Saturday, March 1, 2014
Monday, January 6, 2014
Today's record nerdery requires digging into my past.
My first introduction to the Chipmunks Alvin, Simon and Theodore, took place back in about third grade (1980) with the heavily TV advertised album Chipmunk Punk. I probably didn't recognise any of the song snippets at the time - 'My Sharona' and 'Call Me' - because I was a daggy kid; I knew I loved the Beatles, but it'd still be a couple of years before I'd by my first record ('The Beatles Movie Medley' 7-inch single, with 'I'm Happy Just To Dance With You' on the flip side, in a plain sleeve, from a shoebox full of singles at Mall Music, in 1982). So I wasn't going to know the 'punk' (actually 'new wave', if anything) songs like Blondie's 'Call Me' and 'My Sharona' by the Knack. (Okay, maybe Blondie are a punk band; the Knack weren't… much more than one-hit wonders in Australia at least. More on them in another blog, I promise! You can wait, I'm sure.)
What I didn't know about the Chipmunks back then was a lot. At least until some feature-length animations from later in the ’80s made it to television. Maybe there were some other cartoons that made it to Australian television. There was a boss guy called David Seville who yelled at Alvin a lot to keep him in line. In fact, there must have been a Christmas special, because I can remember parody lyrics to 'Deck the Halls' where Alvin sings, "Don't forget your gift to me…" that causes Seville to yell, "Alvin…!" while the Chipmunks are fa-la-la-la-la-ing.
I didn't know that David Seville was the 'real' voice of Ross Bagdasarian, who engineered the high-pitched musical shenanigans way back in 1958 - after he'd already had a hit with a similarly high-pitched novelty song, 'Witch Doctor', also under the name David Seville. (You know the song - with the 'Oo ee oo ah ah walla walla bing bang' chorus.)
Here's David performing it on The Ed Sullivan Show:
Bagdasarian/Seville's next single after 'Witch Doctor' was 'The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)' - where he got to use his novelty gimmick again. He performed that song on Ed Sullivan with hand puppets. It proved popular enough to warrant an album. By the time of Chipmunk Punk, David Seville was being played by Ross Bagdasarian, Jr.
As loathsome as The Chipmunks might be, just remember: without David Seville and The Chipmunks - or perhaps, just without 'The Witch Doctor - there'd be no David Bowie's 'Laughing Gnome'. And wouldn't the world be a poorer place then!
Here's another thing I didn't know about the Chipmunks: they originally looked like Chipmunks. Really.
Many years after Chipmunk Punk came out, I was working in a cool record shop called Egg Records, where I stumbled upon a copy of Let's All Sing with the Chipmunks. An original pressing:
I guess that's hardly earth-shattering news, seeing as the Chipmunks' most recent reboot sees them looking like chipmunks again. But after that album, the Chipmunks appeared in a comic book, and then on television in The Alvin Show, their images overhauled for these projects. (David Seville also got somewhat of a re-tweak). They now looked more like the Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera style of animation, popular at the time. The album was reissued, tying it in with The Alvin Show (as Theodore's libretto shows).
But that's not the only overhaul their image had - a few years later, Alvin and the Chipmunks were given Beatles wigs, Theodore lost the Alvin Show libretto (and Alvin and Theodore's right hands were slightly adapted) for an EP of Beatles covers.
I scored this at Revolve Records - an Erskineville emporium of eclectic vinyl, just a short walk away from Egg. Perhaps it was issued when the album and film of A Hard Day's Night were doing good business; everyone else was cashing in on the Beatles-led British Invasion in America, so why not the Chipmunks? No doublt the Beatles' version of 'A Hard Day's Night' had already topped the charts, since the cover of the record suggests this release shares the same title. But the back cover and the record label gives the title as The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits, with 'All My Loving', 'I Saw Her Standing There' and 'Do You Want To Know A Secret' comprising the rest of the tracklisting.
So how faithful are the arrangements to the originals? Are they rockin' quartet recordings, or orchestral versions with sped-up vocals over the top? Do you want to know a secret? I've no idea. I've not listened to the record. Nor will I. I probably bought it for the cover more than anything else. And the fact that it's an Indian pressing. That's right; even though it's on the Liberty label, the fine print tells me it's "Made in India by: The Gramophone Co., Ltd. Calcutta". Technically, EMI - the parent company that owned Parlophone, to whom the Beatles were signed, was also The Gramophone Company, Ltd., (fine print on labels and covers would also have explained that, until EMI was restructured in the 1970s) so it's kind of fitting.
There was a full-length album of Beatles covers recorded. The vinyl proves quite expensive nowadays.
Before I let you get on with your life, I'd just like to point out that Theodore-in-a-Beatles-wig, in either version of the Chipmunks as Beatles, looks quite a lot like northern comic Eric Morecambe in a Beatles wig. (The Beatles appeared on The Morecambe & Wise Show in 1963; music hall comics Morecambe & Wise would go on to be the most successful television comics of their time.)
Sunday, January 5, 2014
Ask me what recording I'm most embarrassed to admit I own and you probably expect it's something Paul McCartney-related - because you probably belong to that demographic still convinced that Lennon was the genius who died too young, and Macca, the one who sold out too early. Although you'll wonder why I have so many pressings of the same single, that you can't tell the difference between (it's okay, I can). Or it's something by Yoko Ono, because, of course, she 'can't sing' and 'broke up the Beatles' and all that other nonsense that makes you a day-tripper, no matter how much you claim to love the Beatles.
Clearly, the most embarrassing recording I own, is a particular piece of vinyl dating - I assume - from the mid-'70s. It's an Australian compilation album, on the Majestic label, called Souled Out (Majestic NA 450).
Some background: Majestic was an Australian TV-advertised label. Like many other TV-advertised labels, it leased masters from other labels to put together top 40-type compilations of current hits, or hits of particular artists. Initially distributed - and then taken over - by K-Tel, Majestic (and then the Australian version of K-Tel) was the local version of K-Tel International, a label that originated in Canada. An abbreviation of 'Kives Television' - a Winnipeg, Manitoba station founded by Philip Kives - the label existed in order for the station to make money through mass-marketing. By the 1980s, K-Tel proved to be the biggest source of compilation albums in most of the markets it existed in. And - (this may come as a surprise) - it still exists, issuing music digitally. (Lousy mastering and poor pressings were the norm for TV-advertised albums; this is much less of a problem with digital downloads.)
Anyway, back to this particular embarrassing record. I haven't owned it all my life. I picked it up a few years ago, probably for a fiver from Egg Records in Newtown (or even their city store, while it still existed), most likely at the end of a shift behind the counter. In fact, I reckon I would have paid less than five dollars for it; it would have been in the five-dollar rack, but the beauty of the Egg Records five-dollar rack is that you can have ten records for $25, and that's probably what I would have done to secure this particular specimen.
It's an Australian pressing. I doubt it could exist in any other territory. Because it claims to be a compilation of 'soul music' (ie black artists performing black music). There are a handful of artist photos around the border - but the central image is an illustration. A 'caricature', if you will. It's a horrible blackface golliwog image, wielding an acoustic guitar at a microphone.
Perhaps you could perpetrate so racist a record cover anywhere in the world in the '70s. But remember, many Aussies were still scratching their heads in recent years, not quite understanding how or why a Michael Jackson parody on one of the reheated soufflé editions of Hey Hey It's Saturday was racist. It was a Red Faces sketch utilising blackface, leaving Harry Connick, Jnr with the reddest face of all. Meanwhile, mainstream media was still trying to work out how or why it was racist. That was in 2009. This record in the 1970s? I wasn't old enough to remember ads for it, or how it went down. I'm sure there was no furore in Australia back then.
I'm not questioning the offensiveness of the image, and I accept I'm as guilty of racism, presenting it here, even though I do so 'ironically'. I know I should destroy or discard the album. It's not quite like owning Nazi paraphernalia, but it differs in degree, not kind. I have friends who have walked out of potential employers' offices when they've spotted a golliwog doll on a shelf; I don't react so strongly, but I also haven't spent a lifetime being harassed by cops and fellow citizenry purely because of the colour of my skin. I do feel a bit guilty owning the record and bringing attention to it.
However, if you've read this far without having to close your browser, please allow me the indulgence to continue.
Much as you'd rather put out your eyes, or at least wash them with methylated spirits, please take a moment to consider the image. For starters, note the shiny mirror-ball disco boots. Note also the musician's classic "keep on truckin'" pose, as made famous by Robert Crumb.
Of course, Crumb's also famous for his portraits musicians - a series of images collected as R Crumb's Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country.
Had the 'soul' genre of the music not been illustrated by blackface caricature, the cover would be 'cutting edge'. Ish. Instead it's a rather rude misappropriation of Crumb's work.
And then there's the title pun. 'Souled out' is supposed to sound like it's filled to the brim with soul music. But to have 'sold out' has negative connotations in the music biz.
The best part is one of the truly evocative tracks on the compilation is that proud clarion call by Aretha Franklin: 'Respect'. Pity they compilers of this release showed none to her and her fellow artists.
In conclusion, I can only regard this album as a compilation for people who kind of only sort of slightly like soul - you know, the mainstream cross-over hits - without understanding any of the other cultural aspects or politics that go with it. And it can only exist in a culture that doesn't realise just how racist it is.
And yet, I hold onto the record, even though I know better. Should people walk out in disgust when they spot it on my shelf?
Saturday, November 16, 2013
Not too long ago I blogged about my recent acquisition of an Australian pressing of the Capitol Classics edition of Copland's 'Billy the Kid', performed by the Ballet Theatre Orchestra conducted by Joseph Levine. I quite love the cover and was keen to discover who was responsible for it.
I asked my mate Coatsie, who is an artist, as well as other artist and record collecting mates if they happened to recognise the style or know who the artist might be.
Coatsie suggested it might be Thomas B. Allen. Not a bad suggestion. Turns out Allen did provide the cover art to a recording of Copland's 'Billy the Kid'. But not this one.
His work adorns the cover of The Copland Album, a CBS Masterworks release (nowadays it'd be on the Sony Masterworks label) featuring the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, performing a number of Copland's pieces.
In my travels, googling 'Billy the Kid', 'Copland' and 'Capitol Classics', I stumbled upon an excellent website belonging to Nori Muster, outlining aspects of the Capitol label's history. Nori's father Bill spent some years as Capitol's merchandising manager during the 1950s. In addition to being a working musician, her stepfather, Don Hassler, was a sales rep for Capitol for the better part of that decade, beginning in 1953. Given the Capitol Classics Billy the Kid album was released in 1953, this could well lead me to the information I was after. So I emailed Nori.
Sadly, Nori's stepfather passed away a few months ago. It's likely he would have known the answer but we couldn't put the question to him. Instead, Nori offered to put the cover on her site and ask the question there.
Her historian friend, Mark H.N., suggested it might be the work of Donfeld, "better known," according to Mark, "for his costume design for movies and television". I admit, I didn't know Donfeld's work. Or rather, I did; I just didn't know his name. Mark gave me an excellent example: Donfeld designed Linda Carter's Wonder Woman costume.
Mark goes on to say Donfeld's first job, after graduating from college, "was as a designer and art director at Capitol Records starting in 1953, the year this album was released". He points out similarities in the Billy the Kid cover to some of Donfeld's costume sketches, "especially the upraised hand holding the gun":
Mark offers, as an example, Donfeld's sketch of Sylvia Miles's costum in Evil Under the Sun.
I will admit my ignorance of the work of Donfeld. I love how, like Sting, Bono and Miles, he gets around with just the one name. Although a little bit of research reveals he was in fact christened 'Donald Lee Feld' and his film and television work is as extensive as it is varied. (Spaceballs and Prizzi's Honour!)
That means the thing by the showgirl's thigh that looks like a bit of a running writing on its side is in fact just filigree or ribbon, and not a stylised signature.
I hope he produced more covers. I look forward to stumbling upon more of his work. Meanwhile, check out his portrait and see if you aren't drawn to his hands, which seem very similar to the hands that he's drawn.
Monday, November 11, 2013
The other 50-cent album I picked up at Epping St Vinnie's, purchased, again, on the strength of the cover art, was a recording of Aaron Copland's 'Billy the Kid' - a piece of music I've heard of, but never heard. (However, everyone's heard Copland's 'Fanfare for the Common Man'; it used to be a particular favourite piece of soundtrack for certain items of bling in the Sale of the Century prize pool; it always gets cranked out for sports-related anthologies of music, even though it was designed for 'common' man rather than 'superhuman' man. While the piece was written for the Cincinatti Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Goossens - after whom a performance hall of the ABC's Sydney headquarters is named - my favourite version is by Emerson, Lake and Palmer.)
There are sleeve notes on the back - which is one of the things I love most about vinyl and even CDs over mp3s: something to read, along with artwork you can actually see, while you listen. The text for Billy the Kid provides the biographical details of Billy that are embodied in the ballet that we can't see, along with the music we can hear. "Despite many fine qualities," we're told about Billy, "he soon developed a terrible talent for murder." Interesting turn of phrase. Turns out a townsman, Alias, fired a stray shot that killed Billy's mum, and that's what caused Billy to develop that talent of his.
The notes also tell us that the recording was made under the supervision of the composer, providing authenticity.
Frequently a 'serious music' album (on CD or vinyl) has more space than one piece of music can fill; the accompanying piece[s] are designed to complement the main one featured on the cover.
Accompanying pieces often complement the main feature. They'll provide a broader understanding of the composer by presenting more of their work, or a better understanding of the ensemble and/or conductor by providing more of their repertoire. This album combines William Schuman's Undertow with Billy the Kid. I know nothing of Undertow, but love the notes:
"Its tortured hero, frustrated in his infantile love for his mother, writhes through the ballet, doomed to hate the women who most attract him. The story starts with the birth of the Transgressor. The mother immediately turns back to her lover, rejecting the son. Thus the neurosis is also born."
(The record was first published in the US in 1953 - at the height of the post-war rise of psychoanalysis and the beginning of the ever-growing male identity crisis.)
Sadly, the CD release of the Levine conducted Ballet Theatre Orchestra's recording of Billy the Kid replaces Schuman's Undertow with Morton Gould's Fall River Legend and Elmer Bernstein's Facsimile.
Sadder still, the sleeve notes don't mention the cover artist.
But I love the cover: Billy's cowboy hat has an incredibly wide brim. The brim could almost be the work of Saul Bass - but none of the other art, to the limited experience of my untrained eye, seems to be.
Although, maybe that hand - doing gunslinger tricks with the gun - may be a precursor to the golden arm… And note it's the left hand doing the fancy gunslinging - making Billy a southpaw, artistic, not to be trusted.
Combined with it the floral print shirt and flamboyant waistcoat, suggesting Billy's 'yeller' maybe; certainly arty. The sleeve notes have already established him as somewhat of a mama's boy.
The 'crowd' is pretty cool though. It's hard to tell if it's two legal dudes holding one of Billy's floozies 'hostage' or if it's Billy's accomplices manhandling a 'tart with a heart'.
My copy is an Australian pressing, but I'm guessing an early one since it's on the purple 1950s Capitol label, and rather than naming EMI as the parent company, credits instead The Australian Record Company Ltd, 29 Bligh Street, Sydney. Rather than the US catalogue number, P-8238, it carries an Australian one: CLCX 047.
Maybe an original US pressing or a current CD pressing will carry cover art credits. Meanwhile, I'm having a hard time determining who the cover artist is. I thought perhaps the show girl's filigree might be a stylised signature - like a Hirschfeld 'Nina'.
I'll be honest. I can't make out what, if anything, it says. Perhaps a Russian emigre, by the name of 'Minin'? That'd be a nice irony, given the uber-Americana embodied within the contents of the record.
I've asked the collectors and artists (and collector-artists, and indeed, artist-collectors) if they've got any ideas. None do.
My mate Simon Coates (awesome Aussie artist, currently in Canada) suggested it's Thomas B. Allen, but it turns out it isn't.
Friday, November 8, 2013
Another one of the records from the Epping St Vinnie's. Only, I liked this stupid cover enough to splash out and pay 50¢ for it.
In the first place, I'm not one to collect classical music on vinyl or otherwise. I own the odd disc (vinyl and CD) but it's down to the composer and/or performance ensemble. So there's quite a bit of 'modern' composer in my collection: Michael Nyman - and not just the Peter Greenaway soundtracks; Stravinsky - particularly the recordings he conducted or supervised; Webern because I felt like I should; stuff conducted by Pierre Boulez and Kent Nagano because they'd worked with Zappa so I felt I could trust their choices; Varese, of course, because of Zappa; heaps of Philip Glass, some John Cage and Gavin Bryars; even some Ades when he was the Next Big Thing in the serious literary mags towards the end of the last millennium - but mostly because he was my age and a celebrated genius while I was just some schmuck reading about him on public transport to soul-destroying day jobs… I never could get through a whole Ades disc.
What I do know about classical music, from a lifetime in music retail and my brother's own extensive collection, is that classical releases typically have artwork on the cover, or serious photos of the performers - either in performance, or in high quality portraits.
This record was different. It's cover was a photograph that was ironic and silly. It was on the 'Polyphon' label, of which I know nothing, except that, since the second part of the word is 'phon' rather than 'phone', it's probably European. (The Parlophone label, for example, was 'Parlophon' is non-English parts of Europe.) The rainbow motif above the name reminded me of a local cheapie classical label, 'Rainbow'. What does cheap classical label mean? Old recordings, probably not remastered, on thing vinyl pressings with not a lot of dynamics when it comes to volume or frequency range.
But I don't care: I'd never listen to it. I was buying it for the cover.
Which is awesome: crosseyed dude in a '70s perm, buried up to his head in walnuts, with one in his mouth. Get it? He's just vomited a mountain of walnuts. He's sick. He's nuts. He's crackers.And it's a recording of a popular ballet, Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker Suite'.
It's a 1972 recording of the Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ferdinand Leitner (of whom I'd never previously heard). It's distributed by Phonogram, which by the late-'80s, would be PolyGram, the Australian distributor of Polydor and Phonogram and associated labels. (This company would eventually become the Universal Music Group conglomerate). The sleeve notes are in English, but not particularly well-written. There's a reference to Tchaikovsky bucking the nationalistic trend of his time, "prefering to follow the German symphonic tradition", but the 'p' has been left off; so he spent his career "refering to follow…".
There's some illustration crowbarred into the top of the back cover, of a mouse attacking a toy soldier, in as much space as the poorly written sleevenotes allow.
I don't know terribly much about Tchaikovsky, although Monty Python tells me he was homosexual.
Certain parts of the sketch that traces his life (a 'special episode' of 'Farming Club') makes me cringe now, but what I can say about it is Michael Palin's particularly camp arts show host is a parody of someone who dressed as flambouyantly and had as fluffy hair (and fluffy and flambouyant voice) who was presenting such programming on the BBC at the time. Don't remember his name. I've just seen him in old docos from time to time.
So I can't help but want to make a comment about the dude on the cover whose got Tchaikovsky's nuts in his mouth.
Meanwhile, comedy lovers may well be familiar with the idea of the cover. There was a very popular comedy album by Allan Sherman called My Son, the Nut.
I should probably point you to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite online. Here's my favourite version of it - a musical comedy version by Spike Jones that adds lyrics to tell the story (cos you can't 'listen' to the story the ballet tells). Again, the dated material makes me cringe in some places rather than laugh.
And, to complete the post, here's Allan Sherman's My Son, the Nut. It's chock-full of foolish lyrics added to recognisable tunes and styles. Like the letter home from camp, to 'The Dance of Hours', that we now know better as 'Hello Muddah, Hello Fudduh!' (It also has 'Hail to Thee, Fat Person'.)
A factoid I knew as a kid but never thought much of is that Liberace came to Australia, 'discovered' the talents of a local kid, and took him to America.
I remember this factoid being reiterated during a music lesson. By an old man who used to teach English.
Let me back up a bit: Mr Barrington was an old codger who could have been a granddad. But he had a teenage kid. He spoke like an old man - not a cranky old man, more a Sandy Stone type. He had a tendency refer to students as 'young rabbits' - as in, 'settle down, you young rabbit!' Or maybe he didn't - maybe that was an 'elementary, my dear Watson' line attributed to him in impressions. He'd also hand out Butter Menthols to keep kids on side, apparently. But he had a teenage kid, to which, whenever someone brought it up in conversation, I'd have to exclaim with a Harry H. Corbett impression nobody could possibly get (Steptoe & Son hadn't been on telly for a long time, nor was it currently available on video, and DVDs had yet to be invented), "you dirty old man!"
One day our music teacher was away, and Mr Barrington supervised our elective music lesson. We were supposed to be composing some piece of music or other in a specific key… and he insisted that if we couldn't hear it in our heads, we weren't real musicians. We got into a discussion about favourite musicians, and Mr Barrington brought up the young singer who had been taken to America by Liberace.
I must have known this already, because Mr Barrington couldn't remember the singer's name, but I could: it was Jamie Redfern, a 14-year-old with the voice of an adult opera singer, and an original member of Young Talent Time's Young Talent Team.
I hadn't thought about it again.
Not even when I went and watched Steven Soderbergh's Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra.
The film is based on the memoirs of Scott Thorson, a young man who became Liberace's paid companion at age 16. Surely Jamie Redfern must have become 'of interest' to Aussie journos when Behind the Candelabra was released.
But I didn't think about it, hadn't remembered Jamie Redfern.
Until the other day, wandering through Epping, when I came upon a St Vinnie's a block away from Station and succumbed to that constant urge to browse through old vinyl in charity shops.
And I saw a copy of a Jamie Redfern album with Liberace on the cover with him. Of course, the cover image is at the top of this blog post, but I've included the hastily snapped, out-of-focus image of it here too.
Worth noting: Liberace doesn't seem to perform on the album - his only appearance is in the publicity photo appearing on the cover.
Turns out Jamie Redfern was briefly of interest to Aussie journos this year, on account of the Liberace biopic. He says nothing untoward happened, apparently.
A more in-depth interview with Jamie Redfern was conducted as part of a profile on the ABC show George Negus Tonight, back in 2003.
Oh, and speaking of 'elementary, my dear Watson' moments - I was disappointed that Liberace never got to say, 'I wish my brother George was here' in Behind the Candelabra.