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Did you know NASA currently has two rovers and a science laboratory on the surface of Mars, as well as several satellites in its orbit? The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) satellite is expected to reach the red planet later this summer, providing new insight into its atmosphere and climate history. It is currently traveling at about 65,000 miles per hour. All of this could contribute one day to a manned mission to Mars, a journey that could take anywhere from 228 days as it did Mariner 4 in 1965 to a speedy 131 days, which is how long it took Mariner 7 just four years later.
Mars is currently about 225 million miles from our record shop here in Minneapolis. In 2003 it was closer than any time in the previous 50,000 years, at a distance of 56 million miles. During last month’s eclipse Mars was very close to the Moon in the night sky. If you’re looking for it tonight, just find the Big Dipper and follow its handle down to the stars Arcturus and Spica.
This obscure two-act opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl chronicles a failed mission to Mars, launched in 2038 but derailed during the mid-summer celebrations. The Aniara‘s computer expresses itself through Mimaroben, who is heard in this performance by basso cantante Erik Saaden. He describes the failings of mankind to the crew as the Earth is destroyed. A new course to the constellation Lyra is plotted, although it was decades after this recording that evidence from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii suggested its largest star, Vega, may be host to terrestrial planets.
Scenes I and II from the first Act of Aniara.
The mission was a success on Marscape, a 1976 record by Jack Lancaster and Robin Lumley, essentially a follow-up to the debut album by jazz fusion band Brand X. Marscape follows the mission from it’s opening “Take-Off” through the long journey. We enter into Mars’ atmosphere with a pretty piano piece by Lumley, “Arrival.” Afterwards, the moons Phobos and Demos are introduced, and then the enormous volcano Olympus Mons.
Side two of Marscape includes a reflection on Earth (“Homelight”), which must be a tiny blue dot in the Martian sky, as well as an exciting romp on the Martian surface in a “Hopper,” a machine for negotiating the rough terrain. The Hopper is presumably like the two Rovers NASA currently has exploring the surface of Mars.
In “Blowholes (the Pipes of Mars)” we hear the winds blowing through the naturally-sculpted rock formations. It sounds similar to the beginning of Herbie Hancock’s fun re-make of “Watermelon Man” on Headhunters.
When Gustav Holst composed “Mars, the Bringer of War” for his orchestra suite The Planets in 1914, the world was on the edge of unprecedented war which would cost nearly forty million human lives. It is often noted how the quiet English composer captured the sense of impending
Holst enlisted but was found unfit for service. His brother Emil and his friend, and fellow composer, Vaughn Williams were sent to active duty in France. Holst volunteered for a time driving an ambulance. Towards the end of the war he spent a year in Greece, working with troops awaiting demobilization and performing. “It was great fun,” he later wrote, “But I fear I was not much help.”
“Mars, Bringer of War” from The Planets by Gustav Holst
War on an even greater scale appeared imminent to some radio listeners on October 30, 1938. Tuning away from NBC’s Chase and Sanborn Hour during the musical guest, listeners all over America happened upon a startling report from Grovers Mill, New Jersey where Martian crafts were emerging from a smouldering crater.
What they were hearing was not the news, but Orson Welles’ famous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, an 1897 serialized story by H.G. Wells which details an invasion from the red planet. Those who didn’t hear the opening disclaimer took the realistic dramatization for the news — the following morning, Halloween, newspapers around the country reported on panicked citizens abandoning their homes, flooding highways, and demanding protection from local authorities.
The extent of the panic following Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast has since been questioned. Newspapers, smarting from the advertising revenue lost to radio, were eager to find fault, damning the drama as deceptive. One certainty is that its impact was not lost on Adolf Hitler, who cited the panic as proof of the decadence of democracy. Of course, the Fuhrer was no stranger to the power of the airwaves to manipulate.
An excerpt from the October 30, 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds
Wells’ novel tapped into a common fear at the time of its original publication, although it took a different approach to the “invasion narrative.” An assault on Great Britain from overseas was a popular plot in adventure writing, although the invaders in the best-sellers were more often than not German. Listeners to the 1938 broadcast were filled with the very same fears, many believing that Germans and not Martians were laying siege to New Jersey. Only a month earlier the airwaves had been filled with news of the Munich Pact, in which Europe shamefully allowed Germany annexation of Czechoslovakia. In a biography of Orson Welles, Frank Brady describes the atmosphere of terror over the airwaves:
For the first time in history, the public could tune into their radios every night and hear, boot by boot, accusation by accusation, threat by threat, the rumblings that seemed inevitably leading to a world war.
Contrary to our nearest neighbor’s enduring presence in our nightmares, Mars is most unlikely to launch any such invasion. The red planet is hot, dry and barren — the search for life in our solar system has been extended to the mysterious moons of the Jovian system. “Nothing ever happens on Mars,” as lamented by a Martian himself, visiting the small town of Blaine, Missouri in this musical number from the 1997 film Waiting for Guffman.
Thanks to everyone who came out to the last Hymie’s Record Roadshow at the Turf Club last night — Over the past couple years we’ve had a ton o’ fun spinnin’ & slingin’ records there with an awesome variety of guest DJs. Last night John Henry — from the awesome metal trio Nightosaur — absolutely killed it. What a fun DJ! John also taught us that if you play your 45 of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” at the wrong speed it becomes a heavy dubstep jam.
We’re going to put the crates to rest for a little while this winter, but the Roadshow won’t be retired. Maybe we’ll go back to combining it with some awesome live music, like we did at the Cedar in ’10 and the Triple Rock in ’11.
And we’ll always love the Turf Club — headed back there tonight, in fact, for the Cactus Blossoms’ live album release!
There is a recording of Johannes Brahms playing the piano. Nobody’s sure Whether the spoken introduction is Brahms himself or Theo Wagenmann, who worked for Thomas Edison and made the recording. It was made in 1889, making it probably the earliest recording of a great composer.
Steve Allen facts:
Shoot. Somebody bought this album right away, so we didn’t record a track for you. The people who bought it looked like this.
And we saved the best for last. We’ve also recorded the entire album for you…
Two decades ago me and some pals discovered Man…Or Astroman? after seeing them perform at 7th Street Entry — for those of you unfamiliar with this mostly-instrumental band from Georgia, their catchy gimmick is embedding science fiction samples into their classic surf rock jams. The songs are really good, and the samples make them sort of hilarious, too.
Here’s one of my all-time favorites, from their first album Is It Man…Or Astroman? which came out in 1993:
Man…Or Astroman? was very prolific in those days, issuing more 7″ singles and oddities (10″ and 5″ records, etc) than I could count — I regret not keeping more of the ones I did buy in high school, because they were really fun. It was only yesterday that I really thought about where the samples on their records came from, as my five year old son was listening to a comic book-and-record set and I recognized the voice of DRACO, KING OF THE DRAGON-MEN!
It’s no secret we love comic books here at Hymie’s (this is one of my favorite posts from the blog archives). And now we could finally attach an image to the terrible voice of DRACO!
(You can click on that image for a larger view of DRACO, if you dare)
One night last summer I couldn’t sleep and when I finally gave in I had to find something to do, so I tippy-toed downstairs and watched one of my favorite movies, In the Heat of the Night. The next morning after a bleary breakfast I wrote a post here on the blog that somehow incorporated everything from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to Austin Powers. I’m too embarrassed to read it again, but you can if you’d like (here).
So apparently when I’m sleepy I think of Sidney Poitier, because the other night I couldn’t sleep and found myself downstairs watching Lilies of the Field.
Something is really lost when you take this scene out of context. Homer (played by Poitier) has just built a church for these nuns, doing most of the work alone before he is tricked into accepting assistance. He was a wandering handyman who stopped at their farm for some water, and found them unable even to repair a fence. The soul of Lilies of the Fields is the conflicting wills of Homer and Mother Maria, played by Lilia Skala. In a preceding scene Homer has tricked Mother Maria into thanking him for his work in what is actually the climax of the story.
Homer’s Irish goodbye doesn’t conclude their relationship. Mother Maria has the last word by letting him go quietly. In Poitier’s case it was especially quiet — his singing voice in this scene was performed by Jester Hairston, who also composed the song, “Amen,” which Homer is teaching to the nuns.
Hairston appeared on screen with Poitier a few years later. Do you remember the scene from In the Heat of the Night where the old white guy slaps Virgil Tibbs and Tibbs slaps him right back? It’s the easy to remember because its the awesome-est of many awesome things Poitier did on screen. The butler for that old bastard was played by Jester Hairston. Click back to our previous Poitier post and watch it again (here’s an extra link in case you missed the first one) — you’ll find the face-slapping at about 3:43, and Hairston will shake his head shortly after that.
What a tiny role for someone who created something so enormous! Now you’re probably wondering what’s so extraordinary about another song sung by nuns in yet another feel-good nun movie. Here’s where it goes next.
“Amen” by the Impressions
The Impressions recorded “Amen” the following year, after Curtis Mayfield had seen the film (further proof that everyone likes Sydney Poitier). It was not the first version of Hairston’s song to be recorded by a group, but it was the first hit. For the Impressions it was the first hit not written by Mayfield. Several more artists recorded the song, including Otis Redding, whose version was a posthumous hit in 1968.
The most famous recording of “Amen” was by a group called the Winstons. It didn’t even credit Hairston (“Arranged by the Winstons”). It contains six seconds that are some of the most heard moments in pop music history: A drum break played by G.C. Coleman that begins about a minute and twenty seconds into the song. Our copy skips pretty badly on the break (we actually keep it for the single’s awesome A-side, “Color Him Father”) so here is a video from Youtube of the entire song.
The “Amen Break,” as it is known, is right up there with similar sublime moments in old wax — the beats from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” and the Honeydripper’s “Impeach the President,” for instance. One on this list of ‘collectables’ that surprises people is Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat.”
You can watch this documentary if you’re interested in the history of the “Amen Break.” You will hear many of the hundreds of records that sample G.C. Coleman’s performance on the Winston’s record. And it all began with an arrangement that Jester Hairston was asked to create because, well, Sydney Poitier can’t sing.
Left: Scene from Avatar. Right: Painting by Roger Dean.
I’m not really into the movies, but last night I saw a really cool science fiction movie that came out a few years ago called Avatar. I think it was just a limited release art-house kind of a thing, so you might have never heard of it. The story takes place on this jungle moon around a gas giant orbiting Alpha Centauri, sort of a big blue Jupiter. It was a very beautiful setting.
The whole time I was watching the story I had a feeling there was something familiar about it all. Giant mushrooms and surreal spiraling trees, floating island and bizarre elephant-like creatures, even blue people. Then I realized that the movie must have been set inside a Yes album jacket!
“The Fish” by Yes
It turns out I am far from the first person to notice the similarity. In fact, earlier this summer British watercolor artist Roger Dean, best known around here for the super trippy album covers he painted for Yes in the 70s, filed a lawsuit against movie director James Cameron and 20th Century Fox. The suit states, in part that “the similarities of each such work are substantial, continuing, and direct so as to rule out any accidental copying or similarity in scenes common to the genre.” Dean is asking for millions in damages and a “cease and desist from any further reproduction, distribution, transmission or other use.”
Yes was not the only group who’s albums featured Dean’s artwork. He also created very similar landscapes, complete with hybrid creatures, for the pioneering African jam band Osibisa (these are really good albums). Another major arena act of the era who he painted covers for was Uriah Heep. Dean happens to have created the covers for two of their best albums.
And if you go get your copy of Demons and Wizards and look closely, you’ll find that Dean hid images of human genitalia in his painting.
Dean also created artwork for several albums that do not feature the surreal landscapes of imagined worlds, such as the first and third albums by Atomic Rooster.
IMBD reports that several sequels to Avatar are in production, and that they are going to explore the moon’s oceans, as well as other moons around the same planet. Cameron has already weather a couple other lawsuits and accusations he lifted from a number of classic science fiction novels (notably Alan Dean Foster’s Midworld, Poul Anderson’s “Call me Joe,” and the Russian Noon Universe series by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky). There’s also some pretty striking similarities to other films, such as Ferngully: The Last Rainforest and Dances with Wolves. If Cameron manages to escape the cabal of attorneys on his tail, we suggest he set the next Avatar film in the world from Roger Dean’s covers for 80s prog-sters Asia. The purple guy on the cover of Astra seems like he’d be bad news.
fact: Bobby Taylor discovered the Jackson 5, and it was with him that ten year old Michael Jackson went to California, traveling cross country for the first time. Also in the car with them was Tommy Chong, who had been a guitarist in Taylors backing band, the Vancouvers.
fact: Frank Zappa telephoned avante garde composer Edgar Varesse to talk about music in 1955. He was fifteen and his mother paid for the call as a birthday present.
fact: John Denver filled in for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show on a number of occasions in the 1970s. In this 1977 exchange he and Carl Sagan talk about the “Golden Record” included in the Voyager space probe, recently featured here on the Hymie’s blog.
fact: Loudon Wainwright III made three appearances on MASH as Captain Calvin Spaulding, most memorably singing “Oh Tokyo” in the season 3 episode “Rainbow Bridge.” He is wearing the rank of a First Lieutenant (you can see it here).
fact: “Fujiyama Mama” was a #1 hit in Japan. Wanda Jackson toured there in 1959, performing the song each night.
Igor Stravinsky was eight years old on January 15, 1890 when he saw Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty open at the Mariinski Theater in St. Petersburg, where his father was a performer. At the age of twenty-seven he was enlisted by Sergei Diaghilev to produce the orchestrations for a ballet of his own to be debuted in Paris. Stravinsky traveled to Paris to oversee the final rehearsals of The Firebird in 1910 and he would never again spend his entire year in Russia.
His compositions for Diaghilev’s company, Ballet Russe, established him as a world-class composer and remain today some of the most compelling music. His second ballet, Petrushka, debuted in 1911 and two years later the third, Le Sacre du Printempts (“The Rite of Spring”). Because his native Russia did not adhere to the 1886 Berne Convention on the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, Stravinsky was not always paid his due royalties upon the performance of these pieces, and his relationship with Ballet Russes turned sour over financial disputes.
Tchaikovsky’s three ballets cast an enormous shadow. If you can imagine a little skiffle group trying to make a name in Liverpool in the middle sixties you can imagine how Stravinsky may have felt as a Russian composer. While he had attended an historic debut as a boy, one of his ballets had an even more auspicious opening.
Le Sacre du Printempts was first performed in Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29, 1913. A growing unease in the audience became a disturbance and led to the house lights being turned up and as many as forty people being ejected from the packed theater, as the audience hurled “everything available” at the orchestra. Although the work was finished in relative peace, early reviews were damning. Puccini attended the second performance and deemed it “the work of a madman.” It was rumored that Camille Saint-Saens walked out of the debut in disgust, although this was probably not true as there is not certain account of his having attended the performance.
Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography for the ballet was lost in the outbreak of World War I when it became impossible to maintain a touring ballet company. Le Sacre du Printempts has remained, regardless, a venerable classic, reinterpreted with gender reversals, eroticism, a feminist agenda, and once infused with punk rock and once with Soviet propaganda. Professional productions of the ballet to date number over 150.
(Le Sacre du Printempts, a concert arrangement conducted by the composer himself in 1960, performed by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra)
What was so extraordinarily for that Paris audience in 1913 is still there for us to experience today. Le Sacre du Printempts explores the range of our experience and expectations from the opening notes, performed in such an extreme range of the bassoon as to render it unrecognizable. Still, t’s hard to understand the shocking nature of Stravinsky’s use of polytonality in the introduction or the intensity of the “Abduction” dance’s driving rhythm in our post-punk, post-everything world. Nothing in Stravinsky’s music nears the extremities of 60s free jazz or the base crass-ness of the Sex Pistols. The ballet wasn’t even composed with the intention of shocking its audience.
Le Sacre du Printempts is probably Stravinsky’s most-recorded work, possibly even the most recorded 20th century composition by any classical composer. We recommend – if you can find them – either of the two Antal Dorati recordings. One was in 1954 with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, issued on Mercury, and the other with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1980. You will have a hard time finding a copy of the second, released by Decca, but it’s worth the search. Another recording worth the search is Colin Davis’ 1976 recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (from the Netherlands) – this may be the most “shocking” recording you can find on LP.
Stravinsky never abandoned ballet but never composed for dance on the level of his Ballet Russes work again. His 1928 work, Le baiser de la fée (“The fairy’s kiss”), was based on a Hans Christian Andersen story but really served as a tribute to Tchaikovsky, whose early piano melodies were incorporated.
Before parting from Ballet Russes, Stravinsky wrote an arrangement for the ballet he had seen as a boy. Portions of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty was, at that time, only published in the form of piano reduction, and Stravinsky had the opportunity to score Princess Aurora’s solo in the first scene in the second act (he also scored another scene from The Sleeping Beauty for the American Ballet Company many years later).