Voices from beyond the grave

You are currently browsing the archive for the Voices from beyond the grave category.

We love Halloween! It’s one of the most uniquely American holidays, in no small part because it has evolved from a variety of traditions imported from around the world. We can thank the ancient Celts for the tradition of dressing in spooky costumes — their harvest festival, the Gaelic harvest festival Samhain was a time when the wall between the corporeal world and that of the spirits became permeable. Costumes were used to confuse the spirits.

From this same source we inherit the practice of mumming or guising, in which revelers dressed as the aos sí, the souls of the dead, would visit homes and perform to receive treats as an offering to the dead. In England this became known as souling, when mostly poor people would ask for food in exchange for saying prayers for the dead. Thanksgiving begging became a tradition here in America, but largely disappeared during the Depression. After World War II trick or treating was introduced to children at least in part to occupy them so they wouldn’t play Halloween pranks along the lines of Scotland’s Cabbage Day, on which spoiled produce was tossed at homes.

As the Catholic Church began to replace pagan celebrations such as Samhain with its own liturgical calendar, a three day celebration of the saints and remembrance of the recently lost called Hallowmas became the setting for these activities. It’s first night, All Hallows Eve, soon became Halloween.

The story of Jack of the Lantern also travelled across the Atlantic to find a home here in America — only instead of keeping his burning coal in a carved turnip, Jack used a pumpkin. The pumpkin, like all squashes, is an ancient New World food, believed to have first been cultivated in Mexico between 5,000 BC and 7,000 BC. It was the first of the foundational “Three sisters” — squash, beans, corn — of ancient Mesoamerican agriculture.

Our family carved our jack o’ lanterns last night!

Of course the real appeal of the holiday for our kids is the candy. According to the internet, Americans spend more than $2 billion on Halloween, most of that in the form of chocolate and *shudder* candy corn. Its worth noting that the fear of poisoned candy is almost entirely unfounded. Only a handful of cases exist — most famously that of Ronald Clark O’Bryan, who poisoned his son with cyanide in a pixie stick in hopes of collecting insurance money. O’Bryan attempted to cover up his horrible crime by distributing the poison to his daughter and three other children, but only eight-year-old Timothy ate his pixie stick. After a lengthy investigation, O’Bryan was charged, convicted and ultimately executed by the state of Texas. He is the subject of the song “Candyman” by Siouxsie and the Banshees.

 

Irene would like us to share her favorite Beach Boys track, the end of Pet Sounds. The album’s title is a reference to Brian Wilson and the fantastic arrangements he created on the record, largely working with session musicians without the other Beach Boys. Still, it ends with some actual pets.

Another LP ending of special interest to dogs is heard on Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album widely known to have been influenced by Pet Sounds.  Here the album concludes with a lock groove, also called a loop groove, meaning that the needle will track through the same two seconds over and over. This obnoxious feature is only found on the original UK Parlaphone pressings of the album, but the two seconds of sound and voice can be heard on the US compilation Rarities.

What many people didn’t know is that the loop is preceded by a 15-kilohertz tone that will get your dog’s attention.

We have encountered a number of acetates of radio station spots and themes with lock grooves at the end of each track — the technique was originally developed by record cutters to help prevent disc jockey errors. Basically the grooves do not allow the needle to continue forward either to the label as at the end of a record or to the next track if somewhere in the middles of the side’s program. In the case of radio stations and spots the loop is simply silence, which we’ll find again in the Moby Grape recording below.

The normal groove runs to a lock groove at the end of the run out space, just outside of the needle. Sgt. Peppers may be the most famous record with a lock groove but it was not the first one we encountered.  When we were kids we did not understand the technology but loved the fact that Fozzie the Bear is left forever calling for help at the end of the Muppet Show 2, as heard here.

Arista Records, the label which released the Muppet Show 2 is also the label which released Monty Python’s vexing three-sided album (Matching Tie and Hankerchief) which features parallel grooves, meaning that two entirely separate programs could be heard on one side depending where the listener dropped the needle.  We’ll visit that anomalous record sometime in the future.

Our research suggests the earliest use of a lock groove in ‘popular’ music was a flexi disc that came with issue #3 of the short-lived multimedia magazine Aspen in 1966. The track was produced by John Cale of the Velvet Underground and was titled “Loop”. On the disc it said, “final groove purposely left open.” This was, of course, not as widely distributed a release as the Beatles album.

Some years later, Cale’s bandmate Lou Reed concluded Metal Machine Music also ends with a lock groove. The the time listed for side four of the album lists it as ∞. It’s possible that nobody has ever noticed because nobody has yet made it to the end of side four. Other loop grooves in our collection appear on Sonic Youth’s Evol album, where the track’s time is likewise listed with the symbol for infinity, and on Moby Grape’s album Wow.

Wow is already an interesting album in that it was packaged along with a second separate record (Grape Jam) but the end of its first side makes it one of the most uniquely mastered albums in rock and roll.  After “Can’t It Be So” Skip Spense reminds listeners to change the record to 78 rpm for the next song. There is then a lock groove preventing the needle from moving forward. After the listener has changed the speed to 78 rpm and nudged the needle forward he or she would hear this track. We’ve left in Skip Spense’s introduction.

That’s Arthur Godfrey introducing the number and playing ukulele (oh, for the days when a Arthur Godfrey was a kick ass guest artist).  The song by Spense is called “Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot”.  Surface noise has been added to increase the old time feeling of the track.  It was likely this was not an enormous inconvenience to listeners in 1969 but when three-speed turntables were more common, but it may mean trouble for many with more modern machines.

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.

Whenever a performing artist passes away, there is a rush of interest in their music. Fans flood stores looking for a favorite album or their most recent album, suddenly making a mediocre record a best-seller (let’s call this “the Double Fantasy effect”). Its a phenomenon that may be as old as record stardom — Enrico Caruso continued to enjoy commercial success long after his passing with new recordings still making news into the late 30s.

Presently the treatment of unissued recordings is a central issue in the settlement of Prince’s estate. We have mixed feelings on the subject. As fans we’re eager to hear more recordings, but also as fans we respect that he may have chosen to set the recordings aside for a reason.

This past weekend we were listening to Marvin Gaye albums, including the first two which were released after he was murdered in April 1984. Some good songs came out on the albums. One of the best of these was “The World Is Rated X,” which appeared on the Motown Remembers Marvin Gaye LP but was first recorded for his ‘lost’ 1972 album You’re the Man.

Columbia Records, with whom Gaye had signed after his tumultuous split from Motown, and to whom he’d delivered the enormously successful Midnight Love in 1982, was first to capitalize on his passing with an album of unissued recordings. The album Dream of a Lifetime collected unissued material and contained the hit “Sanctified Lady,” partly covering Gaye’s debts at the time of his death. Motown’s album followed the next year and included material from as early as 1963. Many of the early recordings on Motown Remembers Marvin Gaye were overdubbed to feature a more contemporary drum sound (the so-called “fat snare’ sound of the era) and new backing vocals.

The back cover of the Motown album always resembled, to us, one of those posterboard displays at a funeral. He is seen leaning on a car, in a kimono and — for some reason — eating breakfast in bed.

“The Mother’s Club” is a routine by George Carlin and Jack Burns, first appearing on a now-rare LP in 1963. At the height of Carlin’s popularity it was reissued twice, as The Original George Carlin and as Killer Carlin.

Around the time the reissues appeared, Burns was the head writer for the first season The Muppet Show, amongst other television credits.

We hope those of you out there have a better Mother’s Day than poor Mrs. Thompkins from the “Mother’s Club.”

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.”

Star Trek has been well-represented in record stores since the Enterprise began its mission fifty years ago. After actor Leonard Nimoy passed away last year we posted some music and videos from his career as a singer, along with “Spock’s Theme” from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn.

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.

We have posted Schubert’s Moment Musicaux a few times in the past, usually musing over how quickly the days go by or how much time we spend working. We’re not certain the six works for piano were intended to inspire introspection, but we appreciate their potential. Today, we chose to sit back and think to a different work for solo piano. It is adapted by Aaron Copland from his score for the film Our Town.

Anyone involved in the theater program in high school is probably familiar with Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, Our Town. It is probably being performed in a community auditorium somewhere in America this weekend — if you have attended the performance you certainly recall it is the play which does not use any props, and which from the beginning breaks through the fourth wall to have the stage manager interact directly with the audience as well as a character in the story.

Our Town follows the lives of people in a small community, Grover’s Corner, over a little more than a decade and uses its metatheatrical devices to explore metaphysical questions, mostly about mortality. The Pulitzer Prize winning play was adapted into a film in 1940.

There seems to be little interest in the film’s copyright, which has not been renewed since the sixties. You can watch it for free on Youtube here.

Many great composers of Copland’s generation were attracted to cinema, for a variety of reasons. Copland came to appreciate the paychecks (he was one of the highest paid film composers of the 40s), but he also appreciated the opportunity to work on films with American themes related to his own oeuvre, notably those derived from novelist John Steinbeck.

It’s said Stravinsky negotiated several times to compose for Hollywood producers, all unsuccessfully. His music, nonetheless, appears in a variety of movies dating back to Fantasia in 1940. His ballet, Le Sacre du Printempts (The Rite of Spring) is so magically theatrical to have been borrowed for dozens of movies. We recently posted about a scene in Star Wars which borrows from a passage in the famously surreal ballet.

Copland’s score for the film was his third project in Hollywood, and he hadn’t really settled into the successful formula he would find in later in the 40s, which balanced his personal style with the emotions of the characters in the story. From the beginning, his approach to film music was far more subtle than the average Hollywood movie.

Copland’s Our Town was nominated for a “Best Original Score” Oscar, losing to Pinocchio. Nominated several times, he finally won his only Academy Award for William Wyler’s The Heiress in 1949. He adapted Our Town into an orchestral suite, but it never found the success of his other similar adaptations, notably the score he composed for The Red Pony. He also wrote a piano adaptation of the suite, heard here as recorded by James Tocco in 1984, when Copland’s music was enjoying a resurgence of popularity in America.

The piano adaptations of Our Town accentuate the music’s roots in New England church music. Around the same time he was working on this film, Copland finished his Piano Sonata, a similar but less accessible piece, and began work on his Piano Fantasy, which is uniquely complex in his collection of work for the instrument. And in a reversal of his piano adaptation of the film suite, Copland expanded his 1930 Variations for Piano into Variations for Orchestra many years later. In all, these piano works are not as often performed or recorded, or as highly regarded, as his famous orchestral works.

We love these short piano themes, and always associate the piano adaptation of Our Town with the play’s introspective, philosophical questions. It is perfectly fit to Emily’s question, “Does anybody realize life while they live it … every, every minute?”

« Older entries

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.