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

Happy Halloween season everyone…this series on the Universal movie monsters was originally intended as a one-part Halloween posting…but as usual, I overwrote, and it became a four-part monster itself, creeping its way across all of the year-end holidays…

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 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.

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 comedic touch, and he made the artistic choice to play up the material’s more dramatic and sentimental aspects.

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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The Holy Bee Recommends, #20B: The Byrds (Mark II) Discography

Prologue: West Saugerties, NY. Summer 1967

The instruments and recording equipment are set up in the basement of the big pink rental house on a rural woodsy road, just as they had been for several weeks. The intention is to make demo tapes, and the recording rig is simple — a Nagra tape recorder, an Ampex mixer, and three microphones (although many decades later this set-up will be hotly disputed by audiophiles on internet forums.) One by one, the band wanders in. Garth Hudson settles in behind his Lowrey organ, Richard Manuel parks himself on the piano bench, or maybe the drum stool. Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson strap on a bass and electric guitar, respectively. At the center of the group of informally arranged musicians, with a short haircut and a 12-string acoustic, is Bob Dylan. Dylan has not recorded or toured since the previous spring. A motorcycle accident sidelined him, and the enigmatic songwriter decided to use his injuries (the extent of which is shrouded in mystery) as an excuse to go off the grid for awhile. Now he’s ready to dip his foot in the water again, but he’s going to do it his way. Not with a new tour, or album, but with a batch of original songs…intended to be given away to other artists.

Hudson hits “record” on the tape recorder, and Dylan begins tentatively strumming. The musicians, who were Dylan’s backing band on his last tour, try to anticipate where this brand-new composition is going. The bass and organ start fumbling along. Dylan doesn’t seem too sure, either. He leans into the microphone, and lets loose a stream of nonsense…

“Now look here, dear soup, you’d best feed the cats/The cats need feeding and you’re the one to do it/Get your hat, feed the cat/You ain’t goin’ nowhere…”

The real lyrics are soon filled in and the song eventually comes together, as do several others…Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman strategically “leaks” the final tape of fourteen finished demos (out of dozens recorded) to various artists and producers that autumn, and gets his adding machine ready to tally the song publishing windfall that’s sure to come.

The backing musicians (with the addition of drummer Levon Helm) become known as The Band and are soon signed to Capitol Records.

A copy of the tape ends up in the possession of one Chris Hillman…

The first song from these “basement tapes” to be made public is “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” recorded by the British group Manfred Mann and released on January 12, 1968. It goes to #10.

Dylan, in the vanguard as usual, sends up the signal flare that is the first indication of a sea change in popular music. Psychedelic excess would soon be old hat, and the traditional sounds of American pre-rock roots music from the first half of the 20th century would be the guiding inspiration for many well-known acts in 1968, and into 1969 and the 70s. Dylan finally breaks his public silence by putting out an album, with no publicity, in the final days of 1967 — a modest collection of archaic-sounding original folk and country songs called John Wesley Harding that sounds nothing like the speed-freak rock of his previous few albums. None of the tracks were from that summer’s basement tapes.

The Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers drops a mere two weeks later… still steeped in trippy experimentation and sonic fripperies, and if Roger McGuinn has his way, more of the same is to come…a precocious Georgia millionaire’s son and Harvard dropout named Gram Parsons would change all that…

The Byrds had changed management in the autumn of 1967. Jim Dickson was out, Larry Spector (no relation to the gun-happy record producer) was in. Larry Spector also managed a band called the International Submarine Band, led by Gram Parsons. The visionary Parsons was a walking music encyclopedia (especially country), and had a dream of creating the perfect blend of old-school country and gospel-inflected soul/R&B. He called it, somewhat loftily, “Cosmic American Music.” The ISB recorded an album that was currently sitting in the vaults of LHI Records, waiting for release. The ever restless Parsons, like David Crosby the indulged son of an immensely wealthy family, ran out of patience and bailed on the band, looking for his next big opportunity.

Roger McGuinn had an ambitious vision, too. He wanted to explore the more experimental path indicated by some of the material on the last few albums. His interest in modern jazz was joined by a fascination with the possibilities of the newly-invented Moog synthesizer. If McGuinn followed his muse to its full fruition, the Byrds would be pioneers of a new genre — a spacy, science fiction-influenced blend of electronic music and jazz. But fate had other plans.

McGuinn knew the recently reduced Byrds couldn’t pull off his new ideas as a trio. He wanted to add a keyboard player, and asked manager Larry Spector if he knew of any. Gram Parsons, wasn’t a keyboard player per se, but he could handle almost any instrument passably, and Spector felt he would be a good fit for the band. Parsons joined the Byrds in February 1968. McGuinn wasted no time in explaining his ambitious plans for the next recording project — a massive double album, two dozen songs, following a musical chronology. The first few tracks would be the old-time string band music of 1920s Appalachia, then the material would gradually morph into modern folk and country, and the album would close with a sequence speculating on the future, featuring space-age electronica.

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L.A. Cowboys on Sunset, early ’68: Kelley, Parsons, McGuinn, Hillman

Gram Parsons didn’t care a fig for McGuinn’s electric space jazz, and instead raised the idea of a start-to-finish traditional country album. He managed to keep a straight face while convincing McGuinn that country audiences were incredibly loyal, and would provide a hardcore fan base for years to come. McGuinn, blasted by the full force of Parson’s enthusiasm (which could be formidable while it lasted), swallowed the whopping mistruth and agreed to put his concept album on hold for the time being. The Byrds would turn totally country. Hillman, the old bluegrass hand, gave the idea his full support. The 12-string Rickenbacker was put aside, Parsons mostly ditched his planned role on keyboards and joined McGuinn on acoustic guitar, and the group booked time in a Nashville studio to commence recording almost immediately. The only issue: McGuinn and Hillman had not written any new songs since Notorious, certainly none in their recently-chosen genre. No problem! Parsons had a couple of stellar originals in his back pocket. Traditional country and bluegrass covers could also fill the some of the space. And they had a secret weapon: the tape of Dylan demos, all of which could be easily adapted to the new style. 

Over the course of six days in early March, in the sterile confines of a usually regimented, disciplined song-factory studio in the heart of the country music capital, the Byrds burned their previous incarnation to the ground, and built a new one. With the sometimes-puzzled help of a few crew-cutted Nashville session pros (they didn’t know what to make of these shaggy, mystic West Coasters who seemed to take forever to pin down a take), the core of their new album came together. The session players went from bemusement to admiration, and all of them recall it as a happy experience. They remember the stodgy, fluorescent-lit Nashville studio growing hazy with pot smoke, red wine being passed around, and everyone having a grand time. In a surprise move, the Byrds capped off the week with a live appearance on none other but the famous Grand Ole Opry radio show, broadcast on WSM from the hallowed Ryman Auditorium. (You have to say “hallowed” before you mention the Ryman. It’s a rule of music writing, like using “jangly” for the Byrds, “enigmatic” for Dylan, and it’s always “the great” Hal Blaine.)

Before the appearance, the group had to grit their teeth through a hostile radio interview with WSM DJ Ralph Emery, who made clear his distaste for “hippies” and the counterculture movement, and was the mouthpiece for all the conservative Southerners who resented this long-haired rock group for invading their territory. He refused to play the just-recorded “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” on the air. The song is done in a solid country arrangement, but because it was penned by left-wing hero Bob Dylan (who applied his usual lyrical surrealism) and performed by a group of freaks, Emery received it with condescending disdain. “What’s the song about?” demanded Emery. McGuinn was honest: “I don’t know.” The Byrds could not leave the radio station fast enough. McGuinn and Parsons took their revenge by writing “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” about Emery, holding him up as the epitome of every piss-ignorant racist redneck stereotype they could devise. (The song wouldn’t make it onto the new album, but it didn’t go away.)

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Onstage at the Ryman, Parsons front and center

They nervously took the stage at the Ryman on March 15, 1968, joined by pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green. Kevin Kelley was denied the use of his full drum kit as per Opry tradition, and had to make do with a pair of brushes and a single snare. As they were introduced to a smattering of applause, there were some boos, jeers, and catcalls (“Tweet, tweet!” “Get a haircut!”). They launched into their first number, and actually won a large portion of the audience over with their sincere performance and clear affection for their newly-adopted genre. They had agreed ahead of time to cover Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison” as their encore, and the MC announced that number to the live audience and over the airwaves. But then, in a Crosby-like display of hubris, Gram Parsons stepped to microphone and announced a change of plans — they would close with the Parsons original, “Hickory Wind.” The Opry brass were furious, and the group destroyed whatever goodwill they had earned with the rest of their performance. They were banned from future performances.

The newly-recorded album was also facing a crisis. Evidently, Gram Parsons was still under contract to LHI Records. There was a possibility that the tracks on which he sang lead might have to be re-recorded by McGuinn. The process to do just that began, then the legal disputes were suddenly settled. McGuinn cannily decided to trim Parson’s lead vocal appearances anyway. The newest Byrd originally sang lead on six of the eleven tracks, and McGuinn reduced it to three. The Byrds would not become the Gram Parsons Show on McGuinn’s watch. Despite being granted freedom to dictate the creative direction for a short while, the upstart had been schooled as to whose band it really was.

There was good news, though, as the new Byrds left Nashville and hit the road all that spring and early summer. They had finally stabilized as a live act, and turned in solid sets night after night. After ignoring their early hits during the last year with David Crosby, they reintroduced material like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Eight Miles High” as highlights of the first half of their concerts. Their country material, augmented by touring musicians Jaydee Maness on pedal steel and Doug Dillard on banjo, would be featured in the later portion. Parsons, so recently the dominant force in the recording studio, seemed to now accept his secondary status on stage, bouncing between electric piano and acoustic guitar, happily harmonizing on all the stuff that predated his time with the band, and only taking two or three lead vocals for himself. Perhaps he already had his eye on the door…

On a short U.K. trip that July, the Byrds socialized frequently with the Rolling Stones. Gram Parsons developed something of a man-crush on Keith Richards, trailing after him like an over-eager puppy and babbling non-stop about the virtues and sub-genres of country music. When word reached the Stones that the next stop on the Byrds’ touring itinerary was South Africa, Mick and Keith explained to the somewhat naive Parsons that playing to segregated audiences in an apartheid country was not cool. McGuinn, who had at various times worked closely with South African musicians such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, was encouraged by them to see the situation firsthand, and ignored the Stones’ judgement. When the plane left London for Johannesburg on July 9, 1968, Gram Parsons was not on it. He quit after having been a Byrd for less than five months.

But what a legacy he left them! The album he willed into existence through sheer force of personality came out on August 30. Sweetheart of the Rodeo not only signaled the birth of the second phase of the Byrds, it became the founding document of the country rock of the 70s and the alt-country movement of the 90s.

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #20A: The Byrds (Mark I) Discography

My wife loves to cook, and she loves to have music on while she cooks. She usually doesn’t pick any specific album or artist, but uses a Pandora channel curated to her tastes (R.E.M., Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, etc.) During her pot- and pan-rattling and music listening, I relax in the next room sipping my pre-dinner cocktail. (Don’t judge — my job is to do all the post-dinner washing and scrubbing.) Every so often, something incredibly random that Pandora, in its infinite AI wisdom, has decided fits on that channel will grab my ear from her countertop speaker. Maybe something featuring guitar with a touch of “jangle,” some vocal harmony, and a little light on the bass end. I hold up my SoundHound app and the song is invariably something from Matchbox Twenty or Mumford & Sons or some other generic Wonder Bread radio-rock band. I grimace and briefly wrestle with the notion that I may actually like these bands (or at least these songs), but then find relief in the knowledge that these guys are clearly channeling the Byrds. Maybe they think they’re channeling the Beatles, or Big Star, or R.E.M, but no…it’s the Byrds, whose legend seems to be fading even as their influence remains pervasive, if by now second- or third-hand.

I’m talking primarily about the first version of the Byrds here. Most people who know their music history know that the Byrds were really two bands — the 1965-67 folk-influenced rock band, and the 1968-73 country-rock band. The only thing the two had in common was lead guitarist Jim (Roger) McGuinn. The second iteration of the band we’ll leave for another entry next month.

The iconic five-piece original line-up lasted just over a year, but they made a hell of an impact…

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Jim McGuinn, with his distinctive square-framed tinted glasses, mushroom of hair, and 12-string Rickenbacker guitar was the group’s visual anchor, usually parked stage left. In the center, working a tambourine for all he was worth, was vocalist and primary songwriter Gene Clark. Next to him was rhythm guitarist David Crosby, shoulders draped in a bottle-green velvet cape and flashing a lopsided, mischievous grin. The backline was bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke, both glowering stand-offishly under identical Brian Jones-style blonde bowl cuts fringing their eyebrows. Ethereal McGuinn and the deeper-voiced Clark traded off on lead vocals, or sung in unison. Crosby added the distinctive high harmony vocal. The driving engine was McGuinn’s electric 12-string, providing the adjective that’s always used to describe the Byrds’ sound — “jangly.”

All of them got their start on the coffeehouse folk scene. Three of them were already music business veterans. And none of them really got along with each other very well. The Byrds were all born into, if not privilege, then at least comfort. David Crosby’s parents were literal millionaires, who kept him out of juvenile hall as he spent his teen years crashing cars and vandalizing property. When Michael Clarke dropped out of school to “find himself” on an odyssey down the west coast, his doting grandmother sent him care packages and cash. This led to a certain self-centeredness in all the band members that contributed to the group’s eventual demise. And this is why I always preferred (and romanticized, I suppose) more working-class rock bands, who fought their way up from nothing together, and had a little more team spirit. The early-Sixties “folkies” always rubbed me the wrong way, anyway. White, well-scrubbed, middle-class college types warbling the “music of the people” with lilting, clearly-enuciated phrasing,  and being so goddamned precious about it. They looked down their noses on “commercial” rock and pop, all the while judging and backstabbing each other mercilessly over their perceived “authenticity.” They were just as competitive as anyone else in the music business, while pretending to above such things

Jim McGuinn of Chicago always seemed somewhat otherworldly. A quiet, aloof presence, at first glance almost shy, but with an unstoppable ambitious streak and an iron will that kept him on top as the de facto leader of a very tempestuous band. He attended music school, and went professional at an early age, specializing in folk. As a teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a touring member of the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio, playing the 5-string banjo. When Bobby Darin introduced a folk music segment as part of his live act, McGuinn was his accompanist on 12-string acoustic.

Gene Clark of Kansas City had played in various rock and folk groups since high school. He was discovered and hired by the famous folk collective the New Christy Minstrels in 1962, joining them for two albums before quitting. Sensitive and high-strung, Clark had a smooth tenor voice and a knack for songwriting.

David Crosby of Hollywood. Jesus, this guy. He impulsively became a folk musician out of rich-kid boredom, after dabbling in acting. He was spoiled, extremely temperamental, and thoroughly obnoxious. He admitted to being a “terrible folkie,” unable to properly finger-pick guitar in the traditional folk style (even his strumming was erratic). But he had a pretty voice.

McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby had all been aware of each other as fellow members of the L.A. folk scene, and they hung out together at the Troubadour Club in West Hollywood. In the first flush of Beatlemania, they put their still-shorthaired heads together and came up with a brilliant idea — combine the lyric poetry and protest songs of folk god Bob Dylan with the big-beat sound of The Beatles! They convinced a deep-pocketed music producer by the name of Jim Dickson to serve as their manager. He provided the trio with free studio space and unlimited time therein, and used his connections to get Columbia Records interested in hearing them. Fewer bands have ever been handed such an auspicious starting kit on a silver platter.

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The Jet Set, 1964: Crosby, Clark, and McGuinn

The trio — known as the Jet Set — immediately set to work recording demos, mostly from the pen of Gene Clark. The songs were decent enough, but still missing something. A more electric sound perhaps? McGuinn and Crosby were blown away after seeing the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night in August of 1964. The film prominently featured George Harrison playing a 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar, which at the time of the movie’s production was still a one-off prototype. The Byrds immediately had Dickson shell out for the now-available Rickenbacker, with a blonde wood finish, and also Harrison’s preferred 6-string, a plum-colored Gretsch Tennessean.

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As they developed their sound further, committing to a more rock-oriented approach, they realized they needed a bassist and a drummer on a permanent basis. A friend of the trio, songwriter Ivan Ulz, recommended an 18-year-old dropout he knew from San Francisco. Michael Clarke (born Michael Dick in Seattle) had never touched a drum kit before in his life. His sole percussion experience was playing bongos on the beach like the beatnik he was. But he looked perfect. Strikingly handsome with a head full of shimmering hair, already insanely long. He was immediately hired and brought to the studio space, where he was given a pair of drumsticks and some cardboard boxes and told to master the rudiments of rock and roll drumming while funds were gathered for a real drum kit. 

With McGuinn firmly installed on the Rickenbacker, the instrumental roles of Clark and Crosby were up in the air. Originally, Clark played rhythm guitar and Crosby’s sole task was to provide harmony vocals. But his awkward gyrations onstage during an early practice gig at the Troubadour provoked audience hysterics, and convinced everyone he needed to be stock-still and behind an instrument. At first, the bass player vacancy appeared to be neatly filled — but Crosby found he couldn’t play single-note bass and sing at the same time. So the Gretsch was stripped from Clark and given to Crosby, who could comfortably strum rhythm while harmonizing. A bass player would have to found elsewhere, as Clark was even weaker on the instrument.

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They didn’t look far. Dickson, whose original production specialty was bluegrass, had a pet project in the form of bluegrass combo the Hillmen, named after their young mandolin prodigy, L.A. native Chris Hillman. The Hillmen could not get a record deal, and had recently gone defunct. Like Clarke and the drums, Chris Hillman had never even held a bass guitar before. That did not seem to be an obstacle to Dickson, who assumed anyone who could play mandolin could play bass. Hillman was duly hired, strapped to a cheap red Japanese bass guitar, and told to straighten his naturally curly hair into the proper British Invasion bowl cut. (His instrument was later upgraded to a Fender, and later still to a nice Guild semi-hollow body with a sunburst finish.)

Over the course of a memorable Thanksgiving dinner at the end of ‘64, ideas for a new band name were tossed around by the band’s brain trust (Dickson and McGuinn) after they found out that there was already a band called the Jet Set. “The Birds” quickly came up — it had that all-important “B” at the beginning, putting people in mind of that other “B” band, but it didn’t become a lock until they came up with the key spelling twist. “The Byrds” sounded suitably British. (Also, there was already a British rock band called the Birds, featuring future Rolling Stone Ron Wood.)

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1st official photo session, January 1965. L. to r. Chris Hillman, Gene Clark, Jim McGuinn, Michael Clarke, David Crosby. Hillman’s hair-straightening hadn’t quite taken yet.

Rehearsals and demo sessions completed (the Jet Set demos can be heard on The Preflyte Sessions compilation), hair all grown out, and a recording contract in hand, the band did not even play a proper gig before heading into the Columbia studio on Sunset Boulevard to record their first single on January 20, 1965.

Or, more precisely, McGuinn went into the studio, accompanied only by session musicians. In what was common industry practice, Columbia did not want to waste expensive studio time recording take after take with untested instrumentalists, so they brought in some ringers. The label bosses grudgingly accepted McGuinn (they originally wanted Glen Campbell on the 12-string), but he would be backed by members of L.A.’s fabled “Wrecking Crew” — a loose-knit squad of seasoned pros who played on just about every pop record recorded in L.A. in the 1960s. So Crosby and Clark waited impatiently in the control room as McGuinn laid down the backing track with Larry Knetchel (bass), Leon Russell (electric piano), Bill Pittman and Jerry Cole (rhythm guitars), and the great Hal Blaine (drums). McGuinn, Crosby, and Clark taped their vocals later.

The song? Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Dylan’s version was not even released yet, but Dickson got his hands on an early version recorded for and rejected from Dylan’s 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. Their studio-assigned producer, Terry Melcher, made some great post-recording production choices: McGuinn’s guitar is boosted to the max, and compressed heavily to provide that long sustain (“jangle”), with the rhythm guitars faded low and the electric piano entirely dropped (sorry, Leon). The other primary instrument is, of course, the tambourine, mixed high with heavy reverb. Funnily enough, I was unable to discover the actual tambourine player on the track (my guess would be Blaine via an overdub). They retained only one of Dylan’s four verses, and focused on the chorus, turning Dylan’s epic poem into a perfect, glistening pop song. “Folk rock” was officially born. Continue reading

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