Monty Python: The Albums (Part 3)

Just as Matching Tie and Handkerchief was hitting British record stores at the end of ’73, the second draft of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail script had been completed, and producers and investors were being rounded up. The script still needed more work…and Python Productions needed an influx of cash. The prestigious 2,200-seat Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in London’s West End offered the Pythons good terms for performing their live show over a two-week residency in February. 

Shaggy ’74 Python, captured with a fish-eye lens no less. Is that four or is it five buttons undone on Chapman’s shirt?

As soon as their Drury Lane run was announced, overwhelming demand caused the length of the residency to be doubled.

They fine-tuned the set list from their British/Canadian tour the previous year. The official title of their Drury Lane run was Monty Python’s First Farewell Tour (Repeat) (with “NOT CANCELLED” stencilled over the posters). The experience was less like a night at the theater, and more like a rock concert by a veteran band. The audience wasn’t necessarily there to see something original, they wanted the hits

From February 26 through March 23, 1974, the Pythons trod the theatrical boards, night after night, as audiences lapped up (and often recited along with) “Nudge Nudge,” “Bruces,” “Travel Agent,” “Argument Clinic,” “Dead Parrot,” “The Lumberjack Song,” and plenty of other stuff. Neil Innes was on hand to provide some musical interludes, but regular Python supporting player Carol Cleveland was unavailable. Her parts were covered by Australian actress Lyn Ashley, who had done a few bits on the TV show, and at the time was married to Eric Idle. (Her credit at the end of the Flying Circus episodes in which she appeared simply read “Mrs. Idle.”) The audience was often dotted with celebrities, including members of the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, but despite the theater having a designated “royal box,” no members of the royal family showed up. The royal box was occupied nightly by a pantomime dummy of Princess Margaret.

Neil Innes

“It was the nearest any of us got to a proper job,” says Terry Jones. “We would kiss our wives good-bye, work the night shift in the theater, get roaring drunk afterwards, roll home and do it all over again the following night.” At least a few mornings were spent tightening the Holy Grail script into its third (and final) draft, which was completed on March 15.

On the final night, Jacquemin set up his recording equipment, and the result was Python’s first real live album (their 1970 debut album made for the BBC, although performed in front of a small audience, doesn’t really count). The atmosphere is audibly electric, with over-the-top enthusiasm from the crowd, and superbly-performed comedy classics from the cast. Neil Innes, caught up in the final-night excitement, improvised by singing several lines of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music right in the middle of the “Election Special” sketch. The Pythons found the moment funny enough to leave on the record, and paid the necessary Rodgers & Hammerstein royalties. 

Monty Python Live at Drury Lane 

Released: June 28, 1974 (U.K. only)

Produced by Andre Jacquemin, David Howman, and Alan Bailey

Track Listing:

Side One

1. Introduction

2. Llamas

3. Gumby Flower Arranging

4. Secret Service

5. One-Man Wrestling

6. World Forum (Communist Quiz)

7. Idiot Song (Neil Innes)

8. Albatross

9. The Colonel

10. Nudge Nudge

11. Cocktail Bar

12. Travel Agent

Side Two

1. Spot the Brain Cell

2. Bruces/Philosophers Song

3. Argument Clinic

4. I’ve Got Two Legs (Terry Gilliam’s Song on a Wire)

5. Four Yorkshireman

6. Election Special

7. The Lumberjack Song

8. Dead Parrot

A small amount of studio work was required later to put in some narration and links. These sorts of extra little clean-up tasks were usually taken on by good sport and all-around team player Michael Palin.

Four Yorkshiremen

The Pythons were quite aware that the audiences that flocked to the Theatre Royal were there to see their favorite sketches, but they wouldn’t be Python if they didn’t include some surprises. The whole show opened with “Llamas,” an obscure, 90-second deep-cut sketch from the first series of Flying Circus, in which a group of flamenco guitarists and dancers provide a partly-sung public service announcement in Spanish about the dangers of the deadly aquatic llama, with much stomping, guitar strumming, castanet-clicking, and exaggerated rolling of rs. “Tiene dos orejas, un corazón, una frente y un pico para comer miel. Pero está provisto de aletas para nadar. Las llamas son más grandes que las ranas.” (“It has two ears, a heart, a forehead, and a beak for eating honey. But it is provided with fins for swimming. Llamas are larger than frogs.”) When the Pythons staged their massive reunion show at London’s O2 Arena in 2014, they chose to open with “Llamas.”

From the vault of really old material came “Four Yorkshiremen,” which would remain in every iteration of the Python stage show from that point forward. First written by Cleese and Chapman for 1967’s At Last the 1948 Show, the four Yorkshiremen of the title relax in comfort, sipping wine and wearing white dinner jackets as they compare, in thick Yorkshire accents, how deprived their childhoods were. (“There were a ‘undred and fifty of us living in a shoebox in t’ middle of t’ road.” “Cardboard box?” “Aye.” “You were lucky. We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank.”) “Secret Service” was also lifted from the 1948 Show, but it didn’t have the staying power of “Yorkshiremen.” Another old sketch that became a beloved part of the Python Live repertoire, “Custard Pies,” was left off the album because it was just too visual. (A relic from Jones & Palin’s old Oxford Revue days, “Custard Pies” was so popular it was borrowed by the Cambridge guys for their revue),

Due to the fact the Michael Palin — the original performer of “The Lumberjack Song” — had often lost his voice by the end of a show, Eric Idle ended up taking over that closing number from him. “The plaid shirt and suspenders suited both of us,” Palin says. (He reclaimed the part for the O2 shows.)

The big misfire, in my opinion, is “Cocktail Bar,” a rejected (for good reason) third series sketch that re-writes “Crunchy Frog” into a collection of disgusting cocktails such as the “The Special” (with a “twist of lemming”), “Mallard Fizz,” “Dog Turd & Tonic,” and the “Harlem Stinger,” which if the audio is to be believed — no photos or videos of the sketch exist — features Terry Gilliam in blackface (or at least doing a cringe-inducing minstrel show voice). There’s also a few dated Nixon jokes. (The Pythons usually avoided using topical references.) It’s good to remind ourselves that not everything Python did is worthy of uncritical praise. Someone in the group liked this clunker enough to want it in the show, and it wasn’t voted down.

By the time Drury Lane was released in June of 1974, the Pythons had returned from rainy, windswept location filming in Scotland with the independently-produced Monty Python and the Holy Grail, co-directed by Gilliam and Jones, in the can. Months of editing work and previewing were needed to whip it into shape, and after summer holidays, the Pythons would be getting down to work on their fourth and final series for the BBC (without the participation of their most visible member, John Cleese, who was already formulating his plans for Fawlty Towers).

And big things were afoot in the United States…

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Monty Python: The Albums (Part 2)

Prologue — The Holy Bee Discovers Monty Python

It must have been the spring of 1988…our family home was way out in the middle of nowhere, a rented farmhouse surrounded by thirteen acres of walnut trees. I was enduring a lengthy bus ride to and from the psychological threshing machine known as middle school. Due to our house’s isolated location, I spent the ages of 11 to 14 without cable. Just antenna-based stuff including the three big networks, a couple of regional UHF channels…and PBS. So I watched a little more public television than the average middle-schooler. In between all the nature shows and war documentaries would be an occasional short promo for something called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I remember the promo being just a silly voice over a faux-Gilliam bit of cut-out, high-contrast photography where Jim Lehrer‘s head was replaced with Big Bird’s. I was a little intrigued, but didn’t yet go out of my way to try and catch the show. (The connection between Python and PBS will be explored in next month’s entry.) An older classmate would occasionally sing “I’m a lumberjack, and I’m okay/I sleep all night and I work all day,” but I never recall him saying where it came from, or singing any of the rest of it.

I had a little rabbit-eared TV in my bedroom. I used to stay up late to catch Saturday Night Live at 11:30 from under my covers. (It was the second season featuring the classic late 80s-early 90s cast of Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Jon Lovitz, etc.) One night before the show started, I got up and wandered out to fix my favorite late-night snack (a plus-sized bowl of pre-sweetened cereal), and I passed my dad in the living room, in front of the big console TV in his favorite TV-watching position (laying on the carpeted floor on his side, head propped up on his elbow). On the screen was one of the weirdest things I’d ever seen. An English-accented narrator was breathlessly hyping footage of what appeared to be a film trailer — someone was on a random beach in a fur coat, having a life-or-death struggle with a stuffed lion. Yes, the first bit of Python that ever passed before my eyes was their series 2, episode 10 sketch “Scott of the Sahara.” (I wouldn’t say Dad was a real Python fan, but he had a sophisticated sense of humor and was a great devourer of all things PBS. Also, TV options were limited.) I went back in my room, and after awhile, decided to switch over to PBS, just in time for “Fish Licence.” I was hooked from that moment on.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus went into my regular viewing rotation at that point. It was on Saturdays at 11, just after a Tom Baker episode of Doctor Who* and just before SNL. Right after Python, PBS would usually show the minutes-long astronomy show Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler, informing viewers of any observable events going on in the cosmos that week. Its spacey, cheesy closing theme was always my signal to switch over to NBC just in time for the SNL cold open. When our family splurged on a new VCR, I took the old one and hooked it up to my little TV. I wish I could say I captured all 45 original episodes, but my local PBS station was pretty inconsistent, often repeating an episode within weeks of the first time I saw it (and never once dipping into the first series). But by the time we moved away from that farmhouse and back to cable-ready civilization, I had amassed most of series four, some of series three, and a few episodes of series two on a collection of slightly fuzzy VHS tapes that I watched over and over.

As far as Python audio went, my birthday in 1989 yielded me the double-CD compilation The Final Rip-Off, and under the Christmas tree that year were vinyl copies of Live At City Center and Contractual Obligation Album. More on all of those in Part 4. Pretty soon I was in high school in a bigger town, where Python was very much a known thing, and I was finally among my tribe (and I made a few converts with all the zeal of a missionary — thanks entirely to my painstakingly compiled mixtapes of Python audio, as PBS had stopped showing them by the early 1990s.)

And now on with our main discussion…

The group’s first film, And Now For Something Completely Different — a re-filmed collection of their best TV sketches intended to introduce the group to American audiences via “college cinemas” (again, those existed?) — came out in September of 1971 after languishing on the shelf for almost a year. Producer Victor Lownes had managed to shop it to Columbia Pictures…who put it out in Britain only! This flew in the face of the original intent and the Pythons were horrified that re-hashed material was being shown on their home turf. However, it actually did moderately well at the box office in a country where they already had a built-in market (despite some people, as predicted, carping about a bunch of material already seen on TV being presented as “something completely different”). The initial concept of being released exclusively to American college cinemas was dropped somewhere along the line. Columbia seemed to have no interest in releasing it in the U.S. 

In the summer of 1972, Nancy Lewis was the head publicist for Buddah Records, a New York label specializing in bubblegum pop and light R&B. Just a few years before, she had been living in London, and had been captivated by Monty Python’s Flying Circus on TV. When Tony Stratton-Smith came over to New York to meet with the head of Buddah Records, Neil Bogart, to secure a U.S. deal for Charisma artists, the eagle-eyed Lewis spotted Another Monty Python Record in the stack of albums he was carrying. She energetically advocated for the group, and Buddah Records agreed to put out the album (and at least one future album) in the States. (Eagle-eyed, but maybe not elephant-memoried — she always recalls seeing both Another and Monty Python’s Previous Record in the Stratton-Smith’s stack, but Previous hadn’t even been recorded yet.)

It was Neil Bogart who convinced Columbia Pictures to finally release And Now For Something Completely Different in the U.S that August, with Buddah Records helping to cover the cost of promotion as they released Another Monty Python Record at the same time. Prints of the film were shipped across the country…to radio stations, who were then responsible for arranging screenings. At times, tickets were literally given away.

The group as they appeared in And Now For Something Completely Different‘s “Dirty Fork” sketch (with the non-performing Gilliam photo-bombing on the right)

Not all that surprisingly, the film bombed, despite Buddah’s enthusiastic-if-misguided cross-promotion efforts. “Some idiot designed a poster with a happy snake with a funny hat on,” griped John Cleese. It’s not clear if the idiot in question worked for Columbia or Buddah, but the team made sure going forward that all graphics and visuals associated with the Pythons would come from the mind of Terry Gilliam, at least for the foreseeable future. (In all my research, I have not been able to find the image of the be-hatted snake that Cleese found so irritating.)

A Buddah-era ANFSCD poster, 1972, with a little hype for the album at the bottom

And Now For Something Completely Different was written off (for now), but the album…it was starting to get some attention from FM radio stations. “The albums never sold in enormous numbers, but they provided a wonderful base,” says Lewis. Large chunks of first-rate Python material began hitting the American airwaves, usually in the overnight hours in the big city markets. “That FM stoner crowd was quite important,” says Michael Palin. “U.S. television was very commercial and safe but with a lot of rock DJs, Python was exactly the sort of stuff they were looking for…WNEW in New York would play Python clips all the time.”

By this time, the Pythons had long finished producing their third series of Flying Circus, but it remained unaired (due to a crowded BBC schedule, and head office concern over some of the edgier content). They were gearing up to do an original 45-minute episode for German TV (their second), and decided it was time for another album.

On Monty Python’s Previous Record, original material had roughly equal time with material drawn from the TV show, this time from the third series which had finally started being broadcast at the time of the album’s recording. (One sketch, “Fish License,” they pulled from all the way back in the second series.) Once again, the Jones/Palin team were in the producer’s seat, but just as Terry Jones shepherded the the second album (much to his distress), Michael Palin stepped up and took point on this one, bringing in Andre Jacquemin.

Andre Jacquemin was a teenage apprentice working at a London studio under the supervision of an old-school recording engineer, Alan Bailey (whose claim to fame was engineering several Cliff Richard sessions and working for Radio Luxembourg). One day in 1971, on his way out to lunch, he fortuitously bumped into Michael Palin, who was shopping around for a studio to record some voiceovers. With Bailey being all booked up, Jacquemin took on the session himself — and deeply impressed Palin. “What Andre was doing with music and sound effects was incredible,” remembers Palin. The debacle of recording Another was probably pretty fresh in his mind. “I asked him if he wanted to help me make [the next] album. Thankfully, he says ‘Yes.’” 

“Mike explained what he needed and pointed to a three-foot high pile of scripts,” says Jacquemin. “He said ‘Just take those home and have a look at them, then you can tell us when you want us and what you want us to do.’ The only thing that kept going through my head was, ‘Oh God! These are all Cambridge and Oxford graduates…all I had was a swimming certificate and a bicycle proficiency test in terms of qualifications, so I thought ‘oh, crumbs! I’m in big trouble here…’ Anyway, I embraced it and told them I’d put together a budget and let them know.”

The album cover was a typical Gilliam flight of fancy, and the original inner sleeve advertised completely fictional albums supposedly also available from Charisma Records, such as Friday Night is Bath Night by J.P. Gumby, and Party Time! by Princess “Piano” Margaret. (Sadly, later pressings had an inner sleeve featuring actual Charisma products, and another good joke was ruined by the men in suits.) 

Included with the initial pressing was a small flexi-disc called “Teach Yourself Heath,” providing the record buyer with lessons on how to imitate the speech and mannerisms of Britain’s current Prime Minister. “Eric and I spent a day listening to Heath’s speeches,” says Palin. “At a certain point I went to sleep…I feel the record hasn’t done justice to the boredom and inanity of those party political speeches. If it is funny, thank Mr. Heath for that. It’s all him.”

Monty Python’s Previous Record 

Released: December 8, 1972 (U.K.); ? 1973 (U.S.)

Produced by Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Andre Jacquemin, and Alan Bailey

Track Listing:

Side One

1. Introduction

2. Are You Embarrassed Easily?

3. A Book at Bedtime

4. Dennis Moore (Part 1)

5. The Money Programme

6. The Money Song

7. Dennis Moore (Part 2)

8. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 1)

9. Australian Table Wines

10. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 2)

11. Argument Clinic

12. How To Do It

13. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 3)

14. Pepperpots (How To Put Your Budgie Down)

15. Personal Freedoms (Jean-Paul Sartre)

16. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 4)

17. Fish Licence

18. Eric the Half-a-Bee

19. Radio Quiz Game

20. Travel Agent

Side Two

1. A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (I)

2. Silly Noises

3. Anne Elk

4. The Yangtse Sketch

5. We Love the Yangtse

6. A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (II)

7. A Minute Passed

8. Eclipse of the Sun

9. Alistair Cooke

10. Wonderful World of Sound

11. Funerals at Prestatyn

12. A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (III)

13. A Fairy Tale (Happy Valley)

Beware starting this one with the volume too high. The listener is immediately jolted by the introduction on side one, which features Terry Jones screaming at the absolute top of his lungs “Not this record! Not this record! Not this record!” until the needle is pulled and we are lulled into a gentle attempt to get uptight British listeners over their innate embarrassment at certain words (“megaphone”) and sounds (which have to be heard to be appreciated, but they’re…rude.)

The well-known classics here are “Travel Agent” and “Argument Clinic,” but long-time fans will appreciate series three sketches such as “Anne Elk” (and her controversial theory about the brontosaurus), the Blue Peter parody “How To Do It” (“How to play the flute: blow here and move your fingers up and down there”), and the reappearance of Mr. Praline, who we last encountered trying to return a dead parrot to the pet shop. This time he’s applying for a license for his pet fish, Eric (a halibut). “Fish Licence” concludes with the only Python song to feature the deeply non-musical John Cleese singing a solo vocal part, “Eric the Half-a-Bee,” an album-only treat not included in the TV version of the sketch. It was never performed live, but you can always tell who’s a hardcore Python fan based on their deep love for this song. The running gag through side one is the adventures of Dennis Moore, a Robin Hood-style, 18th-century highwaymen who can’t quite get the hang of redistributing wealth. More precisely, it’s Dennis Moore’s theme song that gets constantly revised. (The running gag through side two is a “massage from the Swedish prime minister” — but it doesn’t vary. Each time it appears, it says the exact same thing. Very un-Pythonlike, but there’s an explanation.)

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Monty Python: The Albums (Part 1)

“We were convinced Python wouldn’t go in America.”  — Eric Idle

Variations on this statement have been uttered by all members of the Monty Python comedy team at one time or another, and it’s a statement to which I take patriotic exception. If that were true, if us stateside folks really were a bunch of provincial, close-minded xenophobic rubes who only wanted domestically-produced comedy on the level of The Three Stooges and Gilligan’s Island, then Python would have failed. (And by the way, Britain has their fair share of provincial, close-minded xenophobic rubes too.)

But they did not fail. They were — eventually — a resounding success. The Pythons are immortal because their material did work in the U.S. Unfair as it may seem, you don’t get multi-generation global approbation without breaking in America. No one outside the borders of the U.K. gives a tenth of a shit about British “superstars” like Cliff Richard (old) or Robbie Williams (relatively recent). Who? Exactly. (We might give Russell Brand a chance if he didn’t always look like he was soaking wet, or covered with a slick layer of shortening.)

I’ve written about Monty Python several times in these virtual pages, and I’ve always felt the need to start off with a little potted history on them. This time will be no different.

The Monty Python troupe consisted of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. All were products of either Cambridge or Oxford University, where — while pursuing professional degrees in things like law (Cleese) and medicine (Chapman) — they honed their peformance chops in traditional live theater, sketch revue shows, and after-hours cabaret. (The lone exception was the Minnesota-born Terry Gilliam, who was a typical overachiever — in his senior year of high school he was simultaneously class president, head cheerleader, and editor of the school paper. His subsequent years at Occidental College made him “honorary Oxford” in the group’s eyes.) But all of them abandoned traditional career paths as the lure of show business proved too strong to resist.

BBC-TV was going through an unusually experimental and indulgent phase in the mid to late 1960s. One of their flagship shows was the satirical Frost Report, considered a landmark of topical, cutting-edge humor. John Cleese was doubling as a writer and as part of its ensemble cast. The BBC took a shine to the tall, angular comedian, and almost casually offered him a show of his own which, after a couple of years and many twists and turns, became Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Cleese declining headliner status — he wanted to be regarded solely as part of the team.) The hastily-assembled Python group came into the BBC’s headquarters in the spring of 1969 with the most hilariously uninformative pitch imaginable — they admitted they had no idea what the format of the show would be, or if there would be musical numbers, or guest stars, or…anything, really. They just offered a shrug and a collective sheepish grin. The result was they were offered “only” thirteen episodes at first, and told to get on with it. 

As Idle put it, “We didn’t know what we were doing, but we insisted on doing it.”

Early BBC photo session, 1969, missing Gilliam, whose role within the group hadn’t quite been decided by the BBC publicity department

The BBC were not as far out on a limb as it may have appeared. Although the Pythons were still all quite young at this point (the oldest, Cleese, turned 30 a few weeks after the show’s premiere), this was not their first rodeo. Except for Gilliam, their American animator and illustrator, they were all veterans of the Frost Report writers’ room. Moreover, they had all been writer-performers on their own TV shows already. Cleese and Chapman put together 1967’s sketch comedy show At Last the 1948 Show (for ITV, not the BBC) and Idle, Jones, and Palin created a surreally anarchic children’s show, Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69) for Thames Television that had just as many adult fans as kids (distinguished solicitors and merchant bankers were said to have left work early to catch it each Thursday afternoon.) The fresh-off-the-boat Gilliam joined DNAYS as animator in its second series in 1968.

Did I say second “series”? Yes. As we all know, the Brits and the Yanks are two people separated by a common language. When they say “public school,” they mean “private school.” When we say “series,” we are referring to a TV show in its entirety. When they say “series,” they are referring to what we call a “season.” So Monty Python’s Flying Circus is divided into “Series 1” (13 episodes, 1969-70), “Series 2” (13 episodes, 1970), “Series 3” (13 episodes, 1972-73), and a truncated “Series 4” (6 episodes, 1974 — without Cleese, and with the title shortened to just Monty Python).

After a slow start, Monty Python’s Flying Circus gradually gained viewing numbers and was a critical hit in the U.K. by the end of its first series, and a popular hit by the end of its second. Could the brand be exported? The team themselves were skeptical, but knew they wanted to stretch their wings beyond the BBC.

The Pythons’ first shot at the American market was not their television show at all. It was a film (see below). It failed, confirming their suspicions.

Their second shot consisted of comedy albums. Those started getting people’s attention…

Yes, Python’s initial handful of American fans in the wild and woolly early 1970s thought of them as primarily purveyors of comedy albums, akin to the Firesign Theater and Cheech & Chong. It was actually vinyl LPs that got Monty Python’s trademark foot in the door of America — circulating through university dorm rooms and being played in the wee hours on progressive FM radio stations. Over the course of their lifespan as a full group (1969-83), Monty Python released ten albums, several of which are considered absolute masterpieces of original audio comedy, true companion pieces to their groundbreaking work in the television medium.

So with this series of essays, the Holy Bee hopes to put the development of those albums in the context of the group’s overall timeline and creative output…and explain how they helped in their American breakthrough.

Let’s start by asking why the Python team was so convinced their material would never fly in the United States.

Morecambe & Wise (U.K.)

It comes down to the supposed difference between “British humo[u]r” and “American humor.” What sets British humor apart from its trans-Atlantic counterpart that speaks the same language? The more I researched this question, searching through Quora, Reddit, and simply asking people, the less clear the distinction became. It’s often stated that British humor is distinguishable because it’s dryer, “smarter,” irony-based, darker, and so on. American humor is broader, more obvious, maybe a little gentler and more sentimental. But examples abound that none of these traits solely belong to one side, nor does breaking formula result in a smaller audience. And that’s not just a recent development. In America, the dry-as-a-bone Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart won a Grammy as far back as 1960 and sold by the truckload. The cerebral comedy team of Nichols and May had lines around the block when they hit Broadway the same year. A little later, American films like MASH and Harold and Maude were wickedly smart and incredibly dark, and had great success at the box office. On the other side of the spectrum, sappy, generic sitcoms, unimaginative “comedic” variety shows, and — God help us — the hideous sucking chest wound of British humor known as Benny Hill were all over British television for decades and watched by millions. The deeply moronic Carry On film series was a beloved British institution. American rednecks at the sports bar and British punters down the pub are a remarkably similar breed, and no one has a monopoly on a style of comedy.

Rowan & Martin (U.S.)

Some say most British humor comes off as “smarter.”

But Python’s intellectualism is surface-only. Take, for example, the Monty Python sketch known as “The All-England Summarize Proust Competition,” a game show-style televised contest to see which contestant could verbally condense French modernist Marcel Proust’s seven-volume philosophical novel A La Recherche du Temps Perdu in just fifteen seconds. Heady stuff…but, by their own admission, none of the Pythons had actually read Proust. They just knew him as a cool name to drop to sound smart. And lest we forget that the Pythons also excelled at lowbrow humor, the actual winner of the “All-England Summarize Proust Competition” was…“the girl with the biggest tits.” You don’t have to have graduated Oxford to laugh at the premise and the naughty punchline.

The Goodies, doing “The Funky Gibbon.” I’m embarrassed on their behalf

On the other hand, what happens when you eschew any level of smartness and go for pure silliness? Well, you get the Goodies — another British comedy team (Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden) with identical backgrounds to the Pythons (Oxbridge educations followed by a comedy-writing apprenticeship at the BBC), and whose lifespan as a team was almost identical as well — but they dropped all pretensions of engaging their audience on an intellectual level…and their comedy suffered. Frankly, the Goodies often crossed the line from silly to flat-out stupid. And it was fake stupid (as opposed to Benny Hill, who at least came by his stupidity honestly). These were guys as smart as the Pythons, but deliberately dumbed themselves down. It backfired, and they ended up with no shelf life. (The Pythons have always been good friends with the Goodies, who were all incredibly talented individuals, and their creative paths have crossed several times on other projects. Also, RIP Tim Brooke-Taylor, co-creator of At Last the 1948 Show with Cleese and Chapman, and an early casualty of Covid-19 in April of 2020.)

So it seems that British humor is simultaneously smarter and sillier, referencing Proust, Sartre, and Bergson one moment, then making boob jokes the next. But this hybrid intellectual/silly/surreal blend — or at least its acknowledgement as the modern definition of “British humor” by Americans — may actually originate solely with Monty Python. It’s the reason the term “Pythonesque” is now in the Oxford English Dictionary. They were true originals, or at least the ones who put the pre-existing parts together for the first time.

The Pythons’ uniqueness led to their success, and ultimately proves that the gap between “British humor” and “American humor” is really no gap at all — Americans can do smart references, cutting irony, and dry sarcasm. And the Brits can do the broad, the formulaic, and the sentimental. In fact, both sides do all of those things an awful lot.

In the end, I think the perceived “gap” is explained by three very simple things. 

1) The British — now and forever, upper class to working class — love cross-dressing and believe it’s inherently hilarious. Some Like It Hot aside, Americans have always been a little conservative about playing with gender. (And speaking of class, Americans really don’t get Britain’s all-consuming obsession with class levels.)

2) The use of terminology, slang, and cultural references that would only be recognizable to someone living in the British Isles.

3) Most importantly — stubborn American resistance to the English accent. I personally know people who claim even the clearest, most precise “received pronunciation” English accent makes them throw up their hands and insist everything being said is incomprehensible. And any English accent of any region sounds off-puttingly stuffy and pretentiously “smart” to many American ears. We still seem to have an inferiority complex when comparing ourselves to our supposedly more sophisticated English cousins — and the accent triggers it. Many will shut their ears and not even try, thinking it’s somehow above them. (In comedy, at least. Historical costume dramas seem to get a free pass. The accent suddenly makes sense in that context. And notice I’m specifically referring to English accents here. Irish, Welsh, and Scottish accents provide their own special array of befuddlement for us.)

So…the first series of Flying Circus had concluded in January 1970, to critical plaudits and increasing ratings. The group was deep into writing and assembling material for the second series when the BBC decided there was a market for an audio recording of the highlights of the show so far. The easiest thing would have been to just make a vinyl release of edited audio from the actual episodes, perhaps with a little helpful narration (which was common practice for BBC Records), but the Pythons insisted on re-recording the material. The BBC, somewhat surprisingly, agreed.

Not long before the recording date, the Pythons were dismayed to discover that the recording was not to be made in the controlled confines of a proper recording studio with state-of-the-art stereophonic equipment, but to be made in a theater in front of a live audience — old radio show-style. 

Monty Python’s Flying Circus 

Released: November 6, 1970 (U.K. only)

Produced by Ian MacNaughton

Track Listing:

Side One

1. Flying Sheep

2. A Man with Three Buttocks

3. Crunchy Frog

4. Nudge Nudge

5. The Mouse Problem

6. Buying a Bed

7. Interesting People

8. Barber Shop

9. The Lumberjack Song

10. “It’s the Arts” Interview: Sir Edward Ross

Side Two

1. “It’s the Arts” Interview: Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson

2. Children’s Stories

3. The Visitors

4. Albatross

5. Mr. Hilter

6. The North Minehead By-Election

7. Me, Doctor

8. Pet Shop (Dead Parrot)

9. Self-Defence

“Classic” sketches — the ones every Python fan can recite by heart — include the gross-out perennial “Crunchy Frog,” everyone’s favorite innuendo-fest “Nudge Nudge,” “The Lumberjack Song,” “Self-Defence” (or, “How to defend yourself against someone carrying different kinds of fresh fruit”), and the mighty “Pet Shop (Dead Parrot).” 

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Shots in the Dark: Blake Edwards’ Problematic Pink Panther Series (Part 2)

By the end of 1963, Peter Sellers was a physical and mental time bomb. He and Blake Edwards had vowed never to work together again after the second Clouseau movie,  A Shot In The Dark.

Sellers was never properly diagnosed or treated, but in examining the behavioral symptoms he began manifesting from late 1963 onward, his biographers seem to think he had schizoaffective disorder — perhaps the worst case suffered by anyone of any level of fame.

Somehow, his career continued successfully, at least for a time. Riding a wave of public sympathy after a near-fatal series of heart attacks in April 1964, and refusing to acknowledge any mental issues publicly or privately, he spent the remainder of the 1960s starring in various international productions of erratic quality but with big budgets, beautiful women, and unmistakable glamour. 

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Post-heart attack, Swinging Sellers in the Sixties, with his Swedish model wife

Behind the scenes, he was crumbling. His hasty 1964 marriage to Britt Ekland collapsed under his paranoia and abuse. His kids grew terrified of his volcanic rages on the occasions he demanded obedient visits from them. He lashed out unpredictably and threw infantile tantrums. He became totally reliant on the guidance of a bogus “psychic advisor,” Maurice Woodruff. He heard voices. He subjected colleagues to dozens of his bizarre whims. He was terrified of the color purple — it was not allowed to be worn in his presence, and his assistants would check his hotel rooms in advance and remove any trace of violet. 

In the meantime, Blake Edwards married Julie Andrews, and made one decent film (1965’s The Great Race) to his usual ratio of stinkers.

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Newlyweds Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews

Sellers and Edwards buried the hatchet to work on 1968’s The Party — an arguably funnier, or at least warmer, film than any of the Pink Panthers, but difficult to watch these days because Sellers is slathered in brown make-up and thick eyeliner. His character, the well-meaning but Clouseau-clumsy Hrundi V. Bakshi, is a thickly-accented collection of South Asian stereotypes. 

Once again, Edwards and Sellers hated each other by the end of it. 

Around the same time, the Panther series’ original production company, the Mirisch Corporation, decided that a third film in the series would be worth doing. When both Sellers and Edwards declined to participate, the project went forth anyway. The production company believed that the character of Inspector Clouseau was the true star, bigger than any actor who happened to portray him. They went into production on a new Clouseau movie without Edwards or Sellers (or Mancini). Bud Yorkin would direct.

Stepping into Sellers’ shoes as Clouseau was the rising newcomer Alan Arkin, who had received an Oscar nomination for his very first film, the Mirisch Corporation’s The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966). 

Arkin is a great actor, but in 1968’s Inspector Clouseau he was badly miscast, failing to acquit himself convincingly as the title character. He is alternately sleepy (in an attempt to replicate Sellers’ deadpan), or shouting hysterically. His round baby face (he looks a decade younger than his 34 years) just appears wrong under the inspector’s trademark hat. Arkin aside, the film itself is not any worse than any of the other Panthers before and after, and shares several traits — overlong “slapstick” setpieces that go nowhere, clunky direction (if anything, Yorkin has a touch of subtlety Edwards lacks), and a solid supporting cast working very hard.

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Had Sellers played the part, it is likely that Inspector Clouseau would be considered a worthy entry in the series. But it was a flop with the critics, and though box office numbers are unavailable, they clearly weren’t strong. The series was dropped… for the moment.

Edwards had burned most of his Hollywood bridges with the Darling Lili fiasco, and was hunkered down in London trying to figure out how to resurrect his shattered career. Sellers hit the skids around the same time, appearing in a run of films of such appallingly low quality that one of them, Ghost in the Noonday Sun, was considered unreleasable and shelved. 

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Enter Sir Lew Grade, the British mega-mogul of ITC Entertainment, a colossus of both film and television. He wanted Julie Andrews to star in one of his TV specials, and if that meant giving her down-and-out husband a two-movie deal, it was a price he was willing to pay. The first film was another underwhelming dud (the overwrought romantic drama The Tamarind Seed). Sir Lew then tactfully suggested a return of Inspector Clouseau as the second film in the deal. At this point, neither Edwards nor Sellers was in a position to decline.

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Written by Blake Edwards & Frank Waldman

Produced by Blake Edwards for ITC Entertainment

Released through United Artists

Over the years, Return is the film in the series I’ve seen the most often. For decades, ITC held its copyright separately from every other Panther film, and as a result, it played on TV far more often than the others (which is to say, it was on a lot — the other films were certainly no strangers to TV airings). It was always my favorite. Sellers — older and a little more hangdog than in the ‘60s films — still plays the role with total commitment. He has a new schtick (briefly depicted in Shot) in these ‘70s revival films: Master of Disguise, and his elaborate get-ups can be pretty amusing. His bizarre version of a French accent hasn’t yet worn out its welcome, and he is always adding little grace notes to what is sometimes a sledgehammer style of physical comedy.

The film opens strong. The Pink Panther diamond is swiped from a heavily-guarded Lugash museum in a well-staged robbery sequence that clearly influenced later films like Entrapment and the Ocean’s series.

We then are re-introduced to Clouseau in Paris, busted down to a foot patrol officer, and he has a funny encounter with a street musician and a chimpanzee “minkey,” all while a bank is robbed behind his oblivious back.

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He is about to be suspended for six months by the still-twitching Chief Inspector Dreyfus (evidently reinstated after going off the deep end in Shot) when the call comes from the Lugashi government: they want their diamond recovered by the detective who helped find it the first time. Clouseau is bumped back up to the rank of Inspector and put on the case, all the while dodging (usually accidentally) a mysterious assassin. (And Dreyfus has a good bit of comic business with a cigarette lighter all too realistically shaped like a handgun.)

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The solid opening is marred only by another instance of Clouseau getting ambush-attacked (on his orders) by his loyal Chinese valet Cato, as usual wrecking his apartment in the process. The sequence has lots of unnecessary slow motion, is awkwardly timed and staged (an Edwards trait), and relies on nothing more than pain and destruction for humor (another Edwards trait).

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Also racism, as Cato here and in most other Panther movies is beaten, denigrated, and referred to by Clouseau as his “little yellow friend.” I don’t usually agree, artistically speaking, with judging the standards of a bygone era by the standards of a more enlightened era, but this sort of thing does make the original Panther series a tad uncomfortable to share with your kids.

The chief suspect in the robbery is the jewel thief who stole the diamond twelve years ago — Sir Charles Litton (“the notorious Phantom”), now retired and living in Nice. David Niven as Litton is replaced here by the younger, spryer Christopher Plummer, who does a great job in the role (ED NOTE: and died right as I was writing this — RIP), and the twist is — he didn’t do it. He flies off to Lugash to personally investigate and clear his name, and sends his beautiful wife, Lady Claudine Litton (Catherine Schell), to Switzerland to distract the dogged Clouseau, who falls for the bait without question. The film begins intercutting between the two sets of characters, and loses momentum.

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Christopher Plummer and Catherine Schell as Sir Charles and Lady Claudine Litton

The sequences of Litton infiltrating the seedy underworld of Lugashi organized crime and their government’s secret police were shot on location in Morocco, and are generally pretty dull. They have no real comedic elements at all — unless you count Pepi. Graham Stark’s role here is the sweaty, sniveling, deeply unpleasant henchman Pepi, who over the course of the film, gets every finger on one hand broken in different painful ways. Again, this is Edwards’ idea of “comedy.”

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Graham Stark (“Pepi”) and Christopher Plummer

Things are livelier in the Gstaad, Switzerland location, with Clouseau infiltrating the luxury hotel where Lady Litton is staying. He first tries to inspect her room while she’s out, disguised as a housekeeper. As usual, the sequence — based around his slapstick struggle with an elaborate vacuum cleaner — goes on way too long with very little payoff.

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Much more successful, humor-wise, is Clouseau’s attempt to directly question his quarry in the hotel’s bar, disguised as a nightclub swinger (“Guy Gadoire”) in oversized shades and a blinding red sport coat, with a drooping handlebar mustache. He loses one handlebar early on (after getting punched in the face by an over-enthused go-go dancer), and continues with his usual obliviousness, much to Lady Litton’s amusement. Rumor has it that Catherine Schell as Lady Litton was genuinely laughing at Sellers’ improvised antics throughout the film, and those takes were used because it would have been the character’s realistic response to Clouseau’s fumbling.

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All these situations are eventually resolved — Clouseau is credited with the diamond’s recovery, nobody seems to bother to try and prosecute the actual thief (yes, the identity is revealed and no one seems to care), and Clouseau’s mysterious would-be assassin is revealed as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, who is committed to a padded room in an insane asylum as the credits roll.

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The funny moments of The Return of the Pink Panther are outnumbered by the unfunny moments by about three-to-one, and are usually the small throwaway jokes rather than the elaborately staged setpieces. (An example: Clouseau gets in a cab and instructs the driver “follow that car!” The driver hops out and sprints after the car on foot.) Compared to what was coming after it, Return was a masterpiece.

Upon its release in May 1975, The Return of the Pink Panther was a smash, restoring both Edwards and Sellers to bankability. They decided to go all in, and began shooting the next movie in the series almost immediately. Continue reading

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Shots in the Dark: Blake Edwards’ Problematic Pink Panther Series (Part 1)

Blake Edwards (1922-2010) was a film director. Heck, probably even a “major” film director. He may not be a household name, but most people who know a little about movies know who he is. He won a Special Academy Award in 2004 “in recognition of his writing, directing and producing an extraordinary body of work for the screen.” That’s as may be. But if I were to ask someone familiar with that body of work to name a great — great — Blake Edwards movie, there may very well be a long pause as they struggle to think of one. 

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They will likely come up with Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Sorry, no. That’s perhaps the most overrated “classic” film in cinema history. If you want to experience the effervescent magic that was Audrey Hepbrun, watch Sabrina. Or Roman Holiday. Or even Charade. All exponentially better films than the limp, vapid Tiffany’s — and all containing 100% less Mickey Rooney in yellowface as Hepburn’s buck-toothed “Japanese” landlord — a walking, talking ethnic slur that was vulgar even by early 1960s standards (which weren’t high.)

Some people old enough to remember it might dredge up Edwards’ box-office smash 10. But “sex comedies” have a hard time standing the test of time. Sex comedies rely on actions and reactions based around attitudes, mores, and societal standards, all of which change, sometimes rapidly. 10 is a total relic of the late 1970s — just as fossilized (and fun to watch) as your standard pile of dinosaur shit. (And be honest — it wasn’t even all that good at the time. People just lined up in their flares and Hush Puppies to see Bo Derek in beaded cornrows frolicking on the beach.)

Fewer people will come up with his true masterpiece — Days of Wine and Roses, not a comedy at all, which may be the secret to its success. Edwards was a restless, melancholy soul who fought a lifelong battle with depression, pill addiction, and deep-seated anger issues, and this harrowing look at alcoholism tapped into whatever brilliance Edwards contained as a filmmaker. And make no mistake, Edwards did display flashes of brilliance. He made some good movies in spite of his own tendencies (A Shot in the Dark is a good example.) But mostly, he was the poor man’s Billy Wilder. Top of the second tier, sure. Best of the bench players. But the inescapable whisper of “hack” hangs around his legacy like an anchor chain. Blake-Edwards-Peter-Sellers-The-Pink-Panther

But far ahead of all the Tiffanys and 10s and even Victor/Victorias in many people’s memories is The Pink Panther and its endless train of sequels…all helmed by Blake Edwards. If, like me, you’re a child of the 80s and not old enough to have seen the bulk of them in their original theatrical runs, you remember them as endlessly airing on weekend afternoon TV, and as cable movie channel staples. 

The series’ central figure — the hopelessly inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Sûreté, as portrayed by British actor Peter Sellers — has become an iconic comedic character. Austin Powers, Derek Zoolander, and Ron Burgundy are all his spiritual children. The Pink Panther movies inspired a cartoon show, and enough nostalgic affection to support a hideous 2006 remake starring Steve Martin (who should really know better), and an even more hideous 2009 sequel to the remake.

Revisiting the original films today, how do they hold up? 

Not all that great.

And it comes down to the fact that Edwards’ idiosyncratic take on comedy is completely joyless.Edwards 3“Comedy is pain” has always been Blake Edwards’ motto. I just wish he wasn’t always so literal about it. Maybe that’s why his comedies are generally so painful to watch — he includes the audience a little too much in his characters’ suffering.

In Edwards’ films, acts of physical comedy play out in long takes and wide shots. “I see things like a proscenium,” he has said. His characters are always in motion, but moving clumsily. Awkwardly. There is no comedic grace. The characters shuffle around almost sadly, and the only sounds are thuds and rustlings, and the characters’ audible exhalations and grunts as they bump into each other, inanimate objects, and the ground. Edwards might say that’s a kind of purity. But it’s labored and comes off as rather amateurish. Yes, some of the audience may laugh. But a lot of them just shift uncomfortably in their seat and ask themselves Is this supposed to be funny? There’s a reason why for every box-office success, Edwards’ filmography has roughly three catastrophic…and I mean catastrophic…bombs. Who knew a comedy could practically bankrupt a studio? (See Darling Lili. Better yet, don’t.)71CzD4L6ugL._SY445_I decided to take some of my COVID-19 quarantine downtime last summer to re-watch the whole Pink Panther series. One of the things that makes quarantine bearable is that you can still count on essential workers to bring you ridiculous shit, such as the Pink Panther series Blu-Ray set. You might have to wait an extra couple of days. (It actually got here quicker than I expected, placed with care on my porch by a masked and gloved van driver. “Essential workers” should have been Time Magazine’s Person [People] of the Year.)

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Written by Blake Edwards & Martin Richlin

Produced by the Martin Jurow for the Mirisch Company 

Released through United Artists

First off, was The Pink Panther a 1963 film or 1964 film? IMDB and Wikipedia firmly list it as 1963, which it was — in a handful of European countries, where The Pink Panther made its bow in late December of that year. It had a single showing in Boston on New Year’s Eve. But its wide British release was in January of ‘64, and its wide U.S. release wasn’t until March. The AFI and several other film websites call it a 1964 film. 

The basic outline of the story is that a French police inspector, Jacques Clouseau, is hot on the trail of an international jewel thief known as the Phantom, the alter ego of English playboy Sir Charles Litton. Litton (sometimes rendered as “Lytton”) has his eye on a massive diamond called the Pink Panther, property of the deposed Princess Dala of Lugash. Clouseau is trying to stop the Phantom before he strikes again, not knowing that his own wife, Simone, is the Phantom’s accomplice…and mistress. When everyone comes together (along with Litton’s louche and irresponsible American nephew, George) during a skiing holiday, complications ensue. Hilarity, sadly, does not. 

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David Niven

David Niven was deservedly top-billed in The Pink Panther, and his dashing character, Sir Charles Litton (“the notorious Phantom”), was envisioned by Edwards and the Mirisch Company to be the lead in a potential series of comedic heist films. A series indeed came about, but not as originally envisioned…and not with the Phantom as the main character.  

By 1963, the name “David Niven” was synonymous with class, wit, and charm, but at 53, he was getting visibly long in the tooth. Litton was supposed to be irresistible to women, but after a lifetime spent in smoky cocktail parties, Niven’s physical appearance was growing somewhat wizened. His deeply-lined face, snaggled nicotine teeth, and slight cast to his left eye make him more than a little…hobgoblin-ish. I guess his money might be irresistible. 

Apart from being something of a vehicle for Niven, the film was designed to be very much an ensemble piece, and it originally had a totally different cast. Peter Ustinov was to play the dogged-but-oblivious Inspector Clouseau (the original script indicated this was a mostly non-comedic straight role — presumably Ustinov’s portly and dignified bearing would give the character a more Hercule Poirot-style persona). Ava Gardner was to be the devious and deceptive Simone Clouseau, and Edwards hoped to get his recent collaborator Audrey Hepburn on board as Princess Dala.

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Peter Sellers as Clouseau

Hepburn, already with an eye on semi-retirement, declined the part outright. Ava Gardner accepted, then left the project when the Mirisch Company would not meet her diva-like demands for an army-sized personal staff. Ustinov bailed for unknown reasons right before cameras rolled (and triggered a nasty lawsuit). Two European “model-actresses” (Claudia Cardinale and the mononym’d Capucine) were fitted into the female roles, and at the last possible minute, Edwards offered the role of Inspector Clouseau to Peter Sellers.

As the film opens, gilded lettering spelling out “Once Upon A Time…” fills our field of vision in glorious, vibrant Technirama. Edwards can certainly set up a mise en scene, he clearly has a flair for sumptuous colors, and a good eye for widescreen framing (which can be challenging.) The rich photography in The Pink Panther as envisioned by Edwards and carried out by cinematographer Phillip Lathrop is beyond reproach. (What plays out in front of the camera is the issue.)

We begin with a prologue set twenty years in the story’s past in the fictional Middle Eastern country of “Lugash” — the king is presenting his daughter with a large diamond. It is pointed out that, like many massive diamonds, this one has a flaw. If one looks into the center of the jewel, there is a pinkish discoloration which is shaped like a leaping panther. 

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At this point, the film reveals one of its other major assets — the jazzy opening theme by composer Henry Mancini. Dominated by the tenor saxophone of Plas Johnson, it is instantly recognizable to multiple generations, and is film music at its finest. The “Pink Panther” theme plays over the very amusing title animation, supervised by Warner Bros. legend Friz Freleng, featuring a mischievous embryonic version of the Pink Panther cartoon character (at this point still very cat-like, frequently sitting on all four paws, and suavely knocking ash off his long cigarette holder). It’s easy to see how this character got spun off into his own series of theatrical shorts beginning later in ‘64, then his own long-running animated TV series by 1969. Continue reading

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 8: Sell Outs and Rave Ups

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

This is the final entry in the Spotify Chronicles…and it’s a long one — it even has an “epilogue” — but I think it’s interesting enough to justify it’s length. 

If you were listening to BBC Radio in, say, 1964, you’d never know there was a musical revolution underway. The staid, stuffy British Broadcasting Corporation offered listeners what they high-handedly judged was “good for them” (rather than what they may have “wanted.”) A slate of news, educational programs, children’s shows, classical music, and “light entertainment.” Pop music was considered the latter, and had to share the category with comedy programs, quiz shows, and variety shows. So, pop music got about six hours a week, and pop music records got still fewer (Musicians’ Union rules strictly limited “needle time” on broadcast radio). Many performers were invited to play “live in studio” (resulting in a glut of CD-era “Live At The BBC” collections put out by every major British band from back in the day). Everything was presented by very proper announcers reading from carefully prepared scripts — commercial-free. It was government-owned and funded by listeners paying a small annual licensing fee.

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Some entrepreneurial types decided to meet market demand by pumping out a steady diet of pop, rock, and soul records from ships moored in international waters, just over three miles off the British coast. These “pirate radio” stations lifted the entire format of American Top 40 radio — hip, freewheeling DJs, loud jingles, brash promos, and actual commercials (!) The signals weren’t always perfect (although on a good night they could reach over 12 million British listeners), and the rocking waves sometimes caused the records to skip, but pirate radio stations like Radio London and Radio Caroline exposed the Brits to all the latest American acts, and gave an important boost to up-and-coming British groups like the Yardbirds and the Who.

The British government passed the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in August 1967, effectively shutting down the pirates. Luckily, the BBC had seen the light and re-organized their radio division, launching Radio 1 as an all-popular music format…and hiring many of the old pirate DJs. It wasn’t quite the same, though. The frisson and excitement associated with the pirates’ rebellious flaunting of authority was missing. 

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Which brings me to the Who. In 1967, after a few years of being a reliable singles act in Britain, the Who was finally gaining an American audience, after noteworthy performances at the Monterey Pop Festival in June and a literally explosive appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in September. At a transitional time when albums were starting to eclipse singles as the preferred form of rock expression, the band went back into the studio that autumn to complete their third LP (begun in piecemeal fashion through that spring and summer), knowing it would have to outclass their first two if they were to continue their climb to the top. These recording sessions coincided with the snuffing out of the pirate radio stations. The Who decided to make an album in their honor to thank them for all they had done (the Who were favorites of the pirate DJs, and got played a lot).

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Monterey Pop Festival, June 1967

The result was my all-time favorite album by the Who — The Who Sell Out, released in the waning days of 1967, and a pop-art masterpiece. The album’s concept was that it would replicate a pirate radio station broadcast — right down to the jingles, promos, and commercials. (The initial intention was to actually sell advertising space between songs.) 

The material that chief songwriter Pete Townshend came up with for this set is melancholy and yearning, eschewing the band’s usual heavy sound. Drummer Keith Moon’s typical wild-man flailing is kept on a short leash. The love songs “I Can’t Reach You” and “Our Love Was” have moments of ethereal beauty, and showcase the Who’s underrated harmony-singing skills. The delicate “Sunrise” is just Towshend and a 12-string acoustic. In fact, Townshend’s thin, fragile voice gets more leading roles on Sell Out than any other Who album. Even when usual lead vocalist Roger Daltrey appears with his more powerful “rock” voice, he’s alternating or singing in unison with Townshend, as on the organ-driven “Relax” and the irresistibly melodic duet “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” about a girl with a certain skill that raises more than just eyebrows. Two songs, “Tattoo” and “Odorono,” are perfectly conceived little short stories, with dramatic arcs and sympathetic characters. “Tattoo” is a coming-of-age tale about two teen brothers getting their first ink, and “Odorono” is, well…read on.

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The iconic Sell Out album cover. No one bothered to warm up the refrigerated beans — Roger Daltrey came down with pneumonia

Bassist John Entwistle contributes another macabre fantasy character vignette, “Silas Stingy” (similar to his earlier “Boris the Spider” and “Whiskey Man”). The album closes with “Rael,” a sketchy condensement of a much longer “rock opera” about a dystopian conflict between the Communist Chinese and Israel in the distant future of 1999. The long-form rock narrative/musical story format was something Towshend had been tinkering with since the nine-minute “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” on their previous album. (As for the under-six minute “Rael,” Townshend lamented “No one will ever know what it means, it’s been squeezed up too tightly to make sense.”) Some musical themes from “Rael” would be recycled for their next album, Tommy (1969), where the rock opera concept achieved its full fruition.

There are two exceptions to the overall gentleness displayed on Sell Out. The opening track “Armenia City in the Sky,” was written by Townshend protege Speedy Keen (later of cult favorite Thunderclap Newman) and performed by the Who as a trippy, dissonant, thumping wall of sound and echoes. Then there’s the album’s centerpiece, “I Can See For Miles,” in which all the trademark moves of the Who — full-cry volume, Daltery’s menacing snarl, Entwistle’s bass guitar rumblings, Towshend’s windmill guitar-thrashing, and Moon’s cataclysmic, cannon-fire drumming — are on conspicuous display in a proto-metal howl of betrayal and recrimination. (Townshend’s bragging in an interview that “I Can See For Miles” was the “loudest, rawest, dirtiest” song ever recorded goaded Paul McCartney into writing “Helter Skelter.” Check and mate.)

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Interspersed between these songs are all the trappings of a pirate radio broadcast. The promos and jingles are the real deal, from actual Radio London broadcasts. When the idea of selling commercial space on the album quickly fell through, the Who concocted and performed original ads. They vary in length and style. Some are fragments lasting a few seconds (including spots for Rotosound guitar strings, the Charles Atlas workout program, and the Who’s favorite after-hours hangout, the Speakeasy Club). Some, such as “Heinz Baked Beans” and “Medac” (promoting a pimple cream) are catchy, minute-long novelty songs. And one was a full-length, heartbreaking tale of ambition and rejection, set to one of Towenshend’s most beautiful, lilting melodies…all to advertise the underarm deodorant, Odorono.

The Who Sell Out is often regarded as one of the first “concept” albums. But for whatever reason, the Who opted to only use the “pirate radio broadcast” concept through the first half of the album. Side two, with the exception of Entwistle’s “Medac” song/commercial, has no ads or jingles. This was rectified with an excellent 1995 CD reissue where the idea was finally carried through to the end of the album by adding some more Radio London jingles, repeating some slight variations of side one ads, using some outtake ads the Who recorded but didn’t use for the album, and digging up some radio ads they recorded earlier that year intended for actual broadcast. When I speak of Sell Out as my favorite Who album, it’s really this CD reissue I’m thinking of, where the concept runs to the finish.

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The Yardbirds fascinated me as soon as I heard of them. Here was a band that provided a launching pad for three of the greatest British guitarists ever — Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. They weren’t in the band all at the same time, of course. The universe couldn’t handle that degree of awesomeness without tearing itself asunder. (Beck and Page did overlap for a few brief months.) Clapton left early, and Page came late, leaving Beck in the lead guitarist slot through most of what could be considered the Yardbirds’ “classic” period.

R-4237397-1447215065-2562.jpegThe Yardbirds discography was a mess for a long time, their relatively small output licensed over and over again for a parade of cheap reissues. My first Yardbirds CD was one of these “budget label” compilations. Part of Pair Records’ “Best of British Rock” series, the cover had a photo of the Beck-era band, with Clapton very clumsily pasted into the image so it looked like he and Beck were in the band together. Nowadays, the band’s digital-era discography has been squared away considerably. All of their pre-“Roger the Engineer” (see below) output can fit easily on two discs.

If there’s a downside to listening to the Yardbirds, it’s that every pre-“Roger” Yardbirds recording currently available is of dubious audio quality. It’s partly due to lack of access to the original masters, as a variety of companies have claims over various recordings, and it’s said that EMI is still refusing to turn over certain master tapes to compilers due to an unpaid studio bill from 1965 (that may be nothing more than an “urban rock legend” at this point). And it’s partly (maybe mostly) due to the recordings being made in a hurry and on the cheap in the first place.

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 7: The King, Queen, and a Prince

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

Exploring just a few of my Spotify playlists in roughly alphabetical order.

As I add my little autobiographical notes, try not to get chronological whiplash as I wildly veer back and forth between modern-day, my college years, my middle school years, and pre-school…

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were the best American band of the last four decades. Fight me.

Notice I didn’t say “greatest.” They had no interest creating moments of “sweeping grandeur” or delivering Major Statements. I didn’t say “innovative,” either. Several bands can probably top them on that. No, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers simply settled for being the best, especially when you consider the length of their career. (Yes, best vs. greatest is a distinction I make in my own mind, but I think you know what I mean.)

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They were always getting left out of the conversation because they made it look too easy. Whenever there would be debates about “best bands,” and people would be throwing around their R.E.M.s and Radioheads, it would always be up to me to say, “What about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers?” There was always a short pause, then a lot of nodding and people murmuring “ohhh, yeah…” They were never #1 on anyone’s list, and often forgotten about…but no one could deny the goods they brought to the table, year in and year out.

Petty’s first two albums without the Heartbreakers — Full Moon Fever (1989) and Wildflowers (1994) also generated tons of favorites. In fact, the casual listener might be more familiar with Petty’s solo work than his Heartbreakers stuff. “Free Fallin’,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and several other radio staples all came from his solo work. Wildflowers is probably one of my top ten albums of all time (I haven’t ranked them in quite awhile), and Petty was working on an expanded, deluxe, remastered re-issue at the time of his death. (It finally came out on October 16th of last year.)

I’m convinced any doubters would be turned into Petty fans if they took the time to sit through Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream, perhaps the greatest (now I will say “greatest”) rock documentary ever if you have anything approaching an attention span. Behind his laidback demeanor and crooked grin, Petty ran the Heartbreaks like a benevolent dictator, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Always collaborative, always respectful…but undoubtedly always in charge. He had a steely resolve and a stubborn streak, but was one of the most principled and generous people in the rock & roll pantheon. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell was the “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers” of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers — underrated and overlooked, never getting his due as one of the best guitarists of the modern era. Keyboardist Benmont Tench was valued for his keen wit, his unerring taste, and reliable bullshit detector, not to mention his formidable, classically-trained musicianship. 

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To my (incredibly over-biased) ears, even their lowest moments never dipped too far below their high bar. Yes, the loose concept album The Last DJ (2002) didn’t really coalesce all that well, Mojo (2010) suffered from bloat, and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987) — the lowest of their not-that-low — sounded exhausted even in its title…but that’s about it. Three clunkers in forty years. I’ll take it. (OK, four clunkers — Petty’s third and final solo album, 2006’s Highway Companion, didn’t quite do it for me.)

Anyway, Tom Petty is really the founder of our little feast here. His death in October of 2017 spurred me to sign up to Spotify and begin laboring over my in-tribute playlist. He is one of the few artists to earn “100 song” status, and it’s still the playlist I’m proudest of — the perfect blend of major hits, deep album cuts, live tracks, obscurities, and side-project stuff. 

huge_avatarAs much as I hate the trite term, seeing Tom Petty in concert was on my “bucket list.” I somehow kept missing him. I’d seen the Stones (twice). I’d seen Dylan (twice). I’d seen the Who (still with Entwistle). I’d seen McCartney. Petty was the only empty spot on my trophy shelf. The closest I came was when the woman I was dating in 2006 got us tickets, but we broke up before the concert. She ended up going with her ex-husband. So it goes.

For his 40th Anniversary Tour, I was gifted tickets by my wife Shannon’s family as an early birthday present. Just in time, too. Petty had been hinting this would be the last time he toured on this scale. The show was going to be at Sacramento’s brand-new Golden 1 Center, and was scheduled for August 25, 2017 — then was cancelled at the literal last minute. My in-laws were already on their way up from the Bay Area to join us when we got the alert on our phone — “As Tom Petty heals from laryngitis and bronchitis, he has been advised to take additional days off before performing.” My in-laws had to settle for dinner and a movie.

The show was re-scheduled for September 1. The in-laws made the trek east into the Sacramento Valley once more. This time, they were plunged into a pit of hellfire. I was afraid the respiratory-challenged Petty would cancel again — the air was soupy and almost unbreathable. Raging wildfires are now a seasonal event here in California, and we had a lively one going up in Butte County not too far away. The temperature hovered around 100 as the sun set, visible as a fiercely-glowing coal on the western horizon through layers of gray ash. Several people milling around the exterior of the Golden 1 Arena were actually wearing masks — an unusual and almost comical sight…at the time.

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The Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, CA

Settling into my arena seat with a beer in hand, the conditions outside were forgotten. The opening act was a group of young Petty proteges from L.A., the Shelters. The sound was horrendous, but those kids were clearly having a blast being a rock & roll band, leaping around the stage and striking poses for the still-filling arena. 

Once they wrapped up and cleared the stage, it wasn’t more than a few minutes before the house lights dimmed. (That’s what I love about attending concerts with an audience that skews, shall we say, older. They always start on time, because everyone wants to be in bed by ten-thirty.) Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone came out to huge applause. He settled himself onto the drum stool, and gave his bass drum a few tentative kicks. I could feel the reverberation in my breastbone. Oh, this was going to be loud. The the rest of the Heartbreakers wandered onto the stage, putting down water bottles and picking up instruments. Then, in an instant, the house lights dropped altogether, the stage was awash in green and blue lights, and the Man Himself was before us — heavily bearded and in shades, blasting out the opening chords to “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from their 1976 debut album.

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Onstage at the Golden 1 — September 1, 2017

It was definitely a “greatest hits” type set, and fully half the songs were from his solo albums, a testament to their overall popularity. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” closed with an appropriately psychedelic extended freak-out, and Mojo’s “I Should Have Known It” pulsed with new life, re-interpreted as a Clapton-style blues guitar showcase for Mike Campbell. The sound was still a little muddy (basketball arenas are not concert halls), but the power and authority of the performance was towering. I emerged into the dark, smoky air deliriously happy, the encore “American Girl” still ringing in my ears. I looked forward to seeing Petty again someday in what he said would be his new concert incarnation — smaller, more intimate venues, stripped-down, Deep Cuts.

Petty played four more shows after Sacramento — the KAABOO Festival in Del Mar, then three nights at the Hollywood Bowl. Then he died on October 2, 2017 from a cardiac arrest triggered by an overdose of pain medication. The night I saw him, he was likely in agony the whole time from a fractured hip, but soldiered on and played a great show. He kept quiet about the hip injury in order to finish the tour and keep his band and his road crew employed.

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(Pointless aside — according to my research, it is more stylistically correct to keep the article “the” before a band name lowercase unless it starts the sentence. It’s “the Beatles,” not “The Beatles,” despite what 9 out of 10 websites and even many professional writers go with. So I’ve been sticking to that rule. Unless the band name follows an ampersand. I don’t care what’s stylistically correct, “Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers” just looks wrong to my tiny mind. It’ll be “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers” here.)

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 6: Radiohead Revisited (A Reassessment in Nine Movements)

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

A patched-together overview of some of my Spotify artists’ playlists in roughly alphabetical order…

It was some time around the tail-end of the holidays, 1995. We (that is myself, WH, and our mutual friend Allen) were on one of our many record shopping excursions in Sacramento. Our route always began out in suburbia with Tower Records on Watt Avenue, then we worked our way into the city center by way of The Beat on J Street, and we usually ended up on K Street in the heart of downtown. Like many hearts of many downtowns, Sacramento’s K Street has faced the usual challenges of street crime and homelessness. It may have been at its lowest point on that cold, gray day as ‘95 changed over to ‘96. Someone in an army overcoat was loudly telling sinners to repent on the corner of 7th and K, and the scent of fortified wine and urine was in the air as we walked by huddled, sleeping figures, and slipped through the seedy doorway of 708 K Street. A former saloon, the address still boasted a flophouse hotel on its upper floors.

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The old K Street Records building as it appeared in 2011. It now has a new facade as part of the K Street renovation project.

But its ground floor was home to K Street Records, one of the most gloriously disorganized and haphazard retail establishments I have ever had the pleasure to peruse. Stacks of vinyl lined the walls with no rhyme or reason, and even the supposedly alphabetized bins of CDs were a crapshoot. To make up for it, a very friendly mottle-coated cat offered an almost deafening purr in exchange for an ear-scratch, which may have been the best deal in the place. Nick Cave was playing on the store’s sound system that day.

Even more stock was available down in the basement, but I don’t recall ever going down there. It may have been closed to the public entirely at that point. Local legend states the basement of K Street Records was haunted by the spirit of a lady (“Gertrude,” I’m told) in a Victorian dress who could be a tad hostile. The establishment is also semi-famous for being on the cover of DJ Shadow’s breakthrough sample-fest Endtroducing…, a photograph taken not long after this day’s visit. One has to assume a lot of the vintage vinyl that comprised the Davis native’s debut album came from K Street. 

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DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… album cover, 1996

We didn’t find anything at K Street Records, so we moved on down the block to another Tower Records. The K Street Tower Records was the venerable chain’s third Sacramento location (after the Watt Avenue and Broadway stores, both dating from the ‘60s), which opened in 1973. The entryway was decorated with a massive, funky, very ‘73 mural.

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Former entrance to the K Street Tower Records, c. 2011, where the Holy Bee was drafted into the Britpop Wars back in ’95. The foyer floor still believes it’s the 1950s and “Burt’s Shoes” is the proper occupant.

We weren’t there long before WH waved me over. “Come here.”

I did so.

“Hold out your hand.”

I did so.

He dropped two brand-new, shrink-wrapped CDs into my open palm.

“Buy these today. Thank me tomorrow.”

That’s how I came to buy Oasis’ 1994 debut Definitely Maybe and their new release (What’s The Story) Morning Glory. And WH was right. I had no regrets. Oasis rocketed to the top of My Favorite Bands list before Definitely Maybe was halfway over. (My other purchase from that day, Southern Culture on the Skids’ Dirt Track Date, ended up getting sold off within a few months.)

Oasis’ formula was simple: Build a song solely around its best parts — the big riff and the catchy chorus — and repeat them as loud as you can. It’s really not much different from AC/DC’s approach, but Oasis added just a splash of Beatles/Kinks melodicism. I derived immeasurable joy out of those first two Oasis albums. My white Dodge Colt (with the black left front fender) soon boasted an Oasis sticker in the back window. They were all I wanted to listen to in the first few months of ‘96 (well, them and Tom Waits, and the Pogues — see below — but I was never able to find a good Pogues sticker for the car).

[Sacramento’s K Street has been undergoing renovation and renewal for several years now, aided by the development of the adjacent Golden 1 Center basketball arena. The old K Street Records building now houses the stationary bike gym All City Riders. The Tower Records mural has been painstakingly restored, and the space is now occupied by Solomon’s Deli, named after Tower Records founder Russ Solomon. Unfortunately, the pandemic shut-down has hit K Street businesses pretty hard.]

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Tower Records K Street reborn as Solomon’s Delicatessen, 2018.

The “Britpop Wars” broke out around this time. It was Oasis (simple, working-class) versus Blur (nuanced, middle-class). It was the noisy pub versus the quiet university common room, and each band’s fanbase was very opinionated. Naturally, I was in the Oasis camp, and had many spirited debates at the local coffee shop with the snobbish and pretentious Blur crowd. In retrospect, Oasis and Blur weren’t really all that different. 

The true polar opposite to Oasis — musically, philosophically — is Radiohead. 

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Radiohead — more fun than a barrel of monkeys

I am dedicating the next portion of these Chronicles to a band that will probably not be getting a playlist. For a little over fifteen years now, I have declared Radiohead to be absolutely, without a doubt, the most overrated band in popular music history. But it’s been awhile since I voluntarily listened to them. Now it’s time to see if I need to eat my words. I have announced to certain members of the Idle Time collective, who never fail to quiver like jelly and sigh in ecstasy whenever Radiohead’s name is mentioned, that I would use some of my quarantine time this past summer to clear my mind of prejudices and preconceived notions, and listen to each and every album in the Radiohead catalog as if I’m hearing them for the first time (which, in the case of their last two albums, is literally true). 

Here we go.

Pablo Honey (1993) 

Radiohead.pablohoney.albumartRadiohead’s debut album is the one most likely to be dismissed as sub-par (especially by the band themselves). I thought it was pretty good, although the oppressive sulkiness of the lyrics precludes me from saying I “enjoyed” it. The production team of Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade were chosen for their work with the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. and it shows. The quiet/loud/quiet dynamic of the Pixies (also used by Nirvana to great effect) and guitar crunch of Dinosaur Jr. are the dominant modes of Pablo Honey. The band were still clearly wearing their early influences on their sleeve. In addition to the aforementioned acts, there is a very healthy dose of early U2 all over the place, particularly in Thom Yorke’s Bono-channeling vocal gymnastics.

Ironically, as later releases would downplay the dominance of the six-stringed instrument, Pablo Honey may be one of the best “guitar albums” of the 1990s. Clear, ringing chords and arpeggios reminiscent of the Smiths or XTC are neatly interwoven with the fuzzed-out distortion of grunge — causing the album to be (unfairly, in my opinion) lumped in with the many other grunge knock-offs in the post-Nirvana world of 1992-93. (Remember, early Radiohead weren’t copying Nirvana, they were copying the bands Nirvana copied. There’s a difference.) What sets Pablo Honey apart from the more pedestrian knock-offs were the little sonic surprises that littered the first half, such as the stately piano that wanders into the last few seconds of “Creep,” the massive hit single that made the band instant stars and MTV darlings, and the song the band has worn like a millstone around their necks ever since.

Pablo Honey’s music itself is often quite sprightly, even though the lyrics wallow in alienation and self-pity, always warning the perpetrators of their torment that some kind of personal or spiritual retribution is coming. At times they sound like Material Issue’s depressed, vindictive British cousins. The album does suffer from second-half fatigue. (Certainly not the only album guilty of this — many artists and their production teams beginning in the CD era felt it was best to front-load albums with the strongest stuff to keep short attention spans from punching the skip button too early.) As the album winds down, it gives us a run of mid-tempo odes to self-loathing that blend into each other with little to distinguish them. The closer, “Blow Out,” has a nice, hushed urgency, and reminds me a little of Television. Overall verdict: A solid, but at times gloomy and derivative, debut with a great guitar sound that elevates it slightly above its post-grunge peers. 

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 5: The Hollies Get Their Due (and Satan Pays a Call)

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

Exploring just a few of my Spotify playlists in roughly alphabetical order.

(Despite these Chronicles being based around the concept of online streaming of music, I’m starting to notice them developing into a love letter to the CD era.)

File under Still Making New Discoveries of Old Stuff…the Hollies. 

44168615._SX318_If there’s one website that is more rambling, disjointed, and long-winded than this one, it’s Alan’s Album Archives. (“If A Review Doesn’t Reach 7,000 Words, We’re Disappointed.”) He has even spun it into a little cottage industry, self-publishing $7 e-books that collect all his reviews and essays on a particular artist. For the most part, his tastes run parallel to mine (and when we diverge, we widely diverge), so I happily bought a few to support a fellow enthusiast. I don’t think even Alan himself would deny he needs an editor for simple fact-checking. He mishears lyrics (sometimes to hilarious effect), struggles with understanding American vernacular (not his fault, he’s a Brit), mixes up names and timelines with annoying frequency, and I know he knows better. His stuff is just so long even he doesn’t want to go back and read it a second time. His Beatles book is a non-stop litany of glaring factual errors. In fact, Kindle tells me I’ve only made it 42% through it. I keep trying, I make it through a couple of pages, then come across another howler and have to slam it shut again. And he doesn’t seem sure what a pedal steel guitar actually is. (No, that’s not a “pedal steel” on “I Need You,” it’s Harrison playing his 12-string Rickenbacker with a volume-swell pedal*. I mean, come on, Alan…)

In both Alan’s Beatles and Stones books, he mentions the Hollies on every few pages in the same breath as the two great titans of British rock…as if they were somehow equal or something. (“If not the greatest band of the 1960s then arguably the most consistently great band of the 1960s” made me blurt-laugh out loud, not only for its hyperbole, but for its weird semi-redundancy.) Were they actually comparable?

Short answer: Not even close. Long answer…read on.

The Hollies consisted of Graham Nash (rhythm guitar, vocals), Allan Clarke (vocals, harmonica), Tony Hicks (lead guitar, vocals), Eric Haydock (bass), and Bobby Elliott (drums). Bernie Calvert replaced Haydock on bass in mid-1966. All were very good instrumentalists — Hicks was a particularly nimble lead guitarist for the early 60s beat-group era (I love almost all of his solos, even if the song itself is a dog), Haydock pioneered the use of the six-string bass, and Elliott’s tumbling fills kicked pretty damn hard. The three vocalists were each capable of taking the lead (Clarke’s soulful, mid-range voice most often), but harmonies were their trademark. 

The Hollies shared a label (Parlophone) and a studio (Abbey Road) with the Beatles. Beatles producer George Martin’s assistant, Ron Richards, was the Hollies’ long-time producer. Richards had a good ear, a solid technical background, and worked hard to present the Hollies as best he knew how. But he was not a musician as Martin was, and he was not a boundary-pusher. 

Maybe due to this too-close-for-comfort proximity, the Beatles themselves never cared much for the Hollies — Lennon in particular thought they were saccharine and twee (the Beatles would never stoop to doing a song as stupefyingly cringe-worthy as “Fifi the Flea”), and copied the Beatles’ three-part harmonies a little too slavishly. Harrison said they were “all right musically” (meaning they were skilled players, which they were, see above), but “did their recordings like session men who’ve just got together in a studio without ever seeing each other before.” A little harsh, but yes, there was sometimes a lack of cohesion. And he called their cover of his “If I Needed Someone” “soul-less.” Which it sort of was, but give them credit for the audacity of recording a Beatles song before the original was released (presumably Ron Richards got them an advance copy of the song to work from, and at least two Hollies were under the very mistaken impression that Harrison had written it specifically for them). 

Instead of blazing their own trail, the Hollies seem preoccupied with giving listeners what they think they would want, which is admirable in a way, but not a Path to Greatness. It’s ironic that their second album was called In the Hollies Style, because the Hollies had no discernible style for most of the Sixties, and spent the decade casting around — at times desperately — for a unique voice. 

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Like most early British Invasion bands, the first couple of Hollies albums were filled with watered-down, very Anglicized R&B covers, but they certainly didn’t lack for energy. By the time of their third album, original compositions began sneaking in, which was good news. The bad news was that a lot of their early originals weren’t all that good, making their albums very patchy indeed.

The Hollies were irrevocably a singles band. And they were great singles. From their third single (a raucous cover of Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs’ “Stay”) in late ‘63 through to “Listen To Me” at the end of ‘68, the Hollies ripped through nuggets of 45 rpm ear candy at a rate of about three per year, including two of the Holy Bee’s all-time favorites — “Bus Stop” and “Carrie Anne.” And most of the B-sides were just as good as the As. To be fair, until Tommy, the mighty Who were “just” a singles band too.

They never really took off in the U.S. at that time, except for the Top 5 “Bus Stop” in the summer of ‘66. Just when things were starting to get interesting (their two 1967 albums, Evolution and Butterfly, are quite good forays into lightweight psychedelia), just when their original songwriting was coming into focus — co-founder and band visionary Graham Nash quit, bored by the band’s old-fashioned traditionalist attitude, and turned off by their showbizzy audience pandering. (The first album after he left was The Hollies Sing Dylan.) He moved out to California and became part of the three-headed ego monster known as Crosby, Stills & Nash, who would stop squabbling every seven or eight years to bore us with another Laurel Canyon soft-rock yawnfest.

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The Hollies soldiered on (with former Swinging Blue Jean Terry Sylvester in Nash’s place), and finally found American success with syrupy, mawkish ballads like “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” and “The Air That I Breathe.” Their highest-charting U.S. single was “Long, Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” such a blatant rip-off of Creedence Clearwater Revival that many people to this day don’t know that it’s not actually CCR yammering about “working for the FBI” with “whiskey bottles piling high” over swamp-rock guitar licks. (Credit to Clarke and Hicks for combining to form a single John Fogerty with a fair degree of accuracy.) 

So…no, the Hollies could not match the flat-out genius of the Beatles, nor the dark, menacing magnetism of the Stones, nor even the fractured, intermittent brilliance of the Kinks. But in exploring these questions, I grew to like the Hollies much more than I thought I would, and ended up giving them a playlist — but only through the Nash years. If I never hear “The Air That I Breathe” again, it will be too soon.

When I was doing my old iPod playlists a decade ago, I learned a valuable lesson about two important artists: I don’t need any more Billy Joel or Elton John than what is available on a good, solid, well-compiled two-disc best-of. The gold standard of that format were the “Essential” sets. Remember those? Sony used to do ‘em back in the CD era, and any major artist who is or has been on a Sony-owned label — which is about a third of them (Columbia, RCA, Epic, Legend, several more) — have one. Almost all of them were double discs, and I always thought they were very thoughtfully put together.

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Many will argue, but I did not find a lot of unheralded gems buried in John’s or Joel’s albums. Their hits were undeniable monsters, but their obscurities are probably obscure for a reason. 

Someone once told a story on a podcast — it may have been NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour — about meeting & interviewing Elton John in his luxurious hotel suite several years back. Elton’s management hinted that Elton would be happy to play him a song after the interview. The intrepid young podcaster, wishing to impress Elton, picked something from side two of Madman Across the Water. When the song was requested, Elton roared “Are you fucking kidding me? I haven’t played that song since I recorded it forty-five fucking years ago! I have no idea how it goes!” He then proceeded to play “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” for presumably the 14,000th time.

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Filed under Music -- 1960s, Music -- 1970s-80s

The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 4: “Heroes” and Rumours

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

Continuing a COVID-quaratined, too-much-free-time glance through just a few of my Spotify playlists, in roughly alphabetical order…

To re-iterate, a lot of this is adapted and expanded from material originally posted on the Idle Time messaging app in March/April. The Holy Bee is a proud recycler. That’s why when some artists are under review (eg. Fleetwood Mac), the focus is on a single song — it’s a holdover from our lengthy “Billboard Hot 100” discussions.

I have probably taken more abuse from the Idle Time guys for liking the Black Crowes than for any other reason. (Although just as I’m typing this, WH messaged me that he may never forgive me for putting “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & The News on our collaborative Best of the 80s playlist, which evidently represents a new low for my group contributions. WH has always been deeply suspicious of fun and joy.)

I’ve always admired and respected David Bowie more than I actually enjoyed listening to him. Something about his mannered vocals, his multiple irony-drenched personas, and cool detachment left me a little put off. He’s another one of those artists that everyone in my peer group loves, and I just don’t “get.” He’s obviously very gifted, eager to experiment, never bound by convention, but…I don’t seem to feel that special resonance that so many revel in. Camp theatricality was never my preferred mode of artistic expression. I gravitated toward the earnest straightforwarndess of Springsteen and Petty, or the evocative wordplay of Dylan.

I have been reading Rob Sheffield’s book-length fan letter On Bowie, and it brought things into a little more focus. What self-conscious adolescent hasn’t experimented with looks and personas, discarding them as soon as a new one springs to mind? Who hasn’t covered their desire to belong with a mask of cool detachment? Bowie was a voice for any kid who struggled with their identity, their sexuality, or the hurt of being an alienated outsider of any stripe. And maybe that’s why his material never resonated with me. Any teenager or young adult will have their moments (or months or years) of feeling rejected and unwanted, and I certainly did. But I was never cut to the core by any of it. My issues were few and I was always comfortable in my own skin. So Bowie was not speaking to me on that frequency.

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David Bowie first made a big national splash in the UK on a 1972 episode of Top of the Pops, performing “Starman.” Sheffield goes on to note all the young and impressionable kids watching that day: “Every future legend in the British Isles was tuned in. Morrissey was watching. So was Johnny Marr. Siouxsie was watching. Robert Smith was watching. Duran Duran were watching. So were Echo and the Bunnymen. Dave Gahan…Bauhaus. Jarvis Cocker. Jesus, Mary, and their Chain…”

To a name, all of them artists I am either lukewarm on, or really don’t much like at all. That’s what Bowie’s legacy has been to me.

But what of the music itself? What better time than during a pandemic-enforced, in-home exile to give Bowie’s catalog a re-listen? Wait here.

[Three days later.]

OK, done. I decided not to start at the very beginning, but jumped right in at what Sheffield considers his peak run — 1975’s Young Americans through 1980’s Scary Monsters, and then circled back to his earlier material.

I have mixed feelings about Young Americans. David Sanborn’s attention-hog of a saxophone is all over this pastiche of “Philly soul.” (Both Springsteen and Bowie are guilty of being waaay too in love with the saxophone, which I have an unshakeable prejudice against, at least on songs recorded by white dudes after 1963. What’s a way to make an otherwise good song sound totally stupid and corny? Throw on a big, dumb ol’ sax solo.) The cover of “Across the Universe” makes me cringe — Bowie spends the whole tuneless song sounding as if he’s got something unpleasant caught in his throat. When the album does coalesce, it showcases two of my all-time favorite Bowie songs — the excellent title track, and the equally-excellent  #1 single “Fame” (a collaboration with John Lennon, who must have at least tacitly endorsed Bowie’s “Across the Universe.”). Then there’s “Fascination.” Something about “Fascination” made me prick up my ears, and I couldn’t put my finger on it, then I realized it was a re-working of Stevie Wonder’s “Supersition.” Bowie is a musical magpie, taking shiny bits and pieces from other sources, and adapting them into his own vision.

I found myself enjoying almost every track on Station To Station, which is frequently described as the transitional album between the glam/soul style of his early 70s work to the Krautrock and electronica-influenced “Berlin Trilogy” of the late 70s, when the cocaine-addled Bowie fled the L.A. scene to get his head together in the austere German capital.

The Berlin Trilogy (Low and “Heroes,” both 1977, and 1979’s Lodger) represents Bowie at his most sonically experimental (for now). All three albums utilized the same core rhythm section, which never failed to play with urgency and a peculiar, visceral crunch. Brian Eno provided his trademark spacey keyboard texturing. On the first two albums, there is a clear divide between side one — all propulsion, energy, and mini-hooks — and side two, a sequence of ambient soundscapes with minimal vocals.

If you’re like me, and even the words “ambient soundscape” inspire an inner eye roll, at least it can be said that Berlin Trilogy’s ambient soundscapes are probably the best of that particular style you’re going to hear. There are nice world music flourishes, and the momentum never wanders off into ethereal noodling.

Lodger doesn’t adhere to that format quite as much, and I feel it’s the weakest of the trilogy overall. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), recorded back in London and New York, ups the ante on the world music flavor and the artiness of the “art rock,” and coats it with a commercial sheen that foreshadows the next album. 

I extended my initial listening one album past Scary Monsters to 1983’s Let’s Dance, where Bowie’s shifting personas finally coalesce into their final form — the confident, hit-making, MTV-friendly pop star in the natty suit and loosened tie. Produced by Nile Rodgers of Chic, Let’s Dance was made to sound great on the radio, and spin off multiple singles. There were the inevitable cries of “sell out” from the type of unpleasant person who likes to cry “sell out,” but this may have been Bowie’s master stroke. And there was nowhere to go but down. 

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At this point, I backtracked to the start of Bowie’s career. His actual debut album, 1967’s David Bowie was considered such a colossal embarrassment by all parties involved that he named his 1969 follow-up…David Bowie, as if to erase the existence of the previous version. The second incarnation of David Bowie, an acoustic-textured blend of hippie folk sounds and wordy prog-rock lyrics, was re-released in 1972 and re-named after its title track (and far and away its best song): Space Oddity. 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World is more of the same, with an overall darker tone, more electric guitar, and a heavier emphasis on the bass end. (Nirvana did a terrific cover version of the title song.)

Hunky Dory (1971) trades acoustic guitar for jaunty piano as its primary instrument, and showcases an entirely new cabaret-pop style that gave Bowie (“Space Oddity” aside) his first clutch of truly memorable statements — “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Life On Mars?,” among others.

Then came his “glam rock” trilogy: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), and Diamond Dogs (1974), which made Bowie a global superstar. (1973’s Pin-Ups was an all-covers album, and interesting in its own way.) Ziggy is a true concept album, with a loose narrative based around the messianic title character. The two follow-ups abandon a cohesive narrative, and are instead a series of observational sketches seen through the eyes of a Ziggyesque “alien outsider” character. (Ziggy himself “died” onstage each night during Bowie’s ‘73 shows, and was retired at the end of the tour.) Each album rocked a little harder than the one before. The sound of Ziggy was still essentially the bottom-heavy folk-rock of Sold The World, cut through with Mick Ronson’s stinging lead guitar, but by Dogs the sound was full-on hard rock. 

I saved the long decline (and bittersweet comeback) for last. Bowie himself pretty much disavowed all his ‘80s material after Let’s Dance. He threw in the towel on solo work and formed a four-piece, no-frills hard rock band called Tin Machine in 1989, which seemed like a great idea…if only they’d had any decent songs. They disbanded after only three years and two pretty bad albums. His solo work in the ‘90s and early ‘00s was even more experimental than in his prime, fully embracing industrial, drum-and-bass, and electronica, but it was often unfocused and unmemorable. A heart attack in 2004 sent him into retirement…

…or so it was thought. In 2013, he put out the recorded-in-secret The Next Day with no promotion or fanfare whatsoever. Re-purposing the cover art of “Heroes,” Bowie sounds jolted alive, and presents us with a cohesive, coherent art-rock album that could easily stand alongside his classics, and includes “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” his best song in thirty years. Its 2016 follow-up, Blackstar, carries the burden of being the album written and recorded as Bowie was fading away from cancer. He died two days after its release, and naturally, all of his fans cherish this as his final gift to them.

And here’s where I make the blasphemous confession that will forever bar me from true Bowie fandom: I don’t like Blackstar all that much. 

I enjoyed my deep dive into the Bowie discography, and I think I made a pretty good playlist, but the experience didn’t move the needle very much on how I feel about him. Admiration and respect, always, but it’s not passionate love. We can just be friends.

Anything that needs saying about the Byrds, well…I already said it, at my usual length, here and here.

When Johnny Cash re-emerged in the ‘90s thanks to his work with producer Rick Rubin, everyone was retroactively horrified that his record company of 25 years, Columbia, heartlessly dropped the legend in the mid-1980s. Having listened to his early ‘80s output, however, I can only wonder what took them so long. I still love Cash, but navigating his post-Folsom Prison, pre-Rubin discography was a Sisephyan task of getting through an album full of unfunny novelty songs, ponderous spoken-word narrations, turgid gospel, and quasi-misogynist my-woman-is-my-property “love” songs. Then doing it all over again with the next album. Then you find a nugget like “Far Side Banks of the Jordan” on 1977’s little-remembered The Last Gunfighter Ballad, and it feels worth all the trouble.

The Clash…I don’t listen to them nearly as often as I should. Every time I choose to put them on, I’m always glad I did. I bought MMDG’s old Toyota Corolla off him in 2007. He had covered the rear window and bumper with stickers. Tastefully monochromatic, mind you, not garish, and aligned with geometric precision, but it was a very guy-in-his-20s look, and I was by then in my (very) early 30s. So I scraped them all off — except the Clash, which retained pride of place in the back left of the rear window for as long as I had the car. 

The Last Gang In Town purports to be the Clash’s “definitive biography,” but the last ⅔ of the book is author Marcus Gray needing a bucket to carry the amount of butt-hurt he exhibits because the Clash turned out not to be actual committed socialist revolutionaries after all, but just a great rock band.

Creedence…I do not need all nine minutes of “Susie Q.” Luckily, the radio-edit version is available. I do not need a single second of their eleven-minute version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine…”

[The next day.]

OK, I caved and put “Grapevine” on the list. They build a pretty hypnotic groove.

Bob Dylan…he released a seventeen-minute song early during this quarantine…there was a snippet of Idle Time chatter about it on the IM app…

BC: …which features the lyrics “rub-a-dub-dub, it’s a murder most foul.”

WH: He’s still got it.

Once you get into the Beatles, it’s a pretty short hop to getting into the Byrds, and from there, an even shorter hop to Dylan. 

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Filed under Music -- 1960s, Music -- 1970s-80s, Music -- 1990s