Posts from 27th February 2006

27
Feb 06

ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK – “Release Me”

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#230, 4th March 1967

“Release Me” spent 56 weeks on the UK charts, but its position in modern pop history is as a footnote – the single that kept The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” off number one, an injustice so apparently staggering that it’s often the first case cited when critics want to cast disdain on the entire singles chart, or the public who help create it.

I’m not going to argue that “Release Me” is a better record than the Beatles’ one – because it’s not – but I was interested in exactly why it gripped the charts so hard. Listening to it on the train home tonight what struck me was its directness – “Release Me” is a three-minute divorce plea, never cruel but frank, reasonable and allowing no way back. I can’t offhand think of another huge hit which had tackled that sort of subject – break-ups yes, but the word “release” implies a contract. (The line about “your lips are cold” suggests that the lady might be dead, but Engelbert doesn’t play it goth!)

A quick bit of research turned up a couple of intriguing facts. During the mid-late 1960s the median age of first marriage was at a historical low point – the lowest it would be through the entire 20th centry, barely over 21 for women and 23 for men. I can think of a few possible reasons for this – higher affluence, increased sexual pressure, earlier puberty – but whatever the reason the median age had been falling since the end of the war. So the generation of teens who had been buying cheap gramophones and records by the ton in the late 50s had also been getting married earlier than ever.

The divorce rate, meanwhile, was rising – it hit a post-war low at the turn of the 60s and then increased sharply every year since. In 1969 the Divorce Reform Act was passed, making “irretrievable breakdown of marriage” grounds for divorce and cutting the legal barriers which had made it such a difficult (and humiliating) experience. It came into force in 1971 and the divorce rate skyrocketed. It almost trebled over the next three years, suggesting that there were a lot of unhappy marriages which could now be mercifully ended.

A lot of young people in the mid-60s, in other words, were caught between a pressure to marry young (for whatever reason) and the ever-increasing possibility that this decision need not be irreveraible. In 1967 though, divorce was still difficult even if it was more common, and it’s hardly a surprise that in these circumstances “Release Me” struck a massive chord. The particular genius of the record was its slow, soothing arrangement – too stark and the lyrical pill would have been entirely unsugared. As it is, for someone in the agony of a failing relationship, Humperdinck’s appeal to reason might well have seemed like a sympathetic and necessary shoulder.

PETULA CLARK – “This Is My Song”

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#229, 18th February 1967

Of course this isn’t her song (that would be “Downtown”). It’s Charlie Chaplin’s song – the royalties from it helped pay for the final, flop film it starred in – which may explain why it sets its cap so firmly against the sounds of the 1960s. With its slightly awkward phrasing and chintzy light opera arangement it could have fitted into an early Eurovision contest from a decade prior, though it’s too unsophisticated to have actually won. Chaplin’s rhymes and sentiments are mawkish and impersonal, and Petula’s decision to weight every noun so heavily makes her sound like she’s had a course of vocal botox.

The Opposite Of Thrillpower

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 379 views

Put The Book Back On The Shelf (no really – this is a comic shop, not a library)
THE BELLE & SEBASTIAN COMIC.

Read it and feel all sensitive.

But What About Iced Toilet Water…?

Proven By SciencePost a comment • 503 views

Science geek girl sticks hand down toilet, cleaner than fast-food ice she finds. Twelve year old girls are funny aren’t they. Especially twelve year old brain-box girls. Who spend too much time watching Supersize Me.

I suppose we are supposed to be surprised that the water in the toilet is cleaner than the ice. But I was talking to a public health virologist the other day, and she explained to me that more water is always better than cleaner water. The source of most waterborn or water carried diseases is usually a high concentration of bacteria in a small amount of water. An ice cube is a small amount of water compared to the two pints of water in the average toilet bowl. What’s more, how did she test the ice? Did she wait for it to melt, thus giving the bacteria a chance to grow.

I am sure her methods are all fine and above board, and that she used proper disclosing tablets to get her results. I am just not sure what the story MEANS. I’ve always known the water in toilets is pretty clean. THAT’S THE POINT OF THE WATER!!!

Terminal Error

Do You SeePost a comment • 294 views

Watching the only Spielberg film wot I have never seen at the weekend, got me thinking about form and content. I have spent a lot of time over the last few weeks thinking about television. What it can, and cannot do well. And watching The Terminal it suddenly occurred to me that this was actually a sitcom, or a comedy drama at least, waiting for a NBC run.

The sit: A man becomes stateless in the air, is not allowed to enter New York. As such he ends up living in JFK airport in the passenger lounge. It is a situation without an end in sight, it is only cleared up when the civil war at home ends. And as we know from M*A*S*H, wars last as long as the series needs. There is a quirky supporting cast of cleaners, immigration official, baggage handlers. There is a nemesis who can be constantly thwarted. A love interest in the stewardess who comes through occasionally. And there are endless story opportunities with the passengers passing through.

Oh, and your lead character can have a funny accent.

The Terminal’s strength as a sit-com are its weaknesses as a film. The interminable battle between Immigration is seen as a petty personal vendetta, rather than anything worthwhile. There are about six sub-plots which are all rather extraneous to a movie plot. The romance (rightly) never goes anywhere, which would be perfect in a sitcom but feels wrong in a film. And we know the film is going to end in two hours, it is not time-bound.

The Terminal is Spielberg’s strangest film: perhaps as for once it is not long enough*. It needed to be eight series of twenty four episodes rather than a two hour film.

*It is still too long as a film.

THE MONKEES – “I’m A Believer”

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#228, 21st January 1967

My feelings about the Monkees and their music are entirely entangled with my feelings about their TV show, and childhood TV in general. Pop music wasn’t a big deal in my house growing up, and I had no real idea of the Monkees as ‘a band’, even if they played a band in the show: I just didn’t know what that might mean or what a band might do.

There was a massive gap, it seemed to me, between American shows like the Monkees, or the Banana Splits, and British programmes like Ivor The Engine, or Fingerbobs, or Bagpuss. (Of course now I know that these shows were made for very different agegroups, but they would run together during the UK school holidays so I consumed them as a whole.) I preferred the British shows, by a long way – the Monkees upset and annoyed me, their shows seemed to make no sense, and though just as plot-light were more frantic: talking about it to Pete the other day, he described the American style excellently as “nothing happens all at once”. The Monkees seemed to be always running about – I could not imagine the genial hippies who fronted or narrated Fingerbobs or Ivor running anywhere. Those presenters reminded me of my parents, who would tell me a story and then leave me to my imagination. The Monkees reminded me of my nursery school teachers, forever chivvying me to join in and have fun.

(The running about in the American shows, of course, wasn’t because American kids were much livelier than British ones: it was mostly because the budgets were bigger and so children’s programme making wasn’t confined to tiny broomcupboard studios which necessitated the crafts-and-puppets approach the UK output took.)

I went wandering down this route when I was trying to figure out why I’ve always had such a blindspot about the Monkees. “I’m A Believer” is professional, slick pop, crammed with hooks and imaginative touches – and I often love professional, slick pop. I’ve danced to this song, I’ve thrown shapes on the “I’m in love!” parts, I can listen to it now and hear some subtle, surprisingly soft vocal touches: it’s a terrific bit of craft and full of heart and enthusiasm too. I ought maybe to be right behind the Monkees as some kind of godfathers of the artificially created band. Instead, even as I enjoy the record, I can still feel my five-year-old self, nervous and uncomprehending, faced with the Monkees’ kind of televised fun and resenting it.

Brandwatch: Something Old, Something New…

Pumpkin PublogPost a comment • 706 views

It’s back! Well, it never went away, but apparently iconic 80s drink Taboo is set for a makeover, building on the launch of “Taboo Blue” last year (not in the boozers I frequent). If you’re 18-24 and a lady you might want to look out for this as there is a huge taboo target painted on you.

(No word of Mirage, though.)

For our male readers aged 25 and over – and let’s face it this is most of you – Guinness is launching the “Guinness Surger”, an ultrasonic plug-in gadget which for seventeen quid will allow you to ‘activate the settle’ in your home-consumed Guinness and create the perfect pint. If you think this sounds a little desperate you’d be right – parent company D1ag3o is in trouble and a collapse in interest in Guinness is a big part of it. Maybe drinkers are just sick of stout?

Batman: Jazz

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 2,207 views

This very odd 3-issue miniseries by Gerard Jones and Mark Badger came out in 1995 – as a Batman story it falls a little flat, mostly because you can guess who the villain is very quickly. The plot – surrounding a Charlie Parker analogue who returns after being presumed dead for 40 years – is an excuse for Batman to wander around letting a bunch of old jazzmen, mobsters, pushers and so on tell their stories. These stories are themselves vehicles for a series of angry digressions on music and the jazz scene.

Throughout the comic, jazz music is treated with reverence when opposed to almost any other kind of music, though it rapidly becomes clear that the story’s motor is a conflict over what jazz ‘should’ be, and that Jones disapproves of attempts to claim this or that practise as authentic: the murderer is one of few* comics’ villains to have r0ck1sm as their motive! Even so the belief in jazz – however constituted – as possessed of an unshakable, pure and spiritual essence is obvious, and I was delighted to find the story’s payoff a version of the old “If you have to ask, lady…” line.

Quite what Batman is doing here is never quite clear – there is a bit of hokum in which the Bird figure shows a mysterious understanding of Batman’s inner pain, and it’s made clear that Bruce Wayne is a jazzbo himself, but even so the scenes with Batman duking (“Duke”-ing, ho ho) it out with ‘The Brotherhood of the Bop’ are ludicrous. But Mark Badger’s art is stylish throughout and if you have an interest in how the comics treat music you could do worse than hunt this down.

*Garth Ennis’ “Muzak Killer” in Judge Dredd is another.

I Was A Goblin: Fantasy Football

TMFD1 comment • 962 views

At first glance the I Was A Goblin series seems out of place on TMFD. Certainly when I was small, and played D&D, not many of my fellow enthusiasts were what you might call sportsmen. The gangly types were occasionally required to make ungainly stumbles round the track on sports day, and there was never the kind of institutionalised jocks/nerds hostility you seem to get in American high school, but these were still two cultures. I don’t even think any of the people I gamed with were fans of sport, or not with any passion.

Which is odd, because football and D&D are very similar. Think about it:

Play in “Football” (Box Set available from TSR) is based around groups of people who have to work as a team to achieve their objectives. These groups are a balance of four basic classes of player, though some players can ‘multi-class’ effectively and variant classes abound. On their adventures the team, or ‘party’ has a set ‘marching order’ designed for the greatest tactical effectiveness. Roles within the party vary: saving the party from damage, sneaking around to try and ambush the opposition, and so on. Some players employ a repertoire of magical effects and tricks, which can be very effective, though often leave them physically more vulnerable.

The adventures themselves consist of a series of brutal – and oddly repetitive – conflicts, often set in ancient locations which require lengthy travel to reach. Some of these encounters are randomly generated, and contentious outcomes are decided by the intervention of a referee.

Game objectives are threefold:

– quests for specific and valuable artefacts, which usually require a lengthy campaign to acquire.
– searches for ludicrous amounts of cash well beyond any player’s ability to spend.
– improvement in player abilities. If a player improves enough they may move ‘up a level’. A particularly successful campaign can result in an entire party moving up a level at the same time!

In between campaigns players tend to visit taverns and generally debauch themselves, though higher level ones often prefer to spend time in their castles.

Ahem.

This all maybe explains why I found it easier than I thought to start liking football. It almost certainly explains why I’ve translated this vague liking of football more into an appreciation of the Football Manager series of games than into actually getting out and watching any.

RIP Octavia Butler

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 373 views

I was living in upstate New York in 1984, a happily budding nerd for sf among other things. Star Wars had come out when I was six and some years on my tentative explorations into actually reading sf had led to Asimov, Herbert and others. So I joined the venerable Science Fiction Book Club — shortly afterward, due to an ordering error, I ended up with both rather than only one of the selections of the month. The one I wanted was Tolkien’s The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, which is of course great in its own way.

The one that arrived by accident, which I read anyway, was Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark. It remains one of the happiest accidents in my life.

Butler’s abilities as a writer, her imaginative capacity, her sheer presence, is almost shockingly great, though only because we accept so much that is less intriguing in the meantime (and I certainly don’t discount myself from that judgment). She brought so much to the table — thematically, stylistically and more — that to look back on it is to be amazed. She also knew how to talk, how to communicate her ideas in interviews, essays, and more, and more so also had the gift that many writers do not necessarily have to be able to talk about HOW one writes, how one can write and can continue to improve. This interview, though brief, has a telling example:

”I’ve talked to high school kids who are thinking about trying to become a writer and asking ‘What should I major in?’, and I tell them, ‘History. Anthropology. Something where you get to know the human species a little better, as opposed to something where you learn to arrange words.’ I don’t know whether that’s good advice or not, but it feels right to me. You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. It’s just so easy to give up!”

Wikipedia’s entry has more information and starting points. May she rest well and may her work always be cherished.