Tuesday, September 29, 2009

My Own Prison

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas Rating:

Pi Rating:
and 3.1624837485....

MST 3000 Rating:

Another round up of a few movies watched recently, all three having a mutual theme of imprisonment to various degrees. After watching these very dissimilar films, it seems the greatest prison...is...wait for it...your own mind! And there lies your greatest freedom. Or greatest downfall. Take your pick.

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas (2008)
A moving film about a sheltered German boy who is the son of the commander over a Jewish prison camp in WWII. Told from the boy's point of view, the film has a unique take on the holocaust through the eyes of a German innocent. He has a great deal of curiosity and empathy which leads him to strike up a friendship with a Jewish boy inside the camp. At first thinking the prisoners are farmers, the boy slowly begins to feel something is amiss but can't put his finger on it. That's because his perception of their reality is clouded by propaganda proclaiming the camps are a wonderful place and hatred against the Jewish race. The effects of constant propaganda is explored on both a personal and societal level in the movie, illustrating the pain and destruction to people's lives that resulted.

Pi (1998)

Directed by the skillful Darron Aronofsky, this grainy black and white film takes a fairly ludicrous concept and manages to make it a white knuckle ride. It follows a mathematician determined to find the equation that gives structure to the universe. He's convinced he can find this secret by finding a formula that can predict the stock market, using a battery of computers and stimulants to stay on edge searching for the formula. One day, his computer spits out a formula that the math guy originally thinks is an error. He becomes increasingly paranoid in his pursuit of the magic formula and possibly what he thinks in an error may be the answer. And what's more, various cults may be after him chasing this formula. Frantic direction, stark black and white photography and whiplash editing generate intensity with power. A man imprisoned by his own obsession with math.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1995)

One of my favorite shows of the early 90's, MST took movie theater audience sarcasm and elevated it to an art form. The movie is really just like an extended episode of the regular tv show as this time they take on This Island Earth with humorous results. While the jokes don't capture their ability to its fullest, they reel off a series of one liners taking off from the movie dialogue in a way that would make any Rocky Horror Picture Show fan proud. What does this have to do with imprisonment? The conceit of the story is a man and two robots are forced by a mad scientist to watch bad movies, the scientist hopes to find the one film that is so bad it will drive everyone insane so he can rule the world.
So you can face imprisonment with ignorance, obsession or humor. If you're looking for freedom, well, these movies aren't very optimistic in that department. Just for kicks, below is a compilation of some of MST3K's greatest riffage including scenes from a movie whose advertisement scared me as a child, Laserblast. As for imprisonment remember, they can take our lives but they cannot take...OUR FREEDOM!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Expose' On Expose'

High Exposure - Expose (l-r) Jeanette Jurado, Gioia Bruno and Ann Curless

I was going to post about the mid-80's prog classic Emerson Lake and Powell, but that will have to wait until another day after a fateful trip to an insanely overpriced Japanese restaurant led to today's subject. While shelling out dough for food that was of decent quality that cost twice the normal amount (presumably because we were in affluent Napa), the restaurant provided "authentic" Japanese atmosphere by playing dance jams from the Reagan presidency. One, "Diamond Girl", we recognized but couldn't place so we looked it up online that evening. This put me into an 80's Freestyle fervor which takes me to a place nobody wants me to go to...so I'm going there anyway.

In the late 80's I tried to live the life of a normal single guy, which included going to dance clubs with friends to try to meet girls. This was in spite of a serious handicap - I can't dance worth a lick. Taser victims getting shot with several volts of electricity dance with more rhythm than me. Fortunately, I figured out that the dance floor was so crowded that all I had to do was plant my feet and shift weight from side to side while moving my arms to try to fit in. Well, not really, I don't think I impressed a single person with my dancing.

Anyway, while in these sweaty clubs getting my groove on and trying to drink enough to screw up the courage to ask a girl to dance some of the music actually stuck in my head. Stuff like The Communards "Don't Leave Me This Way" or The Cover Girls "Because Of You" became known to me and my favorite was this song from Expose. Sorry, Expose'. I liked the synth pattern, the way it goes from this suspended rhythm to a Latin style jumpiness then a descending fall. "Come Go With Me" became the unit's first Top 10 hit.

2. Let Me Be The One

At one point I recall seeing or reading an interview in which it was said Gioia (I think it's pronounced Joy) Bruno was to be the main singer of this vocal trio. Which was odd because it was Jeanette Jurado who sang the majority of the hits. Bruno had a strong raspy sort of voice while Jurado had a smooth, youthful yearning. "Let Me Be The One" and the next album's "Tell Me Why" were Bruno's time in the spotlight and both were hits. It has a slower sultrier groove than most of their material. In that same interview it was revealed that Bruno later had vocal problems that led to her leaving Expose'. She was replaced by the cynically monikered Kelly Moneymaker (since she's still named that it may actually be her real name) by the third album. True to her name, Moneymaker later married a soap opera star. That sounds harsh, she's probably a really nice person. Nothing gets in the way of my jokes! Nothing!!!

Expose' was a group that came up through the club scene and like a lot of all girl dance bands of the time they were masterminded by a producer. In this case, that was Lewis A. Martinee'. Known to some but not widely publicized was that this was the second version of Expose', the original trio consisting of Sandee', Ale' and Laurie Miller. This was the trio that sang on the early club hits, the original versions of "Point Of No Return" and this track. "Exposed To Love" features the first set of girls in action. According to Wikipedia, this lineup dissolved shortly before the recording of Exposure for personal and professional reasons. Is it me or does the singing on this track seem a little more Latin accented? Probably me. One of those great "what if" scenarios, like "what if the original Expose recorded Exposure? Would it have been as big a hit? Would they have dropped the Apollonia 6 get ups by then?". Important questions pondered by...no one. No one but me. Hey, did Martinee' steal that synth bit from Madonna's "Lucky Star" or what? (the version in the link above is a live take that doesn't seem to have the synth riff).

4. Seasons Change

Seasons change. People change. The $1.00 machine makes change. I change my underwear daily. Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes. Exposure's fourth single was this gem of 80's pop balladry, Jurado again takes the lead on a beautiful wistful ballad about longing. Maybe Expose's best known song, "Seasons Change" has all the melodrama of a teenage girl on 90210, Dawson's Creek or whatever infernal show kids watch these days. In any case, it totally works. Totally.

5. Extra Extra

Martinee' continues to beat that Expose' metaphor to death with winning results, here the hook "Extra Extra / Read all about it / Read all about my love" kills. Ann Curless gets a shot at the front microphone and proves herself an able performer. Billy Bush hears the song and says to himself "Yes! I've found my calling."

6. Point Of No Return

Not to be confused with Nu Shooz "Point Of No Return". Or Kansas "Point Of Know Return". Or Bridget Fonda's movie Point Of No Return. Or the original Expose's own "Point Of No Return" that was a significant club hit leading to the agreement with Arista to make a full record. The biggest and baddest of Expose's dance cuts, "Point Of No Return" kicks off with that urgent synth bit and doesn't look back. The hamfisted sexual innuendo and insistent beat shoot the track into overdrive ("You're taking meeeee...to the point of no return. Uh-uhhhh uhh"). I went to the second annual Summerjam concert in Concord with the express interest in seeing Expose'. Unfortunately we got there a little late, arriving for the final song which was this one. Before starting the song, Jurado exclaimed "We're taking you to the point of no return!". To which a guy in the audience yelled "Noooooo! You b*tch!". Too funny.

7. Love Is Our Destiny

Curless returns to lead vocals for "Destiny", too bad we're in the second half of the tape where things get a lot more generic. I barely remember this one.

8. I Know You Know

...And I know you know, because if you knew that I knew what I know then we both would know that what you don't know can hurt you if you had known. More filler, the riddle me this Batman approach to the chorus is the only memorable thing about it.

9. You're The One I Need

The huge fall off in quality continues, it's like after track 6 the record nosedives into an oblivion of cabbage patch glory. The third rent-a-beat pop dance track in a row, I remember Jurado's voice sounding a little thin on the chorus of this one and that's about it. Though in terms of nostalgia, this and "Extra Extra" brings back memories of driving on the sun splashed California highways and freeways in the heat of Summer while staying with my aunt. A sort of Baywatch vibe she lived across the street from a cliff overlooking a beach.

10. December

Finally a decent song! Whew, thought the second side of the tape was going to be all misery. Well, this is misery of an intentional sort as Giona Bruno takes on this moody ballad. Effectively haunted and tortured, Exposure ends unexpectedly with it's only downer song. Great stuff.

Expose' Exposure takes me back to a time of sunny days, disco nights and acid washed jeans. They also kicked off an avalanche of similar sounding groups like Sweet Sensation, Seduction, Company B and any other group of girls in biker shorts harmonizing while doing the running man. While they would later be known mainly for Dianne Warren ballads with Riddler titles like "Your Baby Never Looked Good In Blue" or "I'll Never Get Over You (Getting Over Me)" for a brief shining moment in 1987 they had their finger on the dance pulse of America. Gimmie a beat!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Don't...Wait, Do - No Don't Feed The Animal

Jane stop this crazy thing!

One Christmas in the 90's my wife and I were given the gift of digital life, life in the form of Tamagachi (probably misspelled but oh well). The novelty of that year, we carried these things around on our keychains or whatnot. Like a real animal, it demanded food and play on a constant basis. Now, I have a real dog which I love but still I gave this LCD critter some time. Just not enough time. This thing kept yapping and chirping or whatever sound it made and was never satisfied with the amount of play I gave it. In the end it kept dying, which was depressing.

The thing seriously needed an off switch. Or maybe it had one and I didn't figure it out. Anyway, instead of being a fun distraction Tamagachi was more like an unwanted litmus test for parenting skills I suppose. Which I guess you fail automatically because anything you're raising shouldn't be carried in your pocket next to your keys. It made me feel like the MCP in Tron, here I was torturing this electronic creature trapped in a malfunctioning Casio watch. So I threw it in my desk and never looked at it again except for its eventual trip to the garbage can.

Who the hell made up a toy like this? Unless you have the free time and dedication needed to keep this critter happy it guilt tripped you like no tomorrow. I tell you I have neither, for a creature that ran on lithium it sure was unhappy all the time. I don't think it even told time. I'm sure there are people who had a good time with this picachu looking creature, I'm just not one of them. Picachu, I don't choose you.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Meet The Beatles Again

Thanks to Rock Band: The Beatles video game there is a renaissance of their music taking place, the likes of which hasn't been seen since 1995. 2009 may be the year of rediscovering old music, what with Michael Jackson's death sparking a flooding of the airwaves with his music a few months ago followed by this new wave of Beatlemania. What's next, the return of Frank Sinatra?

And who am I to stand in the way of a fad? I can't stop it so I may as well roll with it. I've already done a Top 10 favorite song list, so I'm just gonna hit the high points on the impact their music has had on my life and/or random memories about The Beatles
  • My Mom is a fan of the Beatles, so I grew up with Beatles records in the house. Rubber Soul is her favorite album of theirs. My Mom thought Paul McCartney was cute.

  • I watch Yellow Submarine whenever I can on tv as a boy, because its a cartoon

  • "Revolution" is the first song not related to a tv show that I can remember really liking a lot. I liked the idea of a revolution.

  • Being Asian, I have to hear a lot of Yoko Ono insults growing up.

  • I start to like The Beatles a lot and so we go to see Beatlemania (The Beatles tribute band) live which may have been the first concert I went to, I had forgotten about that until now. I remember it being colorful and loud.

  • The movie Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is released starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees. At the time I liked this movie a lot. Earth Wind & Fire's cover of "Got To Get You Into My Life" is still definitive over the original to me. Aerosmith kicks ass as the evil band performing "Come Together". And I found the dreamy segment for "A Day In The Life" spellbinding. Now, as an adult, I can see how dull and poorly constructed this movie really is. At the time I really dugged it, man. Give Frampton his Oscar now.

  • John Lennon is assassinated :(

  • Paul McCartney becomes the duet king. First he's the Ivory to Stevie Wonder's Ebony in "Ebony and Ivory" (spawning the classic SNL parody with Eddie Murphy as Stevie Wonder and Joe Piscopo as Frank Sinatra). Then he playfully argues with Michael Jackson that "The Girl Is Mine" (you can guess who won that argument) before having his last "Say Say Say". Then Jacko and McCartney stop being friends after the gloved one buys the Beatles catalog.

  • Motley Crue cover "Helter Skelter". Cool.

  • John Lennon's posthumous single "Nobody Told Me" is released and plays constantly everywhere. I hated this song and it drove me nuts it was played so much. Particularly that music video made up of old clips of Lennon in a boat or some kinda crap. Interestingly, this song came up on my IPOD a few months ago and I didn't mind it.

  • Paul McCartney's song "No More Lonely Nights" plays constantly after its release as well, kinda gets on my nerves a bit after awhile. It doesn't bother me too much now though. The inclusion of "Eleanor Rigby" in McCartney's film Give My Regards To Broad Street catches my ear, it becomes a favorite Beatles tune for me. Friday Night Videos could not get enough of "No More Lonely Nights".

  • I lost interest in The Beatles after that, except as a novelty. The inclusion of "Twist and Shout" in the film Ferris Bueller's Day Off motivates me to buy the 45. Save Ferris!

  • The movie Can't Buy Me Love is a teen classic!

  • The Thompson Twins wreck "Revolution" at Live Aid. What the hell happened to my jam?

  • In college, I have a roommate who loves The Beatles. Through him I hear every single Beatles album multiple times. For some reason Beatles '65 stands out to me from that time period. "I'll Follow The Sun" I liked at the time. But my favorite Beatles record to listen to at that time? A Hard Day's Night.

  • George Harrison has a big hit with the catchy "I've Got My Mind Set On You", though I like Weird Al Yankovic's version "This Song Is Just Six Words Long" more.

  • Late night at Tower Records, me and my friend hear the most bizarre version of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds." My friend who is also a Star Trek fan pegs the voice as William Shatner. I buy the tape and become a lifelong fan of the great one's warblings.

  • I get into James Bond movies, McCartney's "Live and Let Die" becomes a favorite of mine.

  • U2 cover "Helter Skelter". Meh.

  • "Imagine" becomes a standard, being covered by everyone with a half decent voice. I'm still fascinated that a song that openly states a wish for the end of religion could be so popular. Anyway, of the covers I've heard Tracie Spencer's comes to mind as being the best one.

  • In the early 90's, my favorite tv show was the Sunday night family drama Life Goes On. The Beatles song "Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da" is used as the theme song. C'mon Corky, fight the power!
  • Guns N' Roses revive "Live And Let Die" as their own, Axl does his damned best to try to make kilts cool.

  • Shortly after being married, my wife and I take up record collecting. The Bunny becomes adept at spotting Vee Jay label counterfeits and mono recording Capitol label Beatles records. We become obsessed with and eventually buy a poor copy of the famous "butcher cover" record sleeve (featured at the top of the post). Which we later lost to a used record store guy named Zig when his shop closed (he was selling on consignment for us).

  • The Anthology series is released on CD and as a tv miniseries. We take in all of it, I enjoyed the new Beatles singles "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love". The a capella version of "Because" is awesome. Everyone loves The Beatles even more.

  • I think it's Intel that uses "Getting Better" as a theme song in commercials, so I get a copy of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to get that one.

  • Ozzy Osbourne comes up with a memorable cover of "In My Life".

  • Lennon's "Instant Karma" appears in shoe commercials, hooking me on that song.

  • Eddie Vedder covers "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away", which I like more than the original.

  • Some loser stabs George Harrison in his own house.

  • A few years later George Harrison passes away. "Here Comes The Sun" gets played all over the world.

  • Paul McCartney's Chaos and Creation in the Backyard gets into heavy rotation on my CD player. I play "Jenny Wren" a lot.

  • I go through a Beatles phase and pick up some of their CDs, Abbey Road becomes my favorite Beatles album. This happens around the time of The Beatles1. Coincidence? I think not!

  • Tried to watch the movie Across The Universe, couldn't get past the first ten minutes. Something about a cute lesbian cheerleader singing about another cheerleader, it didn't grab me so I fell asleep. It looked like it was going to be one of those ensemble musicals.

  • Paul McCartney and U2 perform the "Sgt Pepper" song at the start of Live 8. Cool.

  • The Beatles: Rock Band video game is released. People party like it's 1995.

And that's my Beatles story. Not a lot too it, I was a big fan as a kid afterwards I thought they were good. Their music is legendary and has been everywhere throughout my life. In terms of influence, there isn't a rock band that has had more impact.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Split Decision

Iron Chef Coolio, your secret ingredient for tonight's match...Cocaine!

Rating for all movies:

I've seen a batch of movies that in one way or another hit me the same - they were OK. These were three films of different genres, from different years, still my reaction was the same. Let's see what these movies were:

China Strike Force (2000)

Stanley Tong who directed Jackie Chan in films like Supercop takes his stuntfest style to a new set of actors in China Strike Force. The plot is basic action movie stuff, there's good guy cops, ruthless bad guys, drug running and yada yada yada. Let's hit the points of interest shall we? This is a Hong Kong film that appears to have almost all English dialogue yet the audio track seems like it was dubbed making it a weird effect, you hear English dubbing yet the mouth movement matches the words and the voices seem to be the original actors. You know its the original actors because the pretty Japanese actress Noriko Fujiwara struggles with her almost good enough english, resulting in an attempt at a sexy performance while sounding like Daffy Duck. The bad guys are what make this flick watchable because it's the host from Iron Chef teamed up with the rapper Coolio portraying a drug dealer named...Coolio. Take that Iron Chef Batali! Despite some audacious stunts (particularly an exciting foot chase in moving traffic) and fun wire work enhanced martial arts action the bottom line is less charismatic actors and an absence of fun had me missing Jackie Chan.

Sex Drive (2008)

After American Pie hit a decade ago (that was ten years ago? I'm getting old) raunchy teen comedies found new life in the movies. Just like the first wave in the 80's, what followed was a glut of poorly scripted low budget junk designed to pick that same audience out. The commercials for this movie, Sex Drive, caught my attention because I thought it was funny to see a cop try to taser a guy inside a donut mascot outfit. As far as this genre goes, Sex Drive has some laughable moments mostly due to an overamped James Marsden (X-Men) as a mega alpha male in full Chet Weird Science mode. Loud, bullying, super macho and destructive, Marsden owns every scene he's in. The movie is willing to give some sappy sincerity to its characters which keeps the thing from being as crass as it really is. In terms of originality, there is none here though the Amish get picked on a lot. Not that they are likely to find out. Watchable junk I half paid attention to while surfing the net. But the part where the donut mascot gets tasered? Love that part.

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

Miyazaki ably adapts Sabrina the Teenage Witch (thanks Bunny for that observation) in this story of a young witch and her sarcastic talking cat looking for a city with no witches. Like the other stuff I've seen from Miyazaki, the youthful behavior of children is well captured and the animation is good. Also like the other stuff it seems best appreciated by the young (or maybe young at heart) as Kiki's Delivery Service has all the bite of a Hallmark card. It's so innocent that the lead character Kiki has a nervous breakdown when she discovers that...oh no! There are spoiled children who say mean things about others!! I can't say Kiki's Delivery Service was bad anymore than I could say one of those High School Musical movies are bad (mainly because I haven't seen them) because I'm just not the target audience for these things anyway. Still have one Miyazaki movie in the house, Princess Mononoke, my cousin says I might like it because it's violent :)

Here's to hoping my next film choices are less mediocre! Iron Chef Tong, Iron Chef Miyazaki, Iron Chef Sex Drive, you end in a tie. Below is a video clip someone put together of China Strike Force where they manage to pack the best moments of the movie together, all six minutes of it!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Vengeance Is Mine!!!

On a recent trip to San Francisco's Japan Town, my wife and I picked up a DVD set of a fun Japanese anime show we caught on tv a few years back called Gokusen. It only lasted 13 episodes in animated form (it looks like it came from comics and is a live action program in Japan) and is a complete blast of irrational insanity. Gokusen is about rookie school teacher Kumiko Yamaguchi as she teaches her first class at an all boys high school. It's the worst of high schools where all the punks go to after being kicked out of other schools. Yamaguchi seems like a lamb being lead to the slaughter...

Except she's the granddaugther of a Yakuza leader and was raised in mob fashion. Trained in martial arts, excessively strong and armed with an old fashioned warrior's sense of honor, Yamaguchi takes care of her homeroom class with the instincts of a crime boss while acting polite and demure to keep people from suspecting her true nature. She also speaks in rough Yakuza slang and has an intense fear of the Police because of her upbringing.

The show isn't deep, it's just fun watching this character juggle the different aspects of her life. More often than not, her life as the next-in-line to run the Oodeo Yakuza clan gets mixed up with her school life to cause conflict while she slips in and out of a sweet demeanor to bloodthirsty rogue in seconds. It's a mash up of conventional tones that's really funny to watch as she will be addressing students or teachers with a sunny disposition until a comment or action sets her off into a stern angry mobster mode.
This also affects her approach to problems, Yamaguchi will often try to do "the right thing" and attempt idealistic solutions to issues only to become frustrated and physically beat the hell out of people to get what she wants. The transition is as fast as a flick of a switch which is funny in itself. When delivering her finishing blow, she'll scream "Vengeance is Mine!" Try imagining your high school teacher doing that, it's pretty humorous.

A colorful set of characters surround Yamaguchi from her dense students, voluptuous fellow teacher Ms. Fujiyama who has a thing for young boys, and an intensely loyal mob family that are often brought to tears by their own sense of honor. Her tug of war relationship with mysterious top student / slacker Shin Sawada adds to the drama.
The main bonus of the DVD was that we were able to play it in Japanese with the sub titles, we seemed to get more of the story from the subtitles than the English dubbing. That, plus I enjoyed listening to my wife sing along with the opening and closing theme songs. I don't think I'm explaining this series well, so I'm going to have a link to an episode here. For a taste of Gokusen, below is episode 2 of the series from You Tube. It includes one of my favorite moments, when Shin Sawada challenges Yamaguchi to a fight and Yamaguchi lectures Shin on fighting as a result, just not in the afterschool special way that you would expect.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

More New Music

Senators, tennis pros and rappers oh my! Having an outburst is the hot new thang. I haven't had much time for posting this week so I'm gonna do an outburst myself with some odds and ends new music I meant to feature last week but forgot about.

William Elliott Whitmore popped on my IPOD from a Paste sampler, I was impressed by this track with its old school feel. "There's Hope For You" makes me feel like I'm at the end of one of those movies where some dramatic thing happened and now we see a montage of different characters acting reflective while doing different things in different places.

This next band I can't criticize too harshly because they're kids. Somebody please think of the children! Won't someone think of the children? I saw this video on tv and spent the whole time wondering if this was a marketing trick or if they're really playing? From seeing this clip on Letterman it looks like they really play their instruments, pretty impressive. The song is just OK. Their name definitely sounds like a marketing construct made for their Disneyfied pop punk - Care Bears On Fire.

One of my favorite 90's bands, The Black Crowes, have a new set out. I'm on the fence on the first single "I Ain't Hiding", I'll have to give it a few more plays on the Pod to get a real opinion on it. It has a dance groove that I'm not entirely sold on though I like that it displays more energy than anything from their previous album.

After coming up with one of the best 70's sounding rockers of the 21st Century, Wolfmother is back (well, at least Andrew Stockdale is back with new band members) to try to do it again. Groovy!

Death Cab For Cutie has a new song for I think Twilight called "Meet Me On The Equinox" which isn't too bad, but what I'm hooked on is a song from their recent The Open Door Ep called "Little Bribes". I like the fuzzed out jauntiness and lyric about slot machines being like one armed robot amputees waving hello. That's clever.

And last, I've gotta give props to Dream Theater's new power ballad "Wither". Easily the best song from the new disc (an album I liked less and less the more I played it which was a bummer 'cause I love that band) they get some nice flick your bic moments packed into this hair metal sounding weeper.

Monday, September 14, 2009

He's Like The Wind

Today my wife informed me after work that actor Patrick Swayze had passed away. Because his health had been publicly declining for some time it wasn't shocking, but sad nonetheless. While I can't claim I was a huge fan of Swayze in the sense that I didn't intentionally follow his career, he has delivered so many strong performances in several movies over the years that I can say I've always enjoyed his work. I can't remember him being bad in anything.

Mainly known as the dance instructor all the ladies wanted a lesson from after his big hit film Dirty Dancing, in my prime movie going years he was a youth movie mainstay. I would see his performances often in those $1 movie theater flicks that would play in a now defunct old theater.

He was the guy who got jacked up being Rob Lowe's friend in the hockey driven Youngblood, one of the lead Wolverines fighting Russians on American soil in Red Dawn and one of the rough and tumble greasers in The Outsiders. All 80's teen movie classics where he was grouped with other up and comers like Tom Cruise, Ralph Macchio, Lea Thompson, Diane Lane and others. He had a commanding presence yet was able to portray sensitivity and some humor giving a broad range of characters he could handle. Convincing in both supporting and lead roles, his acting was always focused.

Swayze had his biggest successes as a romantic leading man in Dirty Dancing (where he revealed actual dancing talent) and Ghost. Those were good movies, yet what I appreciated was that he parlayed those successes into B level action movies like Point Break or Next of Kin. His action film jones led to a bonafide cable tv / drive in movie classic that had him running from Dirty Dancing to the Double Deuce.

Who would have thought after becoming a huge movie star thanks to showing Jennifer Grey the time of her life, Swayze's next move would be to star as a philosophy spouting, karate kicking, throat tearing, vertical wall banging machine (you saw the movie, you know what I mean) in Roadhouse. Successfully bridging the gap between ladies who wanted Swayze shirtless and guys who wanted to see a martial arts leaping kick to the face, Roadhouse appears regularly on television more than Dirty Dancing and Ghost combined. And I learned a valuable lesson from the movie: be nice...until it's time not to be nice.

Sad to see another 80's icon pass away. As I said, I've never went to a movie to see Patrick Swayze, he just happened to be in a lot of movies I watched. In those movies, he was consistently good. So to Patrick Swayze thanks for everything, thanks for the great entertainment all these years.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Questions 82 and 93

The first concert T shirt I had was a grey jersey style shirt with this picture and the band's logo in 1982. A few years later I wore this shirt while playing tackle football, a tackler grabbed the collar of my shirt and ripped it halfway down my left arm. The torn collar left my left shoulder exposed with a grey sagging shirt causing people to yell "Hey Flashdance!" as I walked home from the game. Only in the 80's people.
Although they've dropped off my regular listening habits, in high school I was a huge fan of Chicago. Their soft rock offerings packed with lush production and forthright vocals were like audio crack to me. Plus they were the 2nd band I saw in concert which made an impact on me as well. And my parents had Chicago tapes from the 70's (Chicago Live at Carnegie Hall and Chicago V) so I was already off to an easy start in hearing a body of work. Today I'm going to focus on the part of their career where I was a huge fan 1982 - 1991.

Chicago 16 (1982)

Going in to Chicago 16, it seemed like everything was against them. Music had changed leaving their jazz rock out of style, the death of guitarist Terry Kath and distancing from producer James William Guercio left them creatively adrift and they left long time record label Columbia in hopes of a new start. Two key factors set the band in the right direction, one was Producer David Foster who in turn brought in keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Bill Champlin.

At this stage in his career, Foster believed (and may still believe) that if his name goes on the project its his duty to deliver a first class product. With Chicago, it meant the start of his truly identifiable sound what I like to call "Foster's Freeze": glowing classical keyboard runs, sweeping strings, majestic rhythm breaks (the only way I know how to describe those parts that go Duuuhh,duhduhduh, Duhhhh with the bass), a little rock guitar and crystalline voices. He co-wrote much of the material and Fostered a writing partnership with their most commercially viable performer, Peter Cetera. The result? First class product.

The first single, the Cetera sung power ballad "Hard To Say I'm Sorry", was cross marketed with the movie Summer Lovers (the famed Darryl Hannah menage a trois' movie and I'm not going to check if I spelled that right) shot to #1. This immediately put Chicago back in business and I pressed play on my tape of radio songs often after rewinding to this cut. It is a perfect ballad and after buying the record found it ramped up to an upbeat horn driven rocker called "Get Away". A second single, the lurching thumping ballad "Love Me Tomorrow" got a lot of radio play. Two great ballads in a row with mushy lyrics and bombastic arrangements, how could I not be a fan?

The rest of the record had highlights like the Bill Champlin r&b influenced "Sonny Think Twice" but mostly focused on positioning Cetera as a romantic leading man. He was gonna "Rescue You" from those "Chains", save you from "Bad Advice" because he is "What You're Missing". The famous horn section (saxophonist Walt Parazaider, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and trombonist James Pankow) took a back seat to the keyboards except for "Get Away" and on the excellent pop rocker "Follow Me".

They were supporting this album when I saw them live for the first time, a day time show at the Concord Pavilion. Had a blast listening to songs like "25 or 6 to 4" and "Beginnings" for the first time live straight from the band (and my Dad was happy to point out the classical motifs of the music). Robert Lamm's piano solo was really memorable because he had a baby grand type and he opened the lid and climbed half way into it to pluck the strings inside. But my strongest memory of the show? Some fool yelling "Play 'Song For You!" over and over. Odder still, my strongest memory of the record isn't a song, but that kick ass record sleeve inside that had Chicago's logo printed in the middle of a computer circuit board design. High tech coolness at its max!

If You Leave Me Now (1982)

Knowing they had a long career (I mean, the album is called 16 for a reason) I grabbed a convenient comp of their 70's stuff. It was a good enough best of including "25 or 6 to 4", "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?", "No Tell Lover" and the infamous "Song For You". Even though the musical style is very different between their 70's and 80's work, I had grown up hearing the softer songs on the radio (like "I've Been Searchin' So Long") which further entrenched their greatness in my mind.

Chicago 17 (1984)

The turning point where I worshipped at the altar of Peter Cetera. The singles from their 17th effort is the ultimate Cetera fest. "Stay The Night" with it's clunky beat and CHiPs worthy car crash video went Top 20 (one of my all time favorite videos). Then came the uber ballad, "Hard Habit To Break" (why are things always so hard for Chicago to do anything? Can't say sorry, can't break habits, damn they're pathetic!) which was a Top 10 hit.

"Hard Habit To Break" was my favorite song in high school. It was so perfectly arranged that I really can't think of a song I like more on that scale. Having the high pitched Cetera play off the low soulful voice of Bill Champlin was pure genius. Comparing romantic love to drug addiction in a commercial soft rock ballad is genius ("I'm addicted to you!!!"). That break down section where the horns go off wonky and everything whittles down to a keyboard and Cetera's plaintive "Being without you takes a lot of getting used to..." is genius. David Foster, you are a genius. Dork that I was/am, I played this song endlessly on my walkman while on the school bus telling others about the greatness of "Habit".

Third single "You're The Inspiration" was another monster smash destined for weddings for decades to follow. Though it drove me nuts that the single version took out the three note guitar solo because I preferred that over the record version with it. It's like, if you know the song sounded better without that part then why have it there in the first place? My tape had the guitar solo on it dammit. One strike against you, Foster. Oh yeah, watching the video I forgot all about the Billy Idol lookalike making out with the Madonna lookalike. Classic!

Speaking of single remixes, the fourth single "Along Comes A Woman" came with a much better sound on 45. It was shorter and had sharper percussion, reining in that elastic bass line that is all over the place on record. Loved the horn section solo, one of the few they really got in the 80's on a hit song. And in the video King Cetera gets to portray two of my favorite cinema characters, Rick in Casablanca and Indiana Jones. Killer stuff and another Top 20 song.

On the rest of the record the other band members got to do a little more than on 16. Keyboardist / vocalist Robert Lamm found his social conscious for a second on the excellent ode to the homeless "We Can Stop The Hurtin". The rocker "Prima Donna" was featured on the soundtrack to the cinematic disaster known as Two Of A Kind, which I glumly sat thru in the movie theatre expecting more Greased Lightning and instead handed sub Fantasy Island garbage. But let's cut the crap, the winner of the album tracks is another Cetera ballad, the winsome "Remember The Feeling" that closes side one. My heart...(sob)...is on (cry)...my sleeve (all out bawling).

I saw Chicago live two more times on this tour, the first show at the Berkeley Greek Theatre I was in like the 10th row. They were decked out in these all white jump suits like Buck Rogers. It was another great show, got to see "Hard Habit To Break" performed live close up while it was in the middle of its chart run. And towards the end of the concert they played a fiery version of "I'm A Man". I saw them months later at the Oakland Coliseum, they were still tight and did a longer version of "Make Me Smile" that included some of the suite sections off Chicago II. Cetera was firmly ensconced in the front man role, hopping around during "Stay The Night" and running around the whole stage at one point. I found a live recording of "Along Comes A Woman" from that show, totally rad.

Chicago 17 became the band's best selling album. They had a song "Good For Nothing" included in the We Are The World charity record. Chicago seemed on top of the world.

Chicago 18 (1986)

Looks can be deceiving, the big happy family image they presented fell apart as King Cetera was given the heave ho in '85. Cetera wanted to be like Phil Collins or Steve Perry, do a solo album and then come back to the band. Chicago told Cetera to hit the pavement. It was sad to see them claim an American Music Award without Pete. After rumors floated around of offers being made to Mickey Thomas (Starship), Richard Page (Mr. Mister) and Bobby Kimball (Toto) came up empty, the band returned in '86 with Jason Scheff in the bass / tenor voice position.

I've done a big post on this classic album before so I'll just hit the highlights. With Cetera gone they wanted to go back to more of a "band" presentation while Foster went into overdrive bringing in outside writers to take up the slack. A bizarre (but nonetheless memorable) remake of "25 or 6 to 4" was the lead single and failed to go Top 40. That stupid repetitive drum pattern is permanently baked in my brain as I eagerly snapped up the 45 upon release and played it over and over. At this point it was obvious that ballads were their bread and butter, the oversensitive "Will You Still Love Me?" went Top 10 keeping their commercial prospects viable. Their sequel to "Hard Habit To Break" , the epic "If She Would Have Been Faithful..." was Top 20.

This song was another marvel of arrangement and production with Foster pulling out all the stops. Scheff and Champlin play off each other, there are electronic drums, a capella breaks and some of the most dumbfounded lyrics ever put in a straight up Adult Contemporary song. I think Steve Kipner was involved in writing both this and "Habit" so I'll give him props. Anyone who can come up with this convoluted a story line (Jason Scheff is telling his girlfriend that he's happy that his ex-girlfriend cheated on him because if she hadn't he wouldn't have ended up with her. Ah, romance). that has a bridge giving the definition of a paradox has real talent. As an added bonus, the picture sleeve to the 45 is one of my personal favorites using old tyme imagery on the cover.

"Niagra Falls" was the fourth single and not a bad tune at all. Robert Lamm continued his tradition of one decent song per album, this time with "Forever" and its extended trombone solo courtesy of James Pankow. Bill Champlin's token R&B song was one of his best, the bouncy "It's Alright". As much as I loved this album it only went Gold, a big drop from the Triple Platinum sales of the album prior. And I missed Cetera so I skipped seeing them live. Scheff was a good replacement, his voice came across as whinier than Cetera's but was still pleasant. Memories of this album is forever tied to my first months living away from home.

Chicago 19 (1988)

When Chicago returned, they had dropped (or been dropped I don't know which) David Foster. Hence (as Anna Faris says, "Yeah...Hence!") plainer production (no more Fosters Freeze) and a stronger presence from the horn section resulted. Most of the album was produced by Chas Sandford who effectively captured the sound of the band separate from Foster. Sandford seemed to add echo, sparkly synths and other effects to give the music a little more dimension. Pop rockers like "Heart In Pieces", "Come In From The Night" and "Runaround" played well. However, the singles were produced by Ron Nevison (Jefferson Starship, Survivor, Heart) minus the special effects and focused on Diane Warren's songs.

The singles also marked a key turning point for Chicago on the radio as focus shifted from the smooth voiced singer (Jason Scheff) to the soulful gruff of Bill Champlin as lead vocalist on ballads. This change was so unexpected that I remember Billboard magazine writing about Jason Scheff's "forceful" lead vocal on the first single "I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love" and hell, even I thought it was Scheff because I didn't expect Champlin. And with the switch Chicago was rewarded with a Top 10 hit. Even without using the rarely seen video, which had computer graphics on par with a Commodore 64 (come to think of it, the album cover is sorta like that too) that I can't find online anymore.

Champlin's roll continued with the second single, another Diane Warren ballad "Look Away". The tune blasted its way to #1 on the charts, eventually becoming the biggest hit of the year. This was the third time the band would hit the #1 spot, but the first without Cetera. It's placement as the song of the year was a surprise, I recall when the countdown came to a close on the radio I was with a friend giving another friend a ride home from the airport. For five minutes she ragged on "Look Away" from the back seat, of all the songs from the year how could that be the best one? Though I liked the song I was pretty stunned by its high placement too so I laughed at my friend's rantings.

A third single with Champlin's voice, the sturdy pop rocker "You're Not Alone" made Top 10 though it tends to be a forgotten hit. I freakin' love this song! A last single, the Scheff sung power ballad "We Can Last Forever" made a minor dent on the charts. "Forever" was somewhat like "Will You Still Love Me?" except it was much less successful.

Despite the lack of Foster and simplified arrangements, I really liked this album a lot. Have great memories of playing this album during the summer of '88. As I worked my first Summer at a local theme park, I cruised around town with friends playing this and Guns N Roses everywhere I went. Late in the Summer I went back to the tradition of seeing the band live, only to be disappointed by a lackluster performance. They seemed to phone everything in, even resorting to using synthesizers to replicate the horn parts of "I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love". Drummer Danny Seraphine seemed off beat at some points (he seemed to drag a bit on "25 or 6 to 4" particularly that evening). This was the first show that I saw the band's new guitarist DeWayne Bailey, who seemed an odd fit with his hair metal band theatrics and shredding technique. I vividly recall him leaping into the air and landing before the front row tearing up the fretboard during his solo on "Stay The Night" to a bank of middle aged fans that seemed to applaud out of fear. Having seen better performances by the band online from this tour today maybe this was just an off show, at the time it gave me the impression this was a band that had lost direction and was going thru the motions. Or maybe they kicked it up a notch for video recordings.

Chicago's Greatest Hits 1982 - 1989 (1989)

After the Platinum selling Chicago 19 it was time to clean up so they packed up their smash ballads into one package. Added to the set was a single edit of the best song from 19, "What Kind Of Man Would I Be?". This winsome power ballad co-written and sung by Jason Scheff would be Chicago's final Top 10 hit - and what a hit it was. Not the biggest of their career, but going out with a tenor voiced power ballad sparked by a horn section solo put a nice bow on the end of the decade. A co-dependent's dream, this album is.

Twenty1 (1991)

To start the 90's, Chicago recorded and toured behind the single "Hearts in Trouble" from the Tom Cruise car racing movie Days of Thunder. It was a little strange to see a group use an unsuccesful single from a movie soundtrack for their reason to tour, but oh well. Besides, some people took the usage of "Hearts in Trouble" on the tour shirts as an attempt at trash talk against the rock group Heart (like maybe they were fighting over bad movie songs or something). That summer was the last time I saw Chicago live and it was a strong show. New drummer Tris Imboden fit in nicely (though he had less presence than Seraphine) as the group seemed revitalized. Their performance was on point, even including an older song I was really digging at the time called "Dialogue parts I & II". The only negative was Robert Lamm openly admitting they couldn't play any of their new material because they hadn't learned it yet. Otherwise, it was a fun concert on a comfortably warm Summer night in Concord.

The following year saw the release of Twenty1, this time produced almost entirely by Nevison. Twenty1 was the album where everything came together for the group and I felt it was their best since Chicago 17. They still had power ballads courtesy of outside songwriters, but also the bands creative juices seemed to be flowing a bit more as well. The horn section had their strongest impact since the 70's, appearing on many of the tracks instead of being relegated to a handful of songs. Momentum gained from the band's prior tour carried into the feel of the album, providing their most natural recorded performance in over a decade. Where 19 seemed anemic in song arrangement and performance, Twenty1 caught a group gelling into a solid unit again. The first single was another Dianne Warren written Bill Champlin sung love song, "Chasin' The Wind".

And "Chasin' The Wind" blew its way to #39 on the charts. A second single, the magnificent ballad "Explain It To My Heart" complete with David Foster's piano playing and Jason Scheff pratically shrieking the chorus, went nowhere. Which sucked because "Explain" came mighty close to recapturing the Foster magic. Twenty1 sold poorly, the pop music audience seemingly having enough of the erstwhile soft rockers.

It was really too bad, because as I said musically I thought this was great. Robert Lamm contributed not one,but two good songs this time including the outstanding "Only Time Can Heal The Wounded". Bill Champlin's Bob Segerish pop rocker "Somebody Somewhere" was a fave of mine. Jason Scheff came close to carbon copying his hit "What Kind Of Man Would I Be?" with "Man To Woman". Although they got a little Holiday Inn band on "If It Were You" or "Who Do You Love" they still came across as crisp and sharp.

Almost as an afterthought, the Jason Scheff tune "You Come To My Senses" made an impact on Adult Contemporary radio. Though it didn't reach the Pop charts, it's probably the best known song from this album.

Group Portrait (1991)

If it's one thing this band knows how to do, it's anthologize its own music. A four CD box set of the Columbia years with remastered sound, this was an great compilation of the band's classic 70's era. All of the songs of interest big and small were included, making me a fan of lesser known tracks like "You Are On My Mind", "Alma Mater" and "Thunder And Lightning". There is a distinct arc to the band's career as you can trace the ideas starting off strong on the first disc only to dwindle away by the fourth disc. One thing this box set accomplished is help me appreciate how talented Terry Kath was. This guy had a Ray Charles soul and was a stunning guitarist. What a sad loss.

Stone Of Sisyphus (1993 / 2008)

Now ignored on all radio formats, Chicago reconviened in the studio to work on new material. Their intention was to break free from their power ballad straight jacket. After all, they had nothing to lose after watching Twenty1 go down in flames. Thus began the Stone of Sisyphus or as my wife likes to call it, the Stone of Sissy Fists. I looked up what this Sisyphus is, it is a Greek myth about a king that is punished by the Gods for his trickery by having to roll a stone up a hill only to have it roll back down and start over again for all eternity. I guess we can see what frame of mind Chicago was in at the time.

Out of the box thinking became the focus for these aging musicians. Jazz was brought back into the picture, just not the bebop jazz influence of old. No, this was Kenny G style jazz where there is some instrumental trickiness and rhythm shifts layered into a feel mellow aesthetic. Snazzy bits like "Mah Jong" beefed up the percussion and swinging horns reminding me of Spyro Gyra. The title track opener had a slick AOR feel that won me over. And even while ditching power ballads, they found inventive ways to hit their soft rock groove as on "Let's Take A Lifetime" or "Here With Me". "The Pull" also gave a nice pop rock glory.

By opening up their sound and taking risks, Stone of Sisyphus is their liveliest disc of the modern age. That doesn't make it great though. A desperate attempt at rap crashes and burns on the ridiculous "Sleeping In the Middle Of The Bed". And Jason Scheff jumps his whiny wimpering shark on the Father worshipping epic ballad "Bigger Than Elvis". Sacrificing pop melodies for fancy dancy musicianly moves entertains of a certain level but this ain't Yes.

The record label rejected the Stone of Sissy Fits as being uncommercial, which for the most part it was. Failing to release the album ended Chicago's soft rock lovin' era as they would retreat into big band and Christmas Cds to keep the mortgage payments going. Until 2008 the full recording would not receive an official exposure to the public. So my fandom pretty much stopped after 1991 as I was unaware of this album until they released another box set ages later.
Commercially they left the era as they came, audienceless except for the die hard faithful. In terms of their overall career, Chicago was in a better position by having two decades of chart hit songs to draw from in live performance. It was like The Hobbit, they went there and back again. With the exception of DeWayne Bailey, this version of Chicago would continue into the new millenium. With an interest in newer bands and less mellow music I left Chicago behind. Later I would play their music every once in a while, just not at the level I had in those peak ballad years. But from 1982 to 1991, I was all about these thunderously sappy love songs.

A last bit, this guy on You Tube called Chicagokid1969 recorded himself playing piano versions of the great 80's Chicago ballads. If you would like to, see if you can name them all!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Empty Sky

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you today is 9/11, tonight's twofer music video is going to have that theme (I should note this was inspired after reading the blog Layla's Classic Rock) . The first song is a Bruce Springsteen song called "Into The Fire" which was written about the tragedy and heroism of that horrible day. The second song is Wilco's "Jesus etc" which was written before 9/11 but I didn't hear until years afterward. It has a melancholy tone and lyrics about tall buildings shaking that unwittingly fits the mood of post 9/11 well.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Is The 90's Worth Remembering? Hmmm...

Aw jeez turn it off! Oh wait, it's just a picture. Whew.

When I blog about pop culture, I usually cover the 80's or the modern day. In between there is a huge decade long gap we call The 90's. And the reason why I don't cover the 90's? I don't remember a lot of it in terms of pop culture. It's just a vast blank. Sure there was grunge which wasn't bad, alternative rock, Forrest Gump, new James Bond movies and the Star Wars special editions...and that was about it. So like a brutal hypnotist I'm going to force myself to try to remember the 90's, the missing link. Because the truth is out there...

My first choice for the 90's, might as well start at the top (or bottom) - The Spice Girls!

Let's see, there was Sporty Spice, Scary Spice...Cranky Spice? Skanky Spice? Smack Addict Spice? Julia Roberts Spice? I can't remember their names - Bend It Like Beckham Spice? Like many, my first exposure to the Spice rack was to hear that insipid yet undeniably catchy hit that says "I'll tell ya what I want what I really want." The light pop rap and Barbie doll characters got the tweens in a frenzy. Soon their faces were plastered all over magazines and the telly. After the billionth time I involuntarily heard this song I was ready to pull what was left of my hair out. Even as eye candy only the red headed girl looked attractive to me, in that L.A. streetwalker kinda way. Copycat groups like All Saints came out of the woodwork to hock their wares, further flooding the market with this junk.

They had a second song, I think it's called "Say You'll Be Mine" which was at least passable with that wannabe (that's the name of the first song, "Wannabe") Stevie Wonder harmonica lick. They were on top of the world but all was not well in Spice World. The red headed girl got the platform shoe sized boot (not the red head! Noooo!) leaving them a redheadless quartet.

After that there was a movie which, hey, I think it was called Spice World. Look at us guvnor, we're cheeky British girls don't you like us yeah? The incessant commericals featuring some song with I think it was a Latin beat played often, I don't know if I'm thinking of them or a Ricky Martin song to be honest. Was it "Shake Your Bon Bons"? (note: after linking this video it looks like the red head girl was still here at this point. See what I don't remember.) Either way it was never the same without Charlie Brown's red headed girl in the lineup, as Austin Powers would say they had lost their mojo. Their five minutes of fame were up. At least as a musical act.

I can't remember any other music from this group but have seen them in the supermarket checkout line a lot in those rumor rags. Scary Spice had like a thing with Eddie Murphy and bore him a Golden Child or something? Then she got ripped like Mark McGwire which was truly scary (While playing for the A's Mark McGwire walked past me once, his bicep was the size of my head!). The skinny girl (Fashion Spice? Gucci Spice? Damn, still can't remember these names) married the soccer (sorry England, football) player boosting her fame so we see amazing media coverage of her walking in and out of her house a lot. Thank you very little Access Hollywood. The redheaded one became an amabassador I think? Some outlandish thing. Like most acts they've all released solo albums that would come out with a little bit of hype and then disappear. And did they reunite about a year ago? It sounds familiar, like a surreal memory that you're not sure actually happened. I'm talking David Lynch territory here.

I found the Spice Girls era to be pretty tepid, for the most part hated the music and the media saturation of their images that followed. Sure, every eight years or so there has to be an annoying musical act that hits that tween market right on the mark unraveling millions of parents dollars into their bank accounts. It's unavoidable. When I worked at a theme park this guy said we were lucky to have Duran Duran, at least they wrote and performed their own music. How right you were sir, how right you were.