When our kids were young they had a pretty awesome collection of storybooks which have since been given to friends as the books were outgrown. One of these was a story first published in 1938, but not familiar to either of us until we had our own children, called “The Five Chinese Brothers.” It was written by Claire Hutchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese in 1938.
Each of the five Chinese brothers has a special attribute — one can swallow the sea, one can stretch his legs to any length, one cannot be burned, etc. The brother who could swallow the sea always captivated our imagination.
He would sup it up like soup and hold it in his cheeks until they were enormously swollen, “and all of the treasures of the sea lay uncovered.” The image of the seabed revealed is captivating to us.
This Chinese brother is taken advantage of, and the following four take his place in succession. Some have said Wiese’s art in the children’s book is racist, but we have never really seen the story that way.
When this book was given to us when our children were small, our first thought was of the song “7 Chinese Brothers” on REM’s second album, Reckoning. Like most early REM songs its just another exercise in cryptic absurdism, but apparently at least partly inspired by the storybook.
“7 Chinese Brothers” is an early example of REM’s ability to captivate us even when we have no idea why we are so compelled to continue listening. What is this song about, and why is it one of our favorites on the album? Reckoning is a remarkable album in this way, for few songs are singularly memorable, but on a re-listening all are essential. And yes, there is a line about swallowing the ocean, or something. It’s so damn difficult to understand any of the words on those first few REM records.
In fact, it was so difficult to understand Michael Stipe, let alone hear and record him, that it was a problem when recording Reckoning. At one point the album’s producer, Don Dixon, gave Stipe an album and asked him to read the liner notes so he could be heard and understood. It was The Joy of Knowing Jesus by the Revelaires. This exercise took place over the backing track of “7 Chinese Brothers.”
The resulting take was so weirdly successful that it was released as the b-side of the single for “So. Central Rain” as “The Voice of Harold.” It was also included on the band’s b-side compilation (and a favorite album of ours) Dead Letter Office. In the liner notes, Peter Buck describes the alternate lyrics as “extemporaneous,” but the delivery is stunningly predicative.
From this point forward there seems to be a growing confidence in Stipe’s vocals, perhaps inspired by … “The Voice of Harold.” All we know is that it is hard to imagine the Michael Stipe of most songs on Reckoning singing “Everybody Hurts” a decade later, but it somehow makes sense when you hear “The Voice of Harold.” For us, a record store is like “the treasures of the sea lay[ing] uncovered.” There is always something to find.
A couple years ago, we posted a fun ballet about the appetites of an ambitious arachnid: The Spider’s Banquet by Albert Roussel (you can hear it here). It debuted in 1912, and in the story the spider is cheated out of part of his dinner by a praying mantis.
It turns out Roussel’s ballet is not the only classical piece written to celebrate the exploits of a spider. Robert Muczynski, born in Chicago in 1929, wrote many pieces for the piano and one in particular, from about fifty years after The Spider’s Banquet, focused on the life of a fuzzy, eight-legged creature.
Muczynski composed this piece while living in Tucson in the early 60s. This recording of Fuzzette, The Tarantula is performed by Robert Kaksa (narrator), Curtis Webb Coffee (flautist), Roberta Eaton (alto saxophonist) and the composer himself at the piano. It was released on the San Francisco label Music Library Recordings.
The story of Fuzzette has a fairly familiar moral: love yourself for who you are, fur (or lack thereof) and all. It’s a far more romantic story than Roussel’s ballet about insects fighting over a meal.
We’re going to take another break from Christmas albums today, because just about the entire world is setting aside holiday season hustle and bustle to talk about Star Wars.
The 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 more 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.
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. Ideally, these interruptions could be timed to coincide with costume and scenery changes. Those of you who grew up with these records probably understand.
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 might have just been one of the awesome-est Star Wars nerds of all time.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
The Minnesota Orchestra will be performing all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies at the end of this month, and into January, as well as all five piano concertos. Osmo Vänskä is scheduled to conduct, and Russian-born, Berlin-educated pianist Yevgeny Sudbin will perform the concertos. We could only choose one, and after wrought consideration went with the Seventh, considering the charisma of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2008 CD with Vänskä conducting. It sure would be nice if someone here in the states would reissue those BIS recordings so they wouldn’t be so damn expensive. We’ve always felt cost is the main thing which keeps classical music inaccessible to folks like ourselves.
On this day last year, the Minnesota Orchestra was performing Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors. To give you an idea how much television has changed in the past fifty years, this holiday opera was actually commissioned by NBC, the network which now forces us to choose between Chicago Med, Chicago Fire, and Chicago PD (that last presumably doomed by the Burger King footage of officers erasing evidence released by the City of Chicago last week). Menotti’s opera debuted on Christmas Eve, 1951 at Rockefeller Center. It tells the story of a poor Italian family who offer lodging to the Magi, who are traveling to welcome the Christ Child. Amhal’s mother is caught stealing from the Three Kings after they have retired for the night, but is forgiven after they see she is in need. Amhal, who walks with a crutch, offers it as a gift for the Child, and for his generosity is miraculously cured. At the end of the story, he leaves with the Three Kings as they travel on, so that he may see welcome the Christ Child himself.
Samuel Barber assisted Menotti with the orchestrations, and the opera was barely finished on time. Still, it was welcomed with praise from no less a luminary than Arturo Toscanini. It is certainly the most famous of Menotti’s operas, and as the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance last year proves still a holiday tradition. For many years NBC re-broadcast the opera, but it seems likely this year they’ll be broadcasting some violent trash about cops on Christmas Eve.
The original LP included an essay by Menotti which offers a delightful explanation of his inspiration for the story:
This is an opera for children because it tries to recapture my own childhood. You see, when I was a child I lived in Italy, and in Italy we have no Santa Claus. I suppose Santa Claus is much too busy with the American children to be able to handle Italian children as well. Our gifts were brought to us by the Three Kings, instead.
I actually never met the Three Kings — it didn’t matter how hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of the Three Royal Visitors, we would always fall asleep just before they arrived. But I do remember hearing them. I remember the weird cadence of their song in the distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camels’ hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious trinkling of their silver bridles.
My favorite king was Melchior, because he was the oldest and had a long white beard. My brother’s favorite was King Kaspar. He insisted this king was a little crazy and quite deaf. I don’t know why he was so positive about his being deaf. I suspect it was because dear King Kaspar never brought him all the gifts he requested. He was also rather puzzled by the fact that King Kaspar carried the myrrh, which appeared to him to be a rather eccentric gift, for he never quite understood what the word meant.
To these Three Kings I mainly owe the happy Christmas seasons of my childhood, and I should have remained very grateful to them. Instead, I came to America and soon forgot all about them, for here at Christmastime one sees so many Santa Clauses scattered all over town. Then there is the big Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza, the elaborate toy windows on Fifth Avenue, the one-hundred-voice choir in Grand Central Station, the innumerable Christmas carols on radio and television — and all these things made me forget the three dear old Kings of my own childhood.
But in 1951 I found myself in a serious difficulty. I had been commissioned by the National Broadcasting Company to write an opera for television, with Christmas as the deadline, and I simply didn’t have one idea in my head. One November afternoon as I was walking rather gloomily through the rooms of the Metropolitan Museum, I chanced to stop in front of The Adoration of the Kings by Hieronymus Bosch, and as I was looking at it, suddenly I heard again, coming from the distant blue hills, the weird song of the Three Kings. I then realized they had come back to me and had brought me a gift.
Vince Guaraldi’s score to the 1965 television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, has become one of the most popular holiday reissues on LP. Each year we order more and more copies of the venerable classic, beginning earlier and earlier in the year, and each year all are gone by the first week of December. The current pressing, on green vinyl, is already backordered by wholesalers. Sorry to offer the bad news but you may have to find another Christmas album for that special someone this year.
As the beloved television special celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year with a documentary produced by ABC, much attention has been drawn to differences between the network and Peanuts creator Charles Schultz. David Michaelis’ epic and much-recommended biography, Schultz and Peanuts, describes a first screening at CBS, which broadcast the original special on December 9, 1965. Executives sat in silence, and afterwards offered such remarks as, “Well you gave it a good try” and “the script is too innocent.” Most significant of all, Schultz and director Bill Melendez were told, “The Bible thing scares us.”
Linus’ recitation of the birth of Christ reminds Charlie Brown of “the meaning of Christmas,” but in the era of the big three networks such explicit proselytizing was unexpected. For Schultz the inclusion of the scene was a deal-breaker, although even Melendez did not support it. Schultz held his ground, and so on that December evening, instead of seeing The Munsters, nearly half the television viewers in America saw Linus step to the stage, ask for the lights to be dimmed, and read the words of St. Luke.
The mailrooms at CBS were flooded with letters thanking Schultz for “keeping Christ in Christmas,” and the scene was praised by the New York World Telegram as “the dramatic highlight of the season.” While the three television networks dared not offend audiences, Schultz often approached the Gospel and religious controversies in Peanuts. Still, despite the best-success success of Robert L. Short’s book The Gospel According to Peanuts, Schultz’s theology is enigmatic. In his biography, Michaelis points to a moment in October 1963 when Sally hid behind a a couch with her brother to whisper a secret to him: “I prayed in school today.” Both sides of the then-contentious school prayer debate desired to claim Schultz’s comic as an affirmation of their side.
Linus himself suffered for his faith in the Great Pumpkin. After being mocked by his peers, he says to Snoopy, “I was a victim of false doctrine.” There is, however, nothing false in his earnest recitation of the Gospel in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Schultz may have won this disagreement, but he compromised on another subject which often appeared in his strip. Michaelis reprints this strip from the 1950s in which Schultz expresses his opinion of jazz.
Schroeder plays Beethoven’s “Für Elise” in the Christmas special, but most of the music is provided by a pianist of a very different stripe. Vince Guaraldi was just shy of forty when he was hired by producer Lee Mendelson to provide the music for A Charlie Brown Christmas, and enjoying the unexpected success of a B side, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” he had written in 1962. Although he was a veteran of Cal Tjader’s latin jazz ensembles, the underground hit established his sound as light, swinging and sophisticated. Known to his peers as “Dr. Funk,” Guaraldi created just the sort of music Schultz despised. Months after the Christmas special aired, Schultz told a reporter, “I think jazz is awful!“
Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy,” likely known to millions as “the Charlie Brown theme,” has become a pop music standard. The song was originally written for a 1963 documentary about the strip, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, the success of which led the network to invest in the Christmas special. Our favorite song Guaraldi wrote for the Peanuts gang was “Skating,” which accompanied a lovely scene of Snoopy (“world famous figure skater”) gliding on a frozen lake.
In our review of Paul Fonfara’s new album, Seven Secrets of Snow, we compared his title tune to Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall” and other songs which invoke the loveliness of winter weather. Guaraldi’s “Skating” is surely one of these songs, whether it was welcomed by Charles Schultz or not.
One of our favorite places over here on East Lake Street is Nostalgia Zone, the incredible comic book shop just a couple blocks west of our building.
We’ve never really been comic book fanatics, but we love reading them with the kids. They have lots of favorites: Batman, Spider-Man , the various Star Wars series, and Bone are all favorites in our house.
And Uncle Scrooge, of course. The author of the classic comics starring the world’s richest duck was Carl Barks, who loved National Geographic and often based the adventures which took Scrooge and his nephews to the far corners of the Earth on real places.
This short, goofy record is hardly as exciting a story as some of Bark’s best, like “Land Beneath the Earth” or “The Adventure in Trala La.” And fans of Duck Tales, the animated series based on Bark’s stories, will find this Uncle Scrooge to be even more gruff and Scottish.