frankenstein from Evelyn Ankers, so for anyone still desperately clinging to the notion that the name “Frankenstein” should never be applied to his Monster, I guess this is the Frankenstein Larry Talbot meets. (Lionel Atwill appears as the local mayor.) In due course, Talbot runs across a scientist who decides to — you guessed it — restore the Monster to full strength. And he decides to do it on the night of a full moon. Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster do indeed duke it out, before being swept away by floodwaters released by vengeful, torch-bearing villagers.

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For anyone watching closely, the Monster is played by stuntmen Eddie Parker and Gil Perkins almost as much as by Lugosi, who simply wasn’t up to the rigors of the more physical aspects of the role. Also, someone made the executive decision — once the movie had been entirely shot — that the Monster speaking in Ygor’s gruff, thickly-accented voice just didn’t work, and had all of his dialogue cut out (very clumsily in places.) Along with it went any reference to the Monster’s semi-blindness, and his explanation for how he ended up in ice. As the film now plays, there’s no reason for Lugosi to always have his arms held stiffly straight out in front of him, which became essential to all bad Monster imitations forever into the future.  Continue reading

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The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 3)

Poe Folks (Karloff & Lugosi)

As soon as Boris Karloff and his Frankenstein’s Monster appeared on the scene, Bela Lugosi’s stock dropped with studio executives, if not necessarily audiences. Film historians have been unable to pin down exactly why. There was certainly room for more than one horror star. Lugosi could be stand-offish but was not difficult to work with — quite the opposite, in fact. Some blame his inability to adapt his old-fashioned, theatrical acting style to more modern cinema standards, but one viewing of Son of Frankenstein should be enough to scotch that theory. Maybe it was his proud refusal to tone down the accent. Could it be interwar xenophobia against someone from eastern Europe? Impossible to say for sure. All that can be definitively said is that Universal (and other studios, but Universal especially) seemed to go out of their way to treat Lugosi shabbily. 

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Bela and Boris toast each other in a publicity photo from their first flush of fame, 1932. 

In 1934, Lugosi’s name could still draw horror fans, and it was known he worked cheap. And Universal had just renewed Karloff’s contract. The inevitable result was the teaming of the two. Karloff and Lugosi appeared together in five Universal films from 1934 to 1940, one of which was part of the Frankenstein series, two of which were more science fiction than horror, and two of which were very, very loose adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories. No matter the part, Karloff always received top billing and lots more money.

The first of these, The Black Cat (May 1934), is probably the most interesting. Lugosi is a traumatized war veteran just released from a Siberian prison and bent on avenging himself against the man (Karloff) who betrayed his wartime companions to the enemy, and stole away Lugosi’s wife and young daughter. Karloff is now an Aleister Crowley-like leader of a Satanic cult and is married to Lugosi’s daughter (the wife having been dispatched as a cult sacrifice long ago). After Karloff callously offs the daughter as well, Lugosi has his revenge, skinning Karloff alive, and then sacrificing himself so the Handsome Young Couple™ who had gotten themselves tangled up in this mess can escape. What does this have to do with the Poe short story “The Black Cat”? Nothing whatsoever, except that Lugosi’s character has a cat phobia, and this comes into play at one crucial point in the story.

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Who has the more piercing stare? The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat may be one of the darkest, most twisted films of the 1930s, and merits a mention here even if it has nothing to do with the classic Universal monsters. (And it has one of the most classic lines from any Universal horror move. When the goings-on are dismissed by the young hero as “superstitious baloney,” Lugosi remarks ominously “Superstitious…perhaps. Baloney…perhaps not.”)

The follow-up, The Raven (July 1935), also has nothing to do with the first shared universe, but has a little more to do with Poe than its predecessor. Lugosi has the madman part here, playing a deeply disturbed plastic surgeon with a Poe fixation, to the point that he has a stuffed raven on his desk. Oh, and he’s also replicated the pit and its bladed pendulum in an extensive torture chamber in his basement. When a Handsome Young Couple™ (and her father) enter his web, terror ensues. Karloff is the B-story — a murderer on the run who asks Lugosi to alter his appearance. Lugosi does — horribly disfiguring the criminal, promising to change it back only after he does his bidding.

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Lugosi disfigures Karloff, The Raven (1935)

Was there a long-running Karloff/Lugosi feud or rivalry as has long been speculated? Certainly not on Boris’ part, but because he came out on top, financially and in the public perception, he could afford to be magnanimous. Lugosi’s last two wives insisted that Lugosi really did not much like Karloff, and did give voice to jealousy and resentment in regard to his “rival” on occasion. As portrayed by Martin Landau in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), the elderly Lugosi would go into a profanity-laced rage at the mere mention of Karloff’s name. Bela’s son was gracious enough to praise Landau’s Oscar-winning performance, but stated that it was a work of fiction. The real Lugosi never used bad language, and never spoke ill of Karloff to anyone beyond private moments with his spouses. During the course of the five films they made together for Universal (plus two for RKO, and several self-parodying radio spots and publicity appearances), no one remembered a cross word between the two. Their relationship was always cordial and professional, although they did not socialize or build a friendship once they clocked out from the day’s work.

A Bride and a Daughter

Yes, Karloff got top billing and a truckload of money for a pretty small part in The Raven. Universal felt justified because Karloff was hot off Bride of Frankenstein — triumphantly revising the role that made him a star in a film that many, then and now, say surpasses the original. 

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Updated make-up for the Monster — singed hair and scarred cheek after surviving a fire at the end of the original film.

As promised, James Whale got free rein to make the film however he wanted. He abandoned the somber tone of the original, and replaced it with a more personal style — dark comedy, with lots of symbolism, and moments of high camp. Henry Frankenstein has learned his lesson and wants nothing more to do with reanimating dead bodies. The problem is, his creation is still running amok. Knowing this, an old associate of Henry’s, the quite insane Dr. Pretorius, forces Henry to continue his experiments and make his Monster a mate. 

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“A new world of gods and monsters” — Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) admire their handiwork.

Karloff once again plays the Monster with a pure simplicity that can switch to fearsome menace. He has even learned to speak a few words (a development the actor fiercely opposed.) Colin Clive as Frankenstein is tense and edgy as before. But the movie-stealer is Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius. The flamboyantly gay Thesiger was an old theatrical crony of Whale’s, and had appeared as one of the very odd inhabitants of Whale’s Old Dark House, which struck a similar tone of suspenseful dread combined with gallows humor. (Thesiger was also a master needlepointer, and referred to himself as the “Stitchin’ Bitch.”) Dwight Frye makes a welcome return as Pretorius’ grave-robbing lackey, Karl.

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The title plays on the fact that many people were already incorrectly applying the name of the doctor to his creation. (The title can be taken at face value — Henry Frankenstein does get married in the film. Or it can indicate possession, that he’s the creator of the Monster’s mate, as in the “plays of Shakespeare.”) The Monster’s Bride herself is played by bohemian free spirit and former dancer and cabaret performer Elsa Lanchester, who appears as the iconic character only for a few moments at the end, and also plays a dual role as Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue. The Bride’s make-up is another Jack Pierce creation that has lived on in popular culture, and Lanchester said she based the Bride’s jerky movements and hostile hissing on the swans in Regent’s Park. Continue reading

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The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 2)

Frankenstein

Mary-Shelley-171194034x-56aa23a43df78cf772ac879dMary Shelley (1797-1851) was the unconventional offspring of an unconventional couple: early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and radical anarchist William Godwin. At 16, young Mary ran off with married Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Over the next several years, the Shelleys (who married after the fortuitous suicide of Shelley’s abandoned first wife in 1816), along with Mary Shelley’s step-sister Claire Claremont, and Percy Shelley’s friend and fellow poet Lord Byron made up an odd quartet, rambling around Europe, blowing through their ample inheritances, reading, writing, and philosophizing. Speculation about their free-love romantic couplings in various combinations can (and does) fill a book.

The idea for Frankenstein came to Shelley when they were staying at Byron’s rented villa in Geneva, Switzerland in the summer of 1816. The well-known tale goes that Byron challenged all of his overly-intellectual guests to step down from the lofty heights of poetry and philosophy and write a good old-fashioned ghost story. From the germ of an idea about an obsessed young man who discovers the secret of bringing life to the dead, Shelley worked through that autumn and into the next year, creating a work of heavy philosophy cut through with a few streaks of very effective Gothic horror. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published in 1818 to a mixed critical reception. 

Modern readers may be turned off by the interminable philosophical musings about the nature and purpose of existence, and by the fact that the Monster speaks…eloquently and at great length, sounding like John Milton. The Monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein, is not a “doctor” but a young chemistry student at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. The Monster is brought to life not in a massive, electrified laboratory, but in Victor’s student apartment (and Shelley is pretty damn vague on the details of the process). But lots of stuff that found its way into the movies over a century later is right there in the pages. Frankenstein’s obsession bordering on madness, hunting through the “damps of the grave…the dissecting room and the slaughter-house” to gather the parts needed for his experiment is one of the best sequences of the book. And when the Monster finally comes to life, Shelley’s description of his form is eerily familiar: “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing…his watery eyes, his shriveled complexion, his straight black lips.” There’s even a sequence late in the book where Victor creates a “bride” for the Monster, but he never brings her to life.

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Frontispiece to the 1831 edition of the novel

A stage adaptation of Frankenstein hit the boards as early as 1823, and Shelley’s tale continued to be part of popular lore through the 19th century. A silent film version was produced by Thomas Edison in 1910. Hamilton Deane, who mounted the first stage version of Dracula in 1924, commissioned playwright Peggy Webling to adapt Frankenstein as a follow-up in 1927. Though not as successful as Dracula (Webling’s play never made it to Broadway), Universal was inspired to follow the same pattern, and announced Frankenstein as its next horror property to hopefully capitalize on the success of Dracula. 

Writer-director Robert Florey had signed for a one-picture deal with Universal, and jumped on the Frankenstein project. (Florey had recently directed the Marx Brothers’ film debut, The Cocoanuts, for Paramount, and as he watched the Brothers’ performances he kept asking his assistant “This is supposed to be funny?” Florey was just not a comedy guy.) Working with writer Garrett Fort, Florey stripped Shelley’s overstuffed tale down to its bare essence, made multiple changes, and gave the story a solid and fast-moving structure. His work pleased Universal enough that he was assigned to be the film’s director. Bela Lugosi was set to be the Monster, much to his displeasure (see previous entry). Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye were invited back, cast in roles similar to their Dracula parts. Waterloo Bridge’s Mae Clark was assigned the role of Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth. And Universal hoped rising star Leslie Howard would be the doctor (an official offer had yet to be made).

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Spring 1931 — A one-off illustration from Universal’s exhibitor’s catalog, hyping films in currently in pre-production. Some were never made at all, some changed drastically.

In June 1931, Florey shot a 20-minute test reel of Lugosi, Van Sloan, Frye, and a few stand-ins on the still-standing Castle Dracula set. Part of the purpose was to see how the heavy Monster make-up would appear on film.

And it appeared totally ridiculous.

The first make-up design for Frankenstein’s Monster was supposedly (the footage has disappeared) based on the German silent film The Golem, another tale about bringing life to dead material. Edward Van Sloan said Lugosi “looked like something out of Babes in Toyland.” Lugosi himself compared his look to a “scarecrow.” The most misguided element was described as a ridiculously wide, shaggy wig, as broad as Lugosi’s shoulders (think Roseanne Roseannadanna). Junior Laemmle reportedly burst out laughing when he screened the footage.

Not long after, James Whale decided he wanted Frankenstein. Universal wanted a happy James Whale. Florey was unceremoniously dumped. Nor did Whale want Leslie Howard as Dr. Frankenstein. He insisted upon having his intense leading man from Journey’s End, Colin Clive. The studio acquiesced, and Clive was flown in from London. (Studio gossip maintained that the bisexual Clive was Whale’s lover. And Leslie Howard did indeed go on to stardom, most notably as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.) Nor was Whale happy with Bela Lugosi. For the Monster, he wanted one of Universal’s most notable character actors, Boris Karloff.

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Colin Clive

Keep in mind, Lugosi never wanted the part in the first place, and it’s hard to blame him. Florey’s first-draft script gave the Monster no nuance or pathos, he was presented as merely a mindless killing machine (a persona he would return to later in the series.) And the unintentionally funny test reel didn’t help. But despite his insistence over the years that he turned down the role, in all likelihood Lugosi was replaced with Karloff at Whale’s insistence. (In Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, film historian Gregory Mank credibly maintains that the super-professional Lugosi would have done the part in spite of his misgivings had the decision not been taken out of his hands.)

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Whale and crew began filming Frankenstein on August 24, 1931, while southern California was in the grip of a sizzling heat wave. Boris Karloff labored mightily under the weight of his costume and (brilliantly re-designed) make-up as the sun pounded down on the “Little Europe” portion of the Universal backlot. Interior shooting offered no relief, as the bright lights illuminating the sealed-off sound stages often pushed temperatures toward 115°. Universal’s largest stage, Stage 12, was used for the towering laboratory set. Kenneth Strickfaden designed the lab’s iconic electrical equipment, sparking and buzzing their way into film history. Whale drove his sweaty cast mercilessly. A bucket was provided in the corner of the set for urinary relief. One grueling 25-hour shooting day (September 28-29) as Whale struggled to stay on schedule may have planted a seed in the exhausted Karloff’s head which resulted in him becoming a founding member of the Screen Actors’ Guild a few years later. 

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But Jimmy was getting results. Despite his horrific visage, Karloff’s Monster was ultimately a figure to be pitied. In a tremendous job of physical acting, Karloff conveys the Monster’s confused suffering quite convincingly. In his words, he played the Monster “as though Man had been deserted by his God.” Colin Clive, a neurotic, blackout alcoholic prone to fits of nervous hysteria in real life, is riveting as Henry (no longer “Victor”) Frankenstein. Clive raves with insanity gleaming in his eyes during the moment of creation, and later evinces a broken shell of a man as he comes to his senses and realizes what he has wrought. Edward Van Sloan is authoritative as Henry’s mentor, Dr. Waldman, and Dwight Frye adds another unhinged eccentric to his resume. Much like Lugosi did with Dracula, here Frye creates the very template of the crazed, hunchbacked lab assistant with his portrayal of “Fritz” (no, not “Igor” just yet) that would be imitated for decades to come.

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The Monster is tormented by Fritz (Dwight Frye)

Filming wrapped on October 3, and Frankenstein was released in December 1931. It boasted a full-length score by Berhnaud Kaun, one of the first Universal releases to have that distinction. Despite a prologue featuring Van Sloan warning the audience of the terror to come, Frankenstein was considered even more shockingly horrific than Dracula. Sequences that were considered too shocking were snipped out after the film’s initial run — the Monster throwing a little girl into a lake and (accidentally) drowning her, and Clive’s shouted, blasphemous comparison of himself to God would be missing from the film until its video release far in the future.  Continue reading

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The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 1)

The Dark Universe

The massive success of Disney’s “Marvel Cinematic Universe” over the last decade has sent at least two other studios scrambling to emulate what seems to be a license to print money. They thought it would be easy. Simply utilize pre-established characters — to which they already owned the rights — in a series of interconnected, crowd-pleasing action movies with A-list stars. Well, Warner Brothers soon discovered it’s a lot trickier than it seems. Warner Brothers owns Marvel’s big comic book rival, DC, but their attempt to spin Batman, Superman, Aquaman and the like into their own cash cow has had its stumbles. Poor scripts, lack of a consistent point-of-view, and just plain clunky filmmaking have kept Warners’ “DCEU” series firmly in the shadow of the MCU. Oh, they make money, but they just don’t delight people the way the Marvel movies do. Determined to keep trying until they get it right, Warners is seven films deep as of this writing, with five more in the pipeline. 

They fared better than Universal.

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Universal logo, 1927-36

It occurred to Universal that they were sitting on a bunch of characters whose fame, or at least recognizability, was equal to the comic book heroes and villains of Marvel and DC: their classic stable of monsters from the 1930s, when Universal invented the American horror movie, and Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster ruled the cinema screens.

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It seemed like a stroke of genius. No one really watches those movies anymore, except pop-culture bloggers and elderly cinephile cranks (the sort of people who complain about modern movies, often with enthusiastic use of the caps lock, in their five-star Amazon review of something like The Invisible Man’s Revenge — “so much better than the DRECK they put out these days!!!!”) But the names and visages of their monster characters are deeply imprinted in the popular consciousness. If you ask someone to draw a picture of Frankenstein’s Monster, they will inevitably render a likeness of the square-headed creature with bolts in its neck, as designed for the 1931 film. Ask that same person if they’ve actually seen the film, and they will likely say no. So with most people remembering the monsters, but few remembering the films themselves, the writers and directors of the potential new movies had a pretty big sandbox to play in, with pre-tested characters to sweeten the deal. 

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The Dark Universe was born.

It would kick off with The Mummy in the summer of 2017, starring Tom Cruise as the Rugged Hero combating a female mummy (Sofia Butella), occasionally aided by Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll, portrayed here as a member of the top-secret monster-killing organization “Prodigium,” and only occasionally turning into Mr. Hyde. Following The Mummy would be The Bride of Frankenstein (bypassing the introduction of the Monster — everyone knows his origin story anyway), and after that would be Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man. And that was just the beginning. Dr. Jekyll and Prodigium would be the linking device between all the films, a la Marvel’s Nick Fury. 

Then The Mummy came out — and was howlingly bad. The action was incoherent, themummy_ver3 smaller horror elements were laughable, and the characters were cardboard cut-outs existing mostly to spout paragraphs of expository dialogue. It was the cinematic equivalent of a dumpster fire, and barely broke even at the domestic box office. It skulks around at a 16% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

This is not what franchises are built upon.

Project co-runners Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan dropped everything and backed away, hands up. The Bride of Frankenstein has been placed on indefinite hiatus. The now Depp-less Invisible Man was quickly rewritten to focus on the female victim (Elisabeth Moss) and is on track for a March 2020 release, but has severed all ties to the Dark Universe. (Dark Universe? What Dark Universe?) The office on the Universal lot dedicated to the project was abandoned last year, its potted plants re-distributed, and framed posters of the old films taken off the walls where they had just been placed the year before.

The Dark Universe died.

To be fair, Universal didn’t do it particularly well the first time around, either, but at least they got more than one film into their world-building. Decades before the concept of a “shared cinematic universe” was even in the cultural vocabulary, one 1943 film — Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man — established the two towering icons of horror as existing together, and the first shared universe was born. Two more sequels (House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) ran with the concept, but by then Universal was not interested in giving their horror films the time, money, and talent they had lavished on the classier 1930s films. The two Houses were B-grade sausage-factory product.

We will examine the dwindling quality of the original series in good time. For now, let’s begin at the beginning. It’ll be the usual Holy Bee mash-up of things you know (“Frankenstein” is the name of the doctor, not the monster), things you maybe don’t know (early sound pictures did not have scores because filmmakers feared the audience would be confused about where all the music was coming from if no orchestra was visible on screen.) And parenthetical asides. So many parenthetical asides. 

The Birth of Universal Horror

Carl-Laemmle_mainIn 1905, German-Jewish immigrant Carl Laemmle was a bored clothing store manager in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. On a trip to Chicago, he noticed lines around the block to experience the “nickelodeon” — a primitive movie theater showing a variety of short films, or offering single-viewer Kinetoscope machines. Inspired, Laemmle decided this would be the new direction of his life, and in less than five years he and several partners had founded Independent Moving Picture Company (IMP) of New York. In 1912, he moved operations to California, and turned IMP into Universal Pictures.

Setting up shop on 230 acres of former ranch property in the San Fernando Valley he dubbed “Universal City,” Laemmle created the first entirely self-contained film production facility. By the early 1920s, Laemmle had bought out all of his partners and had sole control of the studio. But “Uncle Carl” may have overreached himself. As his nickname indicated, shameless nepotism was rampant at the studio. (“Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very large faemmle” ran one bit of Ogden Nash doggerel.) Countless cousins, nieces, nephews, and in-laws were on the payroll, many doing nothing but occupying studio bungalows. The other issue causing problems for Universal was the fact they did not own their own chain of theaters like most other major studios did. Universal was forced to rely on independent exhibitors, which ate into profits. By the beginning of the Great Depression, the studio was in deep financial trouble. 

Then a few things happened to stave off disaster. Uncle Carl had retired and turned overimage-w240 control of the studio to his son, Carl Jr., in 1928. Junior Laemmle demonstrated more enthusiasm than administration skill, but he had a good instinct for stories that would work well on film. One of the first productions he oversaw was the anti-war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which was a huge success both financially and artistically, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone). The cinematographer, Karl Freund, was a veteran of post-war German Expressionism and first genius of the field. Junior also had the inkling of an idea that had been rattling around his head for a couple of years — can a film be made that combined a literary pedigree with the ability to sustain a mood of tension and terror all the way through? It wasn’t necessarily an original idea. Universal itself had already (mostly) achieved that alchemy with 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera. 

Straitlaced America struggled to get its own take on the horror genre off the ground. Cosmopolitan European filmmakers had been more daring, thrilling audiences with creepy fare such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and the vampire tale Nosferatu (1922). It was assumed by conservative American studio heads and theater owners that those sorts of horrific tales would be at the mercy of local film censor boards, be bad for public morals, and cause more controversy than they were worth. But they ignored evidence right before their eyes. A  1920 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore definitely had some horror elements, and it made truckloads of money. People flocked to see Universal’s own The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) not for the melodramatic Gothic romance that it was, but for the hideously grotesque make-up that actor Lon Chaney devised for his version of the hunchback.

By 1925, American audiences seemed ready for a true horror movie. Universal, at that time still under the guidance of Uncle Carl, gave it to them.

The Phantom and Lon

Uncle Carl bought the rights to the 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux directly from the author on a trip to Paris in 1922, with a plan to turn it into a vehicle for Universal’s favorite specialist in the grotesque, Lon Chaney. Laemmle spared no expense, building a massive recreation of the Paris Opera House interior inside Universal’s Stage 28, along with the Phantom’s lair among the labyrinthine tunnels and sewers underneath. Early Technicolor was used in a few key sequences, such as when the Phantom appears as “Red Death” at the masquerade ball.

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It was a troubled production, with extensive re-shoots and re-edits, but the final product that went into general release in November 1925 left an indelible impression on audiences, almost entirely due to Lon Chaney’s horrific appearance. Continue reading

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A Special Report, Part 2: The Holy Bee Does NOT Recommend — The Rolling Stones in the ’80s

October 1982…The Rolling Stones owed Atlantic Records one more album on the deal they inked way back in ‘71. The sooner they knocked it out, the sooner they could cash in on a new deal with another label that had deeper pockets. To facilitate the process, for the first time Mick and Keith demoed a complete, all-new batch of songs ahead of time, instead of slowly building up the compositions during the sessions themselves.

The following month, the Stones picked up the tools of their trade again in what they’ve considered their home base studio since 1977 — EMI’s Pathe-Marconi, Paris. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards would be self-producing under the moniker “the Glimmer Twins” as they had been for several years, aided by engineer Chris Kimsey. Kimsey would now be officially elevated to the status of co-producer. A new face in the studio was Chuck Leavell, a virtuoso keyboard player from Georgia and former member of the Allman Brothers Band. Leavell became a fixture at every Stones session and concert tour from that point until this very day. Unfortunately, Leavell’s timing in joining the Stones family was not the best. The autumn French weather wasn’t the only thing that was frigid. The negative atmosphere of the Emotional Rescue sessions intensified — the band was stressed-out, ill-tempered, and uncommunicative. Bill was rumored to be quitting the band.

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Mick and Chuck Leavell

Still, the show must go on. Millions of dollars hung in the balance. Mick was at the height of his club-hopping and trend-chasing, latching on to whatever was newest and shiniest in the music scene, to the disgust of traditionalist Keith. Keith’s disinterest in the developing style of the new album led to minimal input on his part, resulting in it being totally dominated by Jagger’s vision.

The basic tracks were wrapped up in Paris by December 16 — a new speed record for the normally lackadaisical group (likely because they couldn’t stand being in the same room together for long). Then habit re-established itself as things slowed down and the Stones studio-hopped for the next several months…overdubs at Compass Point in the Bahamas over the spring of ‘83, then final touches and mixing at the Hit Factory in New York through August. As usual, a clutch of guest musicians was invited to contribute, most notably the Jamaican rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and a veritable parade of percussionists (including Dunbar, Martin Ditcham, and Moustapha Ciesse & Brahms Coundoul of the Afro-jazz group Xalam).

Undercover was released in November 1983, with a titillating sleeve featuring a vintage nude model, her “bikini area” strategically covered with what appear to be stickers. (On first edition pressings they really were stickers, and you can bet those things are worth a fortune now, peeled or unpeeled.)

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Undercover, 1983

The first song face-plants right out of the gate. “Undercover (of the Night)” tells a semi-coherent tale of political violence in South America. The vocals are more of a narration, and have no flow. The aggressive beat is over-populated with a cacophony of percussive noisemakers, including Sly Dunbar on Simmons electric drum pads, which ought to be a capital offense on a Stones song. Charlie gamely does what he can on his traditional drum kit, but he’s swamped. Kimsey opens up the Pandora’s box of synthesized, antiseptic ’80s production, with none of the grit that signifies a good Stones song. It’s a problem that will dog the whole album.

The second track, a Chuck Berry-inspired rocker called “She Was Hot,” is for the most part very enjoyable…but there’s a whiff of over-calculation. The individual elements are solid — the lyrics, the vocals, the guitars, and especially the drums (Charlie’s on fire) all do their jobs at the service of a light-hearted ‘50s-style throwback. But as a whole it feels like it was assembled from instructions. A color-by-numbers “My First Rock & Roll Song” kit. Up next is “Tie You Up (The Pain of Love),” which may be the one Undercover song I can enjoy without reservation. A saucy blast of thumping, sexed-up funk, the kinky BDSM theme may not be everyone’s cup of lube, but it’s the one moment on the album where the band breaks out and sounds loose. Keith’s turn on lead vocals follows with “Wanna Hold You.” Coming after “She Was Hot” and “Tie You Up,” this concludes the album’s brief segment of listenability. Although it’s a treat — who doesn’t love Keef? — it’s merely a spirited retread of Tattoo You’s raunch-rock masterpiece “Little T&A.” 

“Feel On Baby” is Undercover’s reggae song. Emotional Rescue’s “Send it to Me” sounds like The Best of Bob Marley compared to this big heap of nothing that drags on for over five soul-killing minutes. The clattering, echoey percussion introduced on “Undercover (of the Night)” and slathered over everything is really starting to wear out its welcome.

Punctuated by a cheesy horn section that would make Lionel Richie retch, “Too Much220px-Too_Much_Blood_cover Blood” is the last gasp of the Stones’ side job of creating at least one dance track per album for the discos, a tradition that began with Black and Blue’s “Hot Stuff.” This one goes a little thematically darker than the usual club anthem, but the genuine menace once exuded by the Stones is reduced to a carnival haunted house, Alice Cooper-style. The interminable spoken word segments from Mick, rambling in his put-on Cockney accent about Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the true-crime cannibalism case of Issei Sagawa, are bad icing on a worse cake. (“Too Much Blood” did indeed get its extended 12-inch dance mix, which doubled the song’s already agonizing six-minute running time. I can only imagine the dance club’s patrons using it as an opportunity to go do blow in the restroom.)

“Pretty Beat Up” lacks substance, melody, or a point. This bit of filler that barely qualifies as a song once had the very appropriate working title of “Dog Shit.” A guest spot by saxman David Sanborn can’t polish this turd. By the time the second half staggers into “Too Tough,” I have usually given up trying to listen to Undercover. “Too Tough” (To Listen To?) is another number that’s just too generic for words. Unmemorable, off-the-shelf guitar riffs make this sound like a knockoff bar band imitation of the Stones rather than the real deal. “All the Way Down” tries to conjure a little of the old “Shattered” spirit with its rapid-fire vocals and tale of decadence, but it can’t rise above its phoned-in music.

The best thing about “It Must Be Hell” is the knowledge that it is the last song, and puts a welcome bullet in the head of the whole project. Another unsuccessful attempt at social commentary like the title song, “It Must Be Hell” lays down yet another plastic prefab backing track as Mick decries the suffering and plight of…someone, somewhere. It’s never really clear. Maybe it’s about Soviet communism? I dunno.

The Rolling Stones

4/5ths of the Stones, 1983. Where’s Bill?

Undercover has no there there. It seems to be occupying a theoretical space where a Stones album should be, but it disappears when you poke past its shiny surface. A used-up Chris Kimsey told the difficult band he was opting out of whatever their next project was.

From the outset, Keith did not care for the material put together for Undercover. Especially nowadays, people tend to elevate the super-cool outlaw rebel Keith Richards at the expense of campy, prancing frontman Mick Jagger. But when the Undercover situation was reversed, and the opportunity came to dominate the creative process of making a Rolling Stones album…Keith proved quite capable of producing total crap as well. 

How did this happen? It all started a couple of months before the release of Undercover. On August 25, 1983, the Rolling Stones announced they had signed a $28 million deal with CBS Records. All well and good. But piggybacked onto deal was an entirely separate fat payday for Mick — for his new solo career. This was kept secret from the rest of the band for as long as possible.

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Walter Yetnikoff

In fact, it was widely believed that CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff wanted Mick Jagger as a solo artist more than he wanted the Rolling Stones. Mick’s status as a celebrity and media personality seemed unaffected by the artistic ups and downs of the band in the last few years. By the early ’80s, in some people’s eyes the Rolling Stones were merely Mick Jagger’s backing band. (A shot of the Sun Devils Stadium marquee reading “Tonight: Mick Jagger & The Rolling Stones” on their ‘81 tour was discreetly edited out of the concert film.) It certainly appeared that Yetnikoff believed people would buy Jagger’s stuff in the same numbers as they bought the Stones. (He would be proven wrong, of course. Jagger’s whole persona, down to his voice itself, can be jarring when removed from the familiar context of the Stones.) And kingmaker Yetnikoff would get the credit for shepherding Mick away from sharing the spotlight with four other guys and into a lucrative new era. There was every expectation that Mick could be the next Michael Jackson, the Stones being the Jackson Five in this analogy.

When Yetnikoff actually pushed for Mick to do his own album before the next Rolling Stones album (and pushed hard — Walter was a pushy guy), the cat came screeching out of the bag. Mick announced in April 1984 there would be no work with the Stones that year as he concentrated on his first solo album. Keith was predictably livid, but could do nothing but wait. After a series of fractious band meetings, it was agreed to start recording the new Stones album in January 1985. 

When the momentous occasion finally arrived, Mick — just as Keith predicted — arrived 220px-Shesthebossat Pathe-Marconi with an empty tank. No songs, no ideas for songs, no lyrics, no scraps. He had used it all up on his own album, She’s the Boss, due out in a few weeks. He would soon be jetting off for press, promotion, videos, and all the distractions selling an album requires. (She’s the Boss did not exactly fly off the shelves, but made it to #13 on the U.S. charts. Not a failure, but Yetnikoff’s predictions of having the next Michael Jackson in his stable were not panning out.)

Recording began in earnest in April, and it frequently proceeded without Mick. And even more frequently without a fed-up Bill, who was rumored to be quitting the band. And often without the band’s anchor/compass, Charlie, who was depressed, drinking heavily and, unknown to everyone until after this period was over, using heroin. So Keith stepped up to the plate and began cranking out songs, assisted by Woody, who was just out of rehab (not for the last time.) Keith desperately wanted to tour with this album, so the songs he created were designed to be concert-friendly — big riffs, high energy. He felt all the band’s problems could be worked out if they just hit the damn road. It was not to be. Maybe it was for the best — the songs formulated to be concert warhorses were uniformly second-rate. Continue reading

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A Special Report, Part 1: The Holy Bee Does NOT Recommend — The Rolling Stones in the ’80s

…with one exception. 

When asked who’s the greatest band the world’s ever seen, I automatically answer “the Beatles.” When asked the slightly different question of who is my favorite band, I would tend to say the same thing. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that deep in my heart, my favorite band is the Rolling Stones. 

And the reason I hesitate to admit that is due almost entirely to the damage they did to their reputation because of the quality of material they released (or let escape) in the 1980s. The Beatles broke up before they had to contend with the ’80s.

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The Rolling Stones, 1980

Before the ’80s as a decade had receded far enough to gain historical perspective, rock fans always pointed to the trio of albums after 1972’s epic Exile On Main St as the band’s artistic nadir. But in an entry a while back, the Holy Bee mounted a spirited defense of Goats Head Soup (1973), It’s Only Rock and Roll (1974), and Black and Blue (1976) as artistically valid and quite worthy entries in the Stones discography, if not really at the level of their true classics. Far worse was to come after Black and Blue…

…but not just yet. 1978’s Some Girls was immediately lifted to the Rolling Stones Top Shelf to nest alongside Sticky Fingers and the like, and has managed to stay there. 1980’s Emotional Rescue was a swing and a miss (maybe more of a foul tip), hopefully just an aberration. They righted the ship with 1981’s Tattoo You. Its monster single “Start Me Up” dominated the radio that fall, and the album as a whole is generally considered a “near-classic.” In many people’s eyes, it is the last truly good Rolling Stones album. (There may be a secret reason to its success. Read on.)

Then came Undercover (1983). And Dirty Work (1986), and suddenly the decade was a bust.  People who continue to pick on poor old Goats Head Soup out of habit probably haven’t even heard these things. They’ve been swept under the rug and forgotten. They are totally soulless, full of empty ’80s flash, and were the product of a band on the verge of falling apart. 

No one liked those albums much even at the time (though they initially sold well), but 1989’s Steel Wheels? It was hailed as a masterful artistic comeback. Rolling Stone magazine gave it a slobbering four-and-a-half star review. (Not really a surprise there, given the magazine’s unfortunate habit of fellating dinosaurs. Still, I won’t cancel the subscription I’ve had since 1991.) Unfortunately, Steel Wheels’ uber-trendy, late-80s production has stood the test of time about as well as parachute pants. When everyone got over their euphoria that the band survived its near-breakup, Steel Wheels plummeted in prestige, and it’s now settled pretty firmly near the bottom of the canon.

So the Stones’ 1980s output consisted of two mediocre albums that aged poorly, two total disasters…and Tattoo You, which everyone liked. The possible secret to its success? It wasn’t widely known at the time, but Tattoo You was entirely pieced together from 1970s outtakes, when inspiration was running a little higher.

At work in the Pathe-Marconi Studios, c. 1977

In earlier recording sessions, the Stones did rack up their share of outtakes and unreleased material here and there. But engineer Chris Kimsey, with whom the Stones began working in 1977, always kept the tapes rolling. Any musical performance in the studio, be it a false start, a tentative run-though, or an almost-ready final draft, was recorded and meticulously stored away. The band and Kimsey labored for months at the rambling old EMI Pathe-Marconi Studios in suburban Paris (the actual location was Boulogne-Billancourt), compiling the material that would comprise Some Girls, and leaving lots of stuff unused in varying states of completion. 1979’s Emotional Rescue sessions also produced a backlog of songs for the vault. This practice would come in handy a few years down the line.

Let’s start our examination of the Stones’ decade-long tumble from greatness by looking at the heights from which they fell. Some Girls (May 1978) shot to #1 in the Billboard charts, and sold in the neighborhood of seven million copies. Kicked off by the disco jam “Miss You,” highlights included “Shattered,” a multi-layered, serpentine proto-rap about urban decay, my favorite Stones power ballad “Beast of Burden,” and one of guitarist and band co-leader Keith Richards’ best outlaw anthems, “Before They Make Me Run.” There’s also a trio of diamond-hard, speed demon rockers (“When the Whip Comes Down,” “Lies,” and “Respectable”) that veer into punk territory, offset by a gorgeously lazy, swinging take on the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination.” The slow, bluesy trance-rock of the title track and the country pastiche “Far Away Eyes,” with frontman Mick Jagger putting on an exaggerated Southern drawl, are kind of an acquired taste. Guest musicians and sidemen (always a Stones crutch) are kept to a minimum. Outsiders are limited to a few appearances by Faces keyboardist Ian MacLagan, King Crimson’s Mel Collins adding saxophone to “Miss You,” and the amazing blues harp of Sugar Blue on “Miss You” and the title track. Keith, going through the lengthy process of kicking a heroin habit, did not lead the guitar attack, and was mostly content to lay back and put down rhythmic color, his battered Telecaster usually fed through an MXR reverb-echo pedal, which became the signature sound of the ‘78-’81 Stones. The real six-string pyrotechnics were provided by “new guy” Ron “Woody” Wood, making his first appearance on record as a full-time Stone, following Brian Jones (’62-’69) and Mick Taylor (’69-’74) in the second guitar slot.

After riding the Some Girls wave, the band traveled to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to begin recording the follow-up in January of 1979. But despite the laid-back Caribbean atmosphere, inspiration did not strike. Perhaps they just weren’t ready, perhaps the tension growing between Jagger and Richards was affecting their work, but Emotional Rescue, intended to be a worthy sequel and companion piece to Some Girls, paled in comparison to its powerful predecessor.

They started work by looking over promising leftovers from the previous sessions. The rockabilly shuffle “Claudine,” which everyone in the band loved and which by all rights should have been a minor classic, was disqualified (again) for fear of legal action by its subject, French actress Claudine Longet (who was let off with a slap on the wrist for fatally shooting her boyfriend.) Ultimately, “Summer Romance” and “Where the Boys Go” were plucked off the shelf, at the expense of several arguably stronger tracks. (“Start Me Up” was right there, just waiting to be picked up.) 

It seemed a promising start — two songs for the new album already in the can! The Stones got down to work on the remainder of the album, following their usual pattern: three or four separate batches of recording sessions, separated by long breaks and switching studios at least once, and a final round of overdubbing and mixing at yet another studio. They tended to write and arrange once sessions were underway, allowing the songs to develop organically and spontaneously, catching the vibe of the room and each other, for better or worse. 

The Compass Point sessions in January and February yielded little usable material. This was not unusual, as the first session was almost always a kind of shakedown rehearsal. The Stones reconvened months later at the site of their earlier recording triumph, the Pathe-Marconi Studios in Paris. There they spent the summer and early fall grinding away at below-average songs in a tense and moody atmosphere. Although he was finally off heroin, Keith was not averse to any other controlled substance, and like many former heroin addicts, he substituted liquor. Copious amounts of cocaine were still on the menu as well. He was usually eagerly joined by Woody. Keith veered between being a boozy, unproductive zombie and a coked-up, manic taskmaster, staying up for four days running. As he forced the band through take after uninspired take, he would growl his frequent refrain “Nobody sleeps while I’m awake!” The more even-keeled and professional Mick was annoyed to no end. Bassist Bill Wyman was rumored to be quitting the band.

By the time of the last sessions at New York City’s Electric Lady Studios in November and December 1979, Mick and Keith were at each other’s throats over every minor detail of the final mix. Keith has speculated that Mick had gotten used to running the Stones’ affairs on his own while Keith was incapacitated by opiates in the mid-70s. When he finally got clean (or his version of clean), Mick was disinclined to share the power again. 

The album hit shelves in June 1980, with a distinctive cover featuring photos taken by a thermo camera. The heat generated by the Stones’ faces on the sleeve was not always matched by the contents within. Despite some justified grumbling from music critics, the record-buying public gave the Stones another #1. 

Emotional Rescue, 1980

Side one, track one is “Dance (Pt. 1).” Originally devised as a mostly-instrumental groove piece, the main riff was cooked up by Woody, who receives a rare co-writing credit. The lyrics are minimal (although Keith complained there were still too many.) Having successfully pulled off a very nimble semi-rap on “Shattered,” Mick continues to experiment with spoken-word segments, to varying degrees of success. On “Dance (Pt. 1),” it mostly comes out as a clumsy babble that opens the song, and immediately lowers expectations. But the track recovers, becoming one of Emotional Rescue’s high points — it does indeed have a great dance beat, its minimal chorus is catchy (aided by the backing vocals of reggae artist Max Romeo), the percussion by Santana drummer Michael Shrieve creates a hypnotic rhythm, and one of the Stone’s greatest sidemen, Bobby Keys, returns on sax after a multi-year absence. 

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #21: “On Golden Pond”

 

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The New Yorker’s former film critic Pauline Kael may be one of the most polarizing film critics of, well…since the art form began. On one side, she’s so beloved that she had/has a coterie of dedicated acolytes known as “Paulettes,” who believed her every pronouncement was pure genius (many of whom went on to be film critics themselves), and there’s the other side who felt her high-handed pomposity reflected the worst excesses of the “New Hollywood” era. Catty and vindictive, Kael slavishly championed her favorites (even the laziest, sloppiest Marlon Brando performance would win gushing raves) and sneered icily at those she took a notion to viscerally dislike on an almost personal level (Clint Eastwood never got off her shit list for four decades.) 

Well, she’s dead now, and possibly doing a stint in purgatory for her cynical and oh-so-above it all skewering of On Golden Pond, a movie I took to my heart when I was eight years old. (Kael’s review can be found in her collection Taking It All In.)

Why would a sentimental dramedy about aging, fear of death, and family dysfunction with a pair of elderly leads become a favorite movie of an 8-year-old boy? Three letters: H…B…O. It drilled it into me

So this is the third or possibly the fourth time in this blog that I’ve thrown a warm, nostalgic shout-out to the Home Box Office cable channel, the place it occupied in my household of the early 1980s, and its profound influence on my burgeoning cultural tastes. HBO dabbled in original programming from the get-go (decades before totally revolutionizing television with The Sopranos), but back in the day its primary specialty was bringing major motion pictures to your TV screen, uninterrupted and uncut, within about twelve months or so of their theatrical release.

Jane Fonda had purchased the film rights to the source material, a 1979 play by Ernest showImageThompson, specifically to work with her father, Henry, on it. The story reflected their own difficult relationship. Location filming on Squam Lake in New Hampshire occurred through summer/fall of 1980, and On Golden Pond received its “award contender” limited release in December of 1981. It went wide the following February, and showed up as HBO’s main feature for December of 1982, gracing the cover of the channel’s monthly viewing guide. (So primitive was the era, the guide wasn’t even mailed to you. You had to pick it up at the local office of your cable provider.) According to the Guide Archive website, HBO showed On Golden Pond on December 12, 16, 20, 22, 25, 29, and 31, before putting it out to pasture to make room for January 1983’s viewing choices. Despite its summer setting, it felt like a Christmas movie due to the month in which I first saw it, and I’ll bet I caught each airing that December.

What kept me coming back? I fell in love with the constant stream of hilarious remarks from its main character. As a child, I saw it as more of a comedy (with a few heavy moments), and didn’t pick up on the deeper implications of the story or how the character used humor as a barrier. And I wasn’t entirely wrong about the material’s comedic bones. The film’s director, Mark Rydell, has stated that the original play did have a lighter comic touch, and he made the artistic choice to play up the material’s more dramatic and sentimental aspects for the cinematic adaptation.

So On Golden Pond and I parted ways, and it had been well over thirty years since I’d watched it when it popped up as a streaming option on Netflix a couple of years ago (don’t bother to look, it’s gone now.) Fittingly, I re-watched it around the holidays (as I was taking down our Christmas tree), and every line was instantly familiar to me. The images I was glancing at on my laptop as I disentangled strands of tree lights had last passed before my eyes on our big cabinet TV in my childhood family room, in the glow of another, long-gone Christmas tree. Besides the nostalgia pangs, as an adult I felt the tension and melancholy in the story much more forcefully.

And yes, I now noticed some of the same flaws that Pauline Kael noticed, but they didn’t piss me off nearly as much as they did her.

The film begins with an elderly retired couple arriving for a season at their summer home on the titular lake somewhere in New England. The arrival/opening credits sequence is played out to the strains of Dave Grusin’s memorable score. On Golden Pond is as unthinkable without its score as Caddyshack is without its gopher. The music — led by a tinkling piano, countered with some gentle woodwinds and strings — can be cloying and even a little obtrusive, but it is indelibly part of the film’s fabric. We see various twilight shots of the gorgeous lake, the surrounding woods, and its population of loons (the aquatic birds, not crazy neighbors.) It does look a little like the beginning of a Hallmark Channel TV movie, but luckily, the direction becomes more grounded once the opening credits end.

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The couple exits their old-person brown sedan (it probably has curb-feelers), enter their roomy cabin, and we begin to get to know them through their dialogue and decades’ worth of mementos packing each room. The production design and set decoration are impeccable.

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The husband is Norman Thayer, Jr. (Henry Fonda), a former college professor on the verge of his 80th birthday. It is revealed early on that Norman’s health is growing fragile. He is going somewhat deaf, suffers from increasing memory loss, and has heart problems. He is ill-tempered and snappish, but as indicated above, has a way with a funny remark and a clear affection for his wife. He is also obsessed with his own mortality, and masks his fear of approaching death with morbid jokes.

Norman’s wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) is a typical Hepburn character — flighty, easily distracted, kind, and free-spirited. The type who dances alone in the woods while gathering wildflowers and singing her old summer camp song. The pair are definitely a contrasting couple, both in temperament and physically. Ethel is a decade or so younger than Norman, and still robust as he grows frail. Continue reading

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