Articles by Dave Hoenack

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story of star wars

The Star Wars trilogy takes up a fair amount of space in our record collection at home. The reason for this is something that might alarm millennials: when we Gen Xers were growing up with Star Wars, we couldn’t watch it on any passing whim. Even if you were fortunate enough to have VHS or Betamax player, there was likely only one in the house, forcing you to share video time with people — ugh, parents — who didn’t understand how important Star Wars was. Worse still, you had to convince them to spend twenty dollars a piece for the tapes. Or rent it. Lord knows our parents spent enough money renting Star Wars at the grocery store to open their own franchise.

So the way you recreated Star Wars was through the records. Each of the original three films had an excellent soundtrack LP, with composer John Williams conducting the London Philharmonic. In addition to providing hours of background music while playing with those Kenner toys in the basement, these albums offered stills from the films to look at and, in one case, a poster.

20th Century also produced story albums for each of the Star Wars films, and licensed the images and score to Disney’s Buena Vista Records. This last move led to the storybook records with an amateur cast, and the first wave of anxiety over the Disneyfication of the trilogy around the same time J.J. Abrams was a sixteen-year-old scoring Nightbeast.

We love the actors on these 7-inch records, especially the guy who plays Han Solo.

If you think this is fun, wait ’til you hear Buena Vista’s versions of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The best part is actor Michael Dorn (of CHiPs and Star Trek fame) playing Darth Vader for the first time.

adventures of luke skywalker

The story LPs had the actual dialogue from the film, and they were awesome. The first was narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne, and was recently broadcast here in town by KFAI’s Listening Lounge. Our favorite is the storybook treatment of The Empire Strikes Back, released as The Adventures of Luke Skywalker and narrated by the improbably named Malachi Throne.

The first two soundtrack albums were frustratingly mis-sequenced, making it impossible (without moving the needle several times) to act out the films while playing the album. Ideally, these interruptions could be timed to coincide with costume and scenery changes. Those of you who grew up with these records probably understand.

star wars

The success of Star Wars and The Story of Star Wars naturally inspired imitations and knock-offs. Meco’s famous disco version of the main title theme and the Cantina band, from his album Star Wars and Other Galatic Funk, briefly became the #1 song in America. Before we come down on Meco for cashing in on the Star Wars fad, which folks certainly did, he reportedly saw the film four times in the first week. He may be one of the awesome-est Star Wars nerds of all time.

meco star wars

london orchestra

Orchestral knock-offs became ubiquitous. While recording the Star Wars theme may have lent a little class to the Boston Pops after Saturday Night Fiedler, other albums were janky at best. The deceptively-named and inferior London Philharmonic Orchestra released an album with this warning on the jacket to avoid lawsuits or, we suppose, a brick through the window of the basement where they recorded.

Star Wars record ephemera extended well beyond the story book albums and the scores. There was, for instance, a 12″ single with an extended version of “Lapti Nek,” the fucking awesome Max Rebo Band jam which was cut when the “special edition” of Return of the Jedi appeared. Lucas and crew pushed for the song to become a dancefloor hit, re-recorded it with Michelle Gruska (today a voice-over artist and vocal coach) taking Sy Snoodle’s lead. The sad state of “Lapti Nek” is a subject of controversy with Star Wars fans, as the song as it appeared in Return of the Jedi in 1983 has never been issued on a record.

But something else sparked more controversy when folks started to listen to the Star Wars scores at home. Classical fans noticed striking similarities to other albums in their collections. It started with the main theme, which bears several striking similarities to Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s title them for King’s Row, a modestly successful film produced by Warner Brothers in 1943. Previously it was best remembered by film buffs for being the movie to make Ronald Reagan a star (it’s where he first said, “Where’s the rest of me?” — a line which became the title of his autobiography written while running for Governor of California). Korngold’s music was popular enough that the studio was prepared with a form letter for requests for it’s score, which studios rarely offered on albums or sheet music at the time.

It wasn’t until after Star Wars sparked interest in the score that it was finally recorded and released as an LP, although it is considered one of the finest works in Korngold’s extensive film catalog. He also wrote several string quartets, concertos for strings, and symphonic works. In his main title theme for King’s Row you’ll likely recognize the inspiration for the main title theme to Star Wars, but also Williams’ themes to Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

kings row soundtrack

Was Williams a thief? Meh, hardly more of a thief than George Lucas himself. And honestly, if it weren’t for Lucas’ appropriation of mythology, we wouldn’t have read books like The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell as teenagers and seemed smart to our peers in college. Without Williams we may have not discovered Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s magnificent score to this otherwise forgettable film. Without Star Wars we might be wandering in some desolate desert.

But questions about the Star Wars scores persist. It doesn’t help that the theme from ET is eerily close to a passage from Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony or that the best part of Jaws clearly comes from Dvorak’s From the New World symphony.

Perhaps the most damning example of Williams’ creative license is also the most memorable melody to come out of the Star Wars trilogy. The debut of “The Imperial March” in The Empire Strikes Back is nothing less than movie magic, but it’s also a familiar theme.

empire strikes back

Frederick Chopin’s B-flat funeral march was hardly as obscure as the score for a Ronald Reagan film. In fact, it was one of the pianist’s finest moments. The Marche funèbre from his Sonata no. 2 was completed in 1839, and a century later became a standard at state funerals. Fifty years ago it was performed by a military band during the funeral procession for Winston Churchill, and just two years earlier for John F. Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery (hear the latter here).

rubenstein chopin

Orchestrations of Chopin’s funeral march date to the earliest part of the twentieth century, but it was Edward Elgar’s arrangement in 1933 which became the most popular and likely inspired Williams’ “Imperial March.”

You can hear an original 78rpm recording of Sir Adrian Boult’s conducting Elgar’s arrangement performed by the BBC Orchestra in 1937 at Abbey Road here.

Pianist Arthur Rubinstein is often considered the finest interpreter of Chopin’s music, and first recorded the Sonata no. 2 in 1946. It is included in RCA’s Red Seal Chopin Collection (pictured at left), and features a moving performance of the funeral march.

Another recurring theme from The Empire Strikes Back becomes integral to the story when Han Solo is put into carbonite by Darth Vader. After Princess Leia expresses her love for the scoundrel (to which he famously replies “I know”) we hear the theme introduced when the two first kissed aboard the Millennium Falcon.

This lovely romantic melody was first introduced in Tchaikovsky’s sole violin concerto, which was completed in 1881 and remains regarded as one of the most demanding works written in the form. We chose a recording which features David Oistrakh, a virtuoso to whom concerti by Shostakovich and Kachaturian were dedicated. He’ll introduce the familiar theme just past halfway through the recording sample below, which comes from a 1962 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

Tchaikovsky re-introduces the melody near the conclusion, much in the same way Williams does with his love theme in Empire when Han is frozen. Tchaikovsky initially intended to dedicate his concerto to Iosof Kotek, a violinist who historians believe was also briefly his lover. Kotek did not want to debut the piece, and their forbidden relationship wasn’t allowed to blossom, as was the one between “a princess and a guy like me,” as Solo phrased it.

tchaikovsky concerto

If Williams relied on his record collection for inspiration while composing the Star Wars score, he certainly had a favorite in Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring, which we featured here on the Hymies blog a couple years back. It’s magically surreal opening mirrors Williams’ musical landscape for Tatooine, and an exciting early passage provided the soundtrack of stormtroopers on the march in the middle of the film.

We took our samples from Stravinsky’s ballet from this exciting 1968 version by the Chicago Symphony with Seiji Ozawa conducting. Our earlier post about it uses an earlier recording with the composer conducting.

rite of spring

The suspenseful music heard as the Millennium Falcon comes out of hyperspace and approaches the Death Star comes from a likely source: Gustav Holst’s seven part suite, The Planets. Early passages of “Neptune, the Mystic” are reflected in other scenes set aboard the gigantic space station as well.

The eighth and furthest planet had only been discovered a little over thirty years before Holst’s birth, and was still shrouded in mystery when he composed this movement for his suite on the celestial bodies in 1915. It was not until Voyager 2 passed the planet in 1989 that we were able to get a good look at it.

holst the planets

While fans have had fun finding reflections of Williams’ Star Wars scores in other classical works, they are hardly more ‘stolen’ themes than re-invented, the same way the story itself borrows from films like The Hidden Fortress. It is hard to imagine any scene from the trilogy without the music.

return of the jedi

Williams also provided inventive otherworld music for the Cantina band, Jabba’s palace, and the Ewok celebration. Like “Lapti Nek,” this last song was replaced in the 1992 “Special Edition” of Return of the Jedi, to the frustration of fans. The replacement song was also written by Williams, but proved to be highly unpopular, as were most changes made in the “Special Editions.” What better place to end our survey of Star Wars records than with the end of Return of the Jedi?

ewoks

The word “Ewok” is never spoken in Return of the Jedi, nor are any of the little warriors given a name except in the end credits. Their celebration song at the end of the film — which fans know as “Yub Nub” –is in a language invented by legendary engineer Ben Burtt, who is responsible for the sounds of Star Wars.

This storybook record about the Ewoks is from the same Buena Vista series which licensed the music and images, but not the actor’s voices.

liszt rhapsodies

Franz Liszt published his Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 in C-Sharp Minor in 1851, but it was some seventy years later it made is cartoon debut cementing the piece in American popular culture.

In an early Walt Disney cartoon, The Opry House, Mickey Mouse is forced to battle a manic piano while performing the popular encore.

Liszt’s irrepressible music reappeared just two years later in Krazy Kat’s Bars and Stars. Disney used it again in Silly Symphony, and this cartoon, along with Max Fleischer’s Car-Tune Portrait, presented the unique challenges animals face when performing classical music.

When Warner Brothers’ looney genius Fritz Freleng discovers the Rhapsody’s potential, it becomes one of the funniest pieces of music imaginable. Freleng first uses it in Rhapsody in Rivets, a wordless masterpiece produced for Merry Melodies in 1941. In the cartoon (frustratingly unavailable on Youtube!) we watch a Leopold Stokowski look-alike conduct the construction of the building, using the blueprint as a score, all choreographed to Liszt’s Rhapsody no. 2.

Of the half dozen Freleng cartoons to feature the music, none is as memorable as Rhapsody Rabbit, in which Bugs Bunny makes his concert debut performing the piece only to find an unwelcome helper. Without straying from Liszt’s score, Freleng animates their conflict with magical timing in this clip below.

Bugs answers a phone during his performance (“What’s up, Doc?”) and says, “Who? Franz Liszt? Never hear of ‘im.”

The bit is lifted almost immediately by competitors Hanna and Barbera in the Tom & Jerry cartoon A Cat Concerto.

The Rhapsody no. 2 has also been performed by Woody Woodpecker, Rowlf the Dog, and in a violent piano duel by Daffy Duck and Donald Duck in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It appeared in three Marx Brothers films, and was used in a song about all the flavors of ice cream by the Animaniacs.

Throughout all this, the Rhapsody remains a concert favorite, often used by pianists to present their virtuosity in an encore. Liszt’s score enticingly invites the performer to add a cadenza. Many great pianists have written additions, notably Sergei Rachmaninoff and Arthur Rubinstein. From the very beginning it was a concert favorite, and as records were introduced it became a recording staple.

The recording used in this post, incidentally, is by Alfred Brendel, one of our favorite pianists of all time. Although he was known for his serious, scholarly attitude towards interpretation (once saying his “responsibility is to the composer and to the piece,” not the performer), Brendel likely appreciates the Rhapsody’s comic potential. In a recent retrospective interview he talks about his appreciation of early cinema:

As a child, I had played a lead in a children’s theatre and watched movies by Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The fascination of the cinema has remained, culminating in a film series that I curated a few years ago under the heading “Between Dread and Laughter”. Great acting in the theatre as well as on the screen has continued to inspire my urge to play roles as a musical performer, and to treat musical pieces as characters.

Liszt himself was said to be one of the greatest pianists of his time, if not of all time. Few reliable accounts really tell us what he was like in performance, although he was occasionally mocked in reviews for his dramatic nature. He was known to add his own cadenzas to other works, or to include fluid changes of tempo to existing scores. In one letter he admitted doing all this to gain applause from the audience. We cannot imagine what Liszt, who life was tantalizingly close to the age of recorded music, would think of all these appearances in cartoons, but we think he would approve.

She just hates taking a day off. She’d rather be in the record store greeting everyone.

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Unfortunately.

You might have noticed a clipping of this news story in the shop, about Leonard Skinner, the coach at Jacksonville’s Robert E. Lee High School who sent teenage Gary Rossington (or Ronnie Van Zant, depending on the account) to the Principal’s office, causing his suspension. His hair violated the dress code because it was long enough to touch his collar.

We were reminded in most stories about Skinner’s passing in 2010 that the band should have listened to him, as though wearing their hair shorter would have prevented the tragic airplane crash which killed several members of the band and crew.

In fact, after their debut album, (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd), became a certified-gold chart topping hit, the band began a long friendship with their former coach. Skinner introduced them on stage in Jacksonville, and allowed a photograph of his Skinner real estate sign to appear inside their third album, Nuthin’ Fancy. Go ahead and look inside your copy.

After the October 20, 1977 plane crash, in which Van Zant was one of several killed, Skinner spoke about them with reporters. “They were good, talented, hardworking boys,” he said. “They worked hard, lived hard, and boozed hard.”

gimme back my bullets

We think all the reporters with their clever story missed the point by dwelling on the band member’s faults, and it seemed like most of them hadn’t really listened to a Lynyrd Skynyrd record in a long time. If they had they might have quoted from one of our favorites, Gimme Back My Bullets. “Every Mother’s Son” is sometimes mistaken for a cover of the song from Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die, but all they share in common is a title. It’s almost as if Ronnie Van Zant were predicting the future.

Well I’ve been ridin’ a winning horse for a long, long time
Sometimes I wonder is this the end of the line
No one should take advantage of who they are
No man has got it made
If he thinks he does, he’s wrong

Every mother’s son better hear what I say
Every mother’s son will rise and fall someday 

It sure is a shame when really awesome records are in a basement flood or a leaking garage, and they end up destroyed. If you’re a collector you’ve surely seen ’em, gatefold stuck together forever, or jackets so moldy that no amount of scrubbing is going to salvage them.

That’s the story with this crate of cool records someone brought in over the weekend. Some of the records most damaged were from the short, eighteen-album run of Rosetta Records, a label which always has awesome liner notes.

mean mothers

Fortunately, most of them are still read-able, and the albums cleaned up pretty well. We always thought Rosetta Records was named for Sister Rosetta Tharp, the trailblazing gospel singer who we wrote about here back in May. After all, one of its releases was a collection of her songs. We have learned the label was in fact named for its founder, Rosetta Reitz, a feminist writer who had a pretty extraordinary career even before she started making awesome archival records.

Reitz (pronounced “rights”) worked as a stockbroker, ran a book store called the Four Seasons and a greeting card business before she borrowed money for all her friends to start Rosetta Records in 1979. She was already by this time a published author, both of cooking books (she had been a food critic for the Village Voice) and books about women’s issues. She was fifty-five when she started her record label.

Rosetta Records compiled jazz and blues records made by women, mostly from 78s which were in the public domain. These were the same sort of archival albums as the Stash Records collections we posted about a few weeks ago when describing Patty and the Buttons’ vintage smut album. Reitz wrote extensive liner notes with each album, and the gatefold jackets featured a variety of vintage photographs. Some collected single performers, like Ida Cox and Sister Rosetta Tharp, and several had fun themes like Women’s Railroad Blues. Instrumentalists like trumpeter Valaida Snow were also featured with entire LPs.

From the notes to Mean Mothers, the first LP Reitz released in 1979:

“Mean mother” at first sounds like a contradiction. But it isn’t, if you understand its popular meaning. “She’s a mean woman” is really a compliment, meaning this person is serious and will not put up with any nonsense. She is not someone to trifle with or to take lightly. It is a positive view of an independent woman, granting her the regard she deserves as one who will not passively accept unjust or unkind treatment.

Mean women are to be celebrated for being forthright and honest — and for insisting on their dignity. This stance has earned them many epithets however, including one used by some social scientists: matriarch. Matriarch is a dirty word in this culture and its current meaning needs turning around to more accurately convey what the word originally meant — strong woman, a woman with authority who takes responsibility and nutures those she loves and usually anyone else who comes into her orbit.

The label started as a mail order business but eventually found its way into record stores. Reitz estimated that some titles sold as many as 20,000 copies. She remained involved in both jazz music and women’s issues until she passed away in 2008 at the age of eighty-four. Duke University maintains a gigantic archive of her papers, representing the enormous contribution of her career.

And the albums still turn up here in Minneapolis from time to time, thankfully they’re usually in better shape than this one.

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