Its humbling to think of a record you owned as a child as a ‘classic,’ because it really couldn’t be that old, could it? Turns out License to Ill, really is thirty years old this November. When the Beastie Boys albums came back into print on LP a couple years ago — have you heard? Records are coming back — this one, released by Columbia, was not in the mix.
It’s surprisingly difficult to find a nice copy of License to Ill, considering there are over ten million copies of it out there. Presumably, a lot of those are cassettes, because that’s how we listened to this album when we were pre-teens. It could also be because people played the hell out of this album.
License to Ill is finally being reissued next month, which is sure to introduce the album to as many new fans as it delights old fans like us. The album was produced by Def Jam in its early NYU infancy, and was the first rap album to reach #1 on the Billboard chart. It was also a completely unique blending of genres.
Like many kids in the 80s, we were introduced to the Beasties by MTV. And now, our kids have discovered their records through this hilarious video.
License to Ill will be back in stores, including ours, in the middle of October!
With the 50th anniversary of Star Trek‘s debut on television last week, there was much written about the franchise’s influence on popular culture and on actual science and development. The program debuted in September 1966 with William Shatner’s now well-known voiceover introduction:
The program was famously cancelled by NBC after three seasons due to poor ratings, lampooned in a later Saturday Night Live parody in which John Belushi says, “Except for one television network, we have found intelligence everywhere in the galaxy.”
William Shatner’s debut album, The Transformed Man, is a camp classic, widely panned and often singled out as one of the worst albums of all time. His dramatic reading of “Mr. Tambourine Man” is, in particular, singled out. Shatner himself acknowledged as much in a Newsweek interview:
…yes, in the beginning it bothered me that people singled it out and poked fun at it. They didn’t know what I was doing. The album The Transformed Man is much more extensive than that song. But since people only heard that song, I went along with the joke.
In his defense, Shatner’s prose poem delivery was more well-received on his next studio album, Has Been, released in 2004. That record was even adapted into a ballet, the subject of a documentary (William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet) which is one of the strangest Star Trek spin-offs. And his reading of “Mr. Tambourine Man” is not as bad as Sebastian Cabot’s, in our opinion.
Actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the original series, actually toured as a singer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. She released an album of jazz standards with arrangements by the late Gerald Wilson, during the original run of Star Trek on television. Here she is singing “Feelin’ Good” from The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, a musical in which she had previously appeared.
She considered leaving Star Trek to return to Broadway, and was convinced to remain on the science fiction program under the most remarkable circumstances. At an NAACP fundraiser she was asked to meet a fan…
I thought it was a Trekkie, and so I said, ‘Sure.’ I looked across the room, and there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face. He reached out to me and said, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.’ He said that Star Trek was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch.
Dr. King told Nichols she couldn’t leave the program because she, one of the first black women to have a significant role in a television program, “was part of history.” When Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was told of this encounter, he cried.
A 1977 album captures more of Roddenberry than had previously been heard outside of Star Trek conventions. Inside Star Trek finds the series creator interviewing one of his heroes, author Isaac Asimov, and also addressing an audience of fans.
Roddenberry’s account of negotiating with NBC to produce television programs is hilarious, but also insightful. His encounters with small-minded and short-sighted executives sound like something out of Dilbert. The album also concludes with remarks titled “The Star Trek Philosophy” which serve as a sort of cautionary tale for media.
This harmless novelty single was presented to us recently as “something really cool” after we’d purchased someone’s collection of albums. It features a parody of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” by WLUP FM radio host Steve Dahl, who is most famous as the personality behind a promotion at Comiskey Park on June 12, 1979 known as “Disco Demolition Night.”
Dahl’s vendetta against disco began the previous Christmas Eve, when he was fired by WLUP’s rival, WDAI when the later switched formats. His show, with bits like dragging a needle across a disco album, became so popular he organized a group called “The Insane Coho Lips” to protest disco’s dominance over the airways. This short documentary by EPSN tells the story of their infamous “Disco Demolition Night.”
What’s missing from this video about “Disco Demolition Night” is the underlying militarism of Dahl’s Cohos. Describing their cause as a war, and calling disco things like a “disease,” Dahl definitely tapped into racism, sexism and homophobia in a way which advanced his career. The same month as “Disco Demolition Night,” Dahl’s Cohos protested at an Indiana radio station when it switched formats, and occupied a teen disco in the Chicago suburbs. Coho supporters also chased a WDAI van and cornered its driver in a park, and another one of the groups events on July 1st required fifty police officers to restore calm.
Dahl’s military attire and Jeep add to the ominous appearance of the event. Nor did the account of one African American who was at the ballpark that night: “I was faced with some guy rushing up to me, snapping a record in half in in my face and going, ‘Disco sucks! Ya see that?'” Lawrence says. “Like an overt statement to me like I was inherently disco.”
Criticism of the promotion in the general press focused on White Sox owner Bill Veeck, and the team’s poor management of the situation, but Dahl’s demagoguery wasn’t lost on music writers. In December of that year, Rolling Stone published a retrospective by Dave Marsh titled “The Flip Side of ’79” which is particularly critical of Dahl and WLUP:
…white males, eighteen to thirty-four are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks, and Latins, and therefore they’re the most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security. It goes almost without saying that such appeals are racist and sexist, but broadcasting has never been an especially civil-libertarian medium.
It was years later that Nile Rodgers, guitarist from Chic, put it more succinctly. “It felt to us like Nazi book-burning,” Rodgers sighs [in story about Chic in The Independent from 2004]. “This is America, the home of jazz and rock and people were now afraid even to say the word ‘disco’. I remember thinking – we’re not even a disco group.”
This is mostly true, although to provide full disclosure, we do put the Chic records in our disco section here at Hymie’s. The band’s rise coincides with disco’s, but Rodgers rightfully lamented that disco’s decline thereby became theirs as well. Posting on his own website ten years later, he says, “All we’d ever wanted was to be part of the pop music community, which despite the factionalism, it’s basically all rock and roll – the music that gives a voice to the voiceless – and power to the powerless.”
An NPR story from earlier this year captured Rodgers concerns when it included the recollections of a then-teenage Comiskey Park usher named Vince Lawrence, who was hoping to get a few of the records to take home. He believes he was one of few African Americans in the ballpark that night, and he describes the sort of records people were bringing: “Tyrone Davis records, friggin’ Curtis Mayfield records and Otis Clay records. Records that were clearly not disco.”
That NPR story is covering Dahl’s new book, Disco Demolition Night: The Night Disco Died, which was co-written with Dave Hoekstra (who once wrote a story about our little neighborhood record shop). There isn’t a copy in the Hennepin County Library system yet, and we don’t feel comfortable giving Dahl a dime of our money, so we can’t say how the event is portrayed in the book. We can say we’re uncomfortable Dahl’s history of claiming that racism, sexism and homophobia didn’t play a significant role, and that to say otherwise is revisionist history.
Its difficult to not see the event the way Lawrence does in this Chicagoist story posted last month., particularly when he tells writer Stephen Gossett that “he ‘absolutely’ still feels the same way today, finding a corollary between Dahl’s ‘speaking in code’ rhetoric and today’s ‘xenophobic’ political landscape.”
Postscript: Whether or not disco ‘died’ on June 12, 1979, and whether or not Chic was even a disco band, Rodgers did did prove there is life after Dahl. His reunited Chic just received praise from The Star Tribune‘s Chris Riemenschneider, who saw them at the Xcel Center in St. Paul on their current tour opening for Duran Duran.
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, along with Max Fleischer’s Car-Tune Portrait, present 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.
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.
We first heard Minnesota troubadour Larry Long‘s song “Living in a Rich Man’s World” years ago, when we found a copy of the 1979 album of the same name in the local section of the old Hymie’s, back when Jim was still behind the counter.
Since then, of course, a lot of things have changed, but not so much the opportunities afforded working people around the world and here in our home state. We moved the record shop years ago, and once in a while Larry stops by to talk about what he’s up to these days. Several months ago he sent us a link to hear a few songs he was recorded with his cousin, Melvin James, and we were blown away by this new version of that favorite old song.
He’s releasing a new album, Walking Like Rain, later this year, and Bob Trench of Fahrenheit Films produced this video of “Living in a Rich Man’s World” to get the word out.
Michael Jackson’s videos were often encapsulated in short films, the most famous of which being “Thriller,” in which the star takes a girl on a date to a scary movie, turns into a were-cat, and then dances like mad with a crew of zombies. The whole adventure, which turns out to be a dream (or was it?) is a thirteen-minute epic directed by John Landis, and undeniably a watershed moment in pop culture. We have certainly watched it at least a hundred times.
MJ’s high-production videos often cast him as an outsider (especially the the highly satirical “Ghosts”). The one we often forget is the full length video for “Bad,” because for some reason we’ve only seen its West Side Story-inspired subway dance sequence as many times as we’ve seen “Thriller.”
In the eighteen-minute version of “Bad” was written by Richard Price (author of the seventies Bronx street life novel The Wanderers) and directed by Martin Scorcese. Jackson plays a young man named Daryl who has returned to his neighborhood after graduating from a private school. His former friends are petty thieves and it quickly becomes apparent he no longer belongs there. In an effort to prove he is still bad, Daryl takes them to a subway station where he will mug an old man — but he doesn’t go through with the crime and is berated.
This is when he sings “Bad,” they lyrics for which are part self-promotion (establishing Michael’s new darker image) and part cautionary tale. Like several songs on the Bad LP, Michael sings of the world “be[ing] a better place,” while also warning his friends “they’re gonna lock you up before too long.”
Bad definitely changed Michael’s image, and the album also introduced a sleeker outsider MJ with “Smooth Criminal.” But its hard to imagine Michael as bad. Nowhere is this more clear than in the first line of “Bad,” which is one of our favorite first lines ever on an album: “Your butt is mine.” He couldn’t even say the word “ass,” which would have sounded so much more natural.
It wasn’t until after Michael was relentlessly persecuted by Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon in 1993 that his lyrics really turned towards the angrier image implied by “Bad.” On HIStory, Michael swears for the first time (unless you count “damn” appearing on Dangerous) in the song “This Time Around.” Another song specifically directed at Sneddon (“D.S.”) uses the word “ass” so we know he was finally able to say it.
Michael was remembered by associates for his abhorrence of vulgar language, so it is sort of sad that they creep into his lyrics as he becomes increasingly isolated. This is nowhere more heartbreaking than in “Scream,” his duet with sister Janet on HIStory, in which he shouts “stop fuckin’ with me, it makes me want to scream!”
The tabloid media at whom this line was directed was entirely out of touch all of us who still bought records: while they eagerly predicted HIStory to become an enormous failure, the collection was a commercial and critical success for Michael.
And, since we still hear people make jokes about this in the record shop six years later, we guess it has to be repeated: Michael Jackson was never convicted of a crime. He was acquitted of all charges by a jury of his peers. The family which accused him had a history of criminal behavior, domestic abuse, fraud and frivolous lawsuits.
In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi reported shortly after the completion of the trial:
And then there was the very key figure in the case, the accuser’s mother, who had to plead the Fifth Amendment on the first day of her testimony to avoid cross-examination on a welfare-fraud allegation – a witness so completely full of sh—t that Sneddon’s own assistants cringed openly throughout most of her five days of testimony. In the next six weeks, virtually every piece of his case imploded in open court, and the chief drama of the trial quickly turned into a race to see if the DA could manage to put all of his witnesses on the stand without getting any of them removed from the courthouse in manacles.