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.)

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 occupies the same mental real estate for me as Radiohead. 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 dire 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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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 3.3: Even More on The Beatles’ U.S. Albums, and How the Young Holy Bee Became a Beatles Collector

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

The new year 1966 dawns. A suitable Beatles film project could not be agreed upon, so there was no soundtrack recording or movie shooting to take up three months of their time, giving them their first extended break in years. They vacationed, relaxed, gave interviews, and had an infamous photo session in March, where they posed for Robert Whitaker’s camera clad in butcher’s smocks, draped in pieces of raw meat and clutching dismembered baby dolls. 

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Then it was back to Abbey Road in April for the next round of recording, which would last until June, once again cutting sixteen tracks — fourteen for the album and two for a stand-alone single.

Tracks as yet “un-albumized” by Capitol will appear in bold, even if they’ve had a Capitol single release.

Capitol, as usual, was eager to get more product onto U.S. shelves in the summertime, when teens with summer jobs did most of their spending. (In both ‘65 and ‘66, they put out an album in June and an album in August.) Still unreleased on a Capitol album were There’s A Place, Misery, From Me To You, Sie Liebt Dich, Can’t Buy Me Love, A Hard Day’s Night, and I Should Have Known Better. In the fast-moving world of 60s pop music, these were now “oldies,” never under serious consideration at this point, even for the most careless Capitol throw-together. Of a more recent vintage, they were sitting on I’m Down, Yesterday, and Act Naturally from the Help! sessions, the We Can Work It Out / Day Tripper single, and the UK Rubber Soul leftovers Drive My Car, Nowhere Man, What Goes On, and If I Needed Someone. For some reason, Capitol decided to totally disregard I’m Down, and put it out of the running forever after. I have no idea why. It’s a great song, and the Beatles themselves obviously liked it, selecting it to be performed on The Ed Sullivan Show and using it as their big closing number in concert for two straight years. But Capitol nixed it, and decided they had only eight usable songs for the next album.

Which led to the now yearly tradition. Sometime in early May, Capitol contacted the Beatles for additional material. The band shipped over three finished tracks from their current work in progress — I’m Only Sleeping, Doctor Robert, and And Your Bird Can Sing. All were Lennon songs, as he was the only one to have any fully completed recordings at the time of the request. Paul was still tinkering with his material. (Actually, they had also finished Harrison’s Love You To, and a copy of the master was prepared, probably for shipment to Capitol, but it went unused. Its exotic Indian instrumentation would have been out of place among the straightforward pop-rock of Yesterday And Today, and was better-suited to the more experimental Revolver.)

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Yesterday And Today (June 15, 1966)

  1. Drive My Car (UK Rubber Soul)
  2. I’m Only Sleeping (UK Revolver)
  3. Nowhere Man (UK Rubber Soul)
  4. Doctor Robert (UK Revolver)
  5. Yesterday (UK Help!)
  6. Act Naturally (UK Help!)
  1. And Your Bird Can Sing (UK Revolver)
  2. If I Needed Someone (UK Rubber Soul)
  3. We Can Work It Out (single — double A-side with “Day Tripper”)
  4. What Goes On (UK Rubber Soul)
  5. Day Tripper (single — double-A side with “We Can Work It Out”)

This is the one everyone remembers as initially having the famous “butcher” cover, from the photo session described earlier. Some have speculated that the cover is the Beatles’ commentary on Capitol “butchering” their albums for the American market, but it was really just avant-garde surrealism on the part of the photographer. (The Beatles had no say in which of their songs went on U.S. albums, let alone what cover photo was used.) Whitaker designed the shot as part of a larger social-commentary photo essay that he planned for the group called A Somnambulistic Adventure. It got no further than the first round of pics (the Beatles got bored with pretentious bullshit like that pretty quickly — at least in those days), and those photos were just added to their press kit with the hundreds of other band pictures. Someone in Capitol’s graphics department grabbed the photo from their files, either due to a dark sense of humor, or (more likely) figuring one picture of the group was as good as any other. It may have just been the most recent set on the pile. And off it went. 

Butcher

Anyway, about 60,000 “butcher” sleeves made it to distributors and radio stations (not quite to store shelves) before outcry over the “tasteless” cover art from said distributors and radio stations caused Capitol to recall the album at great expense, and issue it with a replacement cover (with bored-looking Beatles posed around a steamer trunk.) Some lucky folks decided to keep the butcher version instead of returning it to Capitol, and mint copies are worth a fortune. (A few thousand copies of the butcher cover made it into stores with the new cover simply pasted over it. It could be recovered through various painstaking methods. Those copies always sustained a little damage in the process, and are worth slightly less. My own vinyl copy has a little tear in the sleeve from me checking to see if the butcher cover was underneath, not realizing as a little kid I was the owner of a factory-fresh, circa-1983 reissue.)

The Paperback Writer / Rain single came out on May 30, 1966 in the U.S., and on June 10 in the UK

The British Revolver came out in the UK on August 5 with the following tracklist: Taxman / Eleanor Rigby / “I’m Only Sleeping” / Love You To / Here, There And Everywhere / Yellow Submarine / She Said She Said / Good Day Sunshine / “And Your Bird Can Sing” / For No One / “Doctor Robert” / I Want To Tell You / Got To Get You Into My Life / Tomorrow Never Knows.

It came out three days later in the U.S. The only alteration Capitol made was the removal of the three Lennon songs that had just come out on Yesterday And Today. The resulting American Revolver is very lopsided, a McCartney-heavy album (he also wrote the Ringo-sung “Yellow Submarine”), with Lennon represented by just two songs (even George got three), closing each of the album’s vinyl sides with a blast of proto-psychedelic weirdness. 

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Revolver (August 8, 1966)

  1. Taxman
  2. Eleanor Rigby
  3. Love You To
  4. Here, There And Everywhere
  5. Yellow Submarine
  6. She Said She Said
  1. Good Day Sunshine
  2. For No One
  3. I Want To Tell You
  4. Got To Get You Into My Life
  5. Tomorrow Never Knows

In a telling indication of the role reversal of the importance of albums and singles by this time, instead of putting a single on an album, Capitol released a single from the album. “Eleanor Rigby / Yellow Submarine” missed the top of the charts (barely), but when, in a spirit of experimentation, Parlophone also released the songs as a single, they got a #1 in Britain.

Unlike 1963 (in Britain), ‘64, and ‘65, there would be no end-of-year album in 1966. The Beatles were hard at work on what would become Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, which would not be ready until the following spring. To fill the void, Parlophone put all the A-sides of British singles to date (minus the first two which were on Please Please Me, and including the popular album track “Yesterday”…and for some reason, “Michelle”) on the Beatles’ first greatest hits collection — A Collection of Beatles Oldies, which undoubtedly nestled under many a British Christmas tree. They even threw in “Bad Boy,” establishing the tradition of a greatest hits album including a previously unreleased “bonus track.” The U.S. market went Beatle-less that December. (A stereo acetate of their ‘64 and ‘65 concerts at the Hollywood Bowl was made in late September, seemingly for a live album, but the idea was dropped for the moment. It eventually came out in 1977.)

In early 1967, their original recording contract with EMI expired. In renegotiating a new one, they now had the clout to make absolutely sure that Capitol Records would release their albums with the same packaging and track listing that they had in Britain in no uncertain terms, unless they gave their specific approval. This was their art, dammit, and it was not just commerce for them. EMI agreed to the new deal..

Thus ended Capitol’s slicing and dicing of Beatles albums for the American market. When Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in June, it was the first time a Beatles album made it across the Atlantic unaltered. (If Capitol were still cutting up albums, and I were in charge of Pepper, I would dump the dated, weepy melodrama “She’s Leaving Home” with its Mike Leander [not George Martin!]-arranged strings, and the dippy “Lovely Rita” and replace them with “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” both of which were originally intended for the album. Just my two cents.)

Now if they put out a stand-alone single, it was a stand-alone single in the U.S. as well. And there were three stand-alone singles in 1967:

Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever (February)

All You Need Is Love / Baby, You’re A Rich Man (July)

Hello, Goodbye / I Am The Walrus (November)

After Pepper, their next project was Magical Mystery Tour, a surreal, largely improvised, self-made psychedelic hot mess of a TV movie which ran on the BBC on December 26. It bombed, and was not widely seen in the U.S. until the home video era, but the music from it, as usual, would be in wide demand — Magical Mystery Tour, The Fool On The Hill, Flying, Blue Jay Way, Your Mother Should Know, and I Am The Walrus. 

The six songs from the TV movie were not enough to fill an album, so Parlophone put them out in the UK in a very awkward format — a double-EP. It sold well enough, but it was the sort of thing that wouldn’t work at all in the U.S.

This time, at the end of 1967, when Capitol issued a U.S.-only album, it was actually based on a good idea, and the Beatles agreed to it: A full-length album, with all the TV movie songs on one side, and all the 1967 singles rounded up on the other.

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Magical Mystery Tour (November 27, 1967)

  1. Magical Mystery Tour (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  2. The Fool On The Hill (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  3. Flying (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  4. Blue Jay Way (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  5. Your Mother Should Know (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  6. I Am The Walrus (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP and “Hello, Goodbye” B-side)
  1. Hello, Goodbye (single)
  2. Strawberry Fields Forever (single — double A-side with “Penny Lane”)
  3. Penny Lane (single — double A-side with “Strawberry Fields Forever”)
  4. Baby, You’re A Rich Man (B-side to “All You Need Is Love”)
  5. All You Need Is Love (single)

The album was so successful that EMI eventually issued it in Britain in 1976, and it’s been part of the “official” album canon ever since. John Lennon even pronounced it his favorite Beatles album “because it’s so weird.”

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 3.2: More On The Beatles’ U.S. Capitol Albums

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

Continuing our in-depth examination of how Capitol Records handled the Beatles’ output in the U.S.A…

Tracks as yet “un-albumized” by Capitol will appear in bold, even if they’ve had a Capitol single release.

The Beatles had gone into the studio from February 25 to March 1, 1964 to finish their next single and the songs that would be featured in their film A Hard Day’s Night. They got under way by completing work on Can’t Buy Me Love, which they had started in EMI’s Paris studios during their residency at the Olympia Theatre the month before. It was definitely planned for inclusion in the film, but released as a single well before the film’s release. That way, the film could boast an already-proven hit song on its soundtrack. The single’s B-side “You Can’t Do That” was recorded as well. Its possible inclusion in the film was not assured, and it was snapped up by Second Album’s compilers. (In fact, a “You Can’t Do That” segment was filmed, but cut.) The songs intended for performance sequences in the movie were also recorded at these sessions — And I Love Her, I Should Have Known Better, Tell Me Why, If I Fell, I’m Happy Just To Dance With You, along with possible stand-alone British single “Long Tall Sally” and “I Call Your Name” which were quickly shipped stateside to be on Second Album.

The Beatles filmed A Hard Day’s Night through March and April under the working title Beatlemania. The film’s much-improved final title was thought of (based on a line in a Lennon poem, in turn based on expression of Ringo’s), and UA producer Walter Shenson asked the band to come up with a song to match. A Hard Day’s Night was rush-recorded in the middle of film shooting on April 16.

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United Artists had no claim over the soundtrack’s release in the UK. As far as Parlophone was concerned, A Hard Day’s Night was first and foremost the Beatles’ third album, and a soundtrack by happenstance. But what they’d recorded so far would only fill one side of an LP. Parlophone needed side two…and Richard Lester indicated he needed one more song to finish off the film.

So from June 1-4, 1964, the Beatles went back into the studio and recorded I’ll Cry Instead (the track they planned to give Lester), Any Time At All, Things We Said Today, When I Get Home, I’ll Be Back, and two covers: Ringo singing Carl Perkins’ Matchbox, and John tearing through Larry Williams’ Slow Down

I’ll Cry Instead was dispatched to Lester, busy in the editing room, and UA made careful note of its inclusion. When Parlophone was prepping the British version of the album, they discovered if they included “You Can’t Do That” and dropped the two cover songs, making the overall album one track shorter (at 13 songs), they could call it an all-original album — every track by Lennon-McCartney!

As they held off releasing the album until the film was ready, Parlophone decided to fill BeatlesLongTallSallyEPthe demand for new Beatles product by expanding the potential “Long Tall Sally” single into an EP — an “extended play” four-song 45-rpm, a format that was quite popular in Britain but never caught on in the States.

The Beatles’ EP Long Tall Sally, featuring “Long Tall Sally” (from the U.S. Second Album) “I Call Your Name” (likewise), Matchbox, and Slow Down, was released in Britain on June 19. 

UA wasn’t scheduled to release the film A Hard Day’s Night in the U.S. until August 11, but they were getting antsy to cash in on the soundtrack, so they put it out super early, on June 26. They had distribution rights only to the eight songs actually in the film, so they created a full-length album by adding four segments from George Martin’s score, which were orchestral re-workings of other Beatles songs.

  1. A Hard Day’s Night
  2. Tell Me Why

    Hard_Days7_album_cover

    NOT Capitol! United Artists

  3. I’ll Cry Instead 
  4. “I Should Have Known Better” (orch.)
  5. I’m Happy Just To Dance With You
  6. “And I Love Her” (orch.)
  1. I Should Have Known Better
  2. If I Fell
  3. And I Love Her 
  4. “Ringo’s Theme (This Boy)” (orch.)
  5. Can’t Buy Me Love
  6. “A Hard Day’s Night” (orch.)

UA put the soundtrack out so early, I’ll Cry Instead remained on the album even though Lester dropped the song from the film at the last minute. (He didn’t think it was high-energy enough to match the action sequences it was intended for — either the frolicking-in-the-field segment, or the police chase segment — so he just used Can’t Buy Me Love twice. No one seemed to mind.)

So…EMI controlled these songs, and gave UA certain rights to them in the U.S., but what did these rights entail? It certainly seems the rights were not exclusive, because Capitol sure as hell went ahead and released them in various formats that summer. (And EMI eventually bought out the UA catalog in 1979, so all subsequent U.S. reissues of A Hard Day’s Night would be under the Capitol banner.)

The best explanation I’ve found is from the Beatles Music History website (great info, but the usual classic-rock website eyesore): Capitol could use the eight tracks in question — as long as they did not explicitly refer to or advertise whatever they put them on as a “motion picture soundtrack.” With that caveat, Capitol now had some choices to make as far as their third Beatles album was concerned. 

The British version of A Hard Day’s Night came out as the Beatles third Parlophone R-649306-1391254571-9166.jpegalbum on July 10, 1964, with the following track list: A Hard Day’s Night / I Should Have Known Better / If I Fell / I’m Happy Just To Dance With You / And I Love Her / Tell Me Why / Can’t Buy Me Love / Any Time At All / I’ll Cry Instead / Things We Said Today / When I Get Home / “You Can’t Do That” / I’ll Be Back.

Several writers have remarked that the Beatles’ musical growth was so rapid that the difference between Parlophone’s A Hard Day’s Night side one (recorded mostly in February) was quite noticeable from side two (recorded mostly in June).

A single can’t be a “soundtrack,” right? Capitol figured as much, and put out A Hard Day’s Night / I Should Have Known Better as a single on July 13. (Parlophone put out the title song as a single in the UK too — the “no singles on albums” rule in Britain didn’t apply when the singles were tied to the marketing of their films.)

Capitol desperately needed a third Beatles album out for the summer market. The six songs from the first three British singles, and the ten songs recorded for the first British album waaay back in early ‘63 were still part of Capitol’s legal wrangle with Vee-Jay Records (see previous entry.) Capitol had enough muscle to use them if they wanted to (and occasionally did), but they still regarded this stuff as not really worth the trouble.

That leaves the two German-language songs Sie Liebt Dich and Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand recorded in January ‘64 for the German market (an experiment not to be repeated), Matchbox and Slow Down from the British Long Tall Sally EP, and, technically, everything on the newly-released British album A Hard Day’s Night. 

It was immediately decided that A Hard Day’s Night would not be included. Capitol had already capitalized on it as a single, and it skirted too close to UA’s “soundtrack” turf. Its Capitol B-side I Should Have Known Better was tossed, too, for no reason I can see. Maybe it was too closely associated with the movie’s title track due it’s being on the single’s B-side. Nor was Can’t Buy Me Love or I’ll Be Back considered. I have no idea why. Even with those omissions, that still left just enough gas in the tank. 

The-Beatles---U-S--Albums---Something-New 

Something New (July 20, 1964)

  1. I’ll Cry Instead (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  2. Things We Said Today (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  3. Any Time At All (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  4. When I Get Home (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  5. Slow Down (Long Tall Sally EP)
  6. Matchbox (Long Tall Sally EP)
  1. Tell Me Why (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  2. And I Love Her (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  3. I’m Happy Just To Dance With You (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  4. If I Fell (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  5. Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand (German-language single on EMI’s Odeon Records, 2/4/64)

The cover is another shot from the Ed Sullivan appearance. The title seems a touch ironic as almost all of side two had been available to U.S. record buyers on the UA soundtrack for almost a month. The soundtrack kept Something New out of the #1 album spot, showing that the fans drew no distinction between UA and Capitol product.

And I can kind of follow Capitol’s logic in terms of song choice through this whole process…until the end of side two here. Why the hell did they include “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand” when they still had other stuff to choose from? I can only guess as to why better options weren’t chosen instead. I’ll Be Back is a brilliant song, and would have made an infinitely better choice. I suppose it may have been a little too downbeat for an album that already included melancholy songs like “If I Fell” and “Things We Said Today.” Capitol was still trying to sell the Beatles based on excitement (!!) after all. Probably someone at Capitol thought the German song would be a fun novelty for the kids. (They used to put shit like that on early Beach Boys albums all the time). Actually, anything from the ‘63 sessions would have been a better call than that Teutonic atrocity. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1960s — what mono meant

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1960s — what stereo meant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 2: Making Playlists

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

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

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

Spotify

A decades-themed “mixtape” on Spotify

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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R.I.P.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hear from MMDG:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You don’t still have your copy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Budget Sequels

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

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

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

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

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Really?

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

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

“Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man”

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

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If nothing else, it made for a great poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poe Folks (Karloff & Lugosi)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lugosi disfigures Karloff, The Raven (1935)

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

A Bride and a Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankenstein

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

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

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

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Frontispiece to the 1831 edition of the novel

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

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

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

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

And it appeared totally ridiculous.

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

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

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Colin Clive

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

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

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

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The Monster is tormented by Fritz (Dwight Frye)

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

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

The Dark Universe

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

They fared better than Universal.

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Universal logo, 1927-36

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

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

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The Dark Universe was born.

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

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

This is not what franchises are built upon.

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

The Dark Universe died.

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

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

The Birth of Universal Horror

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

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

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

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

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

The Phantom and Lon

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

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

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