Category Archives: The Holy Bee Recommends

The Holy Bee Recommends, #10: Grow Your Own “Flowers”

Flowers

The bastard step-child of The Rolling Stones’ discography. Generally forgotten or ignored by younger fans (i.e, those under 50), it lingers on in the mind of two types of people: those who were actually around when it came out, and music writers. Every time a Stones song missed the mark for the next two decades after its release, critics would say “sounds like it should have been dumped on Flowers,” or words to that effect.

RollingStones_Flowers_Albumfront_pr

I have gone on at some length before about the 1960s policy of U.S. record labels chopping up and altering British albums — ostensibly as a money-making measure (fewer tracks per album in the U.S. resulted in more albums to sell), but they seemed to go out of their way to put them together in the clumsiest, most haphazard manner possible. It is folly to try to follow the thought processes of these record executives, but it almost seemed a deliberate attempt to make the worst decisions possible regarding song choices and sequencing. Yes, yes, they were clueless “suits” handling “product”, but shouldn’t a little understanding of their product have crept in by 1967, when the practice finally started dying out?

There was a theory that The Beatles’ famous hastily-withdrawn “butcher cover” on just such a hideous American re-packaging (Yesterday And Today) was their protest against the practice. (It wasn’t. It was just a random photo session, and the photographer, Robert Whitaker, had overly-arty sensibilities. The Beatles had no say in what Capitol Records slapped on the covers of U.S. albums)

The Stones’ American label was, ironically, London Records, and was an enthusiastic participant in these practices. On their ‘65 tour, the Stones were stunned to spot a massive billboard in Manhattan advertising an album they had no idea had been put out under their name — December’s Children (And Everybody’s). A typical collection of leftovers wrapped around a recent hit single (“Get Off Of My Cloud”), but the label didn’t even try to politely call it a compilation — it was presented as their “latest album.” At least by ’67, they weren’t trying to fool anyone.

So Flowers is generally referred to as a compilation album, but most people’s idea of a “compilation” album is a collection of previously released material (e.g., a best-of, or retrospective), and most of Flowers was unheard, at least in America — with three absolutely ridiculous exceptions. “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend The Night Together” were two sides of a big single — but also the key tracks from the U.S. version of the album Between The Buttons, released a mere four months earlier. “Lady Jane” was even more puzzling — it was a non-single album track from their year-old album Aftermath. Why stick it on Flowers? Your guess is as good as mine. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #9: Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980)

Perhaps it wouldn’t be such an odd idea nowadays, now that cartoons, comic books, and even comic strips are acceptable — even ideal — fodder for big live-action Hollywood films. In popeyefact, you can probably subtract $25 million from your opening weekend if your film isn’t based on some colorful funnybook creation.

But 1980 was a different world. Superman had been a success two years before, but that was more of an anamoly than the true beginning of the comic/movie phenomenon. And it made sense. Superman was a great character on which to base a film. But…Popeye?

A balding, muttering, one-eyed sailor with a seemingly stroke-induced speech impediment, a filthy, chewed-up corncob pipe jammed in the corner of his slack mouth at all times (even while asleep), freakishly swollen forearms and possibly rickets (or at least severe hip dysplasia)? This was leading man material? Someone evidently thought so… Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #8: Best Versions Of The 25 Best Christmas Songs (Part 2: 10 Through 1)

The King of Christmas Music, and my role model in everything except parenting: Bing “If You Hit ‘Em With A Bag Of Oranges It Doesn’t Leave A Mark” Crosby

#10. “Merry Christmas, Baby.” Possibly because of their gospel roots, R&B singers seem to love Christmas music, and there are several worthy compilation albums out there that bring together some of the best R&B takes on classic Christmas music. (Sadly, there are also compilations that bring together some of the worst, so buyer beware.) In addition to R&B renditions of the traditional carols, there’s also a huge array of original R&B  holiday songs, from Charles Brown’s heart-breaker “Please Come Home For Christmas” (also covered in a hit version by — yeeesh — The Eagles) to Louis Armstrong’s goofy “‘Zat You, Santa Claus?” But the grandaddy of them all is “Merry Christmas, Baby,” originally recorded in 1947 by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, and covered by everyone from Chuck Berry to Christina Aguilera. BEST VERSION: Otis Redding. Recorded at his peak with the powerhouse Stax-Volt house band, Redding schools them all. You can find another version on Elvis Presley’s second Christmas album, 1971’s Elvis Sings The Wonderful World of Christmas, which can’t hold a candle to his first. Elvis sounds tired and jaded, and probably has one eye on the gingerbread at this point, but it does contain a version of “Merry Christmas, Baby” that’s worth hearing. If you can get past the quasi-blues musical arrangement that probably sounded fine in ’71, but today sounds exactly like a Cialis commercial, you’ll be treated to a casual and funny version of the song, something that sounds like the band warming up in the studio prior to recording whatever they were supposed to recording. It also sounds like the band thought song was going to be faded out for its ending, but the take that made it onto the album goes way past that point, with Elvis (whose pharmaceutical assistance is quite audible) tossing out increasingly bizarre asides to the musicians, and attempting to scat between verses.

#9. “Christmas Must Be Tonight.” Apologies to Creedence Clearwater Revival, but there simply was no better (North) American band from 1968 to 1971 than The Band. Which I guess is a moot point here, as “Christmas Must Be Tonight” dates from their less-consistent later years. Originally intended to be a special, non-album single release for Christmas 1975, it was dumped at the last minute, and ultimately included on their patchwork final release, Islands, in 1977. Good thing, too, as the dire Islands needs a lift, and “Christmas Must Be Tonight” re-visits the strengths of the Band’s glory days — Rick Danko’s soulful vocals, Garth Hudson’s mystical organ, and a rural, rustic arrangement that hearkens back to an era (music writer Greil Marcus calls it the “old, weird America”) that none of the Band members could possibly be old enough to remember — half-history, half-fantasy, it all comes from chief songwriter Robbie Robertson’s fertile imagination. BEST VERSION: The Band. My research indicates Hall & Oates also took a stab at it, and there’s an iTunes-only version by Band heir-apparents My Morning Jacket that just came out a few weeks ago.

#8. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” At this point, we should discuss the merits of Christmas albums. There’s always a few new ones each year, generally by flash-in-the-pan mediocrities (most often from competition TV shows) hurriedly shoved out as a cynical cash-grab to pad out their sales figures, which will soon go into steep decline when the American public, with its squirrel-monkey attention span, moves on to the next TV-endorsed mediocrity. When it gets right down to it, the best Christmas albums all came out between 1945 and 1965. I feel that way not because I’m necessarily the world’s biggest Andy Williams or Gene Autry fan, but because by comparison, the newer ones sound kind of vapid and overly slick. Working beyond this Golden Age, your best bet is compilations — collections of songs by various artists. And even during the Golden Age, one of the best Christmas albums was a compilation. Well, sort of. All of the various artists were on the same label (Philles Records), all of the songs were recorded at the same time for the same record, and the whole project had a single producer: Phil Spector, the label’s co-founder. The future convicted murderer gathered together his top four artists — The Ronettes, The Crystals, Darlene Love, and, uh…Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans (how did that happen?), put together amped-up versions of some Christmas favorites featuring his big, booming Wall Of Sound production technique, and let loose this gleeful explosion of holiday bliss — on November 22, 1963. Understandably, it kind of fizzled at the time. But A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records (later pressings of the record replaced “Philles Records” with “Phil Spector”) had staying power, and now it stands proudly atop the Christmas album heap. BEST VERSION: When that creepy cat lady Susan Boyle is deservedly long-forgotten, Darlene Love and her “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” will continue to have eternal life. (Two or three Christmases ago, Boyle was a household name, but just for a moment there, you thought to yourself, “Susan who?” didn’t you? See? It’s already happening. And what Christmas song did she do definitively, for all time? Exactly. Not a damn one.) Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #8: Best Versions Of The 25 Best Christmas Songs (Part 1: 25 Through 11)

All right, kids, pull your chair up next to the fire, make sure your hot cocoa has a liberal splash of peppermint schnapps, mute that horrid eunuch Michael Buble warbling away on whatever passes for a network Christmas special these days, and lend an ear to the Holy Bee’s Top 25 Christmas Songs — and the artists who did them best.  Some of the songs are permanently associated with a single artist, and no other version (if even attempted) comes close. Others have been done more times than Tila Tequila (rim shot.) And even though I say “25,” faithful readers know I always throw in extra.

First of all, let’s dispense with those 3 Perennial Chestnuts that are more jingles than songs: “Jingle Bells,” “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” and “Deck The Halls.” A staple of grade-school recitals, these super-simple ditties that anyone can pick out on a piano after few minutes of fooling around barely qualify as “songs.” We can acknowledge that they’re a huge part of the fabric of Christmas and move on.

Second of all, while I cast a pretty jaundiced eye on religion, the music lover in me has a lot of fondness for some of the Jesus-oriented songs. Some would say that the sentiments expressed in the religious songs are the whole reason for Christmas to begin with, and to them I say feh. Solstice festivals at the end of the year had been a facet of civilization since time immemorial. Then the Christians came along and, with no scriptural nor any other kind of evidence, high-handedly plopped their savior’s birthday right on top of the year-end celebrations that predated their belief system by several millenia. They co-opted it because they knew people were already having a good time around that time of year, and they wanted a piece of the action for their golden boy. Well, I’m co-opting it right back, and I’m taking the term “Christmas” and several of the songs with me. Secular humanism for the win!

#25. “The Nutcracker Suite.” Not really a song per se, this is a sort of sampler of various musical pieces, hitting the highlights from a much longer work, Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker. Originally a flop at its 1892 debut in St. Petersberg, Russia, the U.S. took the The Nutcracker to its collective bosom when it began regular Yuletide performances in the 1950s. BEST VERSION: The Brian Setzer Orchestra knocks the hell out if it with an arrangement that combines rock & roll energy with big-band swing.

#24. “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” Simple to the point of retardation,

Burl Ives

this sounds like the ramblings of a friendly guy on the barstool next to you. “I dunno if there’ll be snow/Have a cup of cheer…” The singer sounds as if he’s had a few cups already. BEST VERSION: Burl Ives’ 1965 recording is the one most people are familiar with, having been written for the Rankin-Bass Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special which featured Ives as narrator/singer the year before. The TV version is slightly different, and the later recording became the definitive rendering.

#23. “Christmas Time Is Here.” The slow, sad-sounding theme to the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s healthy to have a little melancholy injected into your year-end celebrations. You’re one year closer to the grave, after all! (Ho ho ho.) A Charlie Brown Christmas has become so firmly entrenched as a holiday tradition, some people even think of the jauntier “Linus & Lucy” theme (i.e., “The Catchy Peanuts Piano Music Everyone Knows”) as “Christmas music,” but I associate more with Halloween. The Great Pumpkin special opens with it, whereas it’s buried halfway through the Christmas special. Best Version: The original by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

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Holy Bee Recommends, #7: "On Writing"

Stephen King…the name still conjures images of his 80’s heyday, when his novels about vampires, re-animated corpses, haunted hotels, and psycho killers defined horror fiction. His work took a broader turn beginning about twenty years ago, giving a subtler, more psychological twist to his grim terror tales, and also expanding far beyond the confines of the horror genre.

I am an unabashed fan of King’s work, but not for the reasons one would expect. Nothing that the printed word conveys can truly terrify me (this is the failing of my own imagination, not of King’s skill), so I read King for the clever twists and turns of his stories, and for his authorial voice — informal, highly descriptive, pop culture-savvy, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #6: "Marry him, murder him, do what you like with him."*

I freely confess that I am a library junkie. I realize that this puts me in a category with lonely spinsters and elderly men who can only read a newspaper if it’s threaded through a wooden baton, but it got its claws into me early.

1985? 1986? I know I was barely into the double digits in age when I forsook the beanbag chairs and Betsy Byars books in the children’s section in the basement of the old Woodland Public Library for the adult section upstairs, with its musty-smelling stacks and high-arched windows. And the fireplace! On cold winter days, there was always a blazing fire in the periodicals section (in the fireplace, not actually amongst the periodicals, which would have been quite alarming), and those high-arched, iron-banded windows seemed made to have rain spattered against them. It always seemed to be raining on days I visited the library. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #5: "The devil is waiting for them…the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out*…"

The 1950s and 1980s had some similarities. During both decades the country was in the hands of a slightly doddering, grandfatherly president, we were economically stable (if you ignore the skyrocketing – pardon the expression – defense spending), and American society swung toward the conservative. One of the side-effects of this swing was the screeching, reactionary killjoys who were obsessed with the damaging effect rock music was having on the younger generation. It was…the devil’s music.

In the 1950s, it was the jungle throb of the rhythm – of African-American origins – and the blatant sexuality it seemed to invite, that upset people so. Racism aside, their reaction was understandable. It was sex music. The 1980s were actually a little more hysterical. They had come to terms with the sex (mostly), but now it was the devil himself they were wringing their hands over. The cartoon Satanism espoused by second-tier heavy metal acts as a way to be provocative did just that. The 1980s were steeped in media stories about “Satanic cults” and “ritual murders.” Don’t hear too much about those things these days, because society eventually grew up and realized it was all a load of shit. There were a few blips on the radar later (Marilyn Manson, gangsta rap), but it was those two decades in which the most people got their knickers in a twist about the “devil’s music.”

Ferriday, Louisiana’s own demon-child, Jerry Lee Lewis – often referred to simply as “The Killer” – burst onto the scene in the first wave of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. From behind his poor, abused piano, Lewis bashed out the fastest, harshest, most defiantly alive music of that repressed decade. His 1957 single “Great Balls Of Fire” lasts one minute and fifty seconds, but it seems eternal – in the same way someone who holds on through a thirty-second earthquake swears it lasts forever. Just before that, his “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was a blatant come-on, a declaration of sexual prowess only slightly couched in metaphor. (Only Billy Ward & The Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man” from 1951 was more explicit in its bedroom bragging, and guess what? Lewis covered it later.) Lewis was a howling, leering, stomping madman, and the only reason he wasn’t lynched for the length of his hair was because he kept it brushed back (unlike those Liverpool fruits who came over a few years later). All you have to do is watch the YouTube clips linked above to understand what a bomb had been dropped on the 1950s. He was an untamed force of nature, like Keith Moon and G.G. Allin. Of course, unlike those two, The Killer still lives and breathes. Continue reading

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